Just as I Am… A Jesus Machine

Just found out today that there is an often unspoken of tug-of-war game between traditional churches and modern churches, the sole factor in determining which is which being the style of worship, or music. If you sing out of the hymn book, you’re a traditional backwoods, suit-and-tie-only, pseudo-Baptist geezer who would sooner sing the middle verse of a hymn than have to listen to Hillsong for two seconds. And if your worship team has dumbed down every song it plays to three or four chords and banished the church organ and its player to exile, you’re in a modern church.

If you have a choir, you’re traditional. Modern churches have worship teams. Traditional doesn’t need a projector, because the words are all in a book right in front of them. Modern, you may or may not have the words displayed up front, but it doesn’t matter because everyone knows every single word of every song David Crowder ever wrote. Modern has the lights turned down and the fog machine running full speed… Traditional guys save any smoke effects for the BBQ after church.

Traditional churches don’t have worship leaders, because their pastors can sing, always and without exception. Even if they can’t, they do. Modern churches do have worship leaders because our pastors took one listen to Amanda Cook’s high notes and said no way on God’s green earth. If the pastor does try to sing, it’s okay to make fun of him. Just smile and nod, then hand him the projector remote and tell him to stick to preaching. In a traditional church, the pastor’s wife will play piano. Even if she never took a music lesson a day in her life, the moment the church doors open to her husband for his leadership, she will play piano. And yes, she will play the same hymn every Sunday the first six months. And you will sing along and compliment her after the service, because that’s what traditional worship is. The wife of the modern pastor may or may not be musically inclined. If she is, that’s okay. But be warned that she will also play piano too, but usually in keyboard form, because keyboards can be tweaked and adjusted to sound like synthesizers. If she sings, it may not sound good. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. She will eventually learn a song that she sings really well, and the congregation will react by standing up or lifting their hands… But make sure you really, really like it before you do this, because this is the song she will be singing for the next nine thousand Sundays in a row. If your eye starts to twitch, put your head down and pretend to pray. We can pray during the music in a modern church. Don’t try this in a traditional church, or else the lady who sits behind you, who by the way was ten years older than Moses when you were a kid, will tell everyone you were sleeping. You know that lady. She probably wears a hat big enough to serve chips on, and always sings about five steps higher than everyone else. Or as she calls it, harmonizes.

In a traditional church, no mess-ups are heard. The singer could start singing Just As I Am while the instruments play I’ll Fly Away, and no one will know. You know why? Because in a traditional church, sure, the hymns all have five hundred chords, and that’s just for the refrain. But every song has the same five hundred chords. In a modern church, forget that dream. You hit an A minor in How He Loves where it should be an E minor, and you might as well have broken a commandment. That’s some serious stuff. There’s no mercy in a modern church. You screw up all you want in a traditional church and still need a rake to bring in all the compliments. No gospel song is off limits. As long as Patsy Cline or Sandy Patty didn’t do it, it’s fair game. But you go into a modern church and try to sing Hillsong, you’d better know what you’re doing. There is no mercy for the guy who butchers a Hillsong original. None.

In a traditional church, the songs have been picked out almost a week in advance. And we know that, because the church program or bulletin for Sunday morning gets printed out the Monday before. You know what songs you’re singing, the page number, the key, and book before you ever flop down in the pew. You ever see the lady who bends the corners of pages in the hymn book down before service? She’s not a prophet. She’s got a program. And even though there will be four minutes of fumbling between each song while everyone gets to the right page, she wants to take “Prepare the way” to a new level. This won’t affect you much in a modern church, unless you’re actually part of the worship team. You will need to learn the meaning of the word “tentative,” because that means your worship leader reserves the right to look over at you at any point during the worship and say, “I know this song isn’t on the list, but…” And the song may or may not be in your book, much less on any list. If by chance it is not, and you can’t play by ear, turn your guitar/bass/keyboard all the way down, and act like you’re playing. If the worship leader or pastor gives you the I-can’t-hear-you look, give them the innocent hey-me-either shrug. You’ll be fine. If you play drums, just remember… When in doubt, hat-hat-hat-snare, hat-hat-hat-snare. Repeat as needed.

