Lessons Punk Rock Can Teach The Church, Part 2

*This is the 2nd installment of I have no idea how many, maybe 7? I also can’t guarantee they’ll be on successive days or whatever. Just roll with it, okay? 🙂

“And, the sound board operator can hit a button that will mute the guitar, so when the person playing sets it down, the crowd won’t hear it! That same feature will also work if the musician decides to unplug the cord that goes into the guitar, too!”

That was actually said at a meeting nearly a decade ago. One in which technicians from our sound & audio visual department were informing our elder board of all the benefits of the new sound board they wanted to purchase for our church. That portion of the meeting lasted over half an hour. The technicians were pleased with all the bells & whistles. The deacons were pleased that they’d come in under budget. The elder board was pleased that certain elements that had caused distraction were going to be eliminated from the worship service. The volunteers who were going to use it were certainly going to be pleased. Surely, the members of our church were going to be pleased since those elements that caused distraction weren’t going to cause distraction.

The meeting was win, win, win, win, win.

Oh, and there have been other meetings.

I’ve been in on all sorts of discussions involving video screens and where they need to be placed…there’s one in the back of our auditorium so the singers can see the same words the congregation is singing and the speaking pastor can see what the church members see.

There have been discussions as to the number of video projection units we need in the building (and the cost of replacement bulbs). Discussions about which software works best for our needs (Media Shout, EZ Worship, or good ol’ Power Point). Discussions about whether or not we should have pictures behind the words or just a solid color (and, actually, which particular solid color). Discussions about the number of lighting gels we need and who would change them out. Discussions about volume of music. Discussions about sound baffles. Discussions about lighting angles. Discussions about getting that sound engineer to take a look at our speaker system to get the best coverage. Discussions about where to put the sound board for the praise band’s monitors. Discussions about skirt length on women vocalists. Discussions on how light or dark the room should be and when that should change and to what degree that should change. Discussions on who, what, where, when and how on showing video before or after a sermon. Discussions on how many musicians & singers we can get on stage without it looking to crowded. Discussions on the required level of technical excellence musicians & singers should have.

Oh, man. I could go on. In my 12 years at my suburban church, we’ve had lots of discussions about lots of aspects of our worship service.

And, to some degree, I get it. I mean, we’ve had similar discussions in my own little area of student ministry. We’ve got drums & computers & lights & stages & sound boards & speakers & video screens & et. al. So, I’ve lead meetings with topics like I listed above.

But you know what?

I don’t really care about much of that any more.

I can’t believe that I got sucked in to caring about that stuff, either. It’s a uniquely suburban megachurch discussion. And, since I worked in a unique suburban megachurch that stuff does matter somewhat.

But, I came back around a few years ago.

See, our student ministry grew. When my mom, the beloved Charlotte-the-Scar, would comment that I should put on a suit and become a pastor of a church, I’d laugh. My student ministry was bigger than the church she attended every Sunday. If statistics are correct, our student ministry was larger than most churches in America on any given Sunday.

And our staff meetings went from praying for students and discussion of ways we could minister to them to discussions of who would run sound, who was editing the video clip, who would control the power point slides (speaker or computer tech), brainstorming of songs we could sing that would compliment the lesson, to whether or not a certain guitar player was READY to lead worship yet, etc.

I couldn’t believe how much time, energy & effort was consumed by technology and such.


…we stopped.

We simply stopped.

We bought Kristy a djimbe drum.
We found somebody each week that could play an acoustic guitar.
We did cave in, after a few weeks, and provide xeroxed worship lyrics (which required a minimal lighting adjustment, by the way).
We did use a couple of microphones.

And people thought we were cutting edge.

When, in actuality, it was an old punk rock ethos: Just plug it in an let it rip.

I don’t know that I ever saw a punk band do a sound check that went beyond saying “check” into a microphone or maybe bang on a drum one or two times. Or strumming an “F” twice.

Most punk bands had spray-painted their logo onto a bedsheet and hung it behind the drummer using nails.

They didn’t warm up.

They didn’t post lyrics…you were pretty much expected to have gotten some bootleg cassette of the band you were going to see and they knew you’d been listening endlessly and exclusively for two weeks and had learned what you thought they might be.

They didn’t worry if there was too much reverb or distortion or if they got slap off the back wall. They’d only found the club a week ago and only brought their equipment in an hour before. Bands just plugged into each other’s amps and used the house PA on generic settings.

And technical excellence wasn’t an issue. Ask Sid Vicious. And/or Johnny Rotten. Or you could create your own unique virtuosity. Ask any Ramone. And/or Patti Smith.

Yet, those that experienced a great band at a punk club knew that experience was better than seeing Emerson, Lake & Palmer in all their technical, magnificent glory. It was better than catching the Eagles in a stadium. It was better than the polish of Boston live. It was better than Electric Light Orchestra’s production value. It was even better than Peter Frampton’s glam or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s confederate folksy appeal to Joe Six Pack.

There’s something beautiful about the punk simplicity. They didn’t overcomplicate things.

In fact, just yesterday I got this quote from Chrissie Hynde (of the Pretenders…and yes, they were part of the punk movement. If you played CBGB’s with the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, et al., you’re IN, man. But, like the Clash, the Pretenders actually used their artistic talent to evolve…which many punk bands didn’t have the chops for), discussing the current state of rock and roll: “It used to be a secret between the audience and the artist. But I think a lot of bands turned it into a sport, like, ‘We want to be the biggest band in the world and play in the biggest places.’ It just got all flabby and stupid. Musicians started going to gyms, and it was all about the choreography. That’s not my cup of tea. Think small–that’s my motto.”–quoted in Rolling Stone, October 16, 2008 edition, page 32. If there’s a cooler 57-year-old on the planet, I don’t know who it is.

Anyway, I think the church, or at least the suburban church, has become flabby and stupid.
Too polished.
Too technologically dependent.
Too worried about the venue.
Too thoughtful about the technical excellence.
Too concerned about sound and visual enhancements.

I could go on.

But I think we need to strip it down.
Way down.
Way back.
And get our attitudes adjusted, man. If I hear one more person tell me that they didn’t enjoy worship because they sound was “like soup” or “too loud” or “too quiet” or “the photos distract me from the words” or whatever else “prevents me from enjoying worship” I might just start moshing around.

You went to a punk club and you left with your ears ringing and you talked too loudly to your friends outside, but I can assure you that you didn’t once discuss that “the way the Replacements mixed the sound kept me from enjoying that song” or “Husker Du didn’t even have their band logo on stage anywhere” or “Bad Religion was so loud that I couldn’t hear the people next to me singing” or “Chrissie Hynde’s skirt length kept me from focusing on the words to ‘Back on the Chain Gang’.” Nope. You just talked about what a great show you just saw and got in your car and played the cassette tape you’d been listening to for weeks and just heard the same songs because you really just loved that band.

Like Chrissie said in the same article, when asked about how she warms up for a show, “But it’s rock & roll–if you need to warm up, God help you.”

We could learn something from the punk movement: The venue, the setting, the presentation, the equipment & the visuals are only important in that they give you a place to get your message out. But they aren’t the message and to waste valuable time, energy and money on these things, well, might just be a waste of valuable time, energy and money.

More on that tomorrow, folks.

Have at it.