Is it just me, or does jumping off of someone’s back and doing a karate kick in mid-air make for an awkward transition into corporate worship?
I recently attended a concert featuring four popular Christian bands. Three of them asked me and the other audience members to join them in worship. We were asked to repeat simple praise choruses, raise our hands, close our eyes, and sometimes sing lyrics that were projected artfully onto a massive screen at the back of the stage. These musicians leading us didn’t look like typical worship leaders, though: most of them wore skinny jeans, some wore leather pants, and they had cool hair and impractical shoes. And one did an impressive karate kick.
There is a reason these men were dressed the way they were: they were entertainers, and yet it was clear throughout the night that these entertainers felt the need to transition from mere entertainment to “worship.” This seems to be a pretty common trend in the world of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), as more and more bands are releasing worship albums. If market trends are any indication, it would seem that worship sells. I can’t help wondering if the bands I saw were seeking to create a genuine worship experience or simply doing what Christian artists do to sell their product. While I cannot possibly judge these artists’ motives, I can, at the very least, point to the strange identity crisis that many CCM artists appear to suffer from. Christian artists seem uncomfortable seeing themselves as entertainers, and I think that is unfortunate.
As the evening went on, each band seemed to follow the same general outline: They played two or three energetic pop/rock songs and finished with a few slower “worship” songs.As the evening went on, each band seemed to follow the same general outline: They played two or three energetic pop/rock songs and finished with a few slower “worship” songs. The moment that sticks out most in my mind came when the Christian boy band asked us to join them in worship. I do not personally care for boy band music but I have nothing against Christians who like boy band music, nor do I presume that Christian boy band music has no place in the market. However, the most natural thing for Christian boy bands to do is to play boy band music while sporting perfectly styled hair, tight leather pants, and pearl snap camo shirts — not seek to be worship leaders.
The bands at this concert were dressed like entertainers, danced like entertainers, and sang and played instruments like entertainers. It’s clear that these artists see themselves as entertainers, and I think that they should. But CCM’s insistence on transitioning any entertainment to a culturally defined form of corporate praise results in less palatable entertainment as well as an awkward form of corporate worship.
I recognize that we are called to do all things to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31) and God can indeed be worshiped in a myriad of ways (Psalm 33:1–3; 150), but these bands were not seeking simply to worship: They were seeking to lead us in worship. This is an important distinction. If these bands merely intended to worship the Lord through their music, there would be no need to post lyrics on screens or to encourage the audience to raise their hands. These bands were doing what most of us expect to do at church, and they were doing so more extravagantly than most of our churches will ever be able to. In general, worship leaders should not draw attention to themselves–the fact that I bought a ticket to this show and these artists spent their first three songs trying to impress me makes the transition to singing worship songs even more jolting. I believe that corporate worship should be led with excellence but that does not mean it needs pop culture adornment. In fact, I find it difficult to hold sacred that which adorns itself with the trappings of the entertainment world.
Perhaps CCM would experience a renaissance if more artists would embrace their role as entertainers. If it is possible to eat and drink to the glory of God, then certainly it’s possible to entertain in a manner pleasing unto the Lord. Scripture never condemns entertainment, and Jesus certainly had a penchant for fellowship and celebration. He turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1–12) and so regularly celebrated with others that he was accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34). So perhaps a good step forward for Christian entertainers is to stop feeling guilty for providing their patrons with entertainment. Why be embarrassed to do something God made good? Certainly I would hope that CCM artists would craft meaningful and spiritually edifying music, but I think an unnecessary “praise and worship” rubric has been implicitly placed on Christian artists. I think this rubric stifles creativity and results in rather uniform and predictable music.
Furthermore, this push to provide a worship experience has resulted in an odd conflating of CCM and corporate worship. Entertainment is a gift from God, and Christian artists should consider how they might entertain with excellence and creativity rather than feel their craft is less valuable if they don’t produce a worship album or close out their latest EP with a worship ballad. Of course, we hope that Christian artists will produce music that transcends our expectations for entertainment. We hope that Christian art will resonate with our experiences in the world and produce spiritual reflection in us, but such is not possible if we continue to subject it to unbiblical and utilitarian rubrics. So here is to hoping for Christian music that is fun, full of joy, and unapologetically entertaining.