When my mother’s only child would throw a fit, she handled it in a way that other parents in her circles had not thought of: she sang what we sometimes refer to as “choruses” over the wee babe. In particular, there were two that she defaulted to. One of them goes:
Lord, prepare me
To be a sanctuary
Pure and holy,
Tried and true
I’ll be a living
I believe that my formative years benefited greatly from the prayer of this song: “God, make me Your temple, and I will gladly be it.” There is both beauty and reverence in continually asking Him to prepare us, continually asking Him to make us tried and true, and continually promising to be His sanctuary with a grateful heart. There is, however, one other chorus she used to sing over me, and that was this:
I love You, Lord
And I lift my voice
To worship You
O my soul, rejoice
Take joy, my King
In what You hear
Let it be a sweet, sweet sound
In Your ear
I have dwelled on that song for most of my life. In particular, asking Him to take joy in my voice, my worship to HIm, has been a prime motivator. Even if my style is askew and my band members break strings and the artists lose perspective and the congregants sit down, at least let my worship ring true and please the heart of God. If nothing else, at least let my heart be in the right place.
For years, I have claimed this.
I have claimed this while adding band members. Adding artistry. Adding styles and tones and drive and blend, EQ and delay and reverb and compression, volume and pressure and complex compositions that weave and flow and mix and match, and I add and I add and I add, all the while singing “I love You, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship You…”
And for what? So it sounds “better?” Better to who?
The atmosphere in the sanctuaries I visit has changed in the last decade. At first, the choruses reigned supreme, both honoring our hymnal heritage while offering fresh breath to the congregations by uttering thoughts and words without the rigidity of print and file. Then the contemporary worship songs came in and the choruses took the back seat that hymns had kept warm, while hymns meekly crawled into the trunk, waiting to be pulled out in cases of emergency.
I want to be clear: the problem is not contemporary songs. The problem is the attitude that contemporary songs are conveyed with.
When Keith Green wrote songs such as “To Obey is Better Than Sacrifice,” local worship teams picked up the words and the chords (muttering to themselves, “A simple walkdown! Turn on the 4, resolve to the 1, hit the 5 and repeat! Genius!”) the pianist typically held no ambition of playing as marvelously as Keith. The focus was on playing the chords, simply, and letting the congregation meekly sing along as the voice of the Lord resonated in all of them:
To obey is better than sacrifice
I want more than Sundays and Wednesday nights.
Cause if you can’t come to me everyday,
then don’t bother coming at all…
This is, of course, merely within a hundred miles of what happens to their hearts as they sing “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful” and ask Him to “please light the fire that once burned bright and clear.”
Today, we sing songs from Passion, For King and Country, David Crowder (in all of his iterations), and other popular, modern-sounding, full-band-production music that rivals many secular bands who sing about little more than relationships, how great America is, how angry they are, relationships, how much money they make, and relationships.
Our popular worship artists sound amazing.
And we do our best to sound amazing like them.
Our sanctuaries get louder, and even when they aren’t louder, they are more full of sound. I ran sound for a larger congregation last month and had a lady approach me afterwards saying “I felt like I was inside the music for the first time.” I was consulting with that church because their sanctuary has been sounding a little ’empty’ since they changed worship leaders, and lots of people have been sitting down during worship portion of the service. When polled, many responded that lately they could hear themselves singing, and they don’t like their voice as much, and they are worried about people around them hearing them sing badly, so they sit down and enjoy the worship service.
Like a concert.
But I love You, Lord, and I lift my voice…
We can fix the problem of empty-sounding rooms. We can pan and compress and reverb and fly speakers at angles; we can do all of the math and all of the testing and all of the positioning to make sure that the worship team’s trademark sound adequately fills the room so that no one has to hear themselves sing less-good than the professional volunteers on stage.
Let it be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ear…
With worship, as in many areas of my life, I am dissatisfied with the premise. I debate whether to approach my boss for a raise when I could change jobs and make a considerable amount more; I face the wrong premise. I reason back and forth between a single cheeseburger or a double (or the beautiful triple, even), when we all know that a hearty grilled-chicken salad with honey balsamic dressing would be vastly better for me. Again, I’ve limited my choices to two bad one’s because I asked the wrong question to start with.
I fill the room with skill and talent and that gorgeous acoustic ‘sparkle’ so that there’s very little room in a listener’s brain for the Spirit to speak. That’s the wrong premise.
I work up this really amazing tom-driven drum beat for the bridge of that new John Mark McMillan song so the people feel the edge of a driving beat and drive themselves forward in worship… which is probably more of an adrenaline rush than a Spirit touch, so that’s probably the wrong premise.
I buy the right pedals to make that perfect sound so our guitar leads sound just like they do on the album and people will recognize our hard work when they hear something just like it was on the radio.
It’s. The. Wrong. Premise.
For many of us, the song is old-hat, but Matt Redman had it right all those years ago when he wrote:
When the music fades, and all is stripped away
And I simply come
Longing just to bring, something that’s of worth
That will bless Your heart
I’ll bring You more than a song, for a song in itself
Is not what You have required
You search much deeper within; through the way things appear
You’re looking into my heart
I’m coming back to the heart of worship
Where it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it
When it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus
I find myself needing to be reared in. I find myself gently reminded to focus. I find myself needing to strip away the shine and the fluff, the sparkle and drive, and bring Him what Ben Gibbard calls “farmer chords.” The tug at my heart is for simplicity, for soliloquy, for nothing fancy or well-made to cover up the tremble of my voice, the slightly-out-of-tune D string, the sheer honesty of what little I have to offer at His feet. I feel bare and altogether vulnerable without showing off what I’ve worked years to develop.
And this is not at all about how I feel.
“Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:10b
Do you want to be chopped? I don’t want to be chopped. Please don’t chop me, Lord. I want to simplify, I want to reduce, I want to take the rest of it all away.
The opposite side of the same coin, though, is that I don’t want my simplicity to be terrible and distract others from worship, either. I want to pursue the art of invisibility, the practice of not making people follow me, but the path of traveling to His gates and into His courts together. I want to worship where my voice is a small guide in the chorus of praise instead of the booming lead that all must follow.
Calling our goal the “middle path” is a bit of a misnomer; I lean in the direction of a stripped-down sound, but I want to be tasteful, as well. I want to be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ear.
This site is dedicated to the pursuit of leading worship transparently. I want to break down productions and make them simple. I want to dig into the built and make it raw. I want to get splinters on the edges of our worship together.
In truth, I am not ready. I am, however, willing to start.
Come with me. There’s a world of clarity ahead.