Amplified Versions

Worship wars come down to music and a power plug.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, April 22, 2002 (vol. 46, no. 5), p. 86.

If I could nominate one phrase to be left in the dust of the 20th century, it would be the one that launched a thousand committee meetings: contemporary worship. The truth is that any worship practiced by contemporary people, no matter how ancient its form, is contemporary. And any worship, no matter how simple its structure, draws on tradition, such as the American tradition of prayer-and-song services that goes back to the revivals of the early 19th century.

No, the real distinction between “contemporary” and “traditional” worship comes down to music and a power plug. The genres of music that we now call “contemporary” are dependent on amplification for their very existence. Neither bone-crushing electric guitar solos nor intimately breathy love songs could exist without electrically powered support systems. While Pavarotti sometimes uses a discreet microphone, and pop stars sometimes go “unplugged,” the essence of contemporary music is electric.

Amplified worship can trump the most forbidding medieval liturgy in its capacity to stun churchgoers into a passive stupor.

A vocal minority of North American Christians is fiercely opposed to amplified music in worship. I am not one of them, even as a musician trained in the Western classical tradition. After all, I studied Latin and Greek in college, too, but they are not my native language. Amplified music is the mother tongue of our day, and I’m never quite as at home as when I’m immersed in its cornucopia of rhythmic and melodic delights. And if amplified worship conjures up painful memories of amateur, three-chord guitarists banging out repetitive choruses, unamplified worship has caused plenty of pain itself. Shaky amateur choirs, repetitive anthems, musically numb organists—need I go on?

The truth is that amplified worship’s most celebrated practitioners bring an astonishing level of excellence to their electric guitars and 28-piece drum sets. They are even reintroducing the art of improvisation to worship at a level that hasn’t been heard for centuries—in white churches, anyway. At its best, amplified music is to sound what a cathedral is to stone: an expression of the timeless longing to build something greater than ourselves, pointing to Someone greater still.

But I am troubled by many amplified worship services. Next time you’re in one of these settings, watch and listen to the congregation. Get ready for the sound of silence. If the sheer volume of amplified worship is like a sonic cathedral, it can also trump the most forbidding medieval liturgy in its capacity to stun churchgoers into a passive stupor.

Cynics compare these services to rock concerts, but rock concert audiences participate with a fervor that would put most congregations to shame. They dance with abandon, they scream, they hold up lighters, they even bring offerings—homemade signs, flowers, undergarments. In the face of amplified worship, most congregations don’t do much more than clap, close their eyes, and sway a little. Especially among self-styled “postmodern” churches, which like to turn down the lights and turn up the sound, two-thirds of the people could keel over and the band would play on. When you can’t hear yourself singing, why even try?

Singing used to flourish in Protestant churches for a theological reason. Protestants believed and taught the priesthood of all believers. But today we are witnessing the rise of a new priesthood—the ones with the (literal) power. Armed with microphones and amps, gleaming in the multi-hued brilliance of spotlights, the amplified people do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: make music, offer prayers, approach the unapproachable.

It’s not surprising that many churches have reverted to this pre-Reformation state. Most believers never wanted to be priests. “Meet your Maker” is a euphemism for death; why do we think that people will be eager to do it on Sunday night? Much better to let a priest do the dirty, dangerous work of relating directly to God through sacrifice and prayer. Even singing, that original music that rises from the center of the body, makes us self-conscious. With recorded music so omnipresent and music education so scarce—it was cut from public schools when today’s young adults were children—the idea of making one’s own music is as foreign to a contemporary American as the idea of a personal relationship with the gods was to a pagan.

To their credit, many of the amplified priests are troubled, as faithful priests have always been, by the lassitude of their people. But what are they to do? When they turn up the volume, when they play more brilliantly, the crowds grow. The crowds, meanwhile, go home satisfied. They have seen a great show. And unlike a rock concert, it didn’t cost them a thing.