Citizenship Confusion: Auto-tuned Elevation Church

Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

This week I was reminded of the danger of confusing the rhetoric and style of the world with that of the Kingdom when I saw a YouTube video of the Elevation Church worship team singing “All Creatures of our God and King” through a vocoder and auto-tune.

This video was released on the Elevation Worship site with the following statement:

“This past weekend we opened our worship experience of ‘All Creatures Of Our God And King.’ Incredible hymn. Obviously. We wanted to lead it through a vocoder and some auto-tune to get creative at each of our campuses as we kicked off our new series ‘The Prodigy In Me.’ And now we want to share it with you guys. Hope you enjoy.”

I believe we have tremendous freedom in our worship. We are not restricted to a cappella, the Psalms, traditional hymns, traditional hymns reworked, or contemporary praise and worship. However, I do believe that our purpose in worshiping is strictly defined and that certain forms of worship pursue that purpose better than others.

Aside from giving glory to God, Paul tells us in Colossians 3:16 that we are to encourage each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. In other words, there is both a vertical and horizontal vision to worship. We sing to God to glorify Him and with our brothers and sisters to encourage them. What we don’t do is sing to glorify ourselves or to feel or experience something. Worship goes outward, away from us, which is one reason that we sing. Our words literally leave us and journey to God and our neighbor for His honor.

Our culture’s music has a quite different purpose: to please, to entertain, and to delight, amongst other things. What is key is that at a secular concert our attention is (usually) drawn toward the performer and/or internally to our emotions and experience. And this is appropriate for other forms of music, music that is not intended as worship. But when worship music gets confused with secular music, as I believe happens with Elevation’s cover of “All Creatures…” the focus gets directed to the worship band and/or leader and towards the internal experience of hearing the song.

The lighting, camera work, staging (leader at center-stage), and even appearance of the leader (attractive male with hip clothing and perfectly mussed hair) all work to draw our attention toward the worship leader as the focus of the song.Worst of all, the orchestration of the song inherently excludes the voices of the congregation almost entirely. The common practice of raising the volume of the worship leader’s vocals far, far above those of the congregation is often a distraction from the communal focus of worship, but to use a vocoder and auto-tune significantly exacerbates the problem. The leader’s voice is completely foreign to the congregation’s voices (except, I suppose, the voices of any robots). Rather than emphasize unity and equality before Christ, the song emphasizes the dramatic difference between the band and the church. The congregation is left on the outside of the worship experience, literally in the dark of the audience.

Audience. Here we come to the crux of the problem. The congregation, a community meeting in the Lord’s house to share in the Lord’s table, to hear the Lord’s Words, and to sing glory to the Lord is confused with an audience.

While we have great freedom to be creative in our worship, we should use our creativity for the purpose of glorifying God and encouraging one another, not simply “to get creative.”

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • Matt

    For a much-needed reprieve from the “Are Games Art?” question let’s ask: Are worship songs art?

  • Matt

    Thinking about this some more, I think we try too hard sometimes to get people to “buy-in” to worship. Sure we want to see the church worshiping enthusiastically and emotionally, but we certainly need to be sure that we encourage that worship with substance and not just style.

  • PastorMatt

    While I agree we need to be thoughtful about our worship, I will push back on your comments concerning the role of emotions in worship.

    For instance, 2 Samuel 6:20 records David ecstatically dancing before the Lord (and the nation) when the Ark was returned to Jerusalem. Mical, one of his wives judged him.

    “David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.”

    Likewise, the Psalms are loaded with “emotional” songs.

    Also, there is some biblical precedent for there being a worship leader–even singing solos!

    Exodus 15:20-21

    Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them:
    “Sing to the Lord,
    for he is highly exalted.
    Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea.”

    At least in both of these instances, emotional and wholehearted outpouring to God is encouraged. I’m sure David danced creatively and Miriam sang a song no one else knew.

    The difference between Godly and unGodly worship does indeed have to do more with the subject of our praise–whether that’s explicit in our words or intrinsically through our actions. And while I can’t say this was my favorite rendition of this song, what I did see around 2:40ish– is others worshiping God too.

  • Alan Noble

    Pastor Matt,

    I debated whether or not to qualify my statement about emotions and in the end, as you know, decided to let them stand, but I agree with your points. Here’s a clarified statement:

    Emotions will always be a part of worship. They cannot not be. And they are even good! However, the emotions we feel are not the end/purpose/goal we seek when we worship God. The problem with emotions, as I see it, arises when we begin to see our emotions as the end of worship, the goal, rather than a good, natural, and proper aspect or outgrowth of our faithful worship. This confusion can lead to an emphasis on worship music that will move us emotionally, but does not edify us, encourage each other, or invite us to glorify God.