If you ever find yourself lost because the leader has decided to change the music and does not warn you or write the new chords in, don’t panic. You can either keep playing what’s on the paper, or mute yourself. Proceed to the shrug. If you’re in a music group rather than a church, most rules still apply. But always be aware of your surroundings. You do not want to go into a General Baptist church singing “Water You turned into wine…” You also should be cautious entering a modern church and singing, “Give me that old time religion.” And you should never, never, ever do Misty Edwards’ anything on a first visit. Convince the people you love them before you start singing, “You said He won’t even respond, you said He’s dead and gone…”

Here are the last few words of wisdom I’ll shed on worship:  If you’re more traditional, you like to camp in Canaan’s happy land because He lives and made the lame to walk again and caused the blind to see, and you can’t even walk without Him holding your hand, then more wonder-working power to you. But if you know He’s jealous for you, He changed you from the inside out, your soul cries out, you want Him to open the floodgates of heaven and He makes you brave, then you just go ahead and stand in awe of the One who gave it all. We can poke some friendly fun at the churches on the other side of the coin, and that’s okay. I truly believe that there will be oldies and newbies in heaven’s music hall of fame. But I also believe the one who really gets to laugh at all of this is God, and how silly His kids are when they start to believe the worship was ever about them. “But, we should be able to get into it too, right?” Nope. “I can’t get into that old/new junk.” So? “You can’t create an environment for the Spirit if the people aren’t into the music.” I had no idea I was that important, that if my heart wasn’t into the song, God would just sit out. “I can really feel the anointing behind this song.” Wonderful! Blare it in the car. “I can’t get into the worship at my church.” Good thing it’s not about you. Otherwise, we’d just have to rearrange our whole Sunday program.

To my fellow musicians and singers and artists out there, can I just take a huge burden off of you right now, and tell you that you never, ever have to worry about the approval of the congregation? Worship was never about them. It’s become some big dirty secret that we put a band-aid over and just forgot about, but it’s a freeing truth. Worship is NOT about what people can “get into.” Forget that mess. From this moment forward, you get to make music for the approval of One. For us, worship does become a public act, and it creates pressure it was never meant to create. When I write a song, it’s just me and God. When I play those songs for people, the only thing really going on is that I’m worshipping God, and people get to listen in. Some even join me, and that’s awesome. But if I ever became a performer, I would want God to rip the guitar out of my hands.

I think we get wrapped up in what sounds good, and what makes a good altar call song, or a good Easter song, or a good whatever song, and it becomes too easy to block out the original Composer who just wants us to worship Him. Think about that… You’re writing music for the God who created sound. No pressure. If you’re a fan of the old hymn book, be a fan. And if you wake up in the morning to “Give me, like, half a marathon, I’ll give you the gospel of St. John…” that’s cool, too. You can be in the shower rapping that you’re “turnt,” and whatever color you are, you rap like a boss because that’s your heart. Seriously, one of the truest musical hearts I’ve ever had the honor of meeting was a rapper in Knoxville, and he’s working his way up to LaCrae level as we speak. Seriously, look him up. Brent Veal, Lord’s Disciple. (And mark the date here so I can say I knew him before he was cool and famous.)

So, family in Christ, stop the madness. Because whether you “prefer” Bill Gaither or MannaFest, only God’s preferences matter. And when it comes to a worship style, the only thing He prefers is your heart.

Disclaimer:  This isn’t geared towards any one church, religion, denomination, or artist… Unless you count the one time we played “Water You turned into wine…” at a Baptist church. And I’d do it again, because that was funny. Pastor’s wife can sing, pastor can almost sing, and yes… We have a projector. Think I could talk them into a fog machine? Start singing Fix My Eyes, and crank that bad boy. …Okay, maybe just a metronome.

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