Random Blog Clay Feet: January 31, 2008
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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Canned Worship?

The compelling thought that got me out of bed this morning (actually the third or fourth thought but I lost the others before I could capture them) was the discomfort I feel whenever people use canned music for worship songs in live settings. I know that many people share my feelings about this and it sometimes even becomes an issue of sharp contention or even regulation in some places. But what I want to know is the real reason why I feel that discomfort in the first place. What is it about that arrangement that somehow makes it feel like something is wrong here?

Then the thought occurred to me. Whenever a real live person or group of people sing or play along with recorded music to express praise or worship, they have almost completely lost all of their actual freedom of true expression.

At first this may sound like too strong of a statement, but let me explain. As a musician for all of my life and one who primarily expresses music “by ear”, the ability to interact emotionally with other people within the context of the music is a very crucial element of making the music feel genuine. I believe, especially for worship, that for music to really connect to the heart it must be authentically and dynamically felt while it is happening. Since the most valuable characteristic of the heart and the greatest, most important element that God honors and protects about the heart is freedom itself, then whatever flows from the heart to others or to God must be in the context of freedom if it is to be real.

So how does canned music affect the freedom of the heart? Well, if you are not at least somewhat a spontaneous musician like me then this may seem a little confusing or nit-picky. But I can assure you that whenever I have to play or sing along with a recording, no matter how well done it may sound, how expressive it may be, how inspiring it was when it was recorded live the first time – in having to follow along with the recording I have lost all my current freedom to express what is happening here and now in my own experience. I am forced to stay synchronized with what was once possibly a very valid expression of someone's heart but it is not necessarily reflective of what is true right now. Even worse, the recording was probably produced in such a sterile environment of a studio that its appeal has much more to do with carefully crafted professionalism than it has to do with genuine spontaneity at the time of recording.

In my mind, and I believe really in everyone's experience, real worship music – actually real worship of any kind, to be genuine must have the freedom of spontaneity. That is not to say there is no harmony with others. Freedom of expression does not mean total independence. Insisting on individually asserting my own way and style without regard for synchronizing with others around me is actually falling back into the same trap in a sense, of being restricted by recorded music. While I can have the complete freedom to express my heart in any way I wish when I am alone with God, when I choose to worship together with others I am entering into a different mode of worship. To just do my own thing in that context without regard for or connection with the spirit of those around me is to try to dictate to everyone else the way the music should go. That is not much different from dictation from a recorded piece of accompaniment.

What people call corporate worship (I hate that term – it sounds so commercial which has no place in God's relational system of organization) really means willingly joining a group of hearts together to allow them to synchronize and blend to create a collective identity during that period of time. Since real worship only comes from the heart this requires that the people involved are not only sensitive to the spirit of those around them but are also contributing their own spontaneity to a degree. All of the hearts thus connected are also reflective of what is currently going on in the lives of each person. They are able to have some influence on the group dynamics within the expression which is usually, but not only, in the context of music.

What this really means, as I think back on my own experience, is that not only am I listening dynamically to what others are doing musically and emotionally while we are in live worship, but I am able at the same time to influence everyone else through my part in the collective expression and in essence have a say in what direction the worship progresses. Again, this may sound somewhat confusing to some who have never enjoyed real dynamic, interactive fellowship within the context of worship music, but I will try to explain in more detail. And by the way, this is certainly not restricted to religious contexts by any means. Nearly all music is an expression of worship to some degree no matter what flavor it comes in. Worship itself I believe is nearly synonymous with music and music almost always, if not always, is an act of worship of something or someone. That is why music carries such power over our lives and has such mysterious influence on our hearts.

I believe that much of what is claimed to be worship of God is really better described as corporate worship with all the commercial implications included. Unfortunately corporate church has devolved into an institutional formula very similar to economic corporations designed to produce wealth and recognition in the world. We have refined and manipulated and entrenched our forms and routines. We have compiled pleasant-sounding arguments and inspiring experiences of external stimuli to satisfy our emotions. We have crafted very professional productions that leave us speechless and quivering with pleasure (or fear) and have come to believe that this is the religion that God wants for us. But if we are honest we have to admit that our deepest hearts are still empty in places where it really counts. Our lives are largely unchanged when we go back to “the real world” and religion becomes more of an event where we come to get an emotional fix each week than a dynamic, intimate interaction with the heart of God that transforms our whole being. An external religion is in the end a useless religion in the eyes of heaven.

