I’m at an H&M in a retro mall in Fort Wayne, Indiana, clothes shopping with one of my best friends, who also happens to be a worship leader.

This is, admittedly, odd behavior for straight men. But seeing as my friend Ronnie is a worship leader, he’s looking for clothes to wear on stage, and settles on a faux-military jacket that we immediately name “Ronnie Pepper,” because it looks Sergeant Pepper-ish. I’m looking for shirts to wear on the radio/TV show we host together, and that we have a hunch nobody really watches/listens to [1]. The fact that we’re thinking about fashion at all and worship music at the same time is especially awkward. As Christians—and especially Reformed Christians—it’s easy to think that fashion, music, and theology are mutually exclusive (rakishly worn bow ties for clever Southern theologian-types notwithstanding).

In a few weeks my friend Ronnie will be attending a conference called WorshipGod 2011—the name of which would be funny (in a reality-television sort of way) if we didn’t know and trust the guy running the show [2]. He’ll text me the following from the event: “T…worship guy in skinny jeans and fauxhawk, pastor in khakis and golf shirt. It’s all so simple.”

Ronnie used to be a rock star—he was Joy Electric, one of Tooth & Nail’s first and longest-running acts. He hiatused that gig to start leading worship at a church in the Midwest.

There’s an unspoken stigma in the Christian music industry where it’s understood that leading worship is where guys like us “go to die.” Although the root of that statement is fueled by nothing more than an arrogant and unclean heart, there is a strange tension between doing music for the church “industry” versus doing music for the church body. The former has the almost inevitable tendency of leading one down a path of artistic self-indulgence, whereas the latter can send the same artist spiraling downward toward self-affirmation as he continues to treat the church body as his performing audience. It is this type of identity crisis that can horribly cripple the worship leader, whose chief aim should be to point his congregation toward the immeasurable glory of the gospel of Christ! — R. Martin

I’m at Acquire the Fire, a huge, arena-level conference for teens.

I have been told, in all earnestness, by a 19-year-old security guard wearing jeggings and six necklaces, that the only rules for being backstage at Acquire the Fire are “Don’t talk to the VIPs” and “Don’t bother the VIPs.” I have seen and smelled what 8,000 pubescent teenagers look and smell like when crammed into the Jack Breslin Events Center in East Lansing, Michigan. It is the smell of unabated self-consciousness mixed with bad hygiene mixed with Axe Body Spray. I have now watched a two-hour skit, and it was as uncomfortable as you could ever imagine a two-hour skit being.

I have wondered what a certain denim-spandex-wearing worship leader would look like if his image were blown up larger than life, and then seen that image blown up larger than life on a gigantic projection screen. And I have finally gotten the story behind all of these Christian guys wearing what appear to be girls’ shoes.

The VIPs backstage in the “green room,” were, of course, not real VIPs. They were the college-aged kids who make up the Acquire the Fire house student praise band, and the Acquire the Fire house band (called Unhindered), who were acting out whatever Green Room Fantasies they had harbored up to that point in their lives. They were lolling in the green room, which actually looked to be a team room of some kind for the Michigan State Spartans basketball team [3], and speaking in “soundbyte” [4], as though they were actually famous. They’re kids who will be back in lecture halls studying biology next semester, instead of playing in front of 8,000 screamy teenagers.

Aside: I’m the worst-dressed person in the green room, by far, wearing baggy jeans with an “Indiana Football—Go Big Red!” T-shirt, that I specifically chose because it was the least-cool, least-emo thing in my closet. Adjacent to me is the lead singer of Unhindered, who is, I’m assured, a “really down-to-earth guy.” This is what all people who have met a VIP of any kind say about that VIP. He’s talking on a cell phone which, I’ve realized, is what you do in the green room if you aren’t eating or otherwise being surrounded by people. It’s important to give the impression that somebody, somewhere wants/needs to speak with you at all times. This is an important part of the Green Room Fantasy and one of the Social Rules of the Green Room.

