Several years ago, a young man came to me with a sincere question. “Rich, why do I feel closer to God at a Coldplay concert than I do at church on Sundays?” The spirituality of his experience echoes in the throngs of Millennial young adults who have not returned to church, some losing their faith entirely. There are deeper issues than space available to address them here. As far as serving my friend as his worship leader, I had to ponder his question. Was he asking, “Why do we feel like we have to put on a different self at church?” Going to a rock concert means I can be my real self. At least, this is what I think my young friend was teaching me. The environment of a local church is far different than a concert, however. You have people of all generations, not a single demographic. Most are not coming to hear the music and band. Yet, we try to mimic the energy and excitement of a rock concert with all the gear and a band that plays concert-level music. What is sold to our people is that perhaps we can feel something similar at church as a rock concert, but with Jesus as the focus. However, have we put music at the center of our worship service?
5 Ways a Rock Concert is Like a Good Worship Service
Before we get too unsettled, let me put the world at ease. The lifestyles or traditional sentiments of rock music are a rebellious and rancorous setting to any story. Our worship service together on Sundays surely is not to be aligned with this aspect. However, it seems that modern worship services copy a lot of the concert-driven tools such as moving lights, sub-woofers, haze machines, and electric guitars warmed by tube amplifiers. Instagram gives us an image of contemporary worship that looks very similar to our culture of rock concerts. But, I think the bent to copy the exterior shell of a rock concert misses the point. We often think of the tools of rock music as a crowd magnet more than using it to deepen our church worship expression. What if there is something more profound under the surface, hidden from view? What if a rock concert is truly like a good worship service?
In our worship services, we can see tradition and scripture give us several movements. We have a point of gathering, the teaching of the scripture, the sharing of communion, the initiation of baptism, and a sending to a mission. While traditional or liturgical churches take some of these items very literally, I think any modern church has the historical pull and biblical gravity to focus on these five movements of worship. When we attempt to translate our expression of worship culturally, do we look for correlation or simply see evangelism as the purpose of worship? The truth is that if we only look to draw a crowd, we miss the richness of the process of reaching people with the gospel. What if a rock concert can teach us why simply drawing a crowd misses the point—even of rock music!? Maybe music is not the sole ingredient to a good rock concert.
I have listed the five movements of traditional Christian worship and compared them to what I see in a rock concert as well as our practices today in contemporary worship. My purpose is to help us have a meaningful conversation about what we do each weekend. The metaphor of a rock concert, like any metaphor, will break down at some point. All I ask is that you have an open mind. I am sure that, as you talk through these points, at least one of them will be useful and helpful to your church setting. If you are a worship leader or pastor, my hope is to encourage you to think about expectations we give to our people about what we lead on Sundays. But, like my young friend, I thought I should answer this question. I think most people who attend church have felt like him at some point in time.
1. A Sacred Gathering Occurs
At a typical concert, the throngs of people gather from all over the city and region. Some will play the band’s music in their car to prepare and get into the mood. Going to a show alone is not common, I would think. Friends or a date accompany you to this experience. And, this event is unlike your worldly life. It is sacred—set apart. You won’t hear or see anything like this concert in your daily life. The buzz in the air, the feeling of subs move your jeans with the beat, and the lights that are inviting you into the scene all exist in this time and place. Live music means that once it is performed, it ceases to exist. That experience can never be recreated exactly the same way again. The crowd gathered for this understands the epic nature of such an event. Beyond being special, the gathering is sacred and holy.
In our worship services, do we dumb down the “otherness” factor? If we believe it is a sacred space we are providing, has that translated to our parishioners? The cathedrals of Europe help us picture a sacred gathering. The size, beauty, and design all were meant to be unlike the world you live in on a daily basis. The color of the stained glass is like the beams of laser lights. The echo of the music on the cathedral’s stone walls brought heaven to earth for those moments of chanting or singing in the service. It was set apart for a special purpose to gather people to worship. When we program our digital lighting rig, are we thinking of a holy gathering, or attracting crowds? The transcendent experience of being together with others on a spiritual pilgrimage is our expectation of our gatherings. How do we keep our space holy? If we remove any symbols of our faith, do we remove the sense of otherness? Many churches are in tilt-up boxes for economic reasons. Your space sends a message. Creativity can do a lot for those of us in undesirable spaces. And, of course where we worship is not the point. But, we have to gather people where we are. Is our aim to attract, as well as create a sacred space?