If you are a musician that connects with your feelings through your music you don't need much explanation of what I am trying to say about music here. In fact, you very well might be able to express this much better than I am. If you are a technically good musician but have difficulty being spontaneously expressive you may be a little more confused or possibly even offended. It's also possible that you may be suffering from a locked heart which is a major impediment to authentic expression. If you are not a musician at all you also just may need more explanation.

Let me give an illustration that might be helpful. I have at times sung with what is known as Barbershop Music groups. The official name is so long that I can never remember it, but many people know at least something about it. It is that strange-sounding, tight harmony music that sends shivers of pleasure down some people's spine and that others find repulsive. I happen to be of the first order.

Anyway, for anyone who has ever sung in this kind of music successfully they know that expression and group awareness and unity is crucial to producing the kind of results that this music is famous for. The better and more complex the music the more attention the individual musicians must pay to each other during the performance. They must not only listen to the tone and pick up on the nuances from the other members but must also learn to blend, adjust their own tone and pitch to enhance the quality and sound of the whole and be willing to move in perfect synchronization with the group as they move through very tight harmonies that challenge each person to keep their note right on pitch. It is one of the best examples of the need for individual independence (requiring one to stay on a note so close to others that at times it feels like you are being pulled away from it by a strong magnet) balanced by the need for collective, unified expression as the director (or the group collectively if just in a quartet) moves in tight harmony and perfect synchronization through music that conveys a very unique experience and feeling.

One of the most important elements here is the collective group expression. That means that many times the “rules” of music, particularly the timing, is often broken quite flagrantly in favor of more intense expression of the message in the words or the nuances of the feelings of the director. Of course this is all practiced, memorized and repeated until by the time of performance it is quite predictable and repeatable. In that last sense it begins to move away from the point I am trying to make in this writing.

In my experience with worship music I have come to believe that a deeper experience is to be had if there is respect for the freedom of unified spontaneity reflective of the current condition or mood of the people involved. The closer a group of worshipers come to sensing each others hearts and keeping their own hearts open during the experience, the more authentic the worship becomes. That is precisely where the problem of canned music begins and tends to interfere with true expression.

Because recorded music – even if it was recorded by the very same people who are now performing – can only be truly reflective of the spirit at the time when it was recorded. After that it is locked into that original expression and is no longer free to adapt to what may be different in people's spirit today. If people are forced to follow along with a recording, which of course is not real-time humans with a spirit that are present and reactive to the rest of the group in real time, then this element introduces the element of control if everyone is to remain synchronized. And control is the antithesis of freedom.

That, to me, is the core issue that always causes me to secretly resent recorded music in the context of real worship. That is not to say we cannot worship using this means. I freely agree that there have been very many times in my life when I have joined in with recorded music and been deeply moved, inspired and lifted very high in my spirit into the presence of God. I still enjoy that experience. I like to crank up some of my favorite inspiring music in the car when I am traveling sometimes and sing at the top of my lungs where I feel more free than I can anywhere else. I am not advocating discontinuing, nor am I condemning the use of recordings. They have their place and are very helpful and enriching at times. But what I am saying is that in the context of live worship as a group it tends to be a dampening element, an inhibiting obstacle that subtly prevents some from being able to participate fully because the recording is completely insensitive to the current direction that their hearts need to move, even if it is only in the little nuances within the music.

Worshiping with recorded music (either in a religious context or secular, its all the same – just different objects of worship) is like trying to love a well-crafted robot. You may be able to create a robot that could simulate all sorts of pleasure-producing activities and is extremely attractive and try to fool yourself into feeling like you are having a real relationship, but inside you really know that your heart can never be fulfilled with such an arrangement. I once watched an appearance of Twilight Zone when I was a kid that highlighted this very conundrum. I believe the same element to some degree describes the problem of trying to play or sing along with a “robot” (which is in essence what a recording has become) in an activity that in its essence must be spontaneous, heart-generated and real-time to be authentic.

Does that mean I am prejudiced against anyone who uses recorded music to assist them? I think it might be more accurate to say that I always feel some sense of disappointment, like in some way I have been cheated a little bit from seeing deeper into their soul. Yes I can enjoy it and receive a great blessing from it sometimes. But there is always that little part of me that says this is fake to some degree and I didn't really get to see their real heart because it was overshadowed by the robot controlling the expression. A recording is like a little dictator that demands allegiance and total compliance. If we want to not feel like a fool we have to go along with what has already happened when it was recorded.

That is why I believe that at times it is often better to have simpler music that is more authentic. I am not in favor of sloppy music in the name of authenticity – that is insulting. I believe that respectful worship requires that we invest time and effort in learning to do our best both individually and as a team. But it also requires the freedom to reflect and influence in real-time the emotions and heart-feelings of the collective participants. That is the kind of experience that I long for and that is far more fulfilling for the heart.

In my experience I have come to realize that deeper, fulfilling worship also involves having more awareness of the current feelings in the hearts of those around me. If we have taken time to share our pains, our heartaches, our joys, our desires and passions at a more vulnerable level, then when we join together in expressions of music it becomes reflective of our desires and feelings; the unity and joy we experience is exponential compared with the typical “worship” routine usually found in most churches.

Being part of a worship team for a couple years I experienced this to some degree and began to become “addicted” to it. Since that time I have had very little opportunity to enjoy that and I miss it greatly. I have visited church after church and found some that had nice performers that sounded good up front, but I always felt very disconnected emotionally and spiritually.

Performance is often the enemy of true worship. The two get very easily exchanged and confused, but performance, not matter how good it makes people feel, is not what I believe to be real worship – at least worship of the God who created us to worship Him as our source of life and joy. If we are willing to be honest with ourselves we could see that much that passes as worship is often really worship of our own skills, worship of the music itself and the good vibs we feel from it or even worship of the pride we have in our exclusive church or music group.

Much music is actually worship of the performers from which we learned the music. I have often observed, even in the teams in which I participated sometimes, that there are times the musicians are listening in their imaginations to the original music track that they heard on the radio or on a CD while they are playing along with that music themselves externally. What they fail to realize is that while their performance sounds rather good to them (due to the fact that they can hear all the accompaniment background music filling in the gaps within their own head), the audience around them can only hear the pitiful sounds of their whaming away on a guitar and sometimes off-key renditions imitating some music idol as they attempt to imitate some hero of contemporary music. But since most audiences are too polite to express their amusement or disgust, the musicians are led to believe that everyone thoroughly enjoys their performance and continue to go on with their show. There are of course many variations of this symptom from slight to very bad, but you get my point.

In settling for robotically-controlled music, whether it be from an electronic rendition or from second hand imagination-induced control, I believe many people have never even tasted the joy of genuine, authentic worship in the presence of the real God of heaven. We have often unknowingly settled for very stimulating counterfeits that we believe to be the real thing. But I also believe that if we ever get a taste of the real thing that all our pitiful counterfeits would lose their appeal. We would find a new hunger for connecting our hearts with the life-giving heart of our real Father and our desires for Him would eclipse the sad imitations that we now label as worship.

I realize that worship involves much more than music. But I know that I have a deep hunger for real, fulfilling, connecting, authentic worship of God in a community of open-hearted seekers of His heart. I get little bits of it now and then but I have very seldom had opportunity to experience it on a more transparent and consistent level. I enjoy at times the privilege of personal worship, connecting my heart alone to listen to the heart of God at various times. But fellowship-based worship with tuned hearts and joined spirits is something I long for and need and that God designed us to enjoy. It is the way we are designed to receive life from Him so that we can feel alive and thriving.

I believe that God is preparing people all over the world to participate and join together very soon as His body to experience levels of real worship that is now unimaginable and intense. I also believe that false worship will be likewise very intense, emotional and pleasure-producing as a means of distracting people away from the genuine.

But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. (John 4:23)