Worship: Hit Single or Concept Album

I came across an article yesterday that I thought was noteworthy: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worship/features/29251-why-worship-should-be-risky

In this article Michael Gungor discusses the nature of the music industry, stating that the majority of pop albums are “collections of eight to 15 of the best snippets of musical ideas the artist or label can come up with” as they search for their next big hit. The songs have little or no connection to each other. The exception to this, is the concept album. The album that circles on big idea, or intentionally takes the listener on a journey through each sucessive song.

He then, mentioning his own most recent album, makes the leap to worship:

It would be naive to think our liturgy has not been affected by today’s culture of pop music singles. Our church services can become disconnected from a consistent story. Planning the worship service often becomes about finding the best four or five worship singles that will keep people engaged, and then a sermon is given that is separate from anything done in the service up to that point. It’s all about the hits.

I often find myself describing a worship service as a journey: We begin with people scattered all over the map, depending on what their weeks have held. We gather them together and slowly bring them into the Big Story, guiding them to a unified point at which they are all prepared to hear the small part of the Big Story that will be delivered that morning. Finally, we give them the opportunity to respond to that small part of the story, bless them, and send them out into the Big Story.

I think Michael Gungor is on to something here. Too often in worship we simply pick our “top singles” – or we circle around an idea without actually going anywhere. Maybe it’s time we explored the concept album. What do you think?

At very least, I’m going to check out Ghosts Upon the Earth.

Belated Anticipation

My Christmas tree is still up. I’m ashamed to admit this, considering the liturgical season of Christmas finished a week ago. It is, however, but a symptom of a larger problem: how to live in the present liturgical season while reflecting on the previous season and planning for the coming one. It’s an issue that every worship leader faces, in one way or another.

So Christmas is over, Epiphany flew by, we’re now in Ordinary Time, and preparing for Lent. This cycle, I’m discovering, can be exhausting – even for the most experienced of us. I’m discovering that celebrating the Christian calendar (especially in a church that does not have historical liturgies on which to draw) requires incredible organization and foresight, not to mention ninja multi-tasking skills. And that’s when the rest of life doesn’t impinge itself on your planning and reflection process.

So – not only is my Christmas tree still up, but my church plans for Ordinary Time are unfinished, I haven’t reflected on Epiphany, and I haven’t even begun my personal plan of reading through the gospels starting last week. I’m tired. And lately this constant pressure to follow the Liturgical schedule feels heavy. I feel as if I’m on a treadmill with no emergency cord.

Yet, even as I feel stress gathering in my shoulders, and panic breathing down my neck, I’m aware that something beautiful is happening. The edges of each season are blurring, and the connections between them are becoming clearer.

Christmas, divine celebration of Christ’s birth, is essential to our understanding of the revelation of God (the Epiphany). God reveals himself to us in many ways, but the key way in which we know who God is, and how he behaves, is found in his Son, and the way he lived as one of us. And as I begin my plans for Lent, I discover that the key way in which God is revealed through Christ is in his death and resurrection – that God would become a servant (Christmas); choose to heal the sick, free the captive, and serve the poor (Ordinary Time); and submit to death (Lent) is a profound revelation indeed (Epiphany).

These are connections that were made by theologians long ago – and I have known them for years – but the belated anticipation of each season that I’m experiencing this year (as I reflect, and live, and plan for each season) is making them come to life. If I can live, somehow, with my feet planted in the present season, and my arms stretched between the previous and the coming seasons, if I can facilitate this stretched-out-way-of-life for my congregation, I think we will come to know Christ better. I think we will learn to know ourselves better.

So no, I’m not keeping up. I’m running back and forth like a maniac. But maybe that’s a good thing.

Why Bono and the Band Are Some of the Best Worship Leaders of Our Time

Bono and The Edge on June 1, 2011, in Edmonton

When I attended my first U2 concert a little over a year ago, I was startled to discover midway through the concert that I was praying aloud. Three weeks ago, as I again experienced U2 360, this time in Edmonton, I had the same experience of vacillating between a rock concert and a worship service. I’ve been to a lot of concerts, some Christian musicians, most not, but no matter how much I enjoyed them, I don’t think I ever felt like praying out loud – I definitely didn’t do so.

(Big aside: I realize that, in calling U2 worship leaders, I’m raising all kinds of “worship of what” flags for you. I know that not all fans of U2 are Christians [a brief survey of the crowd in my immediate vicinity on June 1st would have told me that, if I didn’t already know], and Bono obviously did not lead 65,000 people to Christ at Commonwealth Stadium on a warm Wednesday night in Edmonton. Now let’s move on.)

