Thirteen years ago we asked: What should be the defining sound of corporate worship at Bethlehem, besides the voice of biblical preaching?
We meant: Should it be pipe organ, piano, guitar, drums, choir, worship team, orchestra, etc. The answer we gave was "The people of Bethlehem singing."
Some thought: That's not much help in deciding which instruments should be used. Perhaps not. But it is massively helpful in clarifying the meaning of those moments.
If Bethlehem is not "singing and making melody to the Lord with [our] heart," (Ephesians 5:19), it's all over. We close up shop. This is no small commitment.
James K. A. Smith, writing last year, made a similar point. While there may be a few exceptions to what he says here, I think he's exactly right with regard to the main thrust of Christian congregational worship.
1. If we, the congregation, can't hear ourselves, it's not worship.
Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular "form of performance"), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there's nothing wrong with concerts! It's just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice--and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of "performing" the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can't hear ourselves sing--so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become "private," passive worshipers.
2. If we, the congregation, can't sing along, it's not worship.
In other forms of musical performance, musicians and bands will want to improvise and "be creative," offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations on the received tune. Again, that can be a delightful aspect of a concert, but in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can't sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And while you may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.
3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it's not worship.
I know it's generally not your fault that we've put you at the front of the church. And I know you want to model worship for us to imitate. But because we've encouraged you to basically import forms of performance from the concert venue into the sanctuary, we might not realize that we've also unwittingly encouraged a sense that you are the center of attention. And when your performance becomes a display of your virtuosity—even with the best of intentions—it's difficult to counter the temptation to make the praise band the focus of our attention. When the praise band goes into long riffs that you might intend as "offerings to God," we the congregation become utterly passive, and because we've adopted habits of relating to music from the Grammys and the concert venue, we unwittingly make you the center of attention. I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.
You can read the whole thing here.