About ten years ago, recording artist Fernando Ortega (who, incidentally, has a new CD coming out in October) provided an interview to Prism Magazine in which he discussed the state of music and worship in the church. It’s worth rereading from time to time. The interview introduces Ortega as "something of an oddity in “contemporary” Christian music. An acclaimed worship leader in the evangelical community, he eschews hype, distrusts emotionalism and jettisons mindless repetition of catch phrases and buzz words in favor of careful, substantive reflection. He also writes real songs for contemporary worship, insisting with Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts and Martin Luther that the collective worship of the church must be, at once, decidedly beautiful, graciously evocative of our shared humanity, deeply personal and rooted in sound theological reflection."
Here’s one of the questions and answers in the exchange:
PRISM: How have your experiences as a “worship leader” affected your understanding of what “worship” ought to be and look like?
FO: “Worship leader” is an odd term, isn’t it? I wonder where it came from. Perhaps the greatest service that working in so-called “seeker-sensitive” churches offered me was to help me define what worship was not. From there I could begin to ponder what it is. Of course, a discussion on worship would have to go way beyond the subject of music, as worship is multifaceted and encompasses the whole life of the Christian. But since we are talking about music, I’ll stick to that. Music in many contemporary American churches is seen as strictly utilitarian, and the purposes it serves run the gamut. Sometimes it is used for nothing nobler than to give the congregation a chance to stand up and stretch or go to the bathroom before they settle in for the sermon. More often, it is a “set-up” or a punctuation mark for the sermon, or worse, a prelude to the dreaded “drama team.” In such a context, even the greatest music is reduced to nothing more than propaganda or filler. Working in churches like that, I have felt the degradation most acutely. It weighed on me heavily for years, although I didn’t know why.
Each aspect of a worship service must work and have value in and of itself. The hymn that speaks unself-consciously of God’s greatness or mercy or forgiveness causes the believer to worship and the unbeliever to confront an aspect of God with which he is not reconciled. The reading of the Law and the Gospel causes the believer to respond in thankfulness and brings conviction to the unbeliever through the Holy Spirit. But both aspects must be unfettered by each other, otherwise each becomes diluted by its task in the overall picture.
The worship service must be an intimate affair, where the clergy and parishioner are wholly consumed with the adoration of God, not with whether the attending pagan is “getting it” or not. So many churches put on weekly variety shows that end up being a distraction from God, rather than an arena in which a person experiences God. The concern, of course, is that the visiting seeker not be “offended” by a confrontation with the mysterious, living, holy, almighty, judging and redeeming God, but rather feel totally comfortable and at ease. A ridiculous notion, when you think about.