Did the Upper Room Have an iPod?
by Dean Merrill
Here is a quiz. Check all the boxes that apply:
For a group of Christians to pray effectively, they need to:
- Close their eyes
- Bow their heads
- Join hands
- Utilize a prayer language (tongues)
- Face Jerusalem
- Use thee’s and thou’s
- Have a worship team providing music
The only answer likely to get votes in our time is the last one. Within the past 20 years, it has become common practice in many churches that, as the speaker nears his or her conclusion, an entourage of singers, guitarists, bassists, drummers, and keyboard players begin edging onto the stage to provide music during the time that follows. The goal is to create an atmosphere of worship so people can draw closer to God.
As one who over the years has spent thousands of hours at a church keyboard (originally organ or piano, now a Roland or Korg) — playing on and on until my shoulder blades ached — I can testify to the useful effect of music on people’s willingness to pray. Music engenders a certain frame of mind. It mutes the random distractions in a sanctuary — shoes scuffling, people coughing, children whispering, air conditioning turning on and off. Music often gives worshipers a mental track to follow. The group sings, “And I-I-I’m desperate for You,” and the person in the eighth row thinks, Yes, that’s what I wanted to say.
For musicians, our favorite Bible story is when three kings (one godly, two not-so-much) came begging the prophet Elisha to get them out of a jam (2 Kings 3). The man of God was not of a mind to help them. “Elisha said, ‘As surely as the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not pay any attention to you. But now bring me a harpist.’ While the harpist was playing, the hand of the Lord came on Elisha and he said, ‘This is what the Lord says: I will fill this valley with pools of water’ ” (verses 14–16). The soothing sounds of music calmed the irritated spirit of Elisha, so he could be a conduit for the word of the Lord.
Help or Hindrance?
If we are honest, we will admit that there is a wide range of Christian music, some of which helps the goal of prayer, and some that doesn’t. Harold Best, dean emeritus of Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, has wisely written: “Christian musicians must be particularly cautious. They can create the impression that God is more present when music is being made than when it is not; that worship is more possible with music than without it; and that God might possibly depend on its presence before appearing.”
Music can do at least three things in a worship/prayer context.
- It can facilitate (as in the case of Elisha’s harpist).
- It can manipulate.
- It can also dominate.
I have great memories of times when music helped sweep me into the presence of God and enhance my worship. I hope you do, too. But if you have played for very many church services and watched the audience reaction, you know there are certain musical things you can do to “juice” the response. I won’t bore you with a lot of technicalities, but I will mention a couple of examples.
Everyone knows that if, on the second time through a chorus or other melody, you raise the key a half-step (from E to F, or from A to B-flat), the crowds’ emotion will soar accordingly. People will sing louder, more hands will go up, greater exuberance will prevail. I am not saying there is anything wrong with a half-step modulation; just don’t attribute its effect to the Holy Spirit. It is a purely musical adjustment that elicits a purely human reaction.
Or you can kick in the reverb at the right moment, unleashing a swell of hallelujahs. All it takes is one punch of a button. Then as the song comes to an end, you turn it off, causing a gradual slowdown to a straight tone. The result: Aaahh! — we are back to earth. Wasn’t that marvelous?
These, and many other techniques, are nothing more than tools we need to surrender to the Spirit’s greater purposes. If He can use them, fine. But He certainly does not need them. We are clearly dispensable to His work. We are not as important as we think.
Musicians tend to be passionate people, and it is quite possible for us to get so wrapped up in our art that we can dominate the time set aside for prayer. We start to view music as our personal gig. We want to sound really great. Hey, if we would just throw in this extra little riff, we would be so cool. If in the middle of the song we jacked this up an octave, I would sound really awesome (whether the people can reach a high G or not). If we tweaked this preordained “set list,” it would be better. If we cranked up the volume another couple of notches, we could really fill this place with our sound.
I have been in so-called “prayer meetings” that could in fact be more accurately described as 90-minute rock concerts with a little prayer sprinkled over the top, like powdered sugar on a waffle. In such settings I have struggled — and finally given up — trying to frame my own prayer to God because the lyrics coming from the front were so forceful. Far easier just to sing along with the band than to swim upstream trying to develop my own sentences.
It may surprise young musicians in the church today to hear that only in the last couple of decades has prayer time incorporated vocals. Prior to that, the music was nearly always just instrumental. People were thus free to make their own prayers to the Lord. (In fact, some of us in those years would deliberately stay away from playing familiar choruses, choosing rather to “improv” abstractly, so as not to preempt the worshipers’ communication with God. Maybe they didn’t want to pray “Father, I adore you” just at that moment, being moved instead to confess a sin or intercede for a relative’s salvation or healing. So we tried not to put them in a verbal chute.)
