A VJ’s Perspective of Emerging Church Styles
For the best part of a year I have taken a step back from using any interactive multi-media moving images (known as ‘Vjing’ for want of a better word) within the context of Church. I felt strongly that before I advanced my ideas and work any further, I had to re-evaluate my aims and what might be the best and worst possible ways to achieve them. In doing this I have had to ask myself some difficult questions, directly associated with this experimental form of teaching and worship.
I have always come from the viewpoint that many worldly things are redeemable, and they are! But the problem arises when you begin making associations in an attempt to bridge the gap between a drug centered culture and a God centered culture. The people I aim to reach with my ministry are the spiritually lost and seeking, and also those Christians who feel at unease with current worship styles in church. I also have an unwavering and burning motivation to create a different style of worship and teaching to be implemented in today’s churches that share the desire to reach this generation in more ‘culturally relevant’ ways, while at the same time not compromising in purity of heart towards God during worship.
Although it has not been my intention within the context of church, I am often asked to VJ for DJ lead/club style worship events. As the summer months begin to approach I’m starting to receive more requests to VJ at club style worship sessions for up and coming Christian festivals and events this year. It’s been a combination of these requests and other issues God has been speaking to me about that’s been the inducement for me to write the following article about my ministry and how I see things progressing with it. Before reading any further, I ask that you keep in mind those in the congregation who are less mature in faith. Please consider the perspective seen from these people and not just your own with regards to issues raised here. I do not wish to offend anyone, but to ask for us to be honest with ourselves and with God.
In order that people are not caused to stumble or to be lead into old lifestyle patterns, we need to create a style of worship that is truly ‘alternative’. The replication of the world’s ways carries far too much baggage for far too many people; for both for non-Christians who are looking for an alternative way of life, and also for new Christians who have come from this kind of background. This style of worship causes the most problems for the very people it’s aimed at reaching. However, I do feel strongly that it is important that there are followers of Christ who are interacting within the secular club scene, with accountability and in uncompromising ways. These people include DJ’s, musician’s, VJ’s, breaker’s, MC’s, or technicians for example.
I find this position to be more of a role for someone with the right temperament, who has received an anointing/gifting for such a specific area of evangelism, who does not compromise their faith as a direct result of being in those particular environments, and who effectively brings the message of Jesus in the most culturally relevant ways possible. But for such an individual to be the encouragement of an entire church’s involvement in that particular scene, or to replicate that scene in any congregational setting as a means of evangelism or worship, is extremely unwise at best. The Church is a collective body if individual believers in Christ, with different gifting and abilities. Therefore, it would be wrong to call an entire church into the potentially troublesome culture and environment of the club scene.
Something else I have recognised to consider is dresscode. Not all, but most clubbing scenes promote inappropriate dress for a place of worship. It is important to bear in mind the more worldly Christians and non-Christians that this style of worship is most likely to attract. But irrespective of the promotion, this is something really in the control of the people, and so cannot be moderated. It may be possible to educate some of these Christians to be more aware in this regard, but to impose such ideas on those not living their life for Jesus is un-realistic. Combine that with people’s styles of dancing, (which you also have no control of) it can and will in some instances lead to a major distraction of a sexual nature. Also, if we see this style of ‘alternative’ worship as a place to bring our non-Christian friends then we have to expect this kind of distraction to potentially be more prevalent. Incidentally, I have seen some ‘interpretive dancing’ in the past, and it was closer to resembling erotic dancing. There is no reasonable means of control for this inevitable consequence of freestyle dance in worship. I realise this is a case of the few spoiling it for the rest, but it is the reality of the world in which we live, so for people to ignore this truth is short-sighted, and I would have to question their motivation. Therefore, creating a clubbing style dance environment is ill advised.
I would like to add that dancing is promoted as a form of worship in the Bible. But something conveniently overlooked is that the form of dance practiced then was strictly choreographed, having no commonality to the freestyle dance within a club scene. One significant difference being a seductive nature that is further accentuated by the far more revealing clothing trends of today. My objective here is not to be traditional or a discouragement to creativity within the Church. In fact I see replicating worldly ways, as well as old Church traditions as uncreative and unoriginal. My view remains that there is a very real and present need to create and design an alternative way to worship within church today, in a way that does not leave itself open to corruption in this depraved culture we inhabit. Oblivion to the insensitivity of the club worship scene, I believe, can provide the very opposite results our intention follows.
