In the last couple of weeks, capsule I’ve had more than one person say something to this effect:
Contemporary worship music is emotionally manipulative.
And it’s true. The question is whether or not manipulation is necessarily a bad thing.
As many of you know, stuff I’ve been attending an Anglican church in this last academic school year (see my posts on my Adventures in Anglicanism). Through this, I’ve come to reorient myself to speak of worship as the entire service, rather than just the music portion. So, in what follows, I’m going to try to be careful to say ‘worship music’ and not ‘worship.’
This particular church is fairly traditional in its choice of songs, though it has attempted on several occasions to bring in some more contemporary hymns.
I’m not anti-hymn. Hymns, when done well, are extremely powerful. But there has been more than one occasion in which I can’t help but wonder if they’re so concerned with being ‘reverent’ in how they play the songs that they lose the emotion and feel of the hymn. On several occasions, the solemnity with which they have played the processional hymn, for example, has managed to turn it into a funeral dirge.
But at least they’re not being emotionally manipulative.
I popped into seminary chapel last week. There, they were doing some fairly standard ‘evangelical’ praise music. It started with just the guitar and lead vocal. By the chorus, the keyboard and backup vocalists had joined in. At the end of the song, the instruments dropped off, and only the voices sang. There was movement in the music, and the team created a sense of awe of wonder and excitement. I was emotionally manipulated. My hands were raised. My eyes were closed. In that moment, my emotions were driving my worship.
And it was a good thing. I hadn’t realized how dry I was. I hadn’t realized how, in the last couple of months, my worship had become all about my head. There had been no heart in my worship.
25 years ago, Les Miserables opened in London, and was roundly panned by critics for being ’emotional drivel.’ The producers, upon hearing the reviews, were gearing up to pull the plug. They called the box office to find out how many refunds were being issued for tickets. They couldn’t get through. Finally, they got through. The entire run was sold out! The audiences had loved it. The ’emotional drivel’ was, for the audience, an ’emotional connection.’ In a short time, the production moved to the West End, and then around the world. 25 years later, a sold-out concert at the O2, broadcast on PBS and available on DVD, continues to evoke a strong emotional response from viewers. Fans know that, when that final round of “Do You Hear the People Sing” starts, their hearts swell, and they leave the theatre with a song on their lips and their toes tapping. It doesn’t matter that the play ends with most of the heroes dead, and the revolution squashed. For a brief time, the audience entered into a story, connected with characters, and were changed by the experience.
So it is with worship music. For a brief time, we enter into the story of redemption, and are transported into the throne room of God, joining the saints and angels in praising and proclaiming the awesomeness of the Lamb. The music lifts us out of our day to day busyness and compels us to be changed, even if only for a little while.
I left the seminary chapel with a song in my heart, and found myself spontaneously worshiping God throughout the rest of the day, singing snippets of different praise songs and hymns at the most random of times.
So did the contemporary worship music emotionally manipulate me? Yep. And that was a good thing.