“Pause now for a strange interlude…” – Groucho Marx
This is what runs through my head every time a song leader in a contemporary church lets off with a wail, an “OOOOOoooooo”, a “YEAAAAAAhhhhh”, or whatever else melodic filler shows up in a song. Likewise whenever there is a section of rapid improvised declarations over and above what the congregation is supposed to be singing. These are not things that are designed to unify a people in worship of God, rather they direct the attention to the vocal chops of one man/woman. The same can be said for songs that start off with the congregation standing while the first verse is nailed beautifully by the pretty lady with the serene expression. Yes, everyone mumbles their way in on the chorus, but again, the attention is diverted. There should be similar wariness over long guitar riffs or other instrumental solos.
The main objection to be raised at these antics is well stated by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his series of lectures labeled Preaching and Preachers. The church is to be a place were the people of God gather to worship God, not a place where they are entertained. And all of the above has it’s roots solidly in concert norms. And lest it be leveled that I am merely being curmudgeonly to the point of yelling at those kids to turn that damn noise off. Allow me to point out I am just as opposed to a older congregation enjoying the offertory “special music” from the lady using a CD player of prerecorded music and warbling out a “blessing.” Entertainment should be far from our pulpits and our music. There is more to come on Lloyd-Jones and this in the future, stay tuned. Yet there is another flaw to pick at with with we will satisfy ourselves right now.
The point of congregational singing is in the name, It’s congregational. Gods people are raising their many voices as one in praise of Him. All worship is active, it is never passive, including the sermon.* An obvious place to unify a congregation is in song. As Mr. Bing Crosby would say, “All together now and in the family key!” This unity combats the dangerous pervasive individualism in the modern church. It reminds the people that the church is about more than them. It combats the jealousy of not being talented, musical or good looking enough to be up front. Every “strange interlude” is a reminder to the parishioners that they are not among the special people upfront. Sin grows in the hearts because they are thinking about themselves in pride or jealousy or in the adoration of the talents of the praise team.
The individualism is what leads to people insisting that their skills should be front and center at some point. This is the slippery slope that led to Redeemer Pres in NY to have three men in tights mincing around the pulpit during the offertory. Or an artist on stage painting a new interpretation of the Last Supper where “you” are seated at the table, in lieu of a sermon. People think they deserve to be on stage because it appears that some things are valued as worship and why not their thing? If you have never told one of these people the two facts that A. Church is not about them. And B. All of a Christians life is supposed to be an act of worship and they have the entire rest of the week to glorify God with their “thing.” You can expect a lot of indignation. Wonder aloud sometime why it is so important that they get some of God’s time for their self expression?
The platform calls to us, our pride is stoked by it. There is a reason that pastors should ascend it with fear and trembling. They are not there to wow the people with oratory skill, they are there to deliver a message from the one true and living God. That space should be guarded closely, the congregation should know that is is a fearsome task to ascend to it. There is a reason in early reformed churches there was only a pulpit raised centrally and no stage. Now a days it is cheapened by the broadening. Man is exalted and the Lord is made incidental to worship.
*Active sermon listening was wonderfully displayed by the Puritans. For a full rundown of their practice of active sermon listening see Leland Rykens excellent Worldly Saints