Let’s look at clubbing and worship from another perspective:
There is audio information, visual information, spatial surroundings, time of day and duration of the event as precursors to the sincere experience of worship. Our hearing, our vision, our sense of touch/environmental interaction, and our sense of smell can all be seen as gateways/windows to our soul. When all these factors are combined in a particular way, it can have a powerful impact on us and can create very strong and emotional memories.
When combining the above with the effects of recreational drugs, the impact of such an event sky rockets. Bearing that in mind, and remembering the kinds of people we are reaching out to, it is nonsensical to replicate an environment that provides connotations and memories that distract with past or present associations of an un-Christ like lifestyle. On top of that, a message is issued that the clubbing environment is to be promoted for Christians and non-Christians alike, by those people trying to do Christ’s work. This is a particularly detrimental message for the Church’s impressionable youth, of whom many will be influenced by their non-Christian peers when they experience clubbings recreational drug culture for the first time.
I speak from a perspective of someone who often performs live and interactive visuals in nightclubs and bars, and who personally finds a night club a place where I am able to pray aloud and worship God, in a freeing way that I never could do in a church. When I’ve done this in nightclubs I’ve not felt self conscious about ‘looking spiritual’ in front of others, for the main reason that people have immediately presumed I’m on drugs. But I’m very aware that my personality and experiences put me in the minority where feeling comfortable in this kind of setting is concerned. Some of my reasons may be accounted for by attending clubs that do not promote or encourage sex or violence, I don’t and have never had any personal involvement with recreational drugs, and I’ve never felt any peer pressure in light of this. I am often oblivious/naive to note the people on drugs within the clubs I attend and I intentionally refrain from drinking, and I do not dance in a way that could be described as sexually provocative. I go purely for the music and the space to dance. This environment would be fine for Christians should everyone be the same, but this is simply not the case. The fact is that people come from all walks of life, backgrounds and life experiences. It would be completely arrogant and unrealistic of me to expect everyone to perceive a night club in the same way as I do.
The truest form of worship I have come across is found in the Bible funny enough; in the Psalms particularly. This is true worship written largely by David. There are many uplifting Psalms there, but also many painful and gritty ones too. There needs to be a style of worship that works for all emotions and feeling, not just for euphoric ones, which oftentimes takes precedent in spite of the mood and feeling of the people there to worship.
Another very important issue to look at is performance lead worship. Whether that is a band, singer, dancer, DJ, MC or VJ, there is a real issue of the distraction of focusing on the performance and performers instead of your relationship with, and the nature of God. This I find has become all too normal within the modern day church, and it’s something that detracts from the integrity of sincere worship of God, apart from the entertainment that saturates and insults the purpose of worship itself. Added to that, the ‘fame’ status associated with this type of led worship becomes a real and present problem too. But I think the issue arises when the congregation becomes the spectator in the audience and those that lead worship become the performer on the stage. Club style worship is extremely performer/fame orientated in the very nature of the setup.
One saving grace about VJing is that you are usually positioned at the back of the room with the sound and lighting tech guys. If it is possible to lead worship from this location using visuals, then why must the people leading worship using audio be at the front and facing the crowd? I understand the importance for a DJ in a club to be in a location suitable to ‘read the crowd’, in order to understand and respond to an audiences tastes, moods and energy levels. This is important to subsequently motivate/manipulate the clubbers through hype in order to get them to dance as much as possible and to maintain their desire to dance till the end of the DJ set.
So how important is it to be able to ‘read’ the crowd (if at all) during worship? The role of a worship leader is to lead worship in response to what God is speaking to that church, not the opposite of the leader/s being lead by the emotions of the majority of the congregation in that particular moment. So what is a worship leader communicating to the congregation that cannot be done in between acts of worship (such as songs or meditations)? With the aid of a sound system and data projectors displaying visual prompts, it is possible for a congregation to be lead and encouraged in worship while the leaders are situated in less prominent standing or sitting positions. It would also help the more self-conscious leaders feel less ‘on show’.
