Confessions of a Dyed-in-the-Wool Worship Musician

Charlie Lim Band

I just got back from the Blu Jaz Club in Singapore, where I heard some really brilliant jazz music by the Charlie Lim Band. My thanks to Ben Ngooi for the invite!

I have to say, I was inspired. A number of things ran through my mind in the midst of the heady mix of a packed room, poor air circulation and half a bottle of Heineken.

When I was 12 years old, a pastor came through our house to do some “cleansing”. When she got to my room, she began to target some of the music I was listening to. Back then, even though I had very little technical musical knowledge, I was an avid listener of music. I tried to memorise the lyrics of every song that I liked. But that day of cleansing was quite course-changing. I was “convicted” or challenged (or whatever else you like to call it) to get rid of some of the “less-edifying” music.

After struggling with it for a few weeks, I drew the line in the sand and destroyed all my cassette tapes. (Okay, first confession: I kept my Michael Bolton cassette. Please don’t judge me).

Since then, I have devoted my music-listening to just church worship music. I’m sure that decision shaped a lot of who I am today. But I have always wondered whether things would have been different if I had been more open to the music that was going on “out there in the world”.

So today, I got to really indulge. Ben had invited me and Ling to listen to his friend Charlie Lim play. Apparently, Charlie is a Melbourne-based forrmer piano teacher, self-taught guitarist and jazz vocalist. Brilliant!

Now back to some of the thoughts that were going through my head as I basked in Charlie’s wonderful vocal renderings, which mainly had a lot to do with what church musicians (sans Heineken) could learn if we were to come out of our sheltered existence more and embraced some of the things that secular music had to offer.

So the first confession proper. I’ve treated worship music as a self-contained system, as if it were devoid of all influences outside of the church

Now, I’m not saying that all worship musicians are sheltered (or at least as sheltered as me). Some are real trendsetters and don’t shy from some of the innovations in music that’s out there (Delirious comes to mind). But let’s face it: most worship musicians are sheltered. Worship music is safe. The sounds are clean and unmanipulated. That’s part of the “purity” of worship (so we think).

I think worship musicians should be encouraged to go out to a jazz club and have a listen to what cutting edge musicians are doing. It should be a worship team-building exercise. It will inspire you.

Case in point: the opening act tonight was a young lady called Wweishh. I think that’s how she spelled it. She sang into what looked like a set of guitar pedals and delayed her own voice, looping each delay over each other and harmonising with herself before adding a beat with her voice. She was a one-woman acapella machine. Initially, I couldn’t see her above the crowd – I thought there were at least 4 singers on stage. But alas, it was just her.

I’m inspired to get me one of those pedal things and practise with it. Then if it works out, one day I’ll record a worship album called “Delayed Worship”. It will sell in the millions.

Charlie Lim also used an autotune voice-box type device that distorted his vocal sound. Pretty cool, I thought. I wonder whether we can use that in church. At least it might get rid of some of my pitching problems!

Second confession: i liked what I heard.

The church should embrace these new sounds, even if they are coming from secular sources. At the end of the day, God owns and initiates all technology. We can’t really afford to lag behind the world, so even if we have to bite the bullet, let’s start using some of what the world had to offer.

Jesus was in the business of redemption. So should we.

Thirdly, and more a confession of faith is this: there will come a day when the church will not only reclaim the arts, but will spearhead it. I believe that.

The arts communicates and shapes culture in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, and one day, the church won’t just be borrowing from culture, it will be forging the way and breaking new ground for the secular world.

The worship of David was a case in point. I can’t find the reference now, but the Bible says that David created his own musical instruments. As Joseph Garlington once put it, here was a man after God’s own heart who heard the sounds of heaven and found nothing on earth that could replicate them, so he had to invent his own instruments.

Fourthly, the church is crying out for unity but church musicians struggle to play in unity.

There is something wonderfully united about a jazz band. It is a true representation of 1 Corinthians 12: one body/band, many parts. Each playing a significant role.

Tonight’s band consisted of two vocals, two guitars, a keyboard, a bass and drums. You could hear every instrument distinctly. Which is much more than can be said about church worship music which often turns out like a mass of sound.

We can learn a lot from how the jazz musician plays, giving each other instrument the room to express itself, sharing different registers, parts and movements. Each instrument had a part to play, and play it did in unity with each other instrument. No instrument competed for attention. The worship band should be like this, and even more, so should the body of Christ.

Fifthly, we have pedestalised worship musicians for way too long.

Tonight’s setting was refreshingly democratic and familial. I think church worship should strive to be more like a jazz band in a small bar than a rock concert in a stadium even though for the good part of the last 10 years, the latter seems to have been our aspiration.

But in a small bar setting, there was performance without pretension. There was the sense that the musicians were at one with the crowd, that in fact, they were one of us even though we had come to watch them. Without pomp and ceremony, Charlie Lim took to the stage, then later brought Wweishh back to the stage to do a duet before bringing the rest of his band up. Before that, presumably, the musicians were just mingling and having a drink or two. They easily blended in without the sense of celebrity.

Charlie would talk about how he hoped the song would work, how they didn’t really get much time to rehearse beforehand, how a friend in the crowd would later come up and do a rap. I like this whole “let’s just figure it out as we go along” feel. It wasn’t a production. It was more like some passionate, talented people inviting the audience into their enjoyment.

I believe the church needs to move away from big-conference style, big-name worship leader-led worship. Often, that sort of worship is unnaturally hyped. God uses it, no doubt. But it’s so refreshing to see the musicians as your peers too rather than pedestalised celebrities.

So tonight, I’m inspired. I’m inspired to see what’s out there. I’m inspired to start experimenting more. We need to create safe spaces for our worship musos to push boundaries beyond the usual and the tried-before.

Next year, me and my friend Darren are going to get some worship musicians and worship leaders together, hire a rehearsal studio and just worship together. We will have a safe environment to try new things out and to enjoy God together. If it works out, we will invite the church into our overflowing enjoyment Hopefully, I’ll have my autotune pedal thingy by then.

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