A Few years ago, I got the chance to lead musical worship at a much larger church than I normally attend and was introduced to something called ‘in-ears’. These are basically fancy headphones that cut out most sound and instead give you the option to create your own mix of your own instrument and the others in the band. It was much more disconcerting than I’d imagined.
You see, I grew up learning to play the guitar by strumming with all the teenage forearm-delivered-enthusiasm you’d expect in a side church room to a youth group. No amplification, just me and my guitar and the voices of the folks I was growing up in Christ with. With no amplification, you could hear my poorly timed strumming, a guy called Jim’s off-key voice, and the girl who fancied herself as a pop star and experimented with harmonies. The point was, we could hear one another.
Once a year we would whisk ourselves off to a huge national youth conference and have the times of our lives. Our poor singing and off-beat strumming were replaced with excellent musicianship and the ethereal experience of singing alongside 1000’s of people. There were lights and occasionally even a little fake smoke.
And I loved it.
It is no exaggeration to say that attending that conference and the impact it had on my meagre but sincere youth group through the year was life-changing. After every year we would buy an accompanying songbook of the new songs introduced that year, head home to the small side room of our church with the youth group and sing our hearts out. Close our eyes, and If we couldn’t quite ascend to the heights of John’s vision in Revelation, we imagined ourselves back in that big conference tent and our hearts were strangely warmed. We escaped.
More recently a well-known international megachurch had their worship band tour through our city. Lots of excitement ensued, living in the southern tip of Africa that has a perpetual inferiority complex to the rest of the west, people were clambering over one another for tickets. I didn’t go, but the reports were abundant. Much what you would expect, lights were low and the bright ones were focused on the visiting worshippers. They played well-practised swelling tunes and lead prayer that the church in the city would be unified. The only challenge was, the church in the city couldn’t see each other, they were in darkness, literally.
Although we are involved in a church planting ministry that predominantly seeks to plant simple house churches amongst the neglected contexts, I don’t ever want to take cheap (and honestly easily come by) shots at large church ministries and the attractional megachurch movement. Partly because I’m a recipient of God’s ministry through the conference I attended that ran down these same tracks. I honestly can’t imagine where I’d be without those existential, emotionally charged experiences from my teenage years.
All that being said, I’ve often been very attentive to the words or theology of particular songs but until recently fairly unreflective of the mode or environment of worship itself. It turns out that not just the content of worship is formative, but the very layout and context of worship. This was wisdom cathedral builders and stained glass window artists were well aware of, but it has been forsaken.
I’ve wondered if certain worship environments are helpful or harmful depending on the phase of life or ‘felt-need in a certain season. In most peoples teenage years there is an incessant and haunting self-obsession. Teenagers are constantly aware of what they are doing and saying, how they are being portrayed. They are terrified someone (normally their parents) or something (an activity that has fallen out of fashion within the last 30mins) will embarrass them. In psychological language they are hyper-vigilant. When you are in a hyper-vigilant, hyper-self-aware state, the greatest gift you could receive is the self-forgetfulness that comes with the existential crowd worship times. It is, I’m suggesting often why young Christian people love large worship gatherings, why unbelieving people love rock concerts and why business executives often love transcendent meditation. The greatest gift is to escape. To escape the busyness, the painful self-awareness, the sense of not being enough.
As I grew a little older in the Christian faith I didn’t discount these large and transcendent experiences but I started to realise that they didn’t fulfil all of the needs of the Christian life. When things are difficult the conference is still months down the road. Who is there? Well out of tune Jim and the harmony girl from the youth group. Suddenly their additions to worship times and your life in community more generally, although quirky, becomes the very ministry of God to you.
1 Corinthians 14:26 says
What should be done [during worship times]then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
The writer of the letter to the Church in Corinth is giving us a normative reflection of worship in the early church. One has a song, a word, a prophecy, a psalm, a teaching. Each one delivered by someone with a name, a past, maybe even someone who you have unforgiveness in your heart towards. But they are there, and you know them and see their face. They are not the stranger in the dark at your side as you gaze at the well-lit group ahead covered by wafts of smoke.