2. A Powerful Story is Told
In our worship, do we call people to see themselves before God as they really are? At a good concert, the artist sings songs with stories that we all can personally relate to. We are often deeply moved by these stories if they are emotionally true. Our core self connects to the story, and we are exposed in a spiritual sense, I believe. Sometimes, the darkness we hear the story reveal in us is our deepest longing to be closer to the light of a loving Creator. The power of a song is that it can help us pray our soul’s true desires. In a worship service, often our stories are told in a way to inform how we should behave, rather than reveal our true selves. We are not taught to expect that the center of our humanity is part of worship. We simply need to perform piety, and the Word is preached to point us to that end. Jesus, however, never simply trusted us to be better people by doing things. It was the heart that mattered. Do we love?
Legalistic, moralistic teaching appeals to people who wish to achieve righteousness. When we learn that we can worship before our Maker as we truly are, it threatens the pride of the Pharisee in all of us. We might want to make the Word a tool for our game of self-help happiness. Our story is of God’s love for a race of humans whose Creator longs to run and embrace them. The truth is this. God’s standard is unachievable. When we dumb down the holiness of God in moralistic teaching, we cheapen the power of the gospel story! We must invite people to worship God as they truly are. The power of the gospel will then have room to transform all of us rather than us giving five steps to improve ourselves psychologically. The word from the rock star sometimes allows people to feel their true spirituality. Real transformation comes when we tell our honest stories with the gospel as our message. Unveiling the heart means we must graciously follow the example seen in a God whose kindness leads us to repentance.
3. A Table is Set for All
A good concert brings us closer to the artist that we love. We are all partaking of something greater than a band singing songs. At a meal, there is a sacramental moment that is shared. Everyone present is invited to eat. This “meal” of the concert is what we feel together as a community. When the phones are lifted high and waved, or the concert lights flash on the crowd, or we sing along with the band on those familiar riffs, we are eating together. The very human activity of a meal is not simply the consumption of food, but the celebration of life. How is this like a good worship service? Maybe it is the act of invitation. Do we invite people to belong with us and with Christ in our worship? While the “table” offered at a rock concert is an experience, we invite people to walk in the promise of the presence of our Creator.
Being present with Christ is promised at the Lord’s Table. The Table reminds us of the promise that Christ is present in our worship and then with us in each breath of life we breathe. To partake of a meal together is to experience a holy encounter. What do we do in our worship that invites the worshipper to such a sacred moment? If our expectation is that our elements are simply metaphors of thoughts about faith, we reject the idea of spirituality being part of our physicality. The Incarnation, of course, teaches us that Christ is still fully human and fully God to this very day. We say He “is” risen as it is still a present truth as a resurrected Savior. If we lessen our humanity in worship as abstract ideas about faith, we miss the mystical taste, smells, and touch of Christ. In our hands and feet, we aim to represent Christ. The powerful message of the gospel is that all sinners are welcome to eat with Jesus. Do we express that invitation in our worship?
4. An Initiation is Accepted
How many of us remember our first concert? There is something about the event of our first concert that initiates us into the music-lover, concert-goer tribe. We take the photo and post it on Facebook (for some of us who aren’t so young, we actually had physical photos and scrapbooks of this event!). At some point, being part of a tribe requires an initiation. It may be that it’s the first LP you purchased with your own money. Or, it could be that concert t-shirt your wife begs you never to wear again because your girth expanded beyond the stress points of the fabric. When you belong, it has to start at some point in time in some particular place. My experience was in the mid-1980s at the Fillmore in San Francisco with a group called Madness. They sang that song “Our House” back in the day. Little did I know that being up front meant I ended up in the center of a mosh pit. My favorite Polo golf shirt was in shreds by the end of the show. I was initiated!
