Key Values In Worship
Casey Corum & Jeff Heidkamp
Casey Corum & Jeff Heidkamp
This article was originally published in Cutting Edge Magazine Vol.15 no10: Worthship Image taken from the original Cutting Edge Magazine Design: Art Direction & Design by Spindle Studios, www.spindlestudios.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
A Conversation with Casey Corum.
Casey Corum is the leader of the Vineyard Worship Task Force and a songwriter and recording artist for Vineyard Music.
Jeff Heidkamp: Let’s talk about some big- picture values.
Here’s a true cliché: People say that worship is about our whole lives, not just about what happens on Sunday morning. That’s true—but Sunday morning worship feels like it matters a lot. It’s not quite the same as going to work on Monday. From your point of view, what’s unique and important about corporate worship in a church setting?
Casey Corum: Like you said, worship can be bigger than the songs we sing at times we’re gathered together — it’s really meant to be about our whole life. But I don’t think it’s automatic, and it can even be a cop-out at times.
My concern is that we can devalue our gathered times. When we use the word “worship,” which is shorthand for giving our lives to God or singing to God, I wonder if the word has lost a bit of its good taste just because it’s gotten washed out.
From a social perspective, we come from a church culture that used to say worship was our church service. That’s true in a sense; in fact, I just read a recent push-back on this by John Piper, who said that worship isn’t just the songs we sing. Preaching is worship too. And he’s right.
So we had the colloquial definition of worship as the church service. Then, in the last 30 years or so, worship definitions in the Vineyard and some other churches changed. John Wimber asked, “What does God get out of our worship when we just come here and go through the motions?”
Then some churches started using the word “worship” to describe the first chunk of our service being dedicated to focus on God. Over time, it’s come to describe only the singing time or the songs we sing.
That’s why this push-back is happening now. So we shouldn’t forget the lesson we’re relearning, that worship isn’t just about the music. There is truth in saying that it’s about our whole lives. But I also want to fight for the gathered time where we come together seeking God. It’s not solely about the music, but somehow the music is involved. It’s a mysterious exchange that happens between us and God. It has just as much to do with the heart as with externals…issues of focus, of our hearts’ intentions.
I don’t want to devalue the music itself. I don’t want to devalue our gathering time. Yes, those things are the means of grace, and they can definitely get out of whack. But music has been powerful in my own life, and people all over our church movement have testimonies of walking into times of corporate worship and beginning to cry. They say, “I don’t know why. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
What’s happening is that the music is allowing room for the in-breaking of the kingdom of God and for it to come and change us.
Maybe worship is the wrong word. Maybe it’s a perfectly good word. I don’t know a better word for it.
JH: Could you try to find one?
CC: Some words I think of are perhaps equally well-traveled: “encounter,” “in-breaking,” “exchange.” My perspective is, it’s not about just singing songs — it’s about singing and believing that someone is listening. There is an expectancy. There’s faith. There is so much wrapped into it. It’s not just the words, but also that the words come from a seeking heart. All of that is important.
JH: Thinking in terms of the Vineyard community, which aspects and of musical worship are especially important to you? What values are key to you as you lead that kind of worship?
CC: One keyword I think is still relevant is intimacy. The Vineyard has also used accessibility and authenticity. I borrowed these liberally from Brian Doerksen years ago. I still think it was a good idea.
CC: It’s good to unpack the word “intimacy.” Yes, we should be singing to God, not just about him…but it goes deeper than that, into the heart of where it’s all coming from. The expectancy and faith that God is on the other end of the line. At times we can lose that sense of expectancy, which can play out in our practice.
I’m of the belief that God can move in the moment, in a spontaneous way. I also believe that God can speak in advance and we follow that plan “by the book.” It’s easy to fall to one side of the ditch or the other. But we should always leave room for God to interact with us in the middle of a worship gathering.
Of course, that raises other issues: the timing of service, the quality of musicality, the song choice, and other things.
JH: You’re not saying that spontaneity is in itself a virtue — is that right? Just because something is spontaneous doesn’t make it better. But there is something about an openness to that spontaneity that speaks to some kind of faith and belief that there is a living God who can do whatever he wants.
CC: Right. And that experience becomes conversational. We don’t come into any conversation with a script. We respond to what the other person says back to us. If there’s a rote or going-through-the-motions piece of what we’re saying, maybe it’s not really a conversation. So when God wants to do or say something unexpected, there is a place for working that out.
It doesn’t mean our work should be completely unplanned or spontaneous! But at the times we truly respond in a spontaneous way, it’s potentially more connected to what we’re actually thinking or feeling or believing in that moment. It’s an openness.
I suppose we can be spontaneously false as well. But there is something kind of real and visceral about it: “This is what I am dealing with in this moment, with God, right now.”
JH: Could you substitute the word “relational” for “intimacy”?
CC: I think so, yes.