    Does that help? In any case, thanks for pointing to that part of the article. I don’t want to sound like I’m advocating some gnostic, emotionless worship.

  • Billy

    I enjoyed reading your perspective and I appreciate that it’s causing me to reflect on what is appropriate in a corporate worship setting. I don’t come to the same conclusion, however.

    “Rather than emphasize unity and equality before Christ, the song emphasizes the dramatic difference between the band and the church. The congregation is left on the outside of the worship experience, literally in the dark of the audience.”

    Does this mean that music outside of congregational singing does not belong in the church? Doesn’t the use of fine arts in the church require that those onstage have some sort of skill that likely the average congregant does not? If painting or dance were to be used in a congregational scenario, does it alienate those in the seats because they are not participating? Perhaps more importantly, is it possible to use performance elements and not bring the sole focus on the performer?

    Our church seeks to include our entire congregation, both young and old, in corporate worship of Jesus Christ using whatever methods we feel are relevant, respectful, and hopefully stretching the horizons of each person. Young tend towards edgy, old tend towards ancient – I like to include both for the purpose of teaching an appreciation for the different languages God can be glorified through.

  • Alan Noble

    If people are interested in hearing more on why I think there are good reasons to exclude some styles of music from worship, on why this isn’t all just an issue of “taste,” “preference,” or “culture,” let us know in the comments and I’ll try to respond in a new post soon.

  • Billy

    Ironically, our church is nowhere near any extremes when it comes to musical styles. I would be interested in hearing more of your perspective.

  • Kyle

    Alan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I appreciate your philosophy of congregational singing – that it is corporate, participatory, and has vertical and horizontal dimensions. Creativity for the sake of creativity can inhibit the biblical reason for congregational singing – glorification of God and edification of one another. I would be very interested to hear your side of the worship music style argument. If you were to write a new post on that issue, I would definitely read it.

  • http://thesecondeclectic.blogspot.com Adam

    “music that is not intended as worship”

    Intentions aside, is any music not worship? Music is longing and desire; that is worship, I think. Music moves us to desire, to worship.

  • Alan Noble

    Adam

    Sure, all our thoughts and actions can and should be worship. However, there is a specific kind of worship that we are called to in Christian community. Paul talks about. It is corporate worship. And it has distinct characteristics. One characteristic is that it is not primarily about our individual experience (longing and desiring) but our corporate act of worship. Does that help?

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    @Adam – I made music this morning on my way to work (as I do every morning that I go to work). It was a song about Schroedinger’s Cat chasing Pavlov’s dog and how Felice (the cat) steals the souls of children and how an unnamed subject is susceptible to the effects of the full moon. And to werewolves. It was a good song. Well-paced and interpretively complex.

    It was not, in any appreciable or proper sense, worship. Despite the fact that God might be glorified in my creative expression, when we speak of worship, we are speaking to overt intentionality. Is praise being offered *to* God? And in a corporate setting, is it being offered corporately?

    @Billy – “If painting or dance were to be used in a congregational scenario, does it alienate those in the seats because they are not participating?” I can’t imagine why we would want painting or dance to be a part of our corporate experience—any more than we would want a demonstration of plumbing or Tetris to be a part of our corporate worship experience. In the fellowship of the body of Christ we are coming together as one to magnify God and by that intention, anything that serves to elevate the individual at the expense of the assembly is distancing from corporate worship. It might be fun and it might be neat, but we should call it something else.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Seth,

    I completely agree with you. I like this feeling.

  • http://www.FillingMyPatchOfSky.com Erin Straza

    I asked for input from some of my friends who are gifted musically and/or lead worship at various churches. They replied via Facebook, so I’m pasting excerpts from their thoughts here. Visit the comment thread to get the full helping.

    Tim: I’m not offended they did this in church. I’m okay with artistically tying a topic to a special piece of music or media. I could see this being used as an initial “element” to transition a person’s thoughts from “What are we eating after church? Do we need to go to WalMart?” to capturing their attention at the start of the service. . . . What I really don’t agree with in the article are the shots at the use of lighting, camera work, staging, sound levels of the singer, etc. I believe those are unrelated topics apart from the use of the auto-tune effect. The use of lighting, staging, sound levels, etc can enhance my time with God. Do I need those things to worship? No, but I can appreciate them and do find them as wonderful tools when used intentionally with skill.

    Shannon: They have a predominantly younger congregation. I think God is totally using things like light, sound, and yes auto tune to reach those people. They had over 2,000 baptisms in two weekends last month. Kind of unbelievable…and Acts like!

