I’m not sure how many of you caught the awkwardness a few weeks ago that was Arcade Fire on SNL. Now let me clarify; I really, really like Arcade Fire. In fact, I think their latest album might be the most lyrically holistic album since Achtung Baby, and a couple of the tracks off of it have even moved me to tears. Which isn’t too big of a deal…I routinely get moved to tears by that gorgeous and familiar snap of the guitar cable into the guitar’s input jack…but still; it’s not every day that an album will do that to you.
But live on SNL? Decent sound, but awkward, awkward, awkward. At least their frontman, Win Butler. (Awesome name, though.) Here’s the video:
And I started to think that having bands on SNL may actually be the one of the closest parallels to a worship band. Besides SNL having atrocious sound and the fact that unfortunately many churches are known for the same, in both situations, the band is asked to play to an audience that at best part is not there just to see them play, and at worst had no idea who they are and has no interest to see them, all in a venue not set up specifically for a concert. In both places, the majority of the folks in the seats are there for some other reason than to hear the music. On SNL, it’s to sit and relax and enjoy watching Scarlett Johansson host and Jay Pharaoh do Denzel Washington impressions. And then Arcade Fire gets up and asks an audience who may or may not have ever heard of them and who may or may not even remotely enjoy their music, to stand up and uninhibitedly engage with them. And in worship, we ask a congregation who may or may not have come just for the message and who may or may not just tolerate the music in order to be able to meet someone afterwards who will hug them or pray for them, to stand up and uninhibitedly engage with the Lord.
And that’s where it can start to feel real lonely, real fast. As evidenced painfully by the above song. Win is trying so hard to be a charismatic frontman, and win people over to the music; but he ends up just looking completely desperate, and I know that feeling well. I don’t usually grab the mic and jump onto the pews at church, but I sometimes will tend to say something awkward or not entirely theologically sound as I start to feel more and more naked as I look at blank stares coming back at me. Or I’ll push too hard trying to overcompensate for their lack of engagement. Or say something to try to force people into it. Which all comes off as desperate. And if there’s one thing that puts people off more than anything else, it’s desperation. It makes them feel awkward, and we hate feeling awkward.
(Can you blame people for wanting to see that over a band? Seriously, if you close your eyes, it’s Denzel Washington.)
The best part is how we usually try to push past the awkwardness. What do we do? We go buy Hillsong dvd’s and try to copy what they do. Forgetting completely that a worship concert dvd is (sorry) pretty much worthless when it comes to trying to help people in your congregation engage with God through music. Why is seemingly every person dancing and singing and lifting their hands on a Hillsong dvd? Well, one because it’s edited that way. They’re not going to show the guy who spent the whole night messing with his phone so he could get one pic to Twitter. But more importantly, because every person there came specifically to worship, and specifically to worship through music, and specifically to worship through music that Hillsong plays. What’s even more, to get into that concert, each one of those people paid money. So until your congregation pays money to get into church specifically to worship through music and not hear a message or connect relationally with people, and specifically wants to hear your songs, and until the media guy is sending you a private feed onto your lyric monitor on stage that is only showing the people that are really into it…the parallel is not that great between a Hillsong dvd and your worship service.
And then what is even better is when we recognize this, and rather than trying to then figure out what works to help people engage in our current non-concert setting, we instead try to change our current setting to a concert; completely forgetting that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a person who (*gasp*) may actually come to church to serve and set up tables so that people can drink coffee while they talk and learn to love each other, and may not really even care for our style of worship music. I know, it’s almost unthinkable. (Sarcasm, friends.) But it happens. A lot. And then we see people not engaging, and we get desperate. And say something awkward. And speed up a song. And say something harsh about people not raising their hands. And inadvertently completely ruin all chance of anyone connecting with God during the music part of the service.
I remember being at a conference one time where Chris Tomlin was leading worship, and after a quite rousing worship song, said, ‘Hey guys, I just want you to know that it’s not like this at my home church. I don’t usually lead worship for 4,000 worship leaders who paid to come to a conference. It’s so awesome to look out and see everyone singing and worshiping.’ And it was so cool to hear that. It’s okay if your church doesn’t look like a Hillsong dvd. And someone needs to tell Arcade Fire’s singer that it’s okay if SNL doesn’t look like one of his usual sold-out concerts with a bunch of hipsters busting the seams on their sown-on corduroy’s. But rather, getting to a place where you can balance worshiping God on your own, with loving people enough to want to take them with you on that journey. What often happens is we either get too into having our own little worship experience that we forget to engage with the congregation, or we try so hard to engage with the congregation, that we forget to believe what we’re singing. And there is something intensely powerful about a frontman who believes the very core out of what he is singing. Or a guitar player who believes the living daylights out of every note he plays. And then looks out at the congregation with a look that says, ‘This is where I’m going, and it’s going to be good. Jump on.’ Without desperately railing into them to follow him. They have to know that where you’re going is so good that if worse comes to worse, you’ll go without them; but you’d much rather take them with you.
And as an example of this, here ya go. This is one of my all-time favorite videos, and I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. And it just feels right in this post. You may not like U2, and you may hate this song. And that’s totally cool. (No, it’s really not, but you know that.) But watch the complete commitment on Bono’s part. To what he’s singing. To doing something stupid like running around the outer stage. Watch how, whether you agree with him or not, he believes what he is singing. And watch the reaction of the crowd. There is something in his demeanor that says, ‘Let’s go.’
And what do we do? We (myself included) write every song trying to copy everything about ‘Where the Streets Have No Name.’ (‘I am Free’, ‘Not to Us’, ‘Time Has Come’, every Angels and Airwaves song ever, etc.) And we miss that part of what makes this song continue to connect with people after 23 years of playing it live, is the complete and total commitment and belief that it is performed with. And in huge part I’m sure due to the fact that the song is written about the suffering Bono witnessed firsthand in Africa while serving over there for six months, and then realizing how much more content those people were than most who have more.
Another song here with complete commitment from believed lyrics. A song coming from a background of seeing so many girls settle for less than the perfect Godly guy they thought they would end up with. (Very interesting lyrics when looked into.) But I’ve rarely seen a singer with more commitment than Brandon Flowers.
Of course those are all edited concerts that people paid to see. So don’t be discouraged when your church doesn’t look like that. But they’re not singing about the Savior of the universe, either. And we are. Something to think about when believing what we sing.
Get behind what you sing. Get behind what you play. And read the lyrics so you know what you’re getting behind. And then…commit to it. Believe the life out of each note you sing, and each note you play.
P.S. And for what it’s worth, Arcade Fire’s frontlady, Régine Chassagne, seems to do a much better job of reading an audience. She realizes that folks in the SNL seats are probably not going to rock it to her song, so she changes her tactic and just performs her song, her way. She goes somewhere, even if no one else will. It’s hard to do sometimes, but you got to give her props. Not for the swirly pom-pom’s, but for rocking without desperation.
P.S.S. It may very well be mentioned that in a post on worship leading, I only gave examples of non-worship leaders leading non-worship songs. This is unfortunately because in my search for examples of committed bands and frontmen who believe who they are singing, the non-worship bands seemed to beat the worship ones. Of course, that’s all opinion-based and perhaps I just searched the wrong keywords on youtube and so on and so forth. And I have been known to be wrong…at least every once in a while. But there ya go.