American Idol -- from pulpit to stage and back

Robert Keeley

(Robert Keeley is a guest blogger for Think Christian.  Learn more about him here.)

A recent article on MSNBC points out the role of religion in the lives and careers of the contestants on American Idol.  According to the article more than half of the 11 finalists in the competition have “regularly performed at places of worship.”  It then goes on to mention that a few former Idol contestants have gone on to release gospel albums.

I found it interesting that churches have become an alternative to clubs and bars as a place to hone your musical chops. This article caused me to think a bit about my experiences in both types of places. In some ways, playing and singing is playing and singing – regardless of the venue.  The same skills that I learned on Saturday night playing my guitar in a club were useful on Sunday morning in church or Friday morning in college chapel.  And truth be told, this isn’t the first time that pop music and church have influenced each other.  Much of the early R & B music was a result of taking gospel music to clubs.  Ray Charles, for example, was criticized for doing exactly that.  And anyone who doesn’t realize the impact the pop music has had on much of the music that is being played in churches on Sunday mornings just isn’t paying attention.

But isn’t worship leadership something quite different from playing in a club or a concert?  Yes and no.  When I was out playing in a band I knew that people really wanted to hear us cut loose.  As we were making the set list we knew we had a couple of numbers that would really impress people so we put it in a prime spot in the set.  We knew, for example, that playing Clapton’s “Change the World” would usually get people to stop talking and pay attention to the band – we had some great stuff going on in that song.  It was right in the middle of my vocal range and it had a spot for a guitar solo at the end that usually got the crowd riled up.  The adrenaline rush that I felt when we played that song was pretty cool.  I loved playing it because it was a great song and, frankly, it was great when the crowd responded the way they often did.  It was my chance to step out and show them that I had some chops.

This isn’t what I do when I lead worship.  Although I don’t always succeed, I really try to focus the congregation’s attention on what we’re doing in the worship service rather than on me.  Last week Sunday, for example, I played and lead singing during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in our congregation.  I was very careful to play the song in a way that allowed people to sing easily and to not take their focus off of what they were doing – receiving the bread and the wine.  This is quite different from in a club where I actually am trying to get people to notice me.

But I have to admit that the skill set that I used to do that was pretty much the same as when I play in a concert or a club setting.  And what I learned about singing a song in a way that communicates the message of the song helps both in and outside of church.  But there is more to it than just musical chops.  When we play a familiar song in a club people sometimes sing along.  That’s great.  It makes for a fun evening and people seem to really enjoy that.  In church, though, it’s not optional – it’s the reason why we’re playing.  My playing has to support congregational singing – it’s me who’s singing along with them, not the other way around.  If I miss that then it’s just performing in a different type of venue.  That’s the piece that some worship musicians who come from a mainstream music setting sometimes don’t seem to get.  Leading congregational singing is job one for us in church.

So I’m happy for Daney Gokey, Kris Allen and the other American Idol contestants who are trying their hand at making it in the mainstream music business.   If they manage to go far enough in the competition to get a recording contract and have a mainstream career (and they can avoid the pitfalls of stardom) then they can serve God in that field.  If they go back to worship leadership then the skills they learned on American Idol will serve them well as they serve the people of God.  I hope they remember the differences too.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Worship, News & Politics, Media