For quite some time now I’ve been obsessed with a musical concept I called energy. It’s a bit hard to define, but you know what I’m talking about. Fast songs have more energy than slow songs, rock music has more energy than classical, and more volume equals more energy. Right?
Wrong. That’s what I thought, but as I was listening to Jesus Culture’s “We Cry Out” album the other night, I was quite shocked to discover that energy is completely unrelated to either tempo or volume. I was even more stunned when I realized that what I thought of as “energy” was really two unrelated but confusing concepts. One of these I will call “fire” or “energy,” and the other I will call “power” or “juice.”
“Juice” is what I had formerly confused with energy. By juice I mean the amount of power the band puts into their playing at any given point. For example, a single vocalist with an acoustic guitar has less juice than a full band playing all-out. This concept is related to volume, but only loosely. No amount of volume can give the solo player the same juice as five band members together. There are many ways to vary the amount of juice. Adding instruments generally increases the power, but also each instrument can play louder or play more. For example, a bass could play eighth notes instead of quarter notes, which would theoretically have twice the power. Varying the power or juice is called dynamics, and it’s an important concept that allows you to repeat a chorus twelve times without sounding boring.
However, as I listened more, I realized that juice wasn’t the energy I’ve been looking for. There was some other kind of energy that was completely independent of juice. For instance, all the instruments might drop out, but that a capella verse could have the same or even higher energy than the rest of the song. Paradoxically, some of the slowest songs on the CD had the most energy! This sort of energy seemed to be more related to emotion than to anything tangible. Jazz or blues players might call it “soul.” We’ll call it fire.
I’ve wanted to see more energy in our worship, but I thought juice was the energy we needed. In reality, fire is the energy I’ve been missing, and the implications of that are fairly enormous. For one, the classic excuse: “we need drums” no longer holds. Drums certainly help add juice, but not necessarily fire. In fact, since the two aren’t necessarily connected, that lone acoustic player might have more fire than the full band with drums!
So, if juice is strictly musical and comes from the band playing louder, where does fire come from? I’m not sure there’s a single answer. It’s possible there’s more than one kind of fire. After all, any band can play with energy - even if there’s no lyrics - but it’s a very different feel than high-energy worship. I think part of fire comes from us caring. If we’d rather be somewhere else, or be playing a different song, it shows - fire can’t be faked. Another part depends on the song. Some songs just don’t seem to have any energy, no matter how much juice we inject. Other songs seem to have power in and of themselves - even when performed horribly the fire still comes through.
This can be different for different people. I find the songs “Majesty” and “You Won’t Relent” never fail to energize me, but others might think they are the most boring songs ever written. Styles can also be energizing. For me, and probably for most other teenagers, a good drum beat works wonders. Some people might be more energized by a capella music or hymns.
The largest part of fire comes from the Holy Spirit, of course. I’ve never come across a worship song so bad that God can’t use it to reveal himself. When He does, it’s the most energizing effect possible! The key here is allowing God to speak to us - even if we can’t stand a particular song or style of worship. It’s not hard to drown Him out, and we do it far too often. When we miss this revelation, we miss the most important part of worship and miss the chance to be set on fire.
As worship leaders (this includes anyone on the stage), we need to listen to the Spirit more than anyone else. If we’re not on fire, how can we expect anyone else to be? Yes, it’s important to pick good songs. Yes, it’s important to perform them well. However, it is far more important that we allow God to speak to us. If we don’t, all our fire is just leftovers from the last time God showed himself to us. When we do, we’ll go from candles to bonfires! We’ll have not just energy, but a highly contagious fire that others have to fight to avoid catching themselves! This is what we should strive for. Even as we focus on improving our musical quality, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Don’t settle for juice when you could have fire.