I Dream of Visual Worship
I sat down with a friend over coffee, and I heard it again.
“It sounds horrible, but sometimes I feel like going to church on Sunday is just wasting my time.”
I have to be gut-wrenchingly-honest and confess I know precisely what he means. Perhaps some of you reading this have been struggling with the same thoughts as well. You are not alone.
I have a deep love for the Church, and I dream of what the future holds for Her. But to me, the “Sunday morning thing” has become so predictable. (I’m thankful I can’t say this about my own church, Journey; something special and unique is happening among us right now. The same goes with the band I travel with regularly. I hope this is the case for you, too.) But as I watch online and travel all over the place, I see a lot. Forgive me for sounding jaded, but the contemporary model of a sermon following a set-list influenced predominantly by the top 25 songs on CCLI…well, this just doesn’t cut it for me anymore.
I realize this still seems to work for the majority of modern-day churchgoers, which is great! Please, don’t hear me say it’s not working anymore. But for me, contemporary worship has become predictable; it’s the new traditional.
This tension is very real for me because it’s my job to lead visual worship in contemporary settings. It dawned on me earlier this year that the way I lead worship doesn’t necessarily lead me in worship.
So when I dream about the future of visual worship, I dream about the future of the Church itself. I don’t dream of how many screens we can add, whether or not everyone will be using environmental projection, or how many more particles can be layered in a motion background.
Ultimately, I dream of going beyond the approach of finding cool “backgrounds” to play behind the song lyrics, and I dream of creating narratives which take the worshiper on a journey – in both musical and visual ways – to bring the idea of visual storytelling back into our liturgies.
I think we’re experiencing a major paradigm shift in the way corporate worship is designed. It’s been going on for decades, and it’s starting to reach our creative tribe of 20 and 30-somethings. Looking at this shift could inform us a little of where visual worship might be headed.
To begin, let’s take a look at where we are today. Here’s a snapshot of our current church culture, taken from Tim Keller’s new book, “Center Church“. He made a few general observations that caught my attention:
- Classical music and liturgy appeal to the educated. “High” cultural forms are those that, by definition, require training to appreciate. Liturgicals emphasize on the physical; the Eucharist is central.
- Traditional churches celebrate through revivals and emphasize on the mental; the sermon is central.
- Contemporary praise-and-worship approaches are far more likely to bring together a diversity of racial groups. Emphasis is on the emotional; music is central.
- Baby boomer families are highly attracted to seeker-sensitive worship and the more ahistorical, sentimental Christian contemporary songs. Emphasis is on the practical; theme is central.
- Young professional Anglos, especially of the more artistic bent, are highly attracted to the convergence of liturgical/historical with eclectic musical forms. Neo-liturgicals emphasize on the mystical; story is central.
I grew up in a Traditional Baptist church where the entire service orbited around the sermon. Faith leaned heavily into a mental relationship with Jesus. I’m very grateful for my upbringing and continue to find my anchor rooted in the Scriptures and the pursuit of Truth.
But it’s hard to convince Traditionals of the helpfulness and value of technology, art and visual imagery, which we Millennials enjoy so frequently. These congregations can appreciate visual beauty, but technology/media isn’t their heart language, so you have to be slow and sensitive. Visual worship still has a role to play in these churches, but its future does not lie here.
Then there’s contemporary worship with all of its many genres and styles. It’s important to note that contemporary churches are mostly responsible for the visual worship we experience today.
If contemporaries emphasize on the emotional, it’s no wonder why so many have embraced production, technology, and all forms of visual stimuli/eye candy. And because of this production movement, many of us are able to do what we do for a living. I’ve made a career of creating visual harmonies for today’s modern worship melodies. It’s been an amazing journey!
For many churches, there’s a lot of room for growth and expanding the canvas using technology: going HD, adding a triple-wide screens, implementing environmental projection, installing intelligent lighting, adding (or perhaps subtracting) the fog machine. Then there’s the journey of learning to use it tastefully and sparingly. There are a few well-worn paths that many are choosing to take. So, for many, much of their future will unfold here. But not for me.
Jeremy Bebgie recently shed some light on why a typical Sunday morning worship service can feel so predictable and lifeless to me.
“The emotional bandwidth of today’s worship music is very narrow.” (I heard Jeremy – my new hero – say this a few weeks ago at a conference.)
I would say the same goes for most of today’s worship media.
Most popular church media is simply a reflection of today’s popular church music. And while most of these songs are true, they don’t tell the whole Story. They revolve mostly around praise and celebration, so our “backgrounds” do too.
Where is the mystery? Where is the art? Where is the lament? Where is the silence? Where is the story? These are “spiritual scarcities”.
I dream of collaborating with musicians, artists, and pastors to tell the Story of God through the entire service – not just the sermon – and in artistic and eclectic ways that invite and gently guide the congregation on a journey filled with familiar expressions and unfamiliar spiritual scarcities. All to shape how we believe and live.
This is why the convergence of ancient liturgy with eclectic musical forms interests me so much. The historical approach of musically and visually designing a worship service as a story puts wind in my sails!
I’ve been talking to more and more worship leaders who are longing for this. And I bet most of us are more “mystical” than we care to admit. Our culture is evolving, so if you want a heads-up on what’s coming next (at least for some of us), pay close attention to this “neo-liturgical convergence”.
Perhaps we’re in the midst of a “Liturgical Reformation” of sorts. And the future of visual worship, for me, lies here.
Keller reminds us of something we shouldn’t forget as we explore, dream, and strengthen our (visual) worship:
“As you design your worship, you cannot naively assume you are ‘just being biblical’ about many things that are actually cultural and personal preferences. Think of who is in your community and skew your worship service toward them in all the places where your biblical theology and historic tradition leave you freedom.”
At the end of the day, let’s love our community more than our preferences. Visual worship can be experienced in many forms and cultures, so its future will not unfold in just one expression of church. As long as we are moving forward and deeper with Christ as the object of our affection, visual worship should have a bright future no matter where we find ourselves.