In this series, we’re applying the concept that “the medium is the message” to our modern church services. Last time I said that every form of communication has an embedded message that can’t be separated out. The challenge is that we get used to our forms of media and start to think our content is all we’re communicating to our audience.
According to Jesus “… all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) So I think it’s fair to ask the question – do our stages, lights and cameras exalt us or humble us? Remember, we’re not talking about content yet, just the message inherent to the form of communication. I think it’s practically a rhetorical question: by their nature, stages, lights and cameras exalt people. So, if we’re teaching people about Jesus from the platform, there is going to be a real tension between the form of communication and the content.
So is that it, then? Should we knock down our stages, turn off all the lights and dress in giant brown paper bags? As much as I would love a career shift to the fast-food industry (my only other real option) I do have some ideas to share.
But first a history lesson.
“Church as rock concert” is a recent phenomenon. Rock music got started in the 1950s and the church spent several decades demonizing it before some pastors decided they could reclaim this “devil’s music” for higher purposes. People did a lot of odd things in the seventies and I’m not blaming the drugs. [cough]
As you’d expect, the first attempts were clumsy and funny to look back on, but those early “rock churches” felt the tension between message and the content – and they owned it.
For me, this happened in the late eighties. At age nine I became an Advisor to the Volunteer Associate Pastor of Junior Program Development (also known as a PK) at the church my Dad planted in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. We met in a school cafetorium devoid of hymnals and rocked out choruses with an electronic keyboard and – get this – bass guitar! I was the first person at our church to use a distorted electric guitar in a worship song (circ. 1995), so I can assure you that we confronted a lot of people’s assumptions about church. I have the scars to prove it.
But we were careful. Those three power chords I hit my pedal for during the bridge to “Power Of Your Love” were discussed ahead of time and reviewed in the Sunday post mortem – by which I mean the van ride home – and beyond. In the nineties, we absolutely knew there were messages built into our forms of communication and they informed our service planning in a major way. It was a constant tension.
As years went by “rock church” became more and more popular. At some point it became the normal thing churches did. I got a job in Oklahoma as a church Tech Director – a career that basically didn’t exist 30 years ago! And as video production and concert technology became easier to use and afford we incorporated more and more from pop culture and thought less and less about the implications. We got used to the messages embedded in our forms of communication.
A few years ago at our Oakville site we confronted this issue head on. We have an incredible production team that can pull off some crazy stuff at a very high level every week. We had pushed the envelope and confronted a lot of assumptions about church. After all, we are a church for people that aren’t into church, so that’s the kind of thing we’re into. But some of our leaders came to the realization that, unintentionally, we were sending conflicting messages in our Sunday production. I say “some of our leaders” because it took me a long time to come around to it. But I did. And that was a good thing because we had to make some course corrections.
Without getting into the technical details, the message we were sending was
“We have talented people here to sing for you. And, for your viewing pleasure we have placed them on a stage, lit them up and magnified them onto our giant screens. There’s no need to sing along because nobody can see or hear you. Enjoy the show!”
Of course, this wasn’t what we were saying from stage and it wasn’t what we meant. Far from it! We were curating corporate worship the best way we knew how and when people didn’t singing along, when they seemed disconnected or complained we kept trying to make it better. If we could just get the mix more consistent from week to week, if we could just nail the spotlight cues on the guitar solos a little faster then people would get the message. The problem was, people were getting the message. And that’s why they weren’t singing.
So we changed the message. Dramatically. We brought audio levels down, we stopped using IMAG (cameras on screens) during music, we turned off the hazer, we brought the house lights way up and we stopped spotlighting one band member over another. That’s a whole lot of stops. Painful stops. But we included one very important start. We asked people to join in.
Now, armed with brighter house lights, even stage lighting and lower volumes our production said,
“This will be awkward at first, but we want you to sing with us.”
And our song leaders said basically those same words from the stage. We opened up our song arrangements to give big spaces for the crowd’s voices to take over. Our message and our content took a big step toward alignment and, bit by bit over a couple months, people started to engage. The singing got louder.
That’s a bit of our story. Like any experiment in church style, it’s a moving target. We’ve changed some things since then and have more evolving to do soon, but it was a healthy refocus for us at the time. Check back with me in five years and we won’t look like this. Check back with me at my retirement party and I doubt either of us could have predicted what our services would look like!
What I’ve learned is that some tension with culture is a good thing. Relevance and imitation are not the same thing and the space in-between should be open for debate. I’m not itching to defend the use of my Metal Zone pedal in a power worship ballad, I’m not looking to be scolded for moving my guitar headstock too much at the end of a song. What I am saying is let’s talk about it. Let’s ask some of the questions we asked ourselves when we started down the “rock church” road. Let’s explode our assumptions. Let’s look for some loving criticism and take it seriously.
I had planned to solve the world’s problems in three practical steps, but sharing some of my story was closer to my heart this week. I’ll post next time with some more useful advice on how to navigate “The Message of the Stage”. In the meantime I would love to hear about your own experience, so please comment!