The green room experience leads to another interesting dilemma/observation: the strange sensation afforded these kids when they play in front of 8,000 fans in an arena. Some rock bands work tirelessly their entire lives trying to get an arena tour, or even the sensation of playing in front of a crowd that large. And from where I stand—backstage, on the floor of the Breslin, behind the giant projection screens, looking up into the darkness, and the floor ringed by level after level of full seats—the view is truly magnificent. It’s true Rock Star Fantasy stuff. Though I can’t help but wonder what this experience is doing to the student band onstage. Will they ever be satisfied fading back into obscurity, leading worship at their little Christian colleges or churches?

Aside: Here’s the deal with the shoes. Occasionally (read: all the time), a guy wearing skinny jeans [5] would walk by and chat me up. In addition to the jeans, they were all [6] wearing what looked to me like girls’ canvas flats on their feet . . . flats that were in, like, pastel colors. I asked a friend about them, and she explained that they were called “Toms,” and every time somebody bought a pair of Toms, the company would donate a pair to a little impoverished child somewhere. I’m learning that the Impoverished Child factor is very big in Christian music.

The student house band is called School of Worship, and they’re quite good. They sound good and look good [7], and the kids in the crowd seem to be responding. The lead singer (all 96 pounds of him, including vest and glasses) is shaking his hips and gyrating onstage like a real, live rock star. The crowd is responding like a real, live crowd should.

The only thing that separates a “worship band” from a “rock band” is the presence of lyrics on a projection screen behind the worship band. What’s really happening is a concert. A performance. But the presence of lyrics on a screen somehow makes it “worship.” If this sounds weird/confusing to you, that’s because it is weird and confusing to me as well.

It’s later in the same day when David Crowder Band plays their set. Crowder is that strange rock and roll animal—the unattractive front man. He’s taller than I expect and every bit as funny looking as he is in the pictures [8]. But I find his appearance oddly comforting after spending the better part of a day backstage with a lot of guys who look like they were born with a canister of hair putty in their hands. Crowder uses his image—or his lack of rock-star hottie ethos—to connect with the audience in an ironic “you and I are the same” sort of way. Needless to say, this plays well to 8,000 mostly awkward-feeling teenagers. I had always thought that we watch rock stars so that we can project our dreams on to them, but Crowder has the opposite effect—he is, in plainspeak, the dork who made it big. And it occurs to me that it’s no less fun/entertaining to see that.

This is a stroke of pure rock star brilliance. It takes Crowder about 30 seconds to have these kids, and to a greater extent their youth pastors, eating out of his hands. Again the line between worship and performance is blurred—check that, this is straight-up performance. And it’s fun. Crowder pulls out his 80s-style key-tar (a keyboard, except that you wear it like a guitar . . . made famous in lots of hideous 80s videos), on which he plays the riff from Super Mario Brothers, which causes his teenage audience to go absolutely bananas. He later whips out a Guitar Hero game controller, which someone in his band has rigged to play real chords. He plays the controller, as his guitar, for the duration of a song. More teenagers go bananas. Lots of youth pastors raise their hands, though it’s unclear if they’re raising their hands in worship, or raising their hands in the way that a lot of fans raise their hands at concerts. It probably doesn’t matter.

Though I didn’t get a chance to speak with him, it occurs to me that David Crowder may be the only performer here (besides Lecrae) who understands all of the irony in what’s happening at Acquire the Fire. And he may be the only performer to have a realistic grasp on the whole fame thing, though I have no way of knowing that. It’s just a hunch.

The sticky, tricky question is this: What happens when the worship leader is the one being worshiped? It’s a valid question when you consider the influential position that many celebrity worship stars are in when their job consists of providing hit songs to churches around the world for mass consumption. When you add in the fact that many church buildings are designed to rival concert hall settings, complete with a dizzying array of sound, screens, lights, fog, and conceptual stage props, it’s easy to understand why a modern worship leader may start relishing his time in the spotlight.

Not surprisingly, the Bible warns us against things like arrogance (Rom. 12:3) and selfish ambition (James 3:16), both of which can result from the many embellishments available to promote worship services in the 21st century. Instead, we are admonished to encourage and build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11) through the message of Christ “dwelling richly among us” (Col. 3:16). Worship is always going to be as good or bad as the person or object it’s worshiping, but the direction of true worship should always start and end with the gospel. While churches continue to battle incessantly over the direction of the sound, style, instruments, clothing, hymns, and volume, the REAL conversation that needs to happen is whether the message of God’s Word is being communicated to the people of God to sing praises to God in spirit and in truth. When we get that right, the details will follow more naturally, because nobody’s going to be that concerned with whether Johnny’s wearing skinny jeans, has a faux hawk, or plays a Telecaster. We’ll always be directionally challenged when we’re not looking directly at Christ. —R. Martin

I’m visiting a church in small-town Ohio.