    Josh: In our humanness, we can disengage or sing it without thinking about what we’re singing because we “know it” or “have sung it so many times.” I’m always trying to think, how can I mix this song up a bit, without making it distracting. . . . The younger generation hears these vocal effects in everyday music, and it wouldn’t be “distracting” to them. The hard truth with the younger generation is with so much media, their expectations become heightened for lights, sounds, videos, etc. This is where the church has a bigger challenge. How do we do “good” production, that glorifies God, doesn’t point to the earth, but to the heavens, but still not lose the simplicity of singing a hymn with just a piano and one single white light on the stage.

  • http://www.FillingMyPatchOfSky.com Erin Straza

    The debate about auto-tune in worship continues . . . but what about beating stars and singing whales? Would those be welcome additions to our praise?

    Check out this clip from Louie Giglio’s message, starting @ 32:25 and ending @ 48:20:
    http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/the-global-god-who-gives-the-great-commission

  • Adam Marshall

    You know, what really frustrates me about this is their response (repeated here for convenience’s sake):

    “This past weekend we opened our worship experience of ‘All Creatures Of Our God And King.’ Incredible hymn. Obviously. We wanted to lead it through a vocoder and some auto-tune to get creative at each of our campuses as we kicked off our new series ‘The Prodigy In Me.’ And now we want to share it with you guys. Hope you enjoy.”

    It’s the use of the word “creative” there that irks me. It seems like a stretch to say that just applying a fancy voice effect to an otherwise traditional song constitutes “creativity” in any real sense. Is it different? Yeah. Is it unexpected? Probably. But “creativity” implies a lot more than innovation. It’s about shaping a piece of art in such a way that the form and content complement each other, lending each other power for the achievement of that artwork’s overarching purpose.

    Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel that the use of auto-tune in this song does exactly the opposite. “All Creatures of Our God and King” is a song primarily about Creation’s worship of God. Significantly, this worship takes place through natural means. The vocoder, on the other hand, augments the human voice, stripping it of its raw imperfection and giving it a distinctly unnatural tone. In this case, form doesn’t cooperate with content – it undermines it, ultimately creating a conflicting message about the posture of worship in general (do we approach God as we are, as he made us? Or should we attempt to augment our natural selves, trying to improve on those things that make us unworthy?).

    I do not mean to be disrespectful, but I have to think that true “creativity” would not have led to such an artistic misstep.

  • Amy

    As a 40-something cradle Catholic (who also likes to attend Elevation Church), I have loved the hymn “All Creatures of our God and King” all my life. I’ve heard it performed in formal sacred settings countless times and think it is beautiful. That being said, I LOVED Elevation’s interpretation of it and do not think it was disrespectful in any way. I was present at the original performance and I had a powerful emotional response to it that almost moved me to tears. I respect the talent of the performer, but my response had nothing to do with his appearance or the staging of the performance. I disagree that the vocoder detracted from the song; it just provided a new interpretation of it. In fact, I feel the new interpretation honored the song by breathing new life into it and introducing it to a new generation of listeners who might otherwise never hear it. I applaud Elevation’s creativity – to me it is a breath of fresh air.

  • joey everett

    Ridiculous! Go and do something for the advancement of the kingdom and stop tearing down others in the body who do! It was absolutely creative and a stunning arrangement of the hymn. Do you think King David changed some lyrics or a melody on the harp because he thought it might take someone’s focus off God? No, he just did what came natural to him, using his talent to bring glory to God. Seriously, this blog alone is what turns artsy and creatives off to the gospel. We must present the gospel in a way that is relevant to our culture, just like Jesus and the apostles did! Stop criticizing your brother and stop making the Kingdom of God move backwards. Is worship only singing and an experiential time that you have with a couple of other people? Is only the way you see worship the way that we are all to see it? Did not God create all things? When we create good new things, are we not just doing what He did? He created us in his image to be like Him? Why don’t you create a blog to lift up the church and unify it rather than picking it apart? People worship differently, for the same reason that they like different cereal brands or different kinds of clothing. I’m sure you would prefer worship with an organ and a man in a suit waving his hand as he leads a hymn, or perhaps just to gather in a home and sing aloud with a few believers. That’s fine, it’s worship all the same. No one is criticizing those ways, why must you criticize this way. It’s not about the style (vocoder, auto-tune, drums) or the dress (cool t-shirt, jeans, hip hair, etc.) – you have no business saying this doesn’t give glory to God. Are you God, did he tell you it wasn’t worship? The only thing I truly know from Jesus about worship is the statement He made in John 4 to the woman at the well. He said “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. The best thing for you and I to do is ask ourselves if we are worshipping Him in this way. Not worry about others, we cannot know the thoughts and hearts of others – God himself is our judge and jury. You, my brother in Christ, are doing more harm to the kingdom than good, by your tearing down and cutting at others. I say all of this in love – my love for you, my Savior, and his Kingdom. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is advancing – let’s be part of it!

