Worship music brings out my cynical side. I constantly over-analyze the lyrics in the songs for depth or validity when I mean to be praising God. I recognize that is a problem, and I let my pride get in the way. However, I think there is also a genuine concern over the state of church worship that needs to be discussed. More and more, Christian music blurs the line between being ministry and a show. Having more worship is perhaps a very good thing, but it leaves me with an odd feeling and a question. When did worship become Christian entertainment?
A Christian VIP Experience
A couple of months back, controversy stirred over Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United having a VIP Experience ticket for their concert tour. Some felt that charging extra money to meet the artists was too commercial for a Christian event. In their defense, concerts like this tend to be relatively inexpensive. Making money as a musician these days is increasingly difficult, so artists have to find creative ways to make a living and pay their staff and any venue costs.
I don’t have any objection to Christian artists having this sort of VIP experience in their shows if they are billing it as just that; a show. If you are advertising it as a worship night, a time for Christians to come together and praise God, then I think you are getting into messy territory. Taking on the mantle of leading worship raises the bar and adds extra responsibility than entertaining the audience. My problem with this story had far more to do with the increasingly blurry line between worship and entertainment.
The Changing Face of Worship
Part of why this story upset so many people is that it made people the VIPs. It elevated ourselves at an event supposed to be focused on Jesus. If worship is the goal, Jesus needs to be the center of our attention. If it’s just a concert by Christians with Christian messages in their songs, that doesn’t mean it has to be a worship service. But that’s the problem. Isn’t that precisely what worship has become in many churches?
Worship has become an entertaining, emotionally driven, self-elevating experience. One of the biggest problems I see in modern worship songs is when they are more about you than Jesus. “I will call upon your name.” “This is the air I breathe.” “I’m loved by you. It’s who I am. It’s who I am.” Once you notice how often you’re singing “I” and rarely ever the name “Jesus,” you can’t help but see it everywhere. Yes, the songs generally get to a point about God, but it’s almost always in relation to us. It pushes us to have an emotional experience more than really proclaim the glory of God.
What’s Wrong with an Emotional Experience?
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having an emotional experience while worshipping God. But is that all there is? Is that the goal? If so, that’s entertainment, not worship. Worship is not and never will be about me. If it brings too much attention to me, something has gone wrong.
On the other hand, concerts can be the perfect place for this kind of experience. I worry that we have blurred the lines too much. Has the sensational worship experience become too indistinguishable from the excitement of a concert? Are we offering nothing more of substance than could be offered by a concert outside the church?
The other messy component to this whole story is the oddity of Christian celebrity culture. Some gave Hillsong United and Tomlin flak for selling VIP experiences, but they wouldn’t sell them if people wouldn’t buy them. The point is that these fans were paying to be the VIPs. Maybe the artists should not enable that desire, but they did not create it. We don’t just treat worship music as entertainment; we treat worship leaders like any other celebrity. Are we surprised when they act like celebrities?
This problem extends far beyond music. We put Christian pastors, writers, actors, scientists, historians, comedians, and more on pedestals just the same. Humans were not made for this kind of glory. While I find myself asking when did worship become Christian entertainment, it’s hardly shocking. It happened when we started putting Christian worship leaders onto celebrity pedestals and letting worship become a more self-focused experiential ordeal. Maybe you think what Tomlin and Hillsong did was perfectly fine, or perhaps you think it was an un-Christian money grab that gives worship a bad name. To that, I would say the problem goes far deeper. They are a consequence of a slow shift in Christian culture that we all need to keep an eye on and hopefully correct.
Give Grace to the Worship Leaders
Many of both the artists who make these songs and the worship leaders who adopt them have the best intentions. Their hearts are often in the right place of trying to bring people together in heartfelt worship. I am grateful to have people willing to spend their time leading worship every Sunday. The last thing I want to do is stand on the sidelines and heckle or grumble over their hard work. This issue matters, but we must always act with gentleness and respect. As much as I want to challenge the leaders to change this trend, the last thing we need is discouraged and frustrated Christian volunteers who are trying their best.
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