Have you noticed how professional Christian musicians are almost anxious to make the distinction between ‘performed’ music and ‘worship’ music? It seems particularly like musicians (or their marketing teams?) who push at the edges of currently normal church style are keen to make it clear they’re not changing to producing ‘purely performance songs’. The implication is that music for acts of worship is as it were pure and the musician would be in some sense sullied by sinking to produce music to merely listen to, even (Heaven forbid!) to gig to an audience.
Now firstly, obviously, this is unfair. There is no reason why any musician should confine themselves to writing for one context, and I personally don’t see why the same person shouldn’t gig and lead worship in churches – obviously the two would look different, but all the more reason to acknowledge that you embrace both and therefore see the distinction.
And, for that matter, I don’t see that in the body of Christ where the nose cannot claim it doesn’t need the eye (etc., etc., – 1 Corinthians), it’s a good idea to treat Christian music for listening to outside of communal worship as ‘lesser than’ Christian music for singing communally in acts of worship. That way lie all sorts of dangerous misunderstandings of how being God’s people works, and a great deal of missed opportunities for humility.
But if that’s the case, is there any reason left for the anxiety? Well, yes, I think so. There are different requirements for gigs than services – at least congregational singing in services. Gig songs don’t have to be easy to sing along to, can be autobiographical or narrative of specific events without expecting similar events in the lives of most of the congregation, and are much less controversially open to substantial instrumental sections. Congregational songs don’t have to repeat their key points as much because people can generally see the words written down rather than just hearing them over the PA; and can generally afford to be less musically varied because people are actively engaged in them rather than just listening.
But, I think the heart of the problem that leads to the anxiety about being mistaken for ‘performance music’ is that a great deal of our new church music is very performance-like. Most of our name Christian artists, ‘worship leaders’ included, have their progress measured by album releases – of studio releases tailored to being listened to in private, with no evident space in them for congregational singing, and probably sounding very different to any likely church version. And unfortunately, those big name artists at their most public outings tend to sound a lot like they’re doing a gig. For instance, I’m always appalled when I come across a bunch of musicians providing accompaniment for church singing who can’t hear the congregation. How can you ever do that? I need to hear the congregation because I can’t possibly be serving their needs if I can’t respond to them. I always like being able to see the congregation as well – it makes my life planning songs easier if I could see how many mouths were moving the last time I did this new one.
Unfortunately, our most hyped and most attempted to be emulated church music times are, I think, overly influenced by secular rock gig culture. If we really care about creating church music that’s not for performance, we’ll do more about opening up the song as we thought of it to local use (readily available sheet music and, if more than just the tune and the chords is ‘part of the song’, full transcript of those other parts too) and more about playing and singing to support, not drown out, the congregation, and maybe just a little less about big name appearances and overpowering volume of one voice against the voices of all the other supposed worshippers.