What do we do to initiate our worshippers? Baptism is our ordination as believers, but do we include with it somewhere the expectations of what happens in this tribe of followers of Jesus? If we were to teach those new to the faith somehow what their initiation means, maybe our worship would be more meaningful. (Those of us who have walked in it all our lives still need reminders, too.) We have taken kids out of worship so much that our only option is to create a “grown up” service that looks like their youth group when they become adults. In this current system, what’s relevant to a single generation is more important than what keeps us all together. How do we take our young to their first worship experience if we are never with them? Baptism reminds us of our identity in Christ that we all share. The more we anchor to this, perhaps instead of losing our young adults from a tribe, we pass on our faith to them and beyond. Are we accepting the call to be initiated into the body of Christ? If we look to music to solve this, we are sorely disappointed. Music changes. The band Madness did not last after the 1980s.
5. Sent on a Mission
Wearing that t-shirt, rolling down your windows on the bridge, and singing out loud, and posting on your Facebook wall are all ways your favorite band hopes you get the word out. When you belong to the tribe of a particular band, the mission is to let others know about the experience that band gave you. The mission of a rock band essentially is not to draw a crowd, but to serve the crowd by offering a fantastic and authentic experience. When this happens, we share the music. As a tribe member, our mission is almost automatic. That experience is palpable enough to remind us about it. Evangelism is then not a chore, but an overflow. The concert experience simply expects your shared participation to become an invitation to others. A good concert does this.
If in our church services, we simply are about getting people back the next week, we fail them. The mission to love God and love people is our core act of worship. The worship experience reinforces the call we have as believers to be sent to love and serve. God’s kingdom is not built by drawing a crowd, but by rallying an army of love-driven saints. There is no shame in conscription to a cause greater than ourselves. The author of Hebrews says we should meet to worship in part to prod each other on to “love and good works.” As I mentioned earlier, moralism and legalism lessen God’s holiness. Our purpose is to love and serve. We love God and people because that is what we are meant to do. If worship is not focused partly on true religion, the songs are just clanging cymbals. How do we include the “prod” to do good works in our worship?
More than music, more than marketing
We are an entrepreneurial set of Christians in America. If we see the fact that rock music moves and draws people, we aim to mimic culture to use those means to our holy ends. This breaks down when we copy something without understanding what makes it work, such as music and art. It also breaks down when we think marketing is outreach instead of a tool. The act of drawing people is not a ministry–the act of loving people is. We can attract people, but what will keep them? Usually, the same tactics we use to attract are what we need to use to keep our crowd. If we entertain to draw in sinners, we entertain to keep the saints. The rat race of attracting and keeping tires out many over time as it is not a life-giving endeavor. The science of sales can only work for so long.
Our weekly worship services have become self-help rallies these days, it seems. We offer hope that you can change with the tools we sell and pop psychology we preach. We sell an experience that will change you, but it falls flat from over-promising of exactly what that looks like. More than music or marketing, worship services must be anchored in the pattern of scripture and filtered by the wisdom of those who have gone before us. The irony is how a rock concert seems to be closer to traditionally experienced worship than our “modern worship” services seem to deliver. The rock concert goes deeper to the soul than our teaching, reaching out farther to include, rather than exclude, pilgrims.
In our iPod world of personal choices, a personal faith is not as fulfilling as being part of a faith community. We can sell that because it is true. The difference is like choosing to see Coldplay live or settle for your earbuds. However, what makes the earbuds so much better is having experienced the band live! Worship is like this when it is good. The experience of our Christian worship is deeper because of who we gather to meet with. Imagine if we could be and bring our true selves to a sacred place. And, imagine if we add to that meeting with Christ. Wouldn’t that be powerful?
Are we helping send out people on a mission? Are we calling them to be initiated in their faith? Are we inviting them to eat with us at a table and gathering them to a sacred space? Worship may not be exactly like a rock concert, but I think they teach us a lot about putting our humanity back in our expression of worship. Worship is directed to our God, but in a way is also about us. It is our choice. It is our expression. It flows out of who we are and where we are in our spiritual pilgrimage. The more we serve our church with authentic worship, perhaps that young man might share a different story some day. Praise God and rock on!