Rich Mullins Had Praise & Worship’s Number

Rich Mullins Had Praise & Worship’s Number September 5, 2018

For fans of Rich Mullins, YouTube’s one-stop Mullins shop the Ragamuffin Archive is bringing you Christmas early. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Mullins legacy-preservers Andrew Montonera and Joe Cook, lost footage from an old workshop taped by LeSea broadcasting is being digitized and released to the public. Some of Mullins’s best teaching and live moments were taped at this workshop over the course of a couple days and have been available for years. But what fans didn’t know was that much more had been left on the cutting-room floor.

This footage caught Rich at a good moment in his life. Besides being one of the only times the only time in his life that he had a decent haircut, it was around the time he was finishing up a music degree at Friends University, in preparation for what he hoped would be a fruitful period of teaching and ministry at a Native missions school out west. (In one of those unexpected tragedies of life that are really nobody’s fault, this dream would die a quiet but heart-wrenching death. It’s probably no coincidence that he looks his most weather-beaten and disheveled in his last taped concert in 1997.)

His spoken teaching from the seminar is available here. With his signature homespun wisdom and skill, Mullins makes timely point after point. Perhaps most prescient are his comments on evangelical worship. At the time, worship music qua mass market CCM phenomenon was not a thing, but more “seeker-sensitive” churches were bringing drums into the sanctuary. It was a foretaste of the kind of “experience-creating” in worship that many evangelical churches have now gotten down to a science.

It is ironic that Rich should have been a dissenting voice here, given that he is arguably one of the godfathers of worship music. One fan remembers a concert where Rich was sick and asked the fans to help by singing most of the songs with/for him. In hindsight, particularly on songs like “Awesome God” and “Sometimes By Step,” you could see the germ of what today is considered the standard model for leading worship. (Credit should also be given to his co-writer Beaker here, by the way, who wrote the entire “Step By Step” chorus before Rich added verses.) Then again, Rich himself soon came to view “Awesome God” as something of an albatross. At one concert, in classic Rich fashion, he even bluntly told the crowd that he sometimes got tired of singing it ad nauseum. “It’s a good song, I’m not saying it ain’t, I’m just sayin’…”

Nevertheless, a perceptive and wise dissenting voice he was, as I think is now abundantly clear. Money quote:

Worries me that in churches, the demand among people my age and younger is that we make services more exciting to us. I kinda go, “You don’t go to church for excitement. That’s why you go to movies!” We go to church for fellowship, we go to church to be taught the Apostles’ doctrine and we go to church for the breaking of bread. We go to church for the sake of sharing all things. We don’t go to church for thrills. And yet, we find that part of our religious experience so boring, that now suddenly, you can’t only have church with a piano and an organ. Suddenly, you have to have an entire orchestra. All of a sudden, you have to have a rock combo, you have to have a backbeat in order to sing a hymn. Because we want a sensation.

Mullins has hit the nail on the head when he says that if it’s a mere feeling you’re after, church should be the wrong place to find it. Church has far richer and more satisfying things for the believer to bring out from its store.

Yet we have lost this richness, in large part because we have drastically compressed the idea of what it means to “worship.” Today, “worship time” is compartmentalized as synonymous with “congregational singing time.” I don’t deny that congregational singing can facilitate a worshipful spirit in the participant. Yet I would contend that it creates neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for worship to take place. Certainly, in my own church, to say that not all selections from the 1940 Anglican hymnal are calculated to produce maximal worshipfulness would be an understatement. But even when I participate in a Baptist hymn sing, I doubt that if I were to check in on myself and ask “Are we worshipping right now?” I would honestly say “Yes” at all times. Conversely, a silent prayer can be an act of worship. The taking of the sacrament can be an act of worship.

Singing is one thing. Worship is another thing. There is absolutely no reason why the two should be ever and always joined at the hip.

“All right,” you say, “so maybe it’s tacky, but at least it can’t do any harm, right?” Here again, Mullins is prescient:

And you know, what’s very scary to me are people who come away from services where they’ve just been beat to death with sensationalism. And you know what, I enjoy those services too. There’s something really cool about being able to go to a church (I like to do it every occasionally) where you get to clap your hands, and you get to whirl around and sing at the top of your lungs and yell “Amen!” whenever you want, and there’s a rhythm in it… there’s a real tribal kind of exciting thing. But the danger in it, is that we frequently mistake that sensationalistic, wonderful experience for being a spiritual experience. It’s not a spiritual experience. It’s a fun experience, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But if we think that’s spirituality, we’ve missed the boat…We live in a world that says that if it doesn’t feel powerful, it’s probably not real. Well I have a feeling like it is real, whether it feels powerful or not. I have a feeling that maybe sound doctrine is more important than goosebumps. I have a feeling that a real holding all things in common is more spiritual than a lot of dancing around and clapping your hands.

Coming from Mullins, a man who was clinically depressed his whole life long, the injunction to hold fast to what we know rather than what we feel (paging Alistair Begg) carries considerable weight. And it’s a potent reminder that for every naturally cheerful person who is “recharged” week after week by working herself into a psychological state, there is someone desperately afraid that maybe God isn’t there, because he can’t feel a thing.

I am reminded of a very serious young man who once asked me whether he should be worried that he feels nothing when he attends a typical charismatic praise and worship service. All around him, he sees young people in an almost orgasmic state, to all appearances suffused with the Spirit, yet the “experience” does nothing for him. No sensation is produced. “Am I doing this wrong?” he wondered. “What if the Spirit is moving and I’m missing out?” Once again, we have confined ourselves to a stiflingly narrow idea of what it means for the Spirit to move in our lives. From a radio interview, more wisdom:

A lot of times we think something spiritual is happening, and it is merely aesthetics. That is why it always bugs me at the end of a concert, someone will say, “Wow the Spirit really worked,” and I kind of go, “How would you even be able to know that? It was so noisy in here tonight. How would you know if the Spirit was working?” “Well, I was really moved.” Well, that is an emotional thing. That’s not a spiritual thing. A spiritual thing is folding your clothes at the end of the day. A spiritual thing is making your bed. A spiritual thing is taking cookies to your neighbor that’s shut in or raking their front lawn because they are too old to do it. That’s spirituality. Getting a warm, oozy feeling about God is an emotional thing. There is nothing wrong with it. I think there is nothing more practical than real spirituality. But nothing more fun than just a good heartfelt emotional experience of God, because I think emotions are good. They are only dangerous when we come away from an experience where we were emotionally manipulated, and we confuse that with being convicted. I think conviction — there is an emotion that accompanies that, but it certainly goes deeper than just coming away going, “Oh isn’t God neat? Two different worlds.”

I will close with two examples where Mullins shows how leading a congregation in song is really done. One is from the lost LeSea archives, another is from his final Lufkin, TX concert. In the first clip, he spontaneously begins playing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and invites an audience member to come up and join him. It’s a lovely, unforced, thoroughly organic moment, made all the more enjoyable by the fumbles that come with the territory of unrehearsed music-making. It is also an excellent illustration of the mark of a truly melodic tune: that it can be sung by middling to average singers and still sound beautiful. (This, as I have pointed out time and again, is just one feature of old hymns that makes them superior to contemporary P & W specifically from a congregational standpoint. Yet hymns are out, because “people can’t sing them.”)

And finally, from the last concert in Lufkin, TX, what is surely one of the most moving concert moments of his career: Mullins leading the audience in singing “It is Well.” Your guess is as good as mine as to how they got that audience miked so well. However they did it, it is truly a foretaste of glory divine.


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