JH: That helps me a lot, because I stumble on the word “intimacy.” In my head it means that things have to be soft and people should be crying. But it should also mean engaging in a relationship. We’re going back and forth, talking and listening and responding. I can get my hands around that.
CC: I’ll walk out on a ledge for a second. Without canonizing everything that I think is equally as cool as what’s happening within the Vineyard, I think our values pertaining to worship music can be seen in some external pieces of great art.
There is something about a connected performance. People tap into YouTube performances, for instance. YouTube has created great “in-the-moment” engagement with its audience. It can create moments of connection with the Divine.
There are moments in great art where we see this saying come to life: “Some things are better caught than taught.” I can point at these moments when I see them.
A recent musical example I can think of is the video circulating on Facebook of Robert Plant and the Band of Joy. The song is “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” But it’s done in an Alison Krauss and “Raising Sand” style. I watched the video, and there was this huge level of engagement. I’m not saying all the members in the band were worshipping God, but they were really connected to each other. They were connected to the song. And we, as watchers observing it, are wrapped up in that as well. I could definitively point to that video and say, “This has something extra.”
There are numbers of moments like that. Another recent moment for me was attending a Mumford & Sons concert. I know Marcus Mumford, and maybe I can say that he has struggled with this or that concept, knowing the direct seedbed of all that. But even if I hadn’t known anything about him, it was one of the most powerful times of worship I’ve had, period.
I know the Vineyard acknowledges there is room for that kind of thing outside the church walls.
All of this is a roundabout way to say that there can be clear communal moments with each other and with God in unexpected places. We call that “worship,” which is right. But if you go back to that place and try to do the same thing again, it may not work. Those moments can sometimes be “lightning in the bottle” moments.
JH: Here’s something I often think about ministry times and the worship service: To me, what truly makes it worship is admitting that sometimes it might be a little boring. That’s because we are actually depending on God to do something. But he’s free, and he won’t always exactly do it. In those times, I feel a little glad, because it means we’re not forcing anything. We’re not forcing emotion from people. It just means that God didn’t do exactly the thing we wanted this time. But it’s still good. It’s still worship.
JH: You mentioned accessibility in worship as well. Could you talk about that?
CC: A major component of music is providing people with a “way in.” That ties in with the recent Vineyard dialogue about multiethnic ministry and reaching out beyond our own stylistic and racial comfort zones. But there are certain technical aspects to accessibility as well. If part of our goal is to allow people to sing corporately, there are technical things we need to take into consideration.
This goes a little deeper: We are not primarily gathered to have our own individualistic moments. The band is there as servants. The worship leader is there as a servant. All this can have technical and physical ramifications. It also has spiritual ramifications: urging people to come ready, come listening, come expectant…as I mentioned.
The musicians try to prepare other people to be faith-filled and expectant too. They work to set the stage. So you must consider some issues. What might you be doing that is leaving people out? Are there ways you are doing music that is creating barriers? How can you remove those barriers? Do you need to build a wheelchair ramp up the stairs? Do you need to diversify the language, or diversity the sound, or diversify the ethnic makeup of the team without lowering the hurdle?
JH: It strikes me that my own church has become diverse in age as the Vineyard becomes a multigenerational movement. We have to realize that “accessibility” will mean different things to different people. There will be compromises about volume and song choice and song style and language.
CC: Yes! And we should honor previous generations without leaving out the young ones. As our own movement ages, that gets more challenging.
I am about to lead worship for a group called Christian Churches Together, which is a group the Vineyard is part of. It’s an ecumenical group that bridges liberal and conservative denominations. It has pulled in church leaders from what’s loosely termed the “five different faith families”… classical Protestantism, African-American tradition, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Pentecostal.
Many times in ecumenical groups, there can be some watering down and trying to meet in the middle. That’s the opposite of what we’re talking about with this group. They wanted the Vineyard to come and be the Vineyard.
Everyone does their own thing when it comes to the worship time. When the Russian Orthodox people lead, everyone worships Russian Orthodox-style. It is probably the most diverse group of people I have ever worshipped with in my life. It’s everything from Pentecostals to the Catholic priest in his full regalia; the Russian Orthodox bishop in his robe and with his long beard.
Here’s how this plays into our own movement: The more diverse the Vineyard gets, the more challenging it will be to find the common ground… to remove the barriers and let people in.
JH: It’s good to remember that it’s going to have to change over time. Otherwise the form or the value “hardens.” People start saying, “It has to sound like this.” Then you lose the idea of simply letting people in.
CC: When we think of the movement or the Vineyard church as a whole, it’s interesting, because there is a lot of musically broad diversity from church to church. Maybe one church is very gospel in style. One church is straight-up alternative rock. And one church has more of a country thing.
From a regional perspective, it makes sense. There are different parts of the country and different population groups. But we can go beyond marketing sensibilities and just let our artists be who they are. That leads us to more musical authenticity.
JH: That could be the trickiest part to define. Talk about what you’re thinking when you say authenticity.
