Perhaps what we need is less sound and more silence?
As I was preparing my morning coffee, I came across a new blog I’d like to read. The phrase that really caught my attention today was ‘spiritual white space’ and it got me thinking. The blog author, Bonnie Gray, writes about having white space in our daily lives, like on a canvas, and how important it is to have that in order to balance the colour.
That then got me thinking about the concept of white space in a musical context and how when one hears a song or melody that reaches in to the very core of your being, it is often one that has a balance between the sound and the silence. There is ‘white space’ on the musical canvas, giving the listener places to rest in.
As this has turned out to be a significantly in-depth topic, I’ve split the posts up so that we can ponder it bit by bit. So stay tuned for part 2 of the conversation over the next week or so.
One of the significant lessons I’ve learned over the years has been about enjoying silence and actually incorporating an amount of silence into my day. Somehow it seems to help me breathe. It’s an odd thing, to write about silence as a musician, as many would assume I would want to speak on how to make a piece of music beautiful and full of vibrant colours but for me, the silence in between the notes is becoming the integral components of a great piece.
However I do meet musicians who don’t like silence at all. In fact, they fidget and squirm at the thought of intentionally incorporating it into a set of songs or even into a piece of music that stands alone. I find this to be particularly evident in musicians who primarily work in church congregational music.
This leads me then to consider, why it is hard to incorporate silence between the notes?
My personal opinion comes from 28 years of being involved in musical groups, school bands and ensembles, choirs and church worship bands and mostly at an intermediate to semi-professional level, playing and performing in front of groups of 3 to over 1000 people.
From what I’ve observed, musicians want to create sounds. We live for them. The low notes, the high notes, the rhythm and pulse that drives the beat. Constantly pressing in to the emotional component that musical combinations produce.
One thing that really stands out to me, that perhaps is taught as a matter of course in professional surroundings (such as orchestras and mainstream musical circles), is that there is a lack of white space. A lack of capacity to not only enjoy silence, but to incorporate it intentionally. And this seems especially true in church worship music.
Now please don’t get your pitchforks out. I am a huge fan of church worship music. I’ve written a reasonable collection of congregational songs and having led choirs and bands for the past 15 years, but I really believe that in order for this kind of music to take on a new level of spiritual growth, we need to incorporate even more white space in our music.
You may wonder where I am going with this and that’s okay. Let’s journey together and see where this train of thought takes us, shall we?
Church music has been dominated by the rock band style group for well over 10 years. In Australia, the rise of Hillsong in the early 90’s saw a massive tipping point in the culture of congregational music that was accompanied by a significant increase of semi and professional musicians joining bands, inspired by the example set before them by the likes of Geoff Bullock, Darlene Zschech and Reuben Morgan.
Their music rose above the somewhat gray scale attempts to bring congregational music in line with the contemporary mainstream and caught the hearts of multiple generations of frustrated and disillusioned musicians wanting to find their place in church worship and serve with their gifts and talents. It was a magical time to be a teenager and I too was swept up in wanting to be my best as a musician, singer and believer. Finally, I had a sense of purpose and direction to set my musical gifts toward.
Since then we’ve seen a plethora of incredible talent rise, all across the globe and Christian music is now even entering the mainstream flow in many countries. It’s really something that makes me proud because the standard was raised and many stood up and answered the call with incredible results.
However, there is something that bothers me. And please hear my heart. I am not speaking against Hillsong or any other band who are creating professional and beautiful environments for us to worship in. I’m not against modern congregational worship.
But I am against performance in this setting.
Performance? But aren’t we giving God glory by using our talents to the best of our ability? Shouldn’t we be creating an environment that helps usher people into his presence?
Yes and yes. Yes we should be using our talents. Yes we have a responsibility to usher in the presence of God. No we should not allow performance to enter in.
So how does the need for white space and the issue of performance connect together?
Musicians are a special breed of human. There is a continual struggle, especially for musicians using their talent in a church setting, to ensure that they are not performing and seeking personal glory and gratification when leading the congregation in corporate worship. I’ve personally faced this challenge and it can be a fine line!
Sometimes, I’ve experienced a time of corporate worship that has left me confused, irritated and disappointed because all I’ve participated in is a rock concert. It’s the setting as well as the lack of spiritual listening on the part of the band that contributes to this. It’s the lighting and the dry ice. It’s the perfectly timed instrumentals and revving the congregation up into frenzied sound, all in the name of worshipping God. I’ve both been on the platform and as a congregational participant in these scenarios and so feel I can contribute a perspective from both sides of the coin.
Sometimes this extreme scenario creeps in to regular church settings and it makes my skin crawl. I genuinely believe that for the most part, we as musicians want to worship God and feel that we are doing so, to the best of our ability. And I also believe that God sees our intentions and loves us regardless.
What I do see though, in this kind of setting, is the potential for a congregation to end up watching what’s happening up the front and a worship team lost in their own interludes and musical prowess. I’m sorry to be so blunt but this is what I see.
The congregation then become observers for the most part, rather than participants and this makes my heart break. They’ve come to collectively worship their God and they’re often left confused and disappointed.
It’s time to go beyond this. It’s time to step further in to what worship is really about. Worship isn’t even about music in the first place! It’s about connecting with God and communing with his Spirit. About acknowledging his majesty, authority and love. About bringing our brokenness to his feet, like Mary did, when she cracked open the most expensive and precious gift she could, pouring out perfume to honour Jesus.
This is where I feel that white space needs to come back into the conversation. But before we do, I want to bring in one last element of thought. This is where some reading may feel very differently to me, and that’s okay. I respect your opinion and hope that you can afford me the same.
I believe that there is opportunity for us to respond to an environment of worship fully believing that we are engaging with God and encountering his presence, regardless of skill sets, lights, dry ice or great vocals or all the latest gear. I don’t think it’s the stuff that’s an issue.
However, I also believe that we could potentially find ourselves in the same environment, fully believing that we are worshipping God, but are in fact worshipping music itself.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I discuss the validity of taking some time to incorporate silence into our worship times.
In love and honour,
If you’re interested in reading more about what inspired my train of thought today, why not visit Bonnie Gray’s website and check it out.
If you’d like to check out other things that I write about, you can visit me at my blog on WordPress.
What’s been your experience of congregational worship?
What have you personally discovered in those quiet moments?
Please share your thoughts and remember that we are a community of like minded folk, so church bashing is not on, okay? Okay :)