One of my favorite cross pollination experiences between the life I led two decades ago and my life now is the application of theatrical principles to church ministry.
I know that comparing church ministry to the work of a theatre can illicit the wagging heads of those who like to bemoan the performance nature of much contemporary worship in the 21st century. It is important, however, to bear in mind that the post modern theatre owes its existence to the church. It was not long ago in the Middle Ages that churches hosted the most excellent of troupes who performed passion plays, Biblical story retellings, and moral plays based off of the teachings of Christ.
But eventually, the theatre birthed from its cathedral based parent.
And much like all children, it eventually rebelled against its source.
Except instead of getting tattoos and bumper stickers for the political party opposite from dad, the theatre became the source of alternate moral ideation for cultures globally.
But they are still family, and so much of the workings of the theatre can be found within God-blessed, Spirit-filled worship.
I say that to say, it’s time to talk about Stanislavski.
Konstantin Stanislavski was a Russian actor and director in the early 20th century. If you’ve ever heard someone bemoan something as “wow, looks like someone’s getting really method with this,” they are referring to Stanislavski’s method.
That sound you hear that likens to Indiana Jones’ boulder chasing him through an ancient tomb is simply the collected eye rolling from anyone who has ever taken an acting class or spent more than ten minutes on stage. The essence of the method or “method acting” is the idea that to deliver a believable performance, you the actor must believe the emotions involved in delivering the lines as written. All else, facial structuring, movement, resulting actions… all that other stuff follows the emotional commitment of the actor.
There are other methods and schools of origination for good acting. Stanislavski has some definite downfalls. But see Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, and Robert De Niro for some seriously odd actors and their amazing performances.
One of the key complaints against contemporary worship style is the persistent repetition. It is often referred to as “seven eleven” worship. “Seven words sung eleven times,” I hear as people confidently punctuate their criticism with a knowing nod, a satisfied smile at a proficient burn, or something else about “hymns of the faith.”
To be fair, there’s actually a song called “Surrounded” whose main line of singing is legitimately seven words. “This is how I fight my battles.”
And you sing it waaaaaaaaay more than eleven times.
And it is a magnificent song to use for worship.
But at stake here, aside from style and preference differences is an instruction from Jesus in the book of Matthew.
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words.Matt 6:7 ESV
It is absolutely necessary, then, to ask ourselves if we do a song that repeats the chorus multiple times, or, as in the case of “Oceans” eight different runs at the bridge, are we imitating the people who have no hope?
Am I doing this chorus again because I don’t believe?
Am I attempting to manipulate the church and the emotions of the people participating by tugging at heart strings?
Do I trust these people to engage?
I have gone through these thought processes and have a good team behind me which helps to remind me to think my way through music and not just jump into a pre-cut rut.
For music that comes across as repetitious, I prescribe a couple of approaches via Konstantin Stanislavski to enjoy and even deepen the experience of worship. It is vital to note that I do not intend to suggest that someone fake their way to an emotion that is not organically resident within their heart. The world has experienced enough fake-it-till-you-make-it Christianity.
1) Long instrumentals
Have you ever been to a worship service where you are into singing the song? It’s a pretty song. The lyrics are solid. It’s singable. They’ve even chosen to lay off the fog machine for the time being.
Then all of a sudden, the band takes over and the projection screen is blank.
It’s. So. Awkward.
What do I do in the moment in time where there are no words written for me to sing?
Musically, what’s happening here is the composers of this song have created room for the band to transition to the next thought of a song. Think, from the pensive “You’ve never failed me yet” of “Do it Again” to “I’ve seen you move!” The music moves from airy and ethereal to confident and resolved.
So why not you?
You don’t have to sing in the instrumental section to communicate that thought to God. You can remember, while the drums warm up and the electric guitar goes from pads to jams the confidence of seeing a miracle of God.
For “Whole Heart (Hold me Now)” by Hillsong, there’s a seven times repeated section of an instrumental. It’s a long break if you spend it not in the presence of the living God but rather in the presence of people waiting to sing again. It’s incredible if you can motivate yourself with the reality that you are talking and singing to Yahweh God who created reality by talking it into existence, who is righteous enough to have the concept of “good” based upon His character, and loving enough to create a way for us to spend eternity with Him. When I spend time with someone I love, I do not need to fill the air with loving words of encouragement or affection. Sometimes, and often really, I spend time with my bride and my children with the subtext of affection filling our quiet time together, in peace and joy.
So why not with God?
Some people take those times to offer their own free-form worship. Some will mouth silent, or slightly unsilent prayers. These are people who are with God. They don’t need words.
2) Singing the Same Thing Multiple Times
We have all tried the exercise of speaking the same simple sentence with emphasis on different syllables and observed the change in effect and intent of communication.
“I love watermelon.”
Emphasis on the first means that I am the specific person who likes watermelon, leaving room for disagreement. The second punctuates just how much I enjoy the seeded summer fruit. The third means that watermelon, to the exclusion of all others, is my preferred food.
If a band is doing its job, there should never be the same feel, bridge to bridge, if the bridge is repeated. It should move somewhere. Often it’s up. Rhythm instruments go from half notes to quarter notes to eighth notes. Drummers hit more drums. Keyboardists switch from “ah’s” to “woah.”
The music moves.
As mentioned before, the bridge section, as originally recorded, for “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” by Hillsong Worship is eight repetitions long. It’s a long bridge, too. Nearly two full minutes of music…
If you go into that section resentfully, you will suffer.
The first time I really got into it, though, I was at a place in life where my life felt very much unmoored from any solid ground. I felt the reality of the words “Spirit lead me…”
But I felt it so very tentative… just like the mood of the song.
And as the sounds of the instrumentation became more confident, so did my request to God to lead me to scary places, remembering who He is and trusting what He will accomplish.
Sometimes we need to repeat important words to come to grips with their reality and our need to believe them.
Sometimes repeating a chorus is not “vain repetition” as the King James Version states in Matthew 6:7. But rather it is the process of taking thoughts captive and making them obedient to Christ as Paul compelled the church in Corinth to do.
For every person who complains about the persistent repetition, there is someone who is repeating for the sake of repeating, getting nothing out of it, but doing it because it’s what their church does. It takes engagement to mean worship. That idea counts for all worship styles though. Our subtext must match our work.
So what is the necessary subtext?
Do we quote scripture inside our hearts as we worship?
Maybe, if you have anything relevant memorized.
Do we look for meaningful connections between the lyrics and our life experiences?
Hopefully, but there’s something more basic.
Let our subtext be love.
With it, we are resounding amplifiers of well written music.
Without it, we’re just wasting our time imitating noise.