What I Learned about Church at a Twenty One Pilots’ Concert

Jaclyn S. Parrish

In the world of Twenty One Pilots’ allegorical concept album Trench, depression, anxiety, and the like take the form of “bishops” who rule the captive city of Dema. Pitted against the bishops are the Banditos, Dema escapees who live in the wastelands (“Trench”) outside. The album provides a narrative framework for the invisible war we wage in the hinterland between our ears. And with this summer’s Bandito Tour, Twenty One Pilots crafted an experience that allowed us to verbally and bodily affirm the truths of that narrative, as well as larger truths that Christians share. While the concert I attended was by no means a worship service, it was a stunning case study in what corporate worship can and should be.

The Bandito Tour is presented as an extension of the world of Trench. The concert began with drummer Josh Dun seemingly striding straight out of the “Nico and the Niners” music video and onto the stage, torch still in hand. Frontman Tyler Joseph then materialized in full Bandito gear—camouflage highlighted with strips of yellow—and the opening cry of “Cover me!,” from “Jumpsuit,” cuts through the applause. As he crossed the bridge, a shower of yellow confetti trickled down, recalling the petals the Banditos throw to hide Joseph from the bishops in the music video. “Jumpsuit” flowed into “Levitate,” with Joseph singing and dancing on and around the burning car from the Bandito camp portrayed in that video. Moreover, most of the crowd was dressed in some interpretation of the Bandito uniform (camo, bandanas, yellow tape), extending the narrative verisimilitude beyond the stage and throughout the stadium.

Having established our place in the storyline of Trench, Joseph then went out of his way to remind us that we were in a room full of fellow Banditos. Time and again, he stepped back and allowed the audience to carry the music. Unprompted and unaccompanied, we launched into the lyrics of “Stressed Out” as soon as the instrumental intro concluded; the band even disappeared for the entire rendition of “Truce,” leaving the audience to sing alone.

The goal, however, was not simply to get us singing. The band had particular words for us to say, words hand-picked to impress truth on our hearts. In “Stressed Out,” Joseph handed the hook to the audience, calling, “What’s your name?” and receiving back the chant, “My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think.” The song thus became a communal confession, an opportunity to expose the insecurities that Blurryface represents. In “Bandito,” Joseph went silent as his Banditos repeated the refrain, “Sahlo Folina,” the code word that Banditos “cry out in Trench when we are in need.” Then, in “My Blood,” he led us in answering this cry for help, splitting the audience in two and directing us to sing the refrain to each other: “Stay with me, no, you don't need to run. / Stay with me, my blood.”

What’s more, the crowd’s participation was bodily, as well as vocal. Joseph waded into the pit and sang the first half of “Holding on to You” while quite literally holding and being held up by the crowd. Presented thus, this song about clinging to faith in the midst of suffering became an anthem promising faithfulness to each other.

The show climaxed with “Trees.” Dun and Joseph close every performance with this number, both held up by the crowd and each playing a bass drum, audience and performers symbolically one. The lyrics are a cry for someone (most likely God) to reveal themselves: “Why won't you speak where I happen to be … I want to know you; I want to see; I want to say hello.” The song began gently and grew to a passionate finish; when the final drop hit, it was accompanied by an explosion of yellow confetti. The soft trickle of yellow which began the show was now a thick and driving rain. As the music crescendoed to its end, the phrase “I want to say hello” became simply a joyous repetition of “hello!,” transforming an expression of longing into a cry of welcome. Our vulnerability was met with acceptance, our isolation drowned in community, and our pain eclipsed by the promise of victory.

Joseph and Dun took the stage that night to lead us in a process of communal creation which would point us toward that which is most real and most beautiful, and which would equip us to hold on to that vision after the music faded. It struck me that corporate worship does the same.

The crowd’s participation was bodily, as well as vocal.

In the words of James K. A. Smith, “liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies.” The rhythms of song, prayer, teaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are all embodied acts of the will, designed to foster spiritual postures of the heart. The purpose of corporate worship is to direct our hearts so that whatever we do, we do it “all for the glory of God.” And this experience is, among other things, inescapably communal.

Often, liturgies are designed to center the congregants’ attention exclusively on God. Songs are sung directly to him. Discussion is discouraged. Distractions are prayed away. But while none of these strategies are inappropriate in and of themselves, they do fail to acknowledge the key feature of corporate worship—namely, that it’s done in the company of others. The Bandito Tour, in contrast, was designed to intentionally highlight its own corporateness, to make audibly, visibly, and bodily manifest not only the ideals, but the unity of the Bandito clan. The effect was strikingly akin to the directions we find for corporate worship in the New Testament.

James, for instance, instructs his readers to “confess your sins to each other…” Paul prescribes “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” In 1 Thessalonians, there are numerous calls to encourage each other and build one another up. The author of Hebrews plainly sees a connection between meeting together and spurring each other on to love and good deeds. There is certainly a time, place, and need for every-head-bowed-every-eye-closed moments in corporate worship. But passages such as these would suggest they ought not form the entirety of our liturgical ethos.

Liturgical forms will obviously vary by congregation, denomination, and culture. Our services might be loud or quiet, solemn or joyous, exuberant or subtle, as the context and the content demand. But every worship service ought to be inescapably corporate, emphasizing and not downplaying the inherently communal nature of life in Christ. Our sanctuaries can certainly be places of quiet and private prayer, but they ought also be places where our fellow Banditos can take us by the hand (or the lapels, if need be) and say, “Stay with me. No, you don’t need to run. Stay with me.”

Topics: Music