Sonic Idolatry?

Posted May 27, 2014 @ 4:26pm | by Tripp

On a recent Facebook post, Tanya Ritches tackled the issue of “performancism” as related by Jamie Brown from his blog, Worthily Magnify. Performancism is the habit of treating a worship leader as a performer rather than a facilitator of congregational worship. The thread on Tanya's page was lively. People have all kinds of passionate opinions about this subject. I’ve been musing on it for a while and want to share an idea or two. But first, let me share two quotations from Worthily Magnify. Follow the links for more.

“I picked up on a common theme. It’s been growing over the last few decades. And to be honest, it’s a troubling theme. And if this current generation of worship leaders doesn’t change this theme, then corporate worship in evangelicalism really is headed for a major crash. It’s the theme of performancism. The worship leader as the performer. The congregation as the audience. The sanctuary as the concert hall.”


“We can go down the road towards performancism and find ourselves with congregations who come to observe the actions of the select few on the platform, hearing words and seeing sights that have little lasting impact on their life, with worship leaders building their little worship kingdoms.”

The two quotations outline the issue rather well. Of course, those of us from traditions that have not yet embraced the contemporary worship formula know very well that one doesn’t need a spotlight or a screen to have the same problems. All you need is a choir loft. Really, all you need is a musician.

None of this is new.

Thus, it's not about a musical style. It's about so much more than style.

So, let’s not throw these communities under the liturgical bus.

I have served churches (both as a musician and a pastor) where the choir was the center of the worship life of the congregation; where the pastoral ministry was subservient to the music program. I have been in folk services where the dude with the guitar (and it's usually a dude) is told again and again just how much their "performance" matters to the people, that without them the church would fold. It is a curious and revealing kind of praise.

We stand these people in front of us on a stage (acoustics matter, too) and give them attention in some way. We throw money at the musicians or the programs.

We laud the "professional" musician. Do we silence ourselves in the process?

Again and again, I think John Blacking was on to something when he wrote about the trouble of "professionalized" music making in various cultures. Some of us have convinced ourselves that only a small number of people in our communities are capable of making music. I agree with Blacking that this is a spiritual ailment.

So, I wonder if we have we made such an idol of songs and the singers that we can no longer approach The Divine without somone making music for us? Have we turned liturgical music-making into the sonic version of “occular communion," a practice where witness is our only form of participation?

Are we saying, “I am not worthy to sing your praise, O Lord”?

So, here are some things I would like to consider:

What is the roll of listening in worship?

What of this conflict is the result of an unhealthy liturgical iconoclasm?

What of this conflict is the result of sonic idolatry?

I believe that making music is an eschatological practice. It is a way of sounding forth the Kingdom of God. Like visual icons are windows into heaven, their sonic counterparts are a means of sounding and hearing The Kingdom.

John’s strange letter to the seven churches, Revelation, is about a vision, but the vision starts with a sound, “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet” (Rev. 1:10). There is a sound. Again and again there are songs and trumpets. 

Can it be that the sounds of worship, those we make ourselves and those made on our behalf, are revelatory?

Thus, the sounds and those who make the sounds are muted to reveal The Kingdom of God with us. Their beauty sounds the Kingdom With Us, the God, Immanuel. We sound God. 

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