The lights are off, and there are candles burning somewhere, I think. There’s a giant screen up front with the Relevant magazine willowy font that is requisite for churches trying to appear “hip” and “edgy.” In front of the screen is a worship band in which every member has his/her shoes off, and is standing on an area rug, John Mayer-style. This is the kind of thing that would normally be snicker-worthy, except that the band is great and the lyrics are meaningful.

I know full well that meaningful to one guy may not be meaningful to another, but by meaningful I mean lyrics that remind me of my sinfulness/brokenness yet show me a Redeemer. They aren’t the sort of worship songs that make me feel like I’m skipping through a field of poppies with the kind of 80s-bearded Jesus who looks like he played third base for the Phillies in 1984. Nor are they the kind of songs that make me feel like I’m solving Africa’s groundwater problems with bandana-wearing Activist Jesus.

“Your blood has washed away my sins, Jesus thank you.”

They’re the kinds of songs that remind me why it’s important for me—a 30-something white guy from the Midwest—to stand in a church and sing. Something I would never normally do.

“The father’s wrath, completely satisfied. Jesus thank you.”

They’re important because the singing is an act of worship—an act of remembering what Christ did for me, what it means, and why it’s important.

It’s important that somebody lead me in this, because I wouldn’t do it on my own. It occurs to me that when the lyrics are significant and the intentions feel pure (worship), that I care very little about what the person doing the leading looks like. It could be a 92-pound guy in painted-on jeans (like it is today), or a Ken lookalike in khakis and a golf shirt like it was in 1989.  Or neither.  I appreciate what you do, worship leaders, even though you’re sometimes easy fodder for jokes, and you’re also usually the first guy at church to get complained-to about something (see: not being able to make everyone happy, all the time).

It also occurs to me that I enjoy this, without irony. That this isn’t just the thing I must endure before the 45-minute sermon. I’m having an experience (whoa), and what’s more, I like that experience. I’m being reminded that you can like something and have it also benefit your soul. This has to be at least a partial definition of joy. There’s joy in the fact that my sin is paid for, and that I’m invited to the table.

“Once your enemy, now seated at your table, Jesus thank you.”

[1] The Reformatory. Once you click on the tab for The Reformatory, be sure to pause the live player in the upper right hand corner of the screen or else you’ll have to listen to Ronnie and me while also listening to a constant stream of Christian bands with names like October Bleeds November or the Septemberists.

[2] It’s also awkward to use words like “show” in conjunction with worship or Christian conference discussions.

[3] Judging by the life-sized picture of Mateen Cleaves on the wall. This will only mean anything to you if you’re from the Lansing area and/or are a Michigan State alum. Mateen Cleaves is semi-godlike here.

[4] “It’s such a privilege to be able to meet with the fans at our merch table after our set.” As a writer it is heartbreaking to me that even at this tender age, these kids are learning to talk without saying anything.

[5] It’s probably time for a real explanation of what these are: Imagine tight, tapered dark-washed jeans for girls, except that guys are wearing them. That’s skinny jeans.

[6] My wife asked me what it was like backstage and this is how I described it to her: It was like hanging out with 20 Chris Watsons. Backstory: Chris Watson was the coolest guy at Taylor University back in 1995. He fronted a campus band (which I’ve forgotten the name of), but was cool in that affluent, detached, quasi-artistic “shops at a thrift store even though he doesn’t have to” sort of way. He would have been comfortable lolling around in a green room like this one. Caveat:  I’m sure he’s a nice guy in real life.

[7] Though again, as by some cosmic mandate, the bass player is a big guy. He’s also the guy who gets stuck dragging all the equipment offstage at the end.

[8] Imagine Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld, if Cosmo Kramer had red hair, a beard, glasses, and wore flannel shirts.

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