I should clarify my title. Worship itself, honoring the almighty God, has never made me sad. But, today's church service, congregational singing often does. In an age where we are putting more effort than ever into staging, multimedia, and expertly-coordinated worship bands, I fear we may have missed the point and lost something crucial: the beauty and joy of singing corporately in worship to our Savior.
A series of events brought me to this conclusion.
First, I attended the memorial service for a dear member of my childhood church, the parent of one of my best friends. Mr. Charles "Chuck" Aarup was a father and a working man - he repaired trucks, so you know he was big and strong. But despite his manly exterior, he was not a gruff man. He had a ready smile and friendly eyes that always gave me a wink. He led congregational singing at First Baptist Church in South Holland, not because he was the best singer, but because he knew how to stir up the crowd.
We had evening services at First Baptist. At 6 pm, we would crowd into the paneled, drop-ceiling sanctuary with its red padded pews. I would sit on the left with my mom, as my dad was playing piano. Once a month it would be "request your favorite hymn" night. Even at age 10, I was always prepared with my personal favorite, a hymn, "Pentecostal Power." Now we were not Pentecostal, but I loved the fiery words of that hymn. And Mr. Aarup always called on me, with a wink and a smile. Always.
As our songs were selected, we would sing out with enthusiasm - drowning the piano and organ. We sang hymn after hymn after hymn - sometimes for the entire service. And, when the night drew to a close, we would circle the auditorium and hold hands, singing "God Be With You Till We Meet Again." Mr. Aarup was not chosen to lead worship because he was a great singer - he was selected because he put the focus on Jesus and on pulling the congregation into the experience - no matter how out of tune we sang or how we may have sounded.
Those times of worship were beautiful to me.
Second, I watched a video that my colleagues brought back from their recent trip to Ghana. There are only a handful of people in the video, as the church service had just started. The Africans are wearing colorful clothing and dancing. Their faces are lit up with smiles. There is energy and excitement filling the room.
In one corner there is a circle of people dancing and singing. They are waving strips of cloth in time to the music. They are filled with infectious joy - and I'm sure the singing went on for longer than scheduled. It was lively, people were engaged, they were spilling over with love for God.
If you'd like to hear them for just a moment, enjoy this beautiful brief video clip of their service courtesy of John Walton.
Even through the tiny video screen on my Facebook page,
that time of worship was beautiful to me.
In the church my family attends, great care is put into planning the morning service. The stage is designed to reflect the theme of the current series. PowerPoint and video is used to supplement the message. But the singing, though beautiful and accompanied by a full band of 8 to 10 volunteers, leaves me feeling sad.
No one is singing. Well, not exactly no one. I look around and a few people are singing. But the majority are often staring straight ahead, muted, apparently waiting for the signal to sit down. They are listening to the stage show with little emotion. They are hearing the leaders sing passionately and the guitarists play. They are appreciating the music, certainly, but they are not joining in.
Why is worship falling flat in some of our churches? I think we have put the emphasis on what is happening on stage, and lost the emphasis on the experience of community. In our church, the lights are focused on the stage and the worship band. The microphones are turned up high. But instead of the high volume and low lighting encouraging audience participation, I think it kills it. It does prevent me from hearing how bad I might sound, but I also cannot hear anyone else singing (except the leader).
The congregational singing in our church is rarely infectious. It is never extended because the audience can't stop singing. It never calls out for audience participation, unless we are motioned to clap along. It is pre-planned, pre-packaged and extremely professional. In our efforts to impress, I think we have reduced the opportunity for ordinary singers like myself to join in fully, with our whole hearts.
Oh for joyful worship, how much I miss it.
To offer up my voice, as tone-deaf as it may be, in praise for the Savior - drowned out by the child on my left and the working man to my right. To want to sing hymn after hymn, without stopping. To hold a heavy hymn book or the hand of my neighbor. To forget the leader and the band and focus solely on Jesus.
That is beautiful to me.