CC: We talked about coming ready and honestly before God with an open heart. But there’s another piece. We’re allowed to be who we are. Even without thinking of the specific musician playing or singing at the time, there is something generally powerful about individual people expressing themselves. What they believe. What they think. What their voices sound like. What their fingers do on a particular instrument. There is something profound about people being who they are.
You can see and feel the value of intentionality. Bert [Waggoner] sent a letter out recently, talking about all the fullness of tension that we potentially live in. It’s hard to live in tension. But that’s the beauty of thoughts and ideas pulling and pushing against each other.
Speaking of these artists…Robert Plant and Mumford & Sons and others…part of the connection I think we’re dialing into is that these people are being fully alive and fully themselves without holding back. They are letting their true selves be shown.
JH: That could go back to accessibility too, because the musician has a form of self-expression…but he’s got to live that out in a way where other people can join him to produce intimacy.
CC: Right. There is something to be said for that, especially as we try to tackle different styles or different moods. There is nothing more hollow and inauthentic than people trying to do something that’s just not “them.”
I believe people need to exercise the muscles they have without making every single thing push toward this multiethnic conversation. I think you can exercise certain muscles that maybe you don’t exercise as much. For me, maybe that is a blues-y gospel sort of edge. But, if I don’t have those muscles, or if they are more in a classical vein, I think there is something that communicates beyond style and beyond my personal preferences.
When I see somebody being herself and coming through powerfully and artistically, it’s beautiful. I can appreciate it. I’d rather see that than someone trying to do what she thinks she has to be for somebody else. We shouldn’t change our playlist or tweak to the point where we are potentially losing ourselves in the midst of it.
Considering the Questions
JH: When it comes to worship, everything changes all the time. Every time somebody plants a church in a place, it has a worship team, and those team members are trying to figure out what intimacy, accessibility, and authenticity looks like for their specific place. What might be some false starts, in your experience? And what are good steps to take as people try to embody these values in a new place? How should they navigate the new tensions?
CC: One negative thing that’s happened in recent years is the growth of a “top-40” church culture. It becomes easy to grab onto the latest record and try to duplicate it. For better or worse, even a church plant doesn’t have to do quite the heavy lifting, musically speaking, that people had to do years ago.
But maybe we should actually do some heavier lifting. Let’s not just take the popular song on the radio. Or maybe we take it, but we think about it a little bit. Let’s exercise our creative muscles, consider who is coming into our church, and pray about it. You can do songs that are on the radio that are going to work, since people generally know them already (depending on their cultural choices).
But consider this: Are those songs saying something that you want to say to God? That’s a basic question that I ask when I am going to introduce a new song. After that, think about who you have on your music team, think about who your congregation is, and don’t be content to take a song at its face value.
There will be some wrestling with all of that. People who are not the most skilled musicians will counter, “I can’t just reinvent something.” But you probably shouldn’t be just another cover band anyway. It’s easy to be good at that. It takes a lot more intention not to do that.
The questions people ask when they begin a church plant are the same questions they should ask themselves over time: “Are we making things accessible to others? Are some things we’re doing getting in the way? Are we being authentic before God? Are we actually being ourselves? Are we allowing those expressions to come through? Are we engaged? Are we leaving room for God to break in? Do we actually believe that God is listening? Do we believe the things we are singing?”
JH: Here’s my last question. Many non-Vineyard people read this magazine, but are there some worship music trends in the Vineyard that you especially like or that you have been reflecting on lately?
CC: Something I really like is the rise of indigenous music and songs. In many ways, that’s simply following the trend of our music culture in general, kind of like the rise of the indie band in recent years. It makes it more challenging for us at Vineyard Music, but I like it.
People are exploring new styles and also local expressions; handcrafted worship instead of mass-produced worship. That’s exciting. Of course it makes it harder to go to a larger conference and pull together a common hymnbook. We still have our top-40 chart! But it’s not quite as “top-40” as it used to be. So it’s a double-edged sword, but all of this is alive and good.
I think we may find the next big worship song, the next song I really want to sing to God, coming from unknown people finding who they are in God and expressing it. It’s easier and easier for people to record now. So that’s an interesting, exciting trend.
I also feel that maybe there is an ebb and flow in the spiritual life. There has been a move away from the performance-oriented or “soulless” presentation of corporate worship music. There is a hunger and something starting to happen. People are saying, “I want to go deeper with this.”
It’s almost like a throwback to the early Vineyard excitement. With these new generations, it’s like a first-time discovery. Lots of these young people grew up with drums and electric guitars in church — that’s not especially groundbreaking anymore — but it’s something more than that. It’s the encounter. Young people are saying, “Wait a minute, this is life-keeping. I want to give my life to this.”
That’s what happened to me initially. It goes back to why I don’t want to lose the music, the gathering together. There was a drawing and a pulling in through the music. I am encouraged by what I think I am seeing in the Vineyard movement — an increased hunger.