Aside from the matter of lyrics, we must also notice that at least some worshipers — a minority, perhaps, but nevertheless part of the body of Christ — do better praying with a backdrop that is mellow as opposed to staccato or strongly rhythmic. In musical terms, they function best with adagio or at least andante legato. If we force allegro or agitato on them, they tend to tense up and then stall out on the main work of prayer. They are distracted.
It is tough, I admit, to get the mix just right. And you cannot please all the people all the time. But this must not become an excuse to say, “Well, then, I will just do it my way, the way I prefer, the way I think it sounds best, and the congregation will have to get used to it.” This high-handed attitude will end up frustrating wide swaths of people who really would like to pray but cannot due to the atmospherics.
Leader or Usher?
To be a worship musician is not, in the end, an exercise in leading anything. Yes, we often speak about someone as “the worship leader” of a congregation. Truthfully, however, being a musician in the church is more like ushering. It is taking people by the hand, so to speak, and gently guiding them into the presence of the Almighty … at which point we step back into the shadows and let them carry on unaided. We are merely escorts on the path toward the Holy of Holies.
We must never forget that prayer time is not showtime. The main point is not for Christians to experience great music. It is rather that they touch the face of God. Music is merely an adjunct. It might be said that people do not truly worship God until they get past the music. As long as they are thinking about the music, they are not thinking about the Lord.
In fact, let me ask: Did the 120 have an iPod in a corner of the Upper Room during those 10 days of waiting until the Spirit descended so powerfully? I don’t think so. Did Elijah have a worship team to help him intercede for rain on top of Mount Carmel? No. Did Daniel have a band to inspire him through those 21 long days of humbling himself before God until the heavenly messenger finally showed up? Probably not.
Matt Redman, excellent British writer of worship songs (“Blessed Be Your Name,” “Better Is One Day in Your House”), tells about an unusual season in his home church when “we realised some of the things we thought were helping us in our worship were actually hindering us. They were throwing us off the scent of what it means to really worship. We had always set aside lots of time in our meetings for worshipping God through music. But it began to dawn on us that we’d lost something. The fire that used to characterise our worship had somehow grown cold.
“In some ways, everything looked great. We had some wonderful musicians, and a good quality sound system. There were lots of new songs coming through, too. But somehow we’d started to rely on these things a little too much, and they’d become distractions. Where once people would enter in [to God’s presence] no matter what, we’d now wait to see what the band was like first, how good the sound was, or whether we were ‘into’ the songs chosen.
“Mike, the pastor, decided on a pretty drastic course of action: we’d strip everything away for a season, just to see where our hearts were. So the very next Sunday when we turned up at church, there was no sound system to be seen, and no band to lead us. The new approach was simple — we weren’t going to lean so hard on those outward things any more. Mike would say, ‘When you come through the doors of the church on Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God? What are you going to sacrifice today?’
“If I’m honest, at first I was pretty offended by the whole thing. The worship was my job! But as God softened my heart, I started to see His wisdom all over these actions. At first the meetings were a bit awkward: there were long periods of silence, and there wasn’t too much singing going on. But we soon began to learn how to bring heart offerings to God without any external trappings we’d grown used to. Stripping everything away, we slowly started to rediscover the heart of worship.
“After a while, the worship band and the sound system reappeared, but now it was different. The songs of our hearts had caught up with the songs of our lips.
“Out of this season, I reflected on where we had come to as a church, and wrote this song:
When the music fades,
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.
In the chorus I tried to sum up where we were at with worship:
I’m coming back to the heart of worship,
And it’s all about You,
All about You, Jesus.
IÂ´m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it,
When it’s all about You,
All about You, Jesus.1
If we have so conditioned people in our churches that they cannot pray without a whole mix of voices, instruments, and electronics, we have done them a disservice. What if the electricity went off some Sunday morning? Could we even still have church? We’d be stuck with ... only Jesus.
Somehow I think that would be enough. And if the Son of God would like a little background music on the side as He converses with His beloved people … well, okay. We would be honored to oblige Him.
Dean Merrill is the editor of www.fcachurches.net. He began playing for worship in his father’s church at age 15.
1. As told in chapter 8, The Unquenchable Worshipper by Matt Redman, published in the U.K. by Kingsway and in the U.S. by Regal, 2001