I Blame Michael W. Smith

Posted on August 27, 2015

Michael_W._Smith_in_June_2014My step-dad Larry told me he had been listening to a lot of “Mike Smith” on CD lately. Larry’s musical tastes and mine had never overlapped much, so I only half-listened. He told me about Mike Smith’s approach to music, worship and public speaking. I had never heard of Mike Smith, so I asked Larry if he had a favorite song of his.

“I love “Above All”” Larry told me. Then it dawned on me.

“Oh, you mean “Michael W. Smith” don’t you?”

“Sure. Don’t they call him “Mike Smith”?”

I guess his crew calls him that. Maybe. No, I doubt it. His brand has always had the full name and middle initial. I envision his wife calling him “Michael W.” when she has dinner ready. I believe his children call him “Daddy W.” I wouldn’t swear on it, but that’s my theory.

I have an ambivalent emotional relationship with Michael W. Smith. First, he is a little too “pop” for my taste. But I admit he sings well, has an ear for songs that fit his range and ability and puts on a great concert. There is little I don’t like about him.

Except he ruined the style of church I love the most. Ruined it. Just took it outside and tied it to his truck and took the corners hard and ripped the skin off it.

I blame Michael W. Smith for the mess we’re in.

In the mid-1990s, MWS toured the United States several times, hawking his brand of pop CCM. These were some of the most well-attended concerts of any genre and he and his team were making a boatload of money. I went to one of the concerts and came away thinking “this guy has figured it out.” I meant the business part of performing, not the God part.

Then he did something unexpected and risky. In the midst of one of his tours, he took a chance and led the concert-goers in an impromptu worship service. He borrowed songs written by friends and put together a set of worship songs most of his audience knew. Because there were 18,000 people there and he had a live band and an already skilled mixer board, sound system, lighting effects, smoke machine, backup singers etc., it was an auditory and cultural experience that few people had ever been part of. The crowd in Houston, TX that night was blown away.

Let me interject a word about pop performers having worship music in their concerts. MWS was not the first or the best to do this. Keith Green started the ball rolling on this one. The Gaither Vocal Band took the aegis of the Gaither Trio and turned it into massive concert experiences. They were completely focused on worship. Don Moen, Vineyard Music, Christ For the Nations Bible Institute, Rich Mullins, Petra, The Imperials, and a lot of other Christian musicians had hosted public worship services before. But MWS did something that no one else had thought of. Essentially, Christian singers could choose one of two formats. They could perform in churches where they led congregations in worship. On the other hand, they could perform rock, folk or pop music with a Christian theme. They utilized concert halls and arenas for these performances. Occasionally, during a song or two, the formats would blur. Petra, for instance, used to perform the worship song “King of Kings” with a heavy metal sound that their fans loved.

But Michael W. Smith for several years made a full 50% of every concert a worship time. This was wildly successful both from a marketing standpoint as well as having spiritual impact on people’s lives. Church-goers who never went to concerts attended the tour stops of MWS. He had to get larger venues to accommodate the crowds. The church crowd and the concert crowd were now blending into one demographic.

This changed the Christian music industry forever. The stars of CCM became the groups that wrote and performed worship music. Their songs crossed over and churches began to sing their music in worship services.  Thus, we saw the emergence of David Crowder, Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Delirious, Kari Jobe, Newsboys, etc. Like most of the people reading this, I like their music. I have enjoyed their concerts and approach. It’s all good. I couldn’t care less who writes the songs we sing or where they are first performed. But it is this worship service/concert blend that I am angry about.

And I still blame Michael W. Smith.

For 20  years now, this style of concert worship has infiltrated church services. The seepage is so complete that anyone who started attending church in the past 20 years will think it has always been this way. But it hasn’t. Let me give a couple of examples.

If you walk into a contemporary church today, the feel is completely different than 20 years ago. If someone was transported from 20 years ago into a church without any context or feel for what has taken place, they would notice the following:

  • They can hardly see because it is so dark (churches used to have as much lght in their buildings as they could)
  • The ceilings and walls are black. (Colors used to be the standard)
  • There is professional stage lighting everywhere (we used to have functional lighting and maybe some flood lights).
  • The drummer’s kick-drum is miked and overpowering. (drums were never miked until recently…and yes, I know this started so the volume of the drums could be controlled. Well, they’re not controlling the kick-drum any longer, they are enhancing it).
  • The platforms are three times the size of what they used to be
  • Musicians cover every inch of the platform (there used to be symbols up there. No longer).
  • Rarely does anyone explain the meaning of the songs. No pastors (except musical pastors) are seen on the platform. (The theology of music used to matter. Hymns would be explained. It is good to know what we’re singing and why. Now, pastors almost never interrupt the “worship set”).
  • Few people in the congregation are singing. (The performers are so loud and the songs so complicated, few people feel like they can sing them. Also, because so many new songs are introduced, few people even know all the words).
  • The lighting changes with the mood of the song. There are pulsating changes to the lighting to match the rhythm of the song.

If you asked this person transported from 20 years earlier where they were, they would say “I’m at a concert.”

Exactly.

Contemporary churches now design their musical worship to mirror concerts. This is because the average church-goer attends concerts and while there, is invited to join in for musical worship. The real problem is the focus on the concert worship is always upon the performers. That’s who you are there to see and hear. And why not? It’s their concert.

The generation that was discipled by Chris Tomlin and Hillsong has come to expect that musical worship will look and sound like a concert. The difficulty with this is, the goal of the concert is the exact opposite of what congregational worship is designed to emulate. We learn from both biblical and historical evidence, music is supposed to be a group experience. We are supposed to see each other, encourage each other (speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs). Now the focus is on the performers and the lighting.

How can you be part of one another, speak to one another, if the lights are completely out and curtains cover every window? By the way, why do churches black out the musical part of their service? One person told me it was so they could see the projector screen better. Well, first of all, that isn’t true. With today’s powerful projectors, you can see the screen clearly even with bright lights on. Second, they don’t do this when the preacher is speaking. The lights go up for that and no one struggles to see the screen.

No, they dim the lights so the focus goes to the front and the performers there.

Why do churches have strobe lighting, mood lighting, spot-lighting? It is all designed to look like a concert, because this is where people associate their most powerful musical moments in worship.

When you look at the words of the song on the screen, in most large churches the background is a video of the worship team playing. The same team you are watching.

I blame Michael W. Smith. And I fully believe he had no idea what he was starting.

My advice to churches is they turn up the lights, turn off the spots, get rid of the mood enhancers, take the mike off the kick-drum, stop putting your “team” on the screen and teach the congregation to sing again. Allow the congregation to be the performers.

Anne Ortlund, in her book “Up With Worship” said this.

“We get worship all backwards. We are right in believing it is like a concert, but we get the roles reversed. We think that the Performers are the musicians and singers, the Prompter is God and the Audience is the congregation. That’s not it at all. The musicians and singers are the Prompters, the congregation are the Performers and the Audience is God.”

“We’re coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you…it’s all about you Jesus.”