Two days ago, in Loveland, CO (a ways north of Denver…why did they choose Loveland?), the Hillsong United army graced Colorado with the only other concert besides their Passion 2010 appearance in Atlanta on this tour-leg in the US. Besides the fact that I enjoy their music, great drumming, and prominent use of electric guitars, it was a chance for me to experience what is probably the extreme edge of the “rock show worship” spectrum, because that’s what they bring—huge line arrays, moving lights, driving subs, light screens, haze, and live video feed of the stage and crowd action. Despite the fact that many in my own church would find this type of spectacle un-worshipful at best and downright apostate at worst, I had a wonderful experience, genuinely worshiping God, surrounded by 4,000 others genuinely worshiping God.
Several concert notables:
- Joel Houston & Brooke Fraser were both present and leading, which I was thankful for
- Two other vocalists were leading songs, and it was a fairly even split between all 4 of them
- “Junior,” the drummer, was apparently very sick, throwing up into a large cup beside him several times during the event, and yet didn’t miss a beat
- They led some of my favorite songs of theirs: “Hosanna,” “The Stand,” “Mighty to Save,” “None But Jesus,” and “From the Inside Out”
- Their lead electric was tucked over in a corner, in the darkness, humbly playing his Gretsch guitar with vigor and precision
THINGS I APPRECIATED ABOUT THE CONCERT
The heart of the four worship leaders. In “rock show worship,” its extremely important that the up-fronters communicate verbally and non-verbally that God is the center of attention, not them. That came out loud and clear. All four leaders were there to magnify God.
The invocation at the beginning of the concert. At the onset, Houston prayed a prayer of invocation (at least that’s what liturgophiles like me would call it). That was important.
The abandon with which people worshiped. It is exciting to join 4,000 unashamed people, singing and shouting the praise of God. There was dancing, shouting, leaping, hand-raising, clapping…you name it. It was a side of biblical worship I rarely get to see, given my denominational and church context. Therefore, it was a little slice of heaven.
The lighting and effects. For many this is a turn-off. Not for me. One can have the perspective that lights are only for show, not for worship. My perspective is that lights function similarly to music. They can artistically surround the content of the service to amplify the message as a well-chosen frame magnifies a painting. When we were singing to fast tempos and celebrative words, the lights would flash, move quickly, and take on joyous color-tones. When we were singing about deep things, the lights were slower-paced and took on rich hues. Furthermore (and I’ll bet that I was the only nerd in the room thinking this), we were celebrating the day of Epiphany (January 6), for which a “light show” is ideal.
The sung “shouts” of praise. I used to think that singing out a melismatic, extended “whoa” was just plain stupid and pointless, but there was an instance in the concert that changed my mind. Right before a loud string of held out “whoa’s” rather high in the male vocal range, we sang about offering up a shout of praise to God. For the first time, I heard a beautiful, well-controlled but shockingly expressive shout of praise. Because the guys sang high, the girls sang low, and the unison effect in the room (yes, you could hear the people) was overwhelming. I don’t know if my church would ever buy it, but I saw a model for “shouts of praise” that might work better than a simple “everybody scream at the same time” kind of approach. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to insert a “whoa” into old hymns to new music, but the door has been cracked for me!
The drumming. I love great drumming. I love creative and expressive drumming. I love tom-work, and syncopations. I love “loud, clanging cymbals.” And I love, in a concert setting, when they’re miced well, EQ-ed well, and thrashed like there’s no tomorrow.
CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACK FOR HILLSONG UNITED
In the three-plus hours that we were there, very little was said about the gospel. Without the gospel, just because you sing and shout “Jesus” a bunch doesn’t mean you’re engaged in truly Christian worship. Worship is about exalting God, but the Bible tells us that God is only rightly approached through the mediation of the Son (1 Timothy 2:5). The gospel is the message of that mediation. Brooke Fraser offered a brief “sermonette,” reading and attempting to apply Jesus’ feeding of the 4,000 in Mark 8. The main thrust of what she said (which is a common misinterpretation of the passage, in my opinion) is that just as Jesus broke the bread, so we need to be broken, too. Throughout the night, we sang lyrics like “One way, Jesus,” and “there is no one else for me // none but Jesus // crucified to set me free // now I live to bring Him praise.” The gospel was indeed there, but it was neither clear nor prominent.
The content was very disjointed. I am speaking both about the flow of ideas from song to song and the flow of ideas within a song. From song to song, there was very little content-connection. There was definitely musical flow, but there wasn’t conceptual flow. I recognize that I’m more liturgically-oriented, which means that I value intentional progression and conceptual flow from element to element in a worship service, but I have a hard time with worship that seems to be a haphazard medley of songs, strung together apparently for musical rather than textual reasons. As for the songs themselves, in my review of Hillsong United’s lastest album, Tear Down the Walls / Across the Earth, I point out that their songs aren’t the best at logical and conceptual coherence. One line doesn’t seem naturally tied to the next. Over 50% of songs felt like that. While I’m not opposed to stream-of-consciousness lyrics at times, United’s version is overkill. Music seems to drive text more than text drives music, and that’s mistake number one in worship songwriting.
To Joel Houston: Please don’t abuse your platform to encourage young people to disparage theology. Toward the end, Joel Houston talked about how people in the church spend time on unimportant theological matters, and then he preceded to say, I believe verbatim:
“I’m sick and tired of people in the church arguing over stupid things.”
Now, without a lot of context, I’m making some assumptions here, but I assume that Houston, due to his experiential faith and denominational background, is knocking theological debate and discourse. When people screamed and applauded after Houston’s statement, I cringed inside. Young people are cynical enough, and I believe Houston abused his platform in that instance, throwing a cheap shot without important clarifications. Of course I understand the sentiment. Christ’s prayer in John 17 is that the church would be one, as He and the Father are one. But I know how those young adults (the future generation of the church) took that. And there’s already been too much anti-intellectual bias in evangelicalism. I find it ironic that many (not all) charismatics continually emphasize the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, without realizing that this is the same “Spirit of truth,” who “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:3). I pray, for the church’s sake, that Houston will change his tune, because he’s leading the next generation astray. Theology can get into unimportant and trivial discussions. But the more you study it, the more you realize how important it is to rightly knowing and loving God. Deep theological reflection is not antithetical to a relationship with Jesus. In fact, it is its backbone.
The mixing was bass-heavy. I’ve been to enough modern rock concerts that I now know it’s the current mixing rage to crank up the subs so you can “feel” the music. I love that. I love the rumble of the music inside of me. Classical music lovers may not admit it, but when an orchestra swells in a reverberant room and you feel the vibrations inside your body, there’s something euphoric about it. So I like a good sub-rumble. However, as a guitarist, I was looking to hear the high end chimey nature of a well-played Gretsch, mixed with verb, delay, sustains, and tube distortion. Even on lead breaks, the electric guitar was drowned out by the drone of the subs amplifying the bass guitar, kick drum, and keys. Bummer. Because of this, I didn’t think United’s live sound came close enough to their recorded sound. More electric and acoustic guitars, less low-end, please. That’s just my opinion.
I realize that two nights ago I was standing in a pretty privileged position. Who else in the US will be treated to a Hillsong United worship concert this year? Those Aussies don’t make it up to the states near enough. And they are a phenomenon. They’ve uniquely tapped into the hearts of youth and young adults and pointed them to Jesus. Overall, my experience was great. I hope Hillsong will pay attention to little voices like me who want to see them improve and become even better at what they’re doing.