I’ve spent much of my time between June 1st and June 21st wondering why U2 concerts sometimes, if not always, become worship experiences (and getting way too fascinated by set lists, thus delaying this post almost inexcusably). Here’s what I have come up with: 5 reasons Bono and U2 are some of the greatest worship leaders of our time:

  1. FAITH: The band clings to Christian faith, as can be seen in their lyrics, in their music, and in the way they use their music and their fame. I have heard all the arguments about lifestyle, mistakes made, hoarding wealth, and buying into superstardom – to some extent I sympathise with these arguments. I don’t feel any need defend the band’s behaviour, but I think it’s fair to say that they have clung to Christ through the maelstrom of fame. It may be a beleaguered faith, a limping faith, a faulted and pock-marked faith – but it is faith nonetheless. And which of us, honestly, can say that our own faith is smooth and pristine?
  1. PREPARATION: U2’s set-lists are carefully crafted. The band never hesitates, never misses a beat – the audience is pulled from song to song through one beautiful transition after another. And these transitions are not just musically smooth, their content adds deeper layers of meaning to surrounding material, and provides fresh perspective on old songs. I don’t have space to dig into the details of set-lists, but after my research I am more convinced than ever that an incredible amount of time and effort goes into the planning of a single U2 concert. The audience is guided carefully from start to finish, and by the end of the concert they are no longer in exactly the same relationship – to each other, to the band, or to the world – as they were when the concert started. To phrase it with a more liberal spreading of cheese: Bono and the band take the crowd on a journey.

    Bono breaks the stage/audience barrier

  1. CONNECTION: I have never seen anyone connect with an audience the way Bono does, and I’m speaking specifically of Bono now (it’s hard to imagine Adam, for example, fully engaging with the crowd). Bono throws himself, heart and soul, into each concert he plays and, for that span of time, he belongs to that crowd. There’s no other way to describe it. I was privileged, for my first two U2 concerts, to be right in the pit, 3-4 people back from the stage, front and center. It was a great location from which to observe the extent of Bono’s relationship with the crowd. He is so connected that he will shift in mid-stride to keep up with the audience. Because of this, he lingers when the crowd needs to linger; he moves on when the crowd is done. He connects personally with individuals in the pit: pointing and waving at people, looking people in the eye, singing to people rather than at them. He connects with the wider audience by playing to the cameras. He is constantly finding unique ways to break the barrier between stage and audience: swinging out over the crowd, throwing things into the pit, using bridges and 360 stages, and pulling people up on stage… (it embarrasses me to say this, but his connection to the crowd is such that I am personally convinced that he winked at me during the concert on June 1st). By connecting intimately with his audience, Bono ensures that they not only watch the concert, but feel that they are participants.
  1. ATTENTIVENESS: Bono is not only connected to the crowd, he seems extraordinarily attentive to the Spirit during his concerts. I know there is no way I can establish this as fact, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but here are my observations. At times, during a concert, Bono will simply stand with his eyes closed, sometimes with his arms in the air, sometimes with his lips moving. Almost inevitably, this signals a change. The band will continue playing the same chord progression and, after a brief while, Bono begins to sing something different, repeating a phrase of an earlier song, or one he just finished, or the upcoming song, or something else entirely. He sings in a slightly irregular rhythm, or changes the melody just slightly. The crowd quiets, and becomes more attentive. And then something shifts. I have no other words for it, and cannot describe it more concretely than that. Sorry. I can merely say that I am convinced that, in those moments, Bono is seeking and receiving the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  1. RESPONSE: Whether or not you like U2’s blatant promotion of social justice (some would say bullying toward), you have to admit that the band puts together a pretty strong call to action. Every audience at a U2 show expects and receives a great experience. Every audience leaves feeling pumped up. And absolutely every audience knows what they are expected to go out and do after the concert. Make the world a better place. Give the future a big kiss. Get involved.

So… why do these five elements make U2 one of the best worship bands of our time?

  • FAITH every worship leader/band should have. That’s a given.
  • Good PREPARATION, is essential (read my rant on the topic). U2’s careful attention to transitions helps to guide the congregation from one song to another, from one part of the service to another.
  • Bono’s CONNECTION with the congregation ensures that congregation members are involved as participants rather than merely as audience.
  •  By being ATTENTIVE to the Spirit as he leads, Bono is able not only to shift with the congregation, but to move them according to the Spirit.

But what I’m most impressed with, and what I feel is most lacking in our worship leading – what U2 does successfully over, and over, and over again – is to lead their audience in a RESPONSE. They consistently answer, strongly and clearly, the question: now what?

All too often in our worship services we are content to sing one more song of praise and then “dismiss” the congregation – as if school is over for the day. Even school children get homework.

What is the point of a weekly worship service? To encourage one another, yes. To hear the word of God, certainly. To teach and be taught, no doubt. But what we so often miss is that a worship service should send people out. Should call people to do something.

Not every person at a U2 concert comes away with a deeper love for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some people there will inevitably be worshiping other gods (perhaps Bono or the band; perhaps the god of social action or left-wing politics). But every single person will leave knowing the answer to the question: “what now?” How many people will leave your service this week knowing what difference the word of God, the people of God, the Spirit of God, the three-personed God should make in their daily lives? How many people will leave your service this week having been called to love God and neighbour with the choices they make? How many people will leave asking “now what?” and how many will have the answer, and therefore be equipped to fulfill God’s mission in the world?

June 1, 2011, Edmonton