Jimi Hendrix and Hypocrisy

Pro Tip: If you’re ever looking to start an argument with church people over something practical, bring up stage presence, and watch things escalate.

From the congregation’s perspective, I’m sure that it can sometimes feel as though their band’s leadership has an eccentric set of concerns. For example, if you asked my dad, he’d probably say that most electric guitarists are in a contest to see whose pants can get the tightest. Other congregants may feel like their band is trying to see just how close their volume can get to mass hearing loss without getting them in trouble. As valid as both of those feelings are, the practice of preparing an excellent set of musical worship can sometimes be won or lost in minute details, some of which are less able to be directly noticed by congregants as much as they are able to be unconsciously “felt.” One such detail has been referred to as “posture of worship,” or “the evidence of the outpour of our heart,” but I’d rather cut to the chase and just call it stage presence.

Just so everyone knows where my biases are on this, I’m a mover. When I play music, my whole body moves in ways that I’ve come to realize are rarely intentional. Musical friends have had many a laugh talking about the hilarity that ensues any time I attempt to make consonant sound, and truly, any extraneous movement on my part is just the by-product of trying play my parts correctly and engage with the song. To be clear, I am really saying that I will always look as foolish as I do whenever I play my instrument, a quirk that makes me easily relatable to those with a Pentecostal background, but sometimes a little unnerving to the Reformed kids with whom I tend to make the most music.

As funny as it is to remark upon a persons “stage quirks,” we do really seem to get hung up on the way that our bands look when leading worship, and not always in a super intuitive way. When we boil down our expectations, we’re often left with a couple contradictory ideals.

We:

Want our band to be as “invisible” as possible. They should lead the song in a way that makes it comfortable for the congregation to sing, but should remove any visual or sonic distractions that would keep any congregant from engaging fully with the truth of the lyrics.

But, we also:

Want our band members to be exemplary worshipers, leading our congregants as much by the posture that they set on stage as they do in their expressed leadership. Band members should be pictures of the joy that is expressed in the songs they lead, as both a visual and sonic expression of the truth of the lyrics.

The hardest part about this dualist expectation is that no one should ever want to sacrifice either of the components, and for good reason. We want to point 100% percent of the focus on our God, AND we want to engage with and lead our people, as examples of what musical worship should look like. Thus, the question inside every worship team member’s head actually looks less like

“Should I worship God authentically in my musical worship this week, or should I be a self-gratifying rock star jerk?”

and more like:

“How can I effectively lead my people in musical worship in a way that creates an environment in which Jesus is made un-ignorable, while simultaneously fostering unity and a spirit of familial joy?”

I’ll be the first to admit that this question is super tough to answer.  Ultimately, every conversation about how worship teams should behave on stage is drawn towards the concept of authenticity. A common piece of advice I hear is that any physical, outward expression of worship (i.e. hand raising) is fair game, “as long as you’d do the same thing by yourself in your room.” This seems like a fine way of mediating between what’s authentic and what isn’t, but lets be honest here: we don’t want that female vocalist to raise her hands when she goes into the bridge of that song we like if she’s not really in awe of the love of God for her, but somehow we still expect her to raise her hands every single Sunday.

When Jimi Hendrix ended his performance of “Wild Thing” by (among other things) lighting his guitar on fire during the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, there was no doubt of the moment’s raw authenticity. However, as more and more bands bash their instruments to pieces, or bleed on stage, or say “you were the best audience ever,” those moments starts to lose their zing. The same is true in the context of musical worship, as any outward expression of engagement with the truth in the song will ultimately face skepticism as the frequency of said outward expression increases. That’s completely valid, and it sucks that we cant assure the authenticity of every piece of the stage presence that a worship team member employs.

It also sucks that we cant assure the authenticity of our own belief when we tell our kids that they are special and loved in God’s eyes when we cant believe it with any consistency ourselves. It sucks when we have to remind ourselves that God is in control even when things feel chaotic. It sucks to be hypocrites.

We do, however, belong to a God who completely understands our frailty. He knows that believing is hard, that authenticity is hard, and that worship of any kind is complicated and hard to manage. He sees our deficiencies and our hypocrisy, and he invites us to lean into his everlasting sufficiency. Sometimes our worship will be authentic, and sometimes it won’t, regardless of whether we find ourselves in the seats or on the stage, but the object of our worship is eternally unwavering.

Assume the best. Ask hard questions. Lean in. You are loved.

Ian