  • http://goodokbad.com/ The Dane

    That was an awesome jumble of words and I loved every moment of it.

  • http://www.allyourpictures.com Todd McCarty

    As a concert photographer, I have shot worship during services, worship during concerts and worship after concerts by the same musicians who were performing earlier and now functioning as worship leaders. I don’t personally like worship during services where the overheads show tight close ups of performer/leaders and high end production that looks more like a concert video… does that make it wrong? I’m not sure.

    When I see Kari Jobe, Israel Houghton, or others lead worship it often can look like a performance and you could interpret it as too glorifying to the leader. As a keyboardist and one time band member, I was often humbled and overwhelmed while leading worship. It is so difficult to pour out yourself in a way that is both professional as a musician and humble as a servant.

    I realize that I am not answering this thread with scripture and perhaps create more questions, but perhaps it is prudent to remember the words of Eric Liddell if they are presented accurately in the movie Chariots of Fire. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” God made us all for a purpose, His earthen vessels for His purposes. As those vessels we should strive to share the grace and blessing He has given us in our art, our work, our vision, our purpose, and our service. If that is to sing and perform creatively, then we should do so. Thoughtfully, respectfully, but with all the joy, celebration and expression that He has given us.

    From one vessel to another. Blessings.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    I just pictured a church corporately playing Tetris. And laughed. Thanks, Seth.

  • Carlos

    Hey All, I stumbled upon this post while actually looking for this video and felt that I should share my story on this.

    I’ve heard this hymn hundreds of times growing up, I was pretty familiar with it. I’d hear it, say ‘oh how pretty’ and move on with my life. However when I first heard this arrangement I was pretty awestruck for several different reasons. Something about the arrangement as a whole, not just the use of auto tune, resonated in me and gave me a deeper appreciation for the hymn and what it’s about. Since hearing it, I’ve found myself multiple times singing this song in my head while in my morning bible study, or doing whatever really. I crave hearing this hymn in any arrangement now. Today I wanted to hear this arrangement, which is how I stumbled on this post. So I figure it must’ve done the same for someone else. And if that’s true, then I guess it is ok to go out on a limb every now and then in the effort to do something different in order to get peoples attention.

  • justin

    Deff couldnt disagree more with you. If worship isnt pleasing, entertaining, and delightful then no one will enjoy it as much as they should. The message hasnt changed but the methods have. and what you cant argue with is the fact that elevation is one of the fastest growing churches in America, partly because Steven Furtick is amazing but also partly because they arent afraid to step outside of the so called boundaries that are put on the church in music and in teaching… If them using auto-tune gets more people in the doors to hear the gospel, then use auto tune in every song, who cares…. i think you are focusing way to much on being spiritual and i also think this article was a waste of your time to write. You probably need to look at yourself and your own walk with God before you take time to write articles on such things as minute as the use of auto tune./ Focus on more important aspects, like preachers who arent doing what they are suppose to, or churches that dont preach the gospel the way it should be, not a holy spirit filled church who is reaching the lost with methods that you may be “uncomfortable” with or you may disagree with because quite frankly i dont think God cares about auto-tune as long as it glorifys him.

  • Nate

    It is a shame that you have been caught up in the timeless debate of musical style. It is quite sad that someone who is so highly educated, would be caught up in such juvenile criticisms. Please stay far away from spreading your dividing and critical observations about a church who is reaching their community and the world. Maybe you could put your time (and use your education) into writing songs of worship that people can culturally understand.

  • Beth

    Love your blog and find your insights thoughtful and thought provoking. This one hit a bit close to home because even though I live 2 hours away from Elevation, my son is on staff there and has been from the very beginning – so I do have a unique, albeit biased, viewpoint and I’ve worshipped at Elevation a few times a year. Because your example of Elevation and many of your comments were reposted (with credit) on another blog I read as a perfect nonexample of congregational worship, I decided to chime in. I asked my son to tell me about that day…
    “That song in particular opened a service and was meant to be a performance song during a series that each week opened with a unique musical element – the week before we had a guitarist play a whole song with just his guitar but looped it to sound like many instruments. At any rate though, the ‘All Creatures’ rendition became an incredibly worshipful moment with people standing and raising their hands until by the end the whole congregation of all ages were on their feet praising Jesus. I was there and the spirit of God in the room was palpable…”

    So in part, because you didn’t have the true background of the video, you were unable to ascertain that this was a intended as a perforamce song much like a “special music” song, organ or piano music during the offering, handbell performance, orchestra or string ensemble, etc. It was not intended as congregational worship, but actually became that with spontaneous worship of the congreagtion which would lead me to believe that it was indeed worship.

    I would love to see you revisit this post in light of your 01/30/12 post.


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