Thursday, June 14, 2007

Balancing act

This issue of performance versus ministry continues to churn in my head and heart. I was watching Ken Burns' Jazz a couple of days ago, specifically the chapter called "Risk" about Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis. The program talked about the instrumental virtuosity of Parker and Diz, and had some archival footage of the two of them playing on the Downbeat Awards Show in the 1950s. And Bird was flying - 250 bpm no doubt. And like all true artists, he made it look effortless. His face held no expression, but his voice - his horn - spoke volumes to anyone who would listen.

Many sax players have tried to imitate Bird, they have tried to sound like he sounded play like he played and have tirelessly learned every note he played - even the bad ones. But his voice - his style - came out of who he was - his life, his times, his experience. It all came out of his horn.

Which leads me to these thoughts about worship music:

1) It is a performance in front of people. It is doing something with skill and it requires training, because even people who do not play an instrument can recognize good - or bad - music. It's part of the world in which we live, it's part of being alive. We hear music everywhere - on television, in the movies, in traffic, at the store. Some stores subscribe to a particular kind of music to make you feel more comfortable shopping there.

So when the public - and I am talking in an American context only - comes to a church service, they carry a subconscious expectation of what music is supposed to sound like. Depending on your ecclesiastical tradition, they might see an organ, a piano, guitars, drums, a full band, a choir, or any number of musical instruments. And seeing that ignites the expectation that there will be music. But if that music is poorly played or disjointed or distracting, they will remember that more than anything else.

It's not fair - I know. Church bands or music groups might not have the resources that produce the high quality media that people are used to in the marketplace. But one person with a guitar can be as powerful as an angelic messenger depending on their heart condition.

2) Referring to my earlier post, the best music in the world will not cause people to worship. At best it is a tool, but worship is a heart response to God's invitation. God both initiates and receives worship.

True worship comes from the heart of the people involved. A simple arrangement can yield a powerful result because of the intent and response of those playing.

But music does play a role - it can be a road sign, extolling God's virtues, speaking of His mercies, telling the story of redemption and offering hope.

I have described this tension between performance and ministry as being like balancing a marble on a glass table. It can be done, but you have to pay attention. You don't want to drop the marble, and you don't want to scratch the table. So care must be taken. Like all analogies, this one breaks down if you take it too far.

So while we may never escape the idea of performing when it comes to a worship service, the intent is always to facilitate an encounter with God. He is the One for whom all things exist and for Whose pleasure everything was created.

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