Thursday, May 30, 2013

Soccer, Singing and Worship

One reason I'm increasingly drawn to football, or soccer if you prefer, is the purity and simplicity of the game. Two goals, a ball, and ninety minutes of pretty much continuous play without the incessant interruptions and time-outs of the American big three sports. This simplicity extends to football fan culture as well. For example, attend a match at any of the storied grounds of English football and you'll hear none of the amped up artificial noise and music that attends your average NBA or NFL game. Instead of Queen's "We Will Rock You!" blasting from the PA, you'll hear chants rooted in local history and tradition -- admittedly some of them obscene. And best of all you'll hear thousands of voices, mostly male, breaking into spontaneous song.

Don't take this the wrong way ladies, but there's something uniquely powerful when men sing together. Maybe because it rarely happens? In a culture where male stoicism is the norm, the football stadium (or the pub next to the stadium) has become the only place where men feel comfortable emoting and singing with abandon. Here in America groups like the American Outlaws bring their passion and voices whenever the U.S. National Team plays, and go to Portland or Kansas City and you'll experience an atmosphere as good as any you'll find in Europe or South America.

So what does this have to do with worship? The beautiful thing about the fan culture of the beautiful game is that it's mostly resisted the tendency toward artificial emotional manipulation which turns participants into observers. Unfortunately the church in America has been less successful at resisting this trend. Often congregational worship is more like a concert than a participatory expression of praise of the one being in the universe that's worthy of unadulterated adoration. Sometimes the practice of worship gets lost in the noise.

Here's a quote from James K.A. Smith's "Open Letter to Praise Bands" which should be required reading for worship leaders.

If we, the congregation, can't hear ourselves, it's not worship. Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular "form of performance"), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there's nothing wrong with concerts! It's just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice--and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of "performing" the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can't hear ourselves sing--so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become "private," passive worshipers.

All this isn't to say that any particular worship style is the right one or that amplified instruments in church are bad. It is to say that the best instrument for making a joyful noise -- whether at a football match or church service --  is the human voice. As cool as it is hearing supporters singing in praise of a football club, it can't compare to hearing voices in the local church singing with passion in praise of Jesus.

While I'm on the subject -- check out this clip from Alistair Begg going off on why American men don't sing in church.

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