Worshipping in spirit and production values

I had an e-mail today (as the “chief musician” of my church) from the organisation that licences worship music, headed “Enhance Your Worship With MultiTracks.” Coming off the back of recent leadership discussions after nearly a year of online lockdown virtual services, that seems worthy of comment.

My friend Chris, a kosher worship leader in the modern vein, told me a few years ago how trendy churches download the multitrack recordings of commercial Contemporary Christian Music albums, so that even if you only have Doug vamping along on a Casio keyboard, and Bethany singing slightly flat, you can still sound like a full Hillsong band, to the great delight of the listening congregation. Of course, it helps to have Pete doing the lighting effects, too, but maybe they’ll make those downloadable too, eventually, to enhance our worship even more.

You may sense a slight cynicism creeping through there. I’ve been playing music at my particular church now for eleven years, and we’ve mostly had very few musicians to draw from. There’s been me on acoustic guitar, a couple of keyboard players on a rota (often elderly), a few female backing singers not really into harmonisation, one sax player, and only recently a drummer. Since our only bass player is one of the pianists, we’ve usually missed out on that bottom end.

Lacking virtuosi and rehearsal time, the motto has generally been to play the stuff more or less right from the score so as not to get in the way of the congregation too much. Rather to my surprise, though, visiting speakers have often commented on the quality of the music, and I realised (and gradually deliberately inculcated as an ethos) that it was “simple food, cooked well.” Church is staple diet, not fine dining.

This agrees with a theology of communal worship, that it is the Holy Spirit dwelling amongst the very ordinary congregation that makes it truthful and honouring to God. By that I don’t mean ecstasy or being lifted out of normal rationality. Rather, as Ephesians 5:18-19 says, by speaking to each other in “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” and “singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord,” we are filled anew with the Spirit – that is, equipped to keep in step with him in the following week.

That goes along with the worship theology of 1 Corinthians 14, that the whole congregation (not just the leaders, still less something called “worship leaders”) brings its contributions to build up the body in Christ. Paul mentions psalms, teaching, revelations and similar verbal offerings, but the last year’s “virtual church” has taught us (I trust?) that the “chemistry” of personal association is a major part of it. That is why Hebrews 10:25 insists on our meeting together, world crises being an additional incentive, not a reason to stop. The very word for church, ekklesia, means “assembly.”

This ought to be obvious – and would be in any other age but one deluded by ubiquitous electronic media into an attenuated human experience. We are physical, social creatures, and that manifests through meeting. The shared “Amen” in prayers, the unconscious intake of breath across the room if a speaker hits an emotional mark, the physical sharing of loaf and cup, the corporate sense of approval or disapproval when one preaches well or badly, the dictation of a song’s pace by the congregation as well as by musicians, and much more that we take for granted because it is, or was, so familiar – these are what makes a real assembly more than the sum of the parts. Fellowship, koinonia, affects us physically, emotionally and cognitively – and in church, it affects us spiritually as well, because church is the meeting of those each endowed with a particular “portion” of the Spirit.

The secular field demonstrates this clearly enough. It is the difference between being part of a live concert and listening to a record. It is the difference between a robust parliamentary debate and discussing policies on Zoom. It is the difference between singing “You’ll never walk alone” at a Liverpool match, and that ersatz crowd noise they add to the inflatable spectators at locked down football matches (other examples include canned applause at empty snooker championships and recorded laughter on Zoom BBC panel games). Note carefully – in these latter cases, the “Let’s Pretend” crowd-responses only “enhance” the viewing experience because the events were essentially dead in the first place. Artificial ventilation is not abundant life.

As it happens, using multitracks live is part of my musical experience. For a couple of years I formed a band (whose output you can still sample here), in which as deliberate policy we created backing tracks simply to avoid the horrendous logistics and finances of fielding an eight- or nine-piece rather than a five-piece. The excuse was that I played all the extra instruments (though we invented joke-names and biographies for the imaginary bassist and drummer), so that at least audiences received the musicianship of the guys they saw on stage, and not some slick outfit in California.

But although by this means we got ourselves a decent and necessary rhythm section, the issue within the band was always that of preventing the backing tracks detracting from the live performance. We were constrained to exactly the same tempo and arrangement, whatever the mood. We couldn’t extend improvisation, or break into some other song or a jam. And there was always the fear that people would assume we were miming the stuff we’d practised hard for months.

This last year, in the long lockdowns between all-too-brief and constrained live worship, I confess I’ve multitracked songs that we’ve recorded for livestreamed services. We’re working on one at the moment – I await vocal and instrumental parts that others will add to basic tracks I’ve recorded and e-mailed them. Partly this is because church folks are currently doomed to listening passively rather than singing corporately, so some added instrumentation may compensate a little for that. But partly it’s simply because the church has decided to use commercial CCM recordings for most of the “worship songs,” and the contrast between that and our basic “egg and chips” versions would be just too stark. Although I maintain that, if we must have online services, the more home-grown they are, the more our minds will be able to “step into the illusion” through the imagination, and worship in some fashion.

For the last eight weeks, a few of us have managed to hold, legally, a small live service (most people appear to share SAGE’s fixed pessimism, or in a complicated way to think it’s unfair for Christians to meet for worship legally when the Scouts or the Pub-goers can’t). These services have enabled us to poll how our minimal band (keyboard/vocal, guitar/vocal, backing vocal + ad hoc PA), to which congregational singing is verboten, compares with hearing chart-topping Hillsong productions at home, where folks can sing as loud as they like. No prizes for guessing which alternative people prefer.

And so I’m pretty confident in saying that you will not enhance your worship one jot with multitracks, though you may increase the entertainment value of your church band and even persuade people that the mental effect of immersing yourself in professional production values has something to do with worshipping in the Spirit. And of course the corporate music business will profit, since Christian labels are subsidiaries of mainstream labels and owned (and therefore controlled) by corporations like Time Warner, for which they contribute a significant market share.

Yet one old lady plonking away on a piano with notes missing can take a congregation “into the heavenlies” if it’s a spiritual congregation. If the piano’s in tune, and the keyboardist fresh from the RCM and joined by a tight group of world-class musicians, that may be a plus – provided the musicians are simply contributing their best efforts to the fellowship in spirit and truth, and not performing their last, or next, album.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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