prying control out of our cold, dead hands

Beck has a new album out that’s not really an album. In fact, it’s just music for you to play, on your own, at home. Yours to improvise, yours to improve or destroy, yours to play as written or to change up. And, at first look, this seems crazy. You KNOW Beck has a better voice than you do – you know he knows more about music than you do. You know he could make the instrumentation and the effects sound better than you could and you know that he has better equipment than you’ve got sitting in your living room. And, somewhere deep down, you like that’ it’s easier. Let those who are great at music make it and then the rest of us can listen to it, you say.  I don’t want to have to organize my friends into a 5-piece band every time I dive into a song. I’d rather have it on a compact, easy to download/upload MP3.

But Beck, eccentric though he may be, had some interesting thoughts on that. He thinks we’ve lost something in the age of recorded music. Before it was easily accessible, people used to take sheet music and play it themselves, with their own unique accents, lyric changes and misplayed notes. “The idea of sitting around a piano and playing a song with your friends and your family was as much a part of our consciousness as Facebook is now. People didn’t have a definitive version of a song. They came up with their own slant. You got so many variations of songs, they developed eccentricities.”

There are two main reasons Beck’s idea for this “album” is so counter-cultural:

  1. Most of today’s consumers really don’t want a product that is “some assembly required”, especially if it doesn’t come with a step-by-step instruction manual. It requires too much time, too much creativity and too much deviation from the crowd. In short, most consumers are far more interesting in anonymously consuming than actively participating in products (though this tide may be turning amongst DIY, foodie, artsy Millennials).
  2. Most of today’s musicians don’t really want people to make their music – they want to make music and have people consume it. To have someone else interpret, riff on and ultimately hijack your creative process – one you know the desired outcome of  – is not only risky, it’s downright panic-inducing. What if they play it wrong? What if they play it differently? What if they come up with differing conclusions? What if they get sidetracked? What if people think they’re amazing and they don’t give me credit? What if people think they’re terrible and they do give me credit?

And here’s where this hits home for the Church: much like Beck, I think most churches and most leaders are not only scared-stiff of letting people do church on their own, I don’t even think most of them have a rubric for how to think about it. Though the tide has shifted a little, the thing that most churches have in common, varied though they may be, is that they throw tons of energy into the worship experience/service to the detriment of virtually everything else. In some cases, they divvy some of the energy up to mid-week activities or small groups, but in centrally-controlled ones.

I’ve taken a considerable amount of heat in the last month or so over a recent article in our denominational magazine about how we’ll commonly tell people if they have to choose their group or their church, they should choose their group.

While it’s true that it’s a psychological maneuver (most folks end up doing both, but it emphasizes our commitment to groups), it’s also true that sometimes in order to get to test the purity of your commitment to your audience/group, you have to be willing to sacrifice what’s most important to you. For Beck, it’s not money – it’s adoration of his voice, it’s getting credit, it’s respect. For many churches & leaders today, I think it’s attendance, campuses, amazing worship experiences – but also adoration of your person/brand, getting credit and getting respect – and keeping theological purity (whatever that means to you). After all, what happens if there’s no worship gathering – aren’t you leaving the door open for heresy? disunity? infighting? theological accuracy?

And, while folks can make lots of arguments about a right theology & practice of worship (a case I think is pretty weak & values tradition over Biblical rationale), that’s not really what this is about. This is about how tightly we hold to what we subconsciously think the Church should be and our own (funded) self-sustainability as leaders. Not what we say, but what our practice says about us.

But let’s not forget that we worship a God who has modeled something different for us.

If our God, who is infinite in knowledge of Himself and true reality relied on divinely-inspired humans to write scripture instead of just doing it Himself AND if our God is one who trusts mere broken humans with His mission on this earth, how can we as pastors and leaders not trust our people to be the Church themselves? If we follow a God who does nothing even close to micromanaging the Church, why do we think we need to? If Jesus handed the Keys of the Kingdom over to people that had proven virtually nothing to Him about their ability to sustain the movement He started by the Holy Spirit’s power, we should feel convicted to do the same. Making almost incomprehensible asks of people, putting trust in untrustworthy people, allowing different melodies to replace the well-founded ones you came up with – tough stuff for any leader to follow.

However, it’s a re-discovering of the outward momentum that was always at the core of Christianity – something that we’ve almost completely forgotten, even at our most missional edges.