Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Mist Machines" & Choir Lofts

What you're about to read is a blog post from Mike Harland, the director of Lifeway Worship... followed by my response to his blog (titled A Question for Pastor, Worship Leaders & Church Musicians.) Hopefully my reply to him generates more light than heat... and, for the record, I think he meant "fog machines" rather than "mist machines".

So, how’s that working out for us?

I think it’s time for pastors, church musicians, and worship leaders to ask that question. Here we are, in 2014, with more of everything when it comes to worship styles, technologies, and options for worshipers in our churches. And yet, it seems we may have less than we bargained for when we cashed in the chips of how we used to do music in our churches.

Let me explain.

As the church growth movement slipped into the 90’s, church leaders everywhere began to take notice of some high profile ministries that were exploding in growth, and the “Mega-church” was born. I’m talking about churches that were larger than my hometown – 20,000 worshippers on a weekend. And if something is huge, then it must be right – right?

The interesting thing about some of these ministries is the larger their attendance became, the smaller their worship leadership becomes. The music leading is relegated to the few “professionals,” and the rest of us sit in a darkened room to enjoy being worshipped at. Sadly, the churches that emulate this approach take the chairs out of the choir loft and put stage greenery and iMag screens in – all in the name of making worship better.

Okay, that was sarcastic. But, I’m frustrated that we seem to have moved into the modern era of the church, and less and less of our people actively engage in the worship expression than ever before. Because – when we took out those chairs, we also took out those people.

It seems more and more we have leaders that give us worship like they are giving us our medicine – “you may not like this, but trust us, this is good for you.” And they even add a “spoonful of sugar” with lighting and sound effects with over the top visual effects.

So, how’s that working out for us?

The church has to come back to the place of realizing that until all of God’s people are engaged, whatever we are doing might be artistically great, but it doesn’t come close to the impact of corporate worship in the era of full choir lofts and singing congregations.

And to think – back then we didn’t even have mist machines. 

It will start when we expect more from our leaders than mediocre original songs with a four chords and a few hot vocal licks.

There – I said it.

Mike Harland,
Director, LifeWay Worship


As a person who has served SBC churches as a staff member, pastor & layperson for the last 30 years, I’ve been a part of traditional churches with full choirs lofts… and GenX “coffeehouse” church plants with an acoustic guitar-playing worship leader backed by a kid with a djembe & shaker. I’ve “led the singing” as we sang old favorites from the Baptist Hymnal (the 1975 one, not that newfangled 1991 version)… and I’ve “sat in” with a 6 piece alternative rock band in a darkened worship center.

I start with all this because I want you to hear what I’m about to say in context… and it is (in the words of Darth Vader) “all too easy” to dismiss dissenting voices on the subject of corporate worship by marginalizing their background and/or musical preferences.

I have two problems with your blog post:

1. I think your sarcasm & attempts at humor (“back then we didn’t even have mist machines”) backfire as you try to make your point about worship demanding engagement. The post becomes more about the attack on iMag screens & stage greenery (“how DARE they take away our choir loft!”) than it does about meaningful participation & communion with a holy and awesome God.

My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that your frustration boiled over into this post – and that you didn’t realize how it would sound to those of us who’ve fought to be culturally relevant in our musical worship choices at the same time as we’ve worked to involve the hearts & minds of each person present.

2. More importantly, I believe you’ve mistaken the proverbial forest for the trees. By concentrating on the form (choir vs worship leader, hymn vs original song, traditional church vs megachurch) and particular elements (lighting, sound effects, etc.), your focus has slipped from the actual purpose of worship.

It’s certainly not congregational participation. My nearly 50 years in SBC churches has shown that people can not sing along with hymns just as easily as they can not sing along with contemporary worship songs. Moreover, someone choosing to sing – whether they’re singing the alto line from the hymnal or following the melody while reading the lyrics off of a screen – gives little to no real indication of the spiritual condition of their life.

Harold Best wrote that worship is “acknowledging that someone or something else is greater – worth more – and by consequence, to be obeyed, feared, and adored…Worship is the sign that in giving myself completely to someone or something, I want to be mastered by it.” I am certain that we both believe that ‘someone or something’ is Jesus Christ.

What I think you’re longing for is congregations who give themselves completely to the living God… but your post makes it sound like that can only happen if we restore the choir & turn up the lights.

At the close, you finish the post with a call to expect more from worship leaders than “than mediocre original songs with a four chords and a few hot vocal licks.” Setting aside (again) the sarcasm in that statement, your desire for depth in lyrical content & quality musicianship is a good thing. (Psalm 33:3 NKJV says “Play skillfully with a shout of joy.")

But none of that will matter unless worship leaders, instrumentalists, choir directors, choir members – and most importantly laypeople – give themselves over fully to Christ. We will simply trade worship forms – contemporary for traditional or vice versa… and be like the people Paul warned Timothy about in 2 Timothy 3:4-6 (AMP):

For [although] they hold a form of piety (true religion), they deny and reject and are strangers to the power of it [their conduct belies the genuineness of their profession]. Avoid [all] such people [turn away from them].

in Christ,
Mark Jackson


Conrad Kinch said...

Interesting piece.

There is no disputing that music enjoys a central role in Christian worship and I think that the nature of that role will be a matter for debate until the last trumpet blows.

I think a "to each his own" approach has a great deal to be said for it. A friend of mine reminded me once that Christ didn't die for choral evensong and High Mass. The gospel message is eternal , universal and transformative - it will touch those who hear it, the job of the Church is I suppose to ensure that they do.

And while the Anglican liturgy, the music of Bach and the genius of Cranmer are obviously the best way to approach that message (if they were not, why would I heeded them? ) - perhaps we could accept that a little diversity is no bad thing.

Kinch *who only sings in Church because only the Almighty is that forgiving*

Peter Schott said...

Interesting opinion piece and response all around. Music is important and different styles do speak to people differently. I enjoy the richness in hymns over singing the same chorus 4-6 times (often with that chorus being the same line or two with slightly different melodies). Some people find that moving. I find it repetitive.

I think the original article was hyperbole in many ways, but there is some truth there. We've replaced many people singing with a smaller number, encouraging those choir members to just add their voices to the congregation. We then turn up the praise band volume so we can't hear each other sing, and eliminate the ability to add interesting harmonies because of the way the praise choruses are structured. To me, if the band is so loud that I can't hear myself let alone others, why am I going to try to lend my voice to the performance? I'll praise by concentrating on the lyrics at that point.

I'm not completely against praise bands, but the way I've seen them used in many cases really does seem to discourage congregational participation and far too many more modern songs just don't seem to give us much that's memorable.

I get your argument and generally agree with it, but I think the author made some valid, if snarky, points.

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...


You said: "I think that the nature of that role will be a matter for debate until the last trumpet blows."

I do wonder sometimes if there will be people grumbling on that last day that Gabriel should have been playing an organ - or a Stratocaster. :-)

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...


Thanks for your response - I think there is room in the body for a wide variety of expressions of worship & faith. Those have to be filtered through what is culturally wise and Biblically true.

Moreover, they need to be done well - whether it's the need to turn down the pipe organ or the bass amp.