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Artistry:  A Story to Tell

The Big Story:
Intimacy vs. Grandeur

Productions: To Be or Not to Be

After moving into the ranks of the mega-churches and discovering just how much work big productions demand, I started wondering why we did them. Of course, evangelism is the quick answer, but there were many easier ways to evangelize. I experimented with forms to see which was the most fun and which was the most effective. I observed the potential for abuse inherent in productions if the proper focus was lost. So, what was the proper focus? For me it was this: tell the Jesus Story! It wasn’t about me or my choir or my program or us and our traditions or the church’s standing in the community. The only reason to put us all through the rigors of production ministry was to tell the Jesus Story in the most effective way we could. Since discovering this, I have had no trouble motivating people and keeping the whole company on track. Much later, I attended the Institute for Worship Studies and began to explore the importance of the stories we believe.

The Jesus Story

Dr. Robert E. Webber (He insisted we call him, “just plain Bob.”) was the first to tell me about the “meta-narrative.” This is, simply put, the Big Story of a people. Bob believed in the Big Story so much his final book is called “Who Gets to Narrate the World?” As believers in Jesus, we are a people of The Jesus Story. Across the varying divides of our other theologies, this is the truth that binds us together. Whatever we believe about church polity or our interpretation of the Lord’s Table or water Baptism or the Gifts of the Spirit, we hold in common the story of redemption. This narrative tells us who we are and who God is and how we relate together.

Well, who is this Jesus whose story we tell?

One of the lines of tension we walk as worship leaders in the one between God’s Immanence (“God with Us,” His nearness, His friendship with us as the “lover of our souls) and God’s Transcendence (“Creator God,” His “otherness,” His majesty, sovereignty and power.) While most of us come from traditions bent toward one or the other, the trend in contemporary worship has been toward intimacy with God. Songs are very personal and most often spoken directly to Immanuel using personal pronouns like “you” and “I.” Our musical ensembles follow this trend as we dismiss choirs and orchestras in favor of rhythm sections and small vocal groups. What is happening? Our story is getting smaller—it is mostly about Jesus and us.

The Christmas story survives this shrinkage because it is such an intimate story: Mary and her baby, Mary and Joseph, poor lonely shepherds on a hillside, and a trio of wise men from the East. But when we come to part two of The Jesus Story—Easter—we struggle. Suddenly the story is too big for our songs and our ensembles. There are some small personal moments but for the most part Redemption is a Big Story. If we attempt to express the grandeur of the story we have to scramble to find an orchestra, (or simulate one with tracks or digital sequencing) recruit more singers and get those microphones out of our hands. A sadder choice is to limit the grandeur of the story to the elements our meager musical forces can express. “Jesus rose from the dead and came to me and I love Him so. I’m gonna praise Him for ever because He loves me!”


Let us tell the whole story, the Big Story. The postmodern world is ready to hear it. Jesus conquered evil. Jesus defeated death. Jesus ascended to heaven and took the throne of the universe. Jesus sent His Spirit to us to carry on this cosmic mission until all creation is redeemed at His Return. This is the meta-narrative that binds the generations and the otherwise opposing cultures within the church together as one.

The good news is, we need not lose intimacy in the presentation of grandeur. Jesus surrounded himself with characters whose intimate relationships with Him serve as the foreground to His grand enterprise of the redemption of mankind: Peter’s boast, denial and restoration; Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, and even Pilate and Judas. When we tell the Big Story, these moments of intimacy flow into and out of the spectacular words and deeds of Jesus. We need to repent with Peter, agonize with Pilate and Judas, hurt with Mother Mary, and despair with Mary Magdalene before we dance with the angels at the tomb or echo the coronation of Jesus at the Ascension or burn with the flames of the Spirit at the Day of Pentecost. To express both intimacy and grandeur we need a wide dynamic of musical sound.

Some say that choirs and orchestras are a thing of the past. They are cultural expressions and we can take them or leave them. Today’s music is not orchestral or choral; it is intimate and personal.

Really? Let’s go to the movies.

It is true that a small story will be accompanied by smaller, more intimate music. But when the story is cosmic, when it is a Big Story, the filmmakers call on the masters of the orchestra and chorus for music to match the action and themes they want to express. I heard in a documentary that George Lucas considered using all synthesizer music for “Star Wars”. (Film buffs will recall the soundtracks to “Forbidden Planet,” “Chariots of Fire” and “The Bounty” for examples of all-synthesizer soundtracks.) Lucas was wise enough to know that his story was bigger than that. He hired John Williams and created a film for the ages, not one limited to the sure-to-be-outdated sounds of a synthesizer. The un-churched listen to intimate music because the lives they live are small in scale. The movies show us that they will accept grand music when it accompanies a grand idea.

The truth of the Jesus Story is the grandest of all ideas. His story is the biggest of all stories. His ministry among us achieves this grandeur while maintaining a deep, personal relationship with each believer. At once, Jesus is Creator and Friend. If we deliberately celebrate both intimacy and grandeur each week, the processes that help us do that will also help us tell the whole story, The Jesus Story, each Christmas and Easter.

Process and Product

Another manifestation of intimacy and grandeur is the relationship between process and product. Churches can become event-driven organizations as productions (events of grandeur) take over the whole calendar (the schedule of processes). This is one of the aspects of production ministry that has turned off many young pastors and worship leaders. Christmas and Easter productions are seen as entertainment events for Christians from other churches rather than