Of course, worship in a Church service needs to be lead by a responsible and accountable individual or designated group of people, but that is no reason for them to be the centre of attention throughout the worship. It is a bit like the best man at a wedding stealing the lime-light. His job is to lead and introduce events, then make himself scarce. We need to find a better stance for leading worship, as I believe that modern style Churches have crept into ways of worshiping that are not honoring enough to God, and are too honoring to the people who lead it. It concerns me that ‘DJ lead worship’ is continuing to go even further down this path. If the ‘performers’ are there in the spotlight to whip up emotion, then that is no reason for them to be there at all. This only detracts from sincere integrity in worshiping. Emotion in true worship comes through personal thanksgiving and revelation of God. During the DJ lead worship session that I have attended, I have witnessed the role of the DJ/MC being that of one telling the congregation what to shout out in demand to God. This particular method of worship leadership inherently displays a concerning lack of respect and reverence towards God. We are called worship God in acts of unconditional love, not to behave as spoiled children in demand of things from God. It is in a place of privacy where we should express our short sighted frustrations that come from a lack of faith, resulting in our impatience in obediently follow the path that God has put us on. To encourage an entire church to corporately demand from God is appalling.
So, do I support club style worship? Well, my answer has to be an emphatic no.
Some Alternative Ideas with regards to my visuals in Church.
I have decided that it is extremely important not to create distracting ‘eye candy’ for people to zone out to. But instead to only use it in a minimalist way, being in direct relation to a particular teaching or piece of Scripture, to aid an explanation and also to help the receiver of the message to remember the teaching. This can take place purely as an audio/visual piece of work on its own, or to accompany a song, Scriptural based meditation, person teaching, prayer etc. I think the use of music/sound is just as important as using visuals, so long as it is adding more than just ambiance and style to a teaching. It is important that everything used within a service has a strong functional reason for being included. I want to create a minimalist environment that accentuates every sound, image or word used. This philosophy should ideally carry through in every aspect of the service. In an ideal situation the interior architecture for a venue would have great acoustic properties, combined with a clean minimalist look that acts as a canvas for relevant projected still and moving images to accompany each individual teaching.
At present, if you are not one of the lucky few who are ‘fortunate’ enough or able to be in the church band, and you feel that singing is the most un-natural thing in the world for you to be doing, you have no other options in which to express your love for God during a conventional Church worship service. This has the unfortunate effect of alienating such people like myself, but worse than this; every non- Christian friend of mine that I have brought along to church for their first time have always said that although they have all thought the teaching was good, they were all put off from returning because of the culturally dated style of worship that most churches ironically call ‘modern’. I want to be a part of creating a setting where people can interact in worship to God in many other functional and creative ways that are not so restricting or behind the times – yet uncompromising in purity, and where no one is put on a pedestal when worshiping.
It is essential to be actively engaged in heart, mind and body in order to worship with sincerity and integrity. The more performance lead a worship service becomes, the more passive the congregation become. Therefore, emphasis must be put on the congregation to ‘perform’ or interact, to express themselves to God in appropriate ways that they too feel comfortable with. So for example; as well as singing out loud, the congregation could also be encouraged to quietly read Scripture, pray, draw, play a percussion instrument, write, etc.
So as not to be a distraction to other people around themselves, surely it makes more sense for the people choosing the more dynamic forms of expression to be situated further to the back of the venue, not up on stage at the front! This idea would be particularly important if there was ever devised an appropriate way of expression through the form of dance. I certainly do not want to completely rule out dance for worship, as it is a Biblical way of worshiping, but in the context of a church congregation in our current western culture there are serious problems as previously stated. Therefore, I feel that dance is best kept for use elsewhere in a more private or controlled setting. One solution that I have is the idea of churches holding dance tuition classes. It would be great to have well choreographed dance pieces to accompany a specific song or meditation, where each movement represents a meaning in some way, as if it was a kind of sign language using the whole body. Obviously people would need classes to learn how to do this for their own private worship times. Once again this idea follows the principle that everything used in worship is to have a meaning to it as well as an aesthetic value. As with creating original music and visuals, this will take great skill, originality and sensitivity to pioneer in a way that is both original from any existing styles, and honoring to God.
We as Christians play a vital role in God’s plan in being salt and light to this world. We have a responsibility to use our creative and artistic abilities to be an example not to replicate the worlds ways, but to show this lost world another way that they can live there lives for God.