This post is part of a 11 week blog series that highlights the many ways we worship the triune God.
The music fades, the lights go dark, and the room goes that strange relative quiet of a thousand people waiting for the next song to start. A purple light shines on the stage, and as the lead singer begins the first verse, the audience sings along - though not everyone knows every word. But all know the chorus, and when it comes, the crowd's thunderous participation threatens to drown out the music coming from the stage. Hands fly into the air, propelled by lights and sound and the happy rush of being part of something bigger than yourself, and we hear that old familiar tune:
“I know when that hotline bling,
that can only mean one thing.”
I'm talking, of course, about Drake's ubiquitous single, “Hotline Bling”, as performed on his “Summer Sixteen” tour. And the fact that I could very easily have been talking about the musical portion of a church service makes me wonder what the difference is between worshipping God through music, and putting on a show for a crowd. Is there really anything special about “worship music”? Or are we just trying to add Christian lyrics to the same emotional high that many of us experience at any decent concert? Does intentionally worshipping in our music really make any difference in the rest of our lives?
Adam Cormier plays drums at Westside Church regularly as part of the music team, and also drums in “Patriot Sail”, a guitar-driven indie rock band with a penchant for revamping old hymns. He also does some session work with various producers, and plays small tours with a jazz trio from time to time. He tends to close his eyes tightly and play with just enough intensity to make you suspect that he didn't grow up playing drums in church.
I NEVER FELT FULFILLED
Adam tells me that before he became a Christian, he played music full-time, drumming on tour with bands and recording albums. And yet, when the novelty of life on tour faded, he realized that he’d been missing something. “I never felt like the music had much meaning,” he explains. “I was playing generic love songs expressed in different ways, but I never felt fulfilled.”
And, he remembers, that’s when he walked by the open doors of Westside on a Sunday morning. “I asked the guy out front how much the show was. And he said it was a church! So I went in and listened, and I heard tons of emotion and substance and passion behind what was happening onstage, and that affected me. I ended up sitting through sermons, and learning about God. I wasn’t invested in the church by any means, I just wanted to listen to this music and figure out more about it. It started as a surface level experience and then just got deeper and deeper.”
MUSIC WITH PURPOSE
Only a couple of months later, Adam had auditioned for the music team. And as he started to use his gifts to express his love for Jesus, he found what he’d been missing on tour. “When I came to the church, I found music that had deeper meaning than a pop love song. It wasn't made just to make me or my band or my employer sound good, and it wasn't made to make money. All my years of practice and hard work feel more valuable when I play worship music because I'm playing for reasons that are bigger than just making money and getting famous."
“It's hard to put in that much honest emotion when I'm playing someone else's love songs. I can’t always relate. But I can relate to every song we sing at Westside because we're all here to worship the same God. Everyone singing has either experienced God, or is looking for Him; so when we sing worship music we can all tap into that common purpose, common thread. Common Person.”
Adam views this way of making music as a way to serve his church family. “Sometimes when I walk into church on a Sunday morning, there’s a lot of stuff happening in my head from the week and my mind is somewhere else completely. That first 15-20 minutes when we’re singing really causes me to focus and forget about those things. It prepares me for worship, but also to listen to the sermon.” Preparing others for worship is one of the ways Adam prays God will use his service on the music team.
He also prays while he’s onstage. “Man, the whole time that I’m drumming,” Adam smiles, “I’m constantly thanking God in my head, speaking with God. When I’m outside in the congregation, listening to worship, it’s a receiving experience for me. But when I’m onstage it’s a giving experience. I’m trying to remember what God’s done for me, which I guess is why I’m constantly thanking God when I’m up there. And that’s what I’m trying to emotionally give off from behind the drums. That’s prayer for me.”
PRACTISING GOD’S PRESENCE
Even someone as diligent with their practice time as Adam can’t spend all their time playing music. But Adam says that worshipping through music actually helps him worship in the rest of his life. “It’s like practising being connected with Jesus. If I’m thinking about how bad my week was while I’m playing worship music on a Sunday, the most emotional feedback the people are gonna get from me is how bad my week was. You can say the same sentence five different ways and it’ll mean five different things depending on which words you accent and your tone of voice. It’s the same thing with music. If I play that worship song with five different emotions, you can take five different things from that. If the whole band is thinking about something else and not Jesus, the most we can give everyone in the congregation is everything but Jesus. So while I’m worshipping, that’s what I’m trying to do. And it’s kinda awesome because I’m really practising that connection. So when I go to work the next day, I can remember what it’s like to be connected because I just practised it all Sunday. So then I’m able to worship while I’m at work.
“The more I play worship music, the more I practise being connected, the more I can be connected in my everyday life. They say that if you’re feeling down, you can force yourself to smile in a mirror, and actually become happier. When I force myself to think about Jesus and spend time with Jesus and worship Him, it becomes easier and easier in my everyday life to feel that connection.”
Ever wonder where the phrase, “lip service” comes from? Jesus called out the religious people of his day for going through all the right motions, but ultimately failing to worship in their hearts: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:8-9) Honouring God isn’t about putting on a show. And it certainly isn’t about conjuring up a particular set of emotions, which fade and have no lasting impact on their own. The people of Jesus’ time understood “heart” to mean the innermost centre of a person, not just the seat of their emotions.
1 Samuel 16:7 says, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” If God knows the truth of who we really are, we will never create enough emotion, or perform with enough excellence, or project enough authenticity, or stay true enough to tradition to fool Him into thinking our hearts are near to Him. But because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we can come to God saying, “Father, I’ll take you up on your offer. Take my sin, and put it on Jesus; and take Jesus’ perfect life, and put it on me.” If we’re in Christ like that, the pressure is off. We don’t have to work our way into being near God. Which means we can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence”, see His perfect goodness, and respond in joyful praise and thanksgiving. We can see His holiness and repent so deeply that we beg Him to help us turn from anything which doesn’t belong in the presence of His perfection. We can see His purpose for our lives and respond in humble obedience. And that’s what real worship is: a heart, soul, mind and strength response to the truth of who God is. That’s what makes worship music special: it’s a good way of getting all of those involved at once. Jesus said, “... the true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him.” (John 4:23-24)
As Adam has experienced, music can become a performance that’s all about expressing ourselves and bringing out certain feelings -- but when we are aware of God’s presence, worship music is a way of responding to that small taste of His glory. It can help us to humble ourselves before God, and enjoy Him, and practise being in His presence. May God give us the grace to worship in our music, and in all the rest of life. May we see Him for who He is, and remember what He has done for us, and be drawn to worship Him - not just outwardly, but “in spirit and in truth”.
Chris Pulsifer attends the Vancouver campus and co-leads a Community Group. He also serves on the sound team at Westside and writes music for films sometimes.