Utility versus Beauty: When the bottom line invades our worship

In our society, what works and produces profit is what we value. While we hunger for a post-modern identity and story, the structures, all around us scream utility, conformity and results. Money rules. This might even be true in our houses of worship as we may have unintentionally turned business metrics on our expression of worship. The question is this: do we value utility more than beauty in our worship? The answer is that our culture-infused church in modern America apparently does.

How does this look in our churches today? I think there are some clear values that have to be identified and questioned in order for us to face the challenges ahead of us. These invaders into our worship expression are so tied to our culture that they might be hard to spot at first. But, I challenge you to take a look and open your eyes to the “why” that drives the “how” in our worship.

Is worship music as a marketing tool a bad idea?

Whether it’s the person or the style or the production, the position of a church in a marketing sense today is the music or musical leaders. Their ability to resonate with the desired group and draw them into your church is what is measured. Simply, butts in seats added is the metric, not the spiritual content, leadership skill, or beauty of the music.

If pushing “play” to a track will draw the crowd, then so be it. The trend in recent years has been to brand your church by music style. Techno tracks or banjo folk are chosen with the hope to draw a specific group of people. When the right people like what music is on the on the platform then that is the win. Or, is it?

In this go-go-getter world, we push creativity out and end up with lizard-brain copying of the ideas of successful churches. Where is the critical thought to what is behind the ideas we copy? Do we ask? Do we dig? Creativity needs a story. Results demand output. While we need to be aware of results, are we measuring the most important foundations that build our worship? If heresy draws a crowd, we should at least balk at the idea, for instance. Of course, we need to identify our own values first before we can filter innovation. Sometimes, it seems we rather not ask about what we are doing as long as it works.

Are the songs we are singing in line with our theology? 

Speaking of heresy, the idea behind the music is important. While in secular music the ideas can be hidden or mysterious, singing creeds or prayers are more concrete in nature—even if our God himself is mysterious and transcendent. We ask of sacred music a sense of purpose and clarity in the context of mystery. This provides an actual space for beauty as we reinforce the more concrete tenets of faith.

In these guardrails of theology, history and practice the worship has space for beauty because utility has been put in its proper place. Without clarity, the lowest-common-denominator becomes the metric. It is all we have left to evaluate with. Ironically, something avant-garde is less creative without a clear purpose.

Beauty loses to this lack of foundation and thought in order to chase results. I notice often that churches will borrow a song from a movement that has an opposing theology. Let’s say it’s like a Reformed Presbyterian singing songs from a Wesleyan tradition because it moves their people or it has popularity with larger or growing churches. How important is our theological, historical and local identity to our worship expression? Or, are we looking for exterior cues that tell us people are worshipping? Where are the songs birthed that we sing at our church? Are they chosen because they have populous appeal or is there a values filter in place?

Whatever happened to making praise glorious?

I love the Psalmist’s charge to “make his praise glorious” where beauty is called into action. If we pride ourselves on a puritan austerity we miss even our own American history in worship. Puritans dressed plainly because they were outlandish and Rococo-like in their everyday dress. Coming to church humbly was in order. Beauty is not then necessarily about extravagance. It may come with restraint if our culture is over-kill which it may actually be. These same Puritans wrote some of the most beautiful prayers of confession. I’m grateful to a friend who years ago introduced me to a book of their prayers.

Regardless, the idea of Sunday’s-best dress can and should go both ways. Sacred worship requires us to value the otherness of worship set apart for God. If we are in plain work clothes all week, why not dress up? Why not use color lights and haze machines? Why not take people to a modern cathedral-like encounter with God. If the “why” is part of making praise glorious to glorify God, then we should value and measure that as well.

Even though our culture is often extravagant, we should be intentional. And, we should also be watchful to not be so austere to not spend on beauty with intentionality. The woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with her perfume—a full year’s wage—did so with intentionality and humility. Her expenditure was more like the puritan prayers that were carefully crafted than haphazard use of haze machines, lights or gimmicky backdrops.

Do we inadvertently put the stage above the table?

But, it’s all about the context. The idea of a stage is to present something to an audience. Worship is more like a table and a meal than a show. It is about all being participants—even if there are differing roles. If you spend a lot on a meal and make it beautiful, you have a celebration. Our Jesus invites us to be with him at a table, not as attendees of a production. Having the medium of a stage then is a problem if only if we think it’s about the stage.

Even the best secular performers can make you feel at home. I have yet to see the Boss—Bruce Springsteen—live in concert. However, friends who have gone over the years and articles of critics all seem to say the same thing. As even his videos seem to present, the audience is brought into a near-religious fervor. The antiphonal riffs with the band and the crowd were like being in a gospel service in his shows.

The stage can be a valid worship medium—if the table is still what is valued, measured and raised. The idea of being with Jesus transcends the literal table, even though there something historically important about a visible altar in church. If the value is on Christ as the center and we at his table, the transcendent beauty of being in Christ’s presence results. Utility drives us to the numbers and even the ecstatic reaction we might get with a crowd. It is possible to program “experiences”—look at Disney or watch Cold Play do a show. Putting on a meal lasts beyond the moment as it actually feeds us.

Just to recap, here are ways to deal with the invasion of the bottom line in our worship.

Decide why you do music in church. Then choose what you do. Is marketing your goal? Is discipleship your goal? The why matters before the how.

Define “guard rails” based on your values. What values would you be willing to “lose” to keep?

Defend beauty in worship. Is it about being impressive or expressive? Making praise glorious means it’s not just a fad.

Dine together in worship. Instead of presenting an experience from a stage, how about sharing a meal with Christ present?

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Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich Kirkpatrick

Writer, Speaker, and Musician. Rich Kirkpatrick was recently rated #13 of the “Top 75 Religion Bloggers” by Newsmax.com, having also received recognition by Worship Leader Magazine as “Editor’s Choice” for the “Best of the Best” of blogs in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

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