September 1, 2014

Are Church Musicians Tuning Forks Or Are We Tuning Out?

Edited Disclaimer:  A thoughtful, musical pastor friend (and some other friends too) has raised the question of whether this post is simply about preference, and made the point  that a large group of musicians CAN indeed lead us into good corporate worship.  I think that’s true.  Perhaps it is about perspective, in that my experience of larger corporate worship in Australia has by and large been counterproductive to people singing and often about people watching.  So, here is one perspective on the matter!   

We have 80 or so instruments in our church worship team.  It’s brilliant.  Each week one or two guitars begin us off and those 80 or so instruments kick in with a dexterity and ability that leaves us breathless, especially after three or four praise songs.

The 80 or so instruments are, of course, the combined voices of our congregation, all ably led to sing by a guitar or two, sometimes a ukelele and one or two stronger voices.  And that’s it.  We have a bunch of exceptional musicians in our church who can play any number of instruments, but there are about 80 of us who can all utilise the same instrument at an acceptable level.

It’s been said before, but it seems to me, both as I have watched it and from anecdotal evidence, that the more music that is on the stage and the more the stage sounds like a production, the less that people in the congregation sing; the less each person coming to the building to gather in corporate worship uses his or her musical instrument to praise God and instruct others.   It’s a question I am grappling with as our church grows and more and more people who can play instruments turn up.  Should we ditch our one or two acoustic guitars and singers for something bigger, better, more at tractional?

Whatever the answer we arrive at I believe that we need to take the following question seriously; Is our church music a Tuning Fork, or is our congregation tuning out? I think that’s the issue.  Faced with a band that is slick enough, loud enough, and dextrous enough to crank out amazing songs, the risk can be that the congregation generally lets it, and often stands by like a pub crowd tapping in to the bits they know.

Edit:  Here’s my disclaimer!  When a thoughtful, larger band is able to sit slightly under the surface of the singers leading them to sing more thoughtfully and with a gusto that comes from conviction about what they are singing I am all for more instruments.  But I have been enjoying the experience of allowing the voices to reclaim the room in corporate worship these days.

As a tuning fork the band is supposed to help the 80 or so mixed ability instruments in my congregation come into some sort of vocal alignment that reflects our theological alignment, and that ushers in a level of emotional alignment as a happy byproduct.  I find that when the band does the singing for us, the less it behaves as a tuning fork designed to serve our vocal instruments. When the band does the singing for us, one by one we drop out and watch, or mumble or whatever, leaving the singing to the band and the 10 per cent of groupies who know all the words and the riffs.

Part of our problem is theological.  We have given music a huge weight to carry in corporate worship, a weight it has no right or ability to bear. I have seen a conference poster that states that our worship is our access to the very throne room of God. It is not. It is simply a response to the fact that the worship leader extraordinaire, the Lord Jesus, gives us unfettered access to God’s throne room through his sacrificial death and ongoing high priestly service.  Could we ever think that our sin is of such little significance that its blockage to God could be overcome by our musical ability and sincerity?

I confess that I can’t sing, can’t play, can’t even dance a little.  When it comes to music there is very little that I can do outside of clicking on Youtube videos of my musical Gothic past (The Cure, Bauhaus, Siouxie and the Banshees etc etc – Back-Combed Ed).  We sang very few laments in church back then, so my tortured soul was forced into joy pretty much all of the time! But when one or two well played guitars sit in the background, allowing our 80 or so musical instruments to sing, sing.  I, a non singer from way back – whose stress dream, incidentally, is of being on a stage with a guitar and about to open a rock concert for a band that I apparently belong to – sing! And with gusto!  The more instruments on the stage the less I sing.  I am not going to say this is always the case, but generally so.

Church musicians out there, help the weaker brothers such as I who are not always in tune.  Be the tuning forks that means I can sing “Oh For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”, whether I have another 999 or  just another 79 voices alongside me doing so. Whether that’s with a guitar and ukele or the Psalm 150 combo.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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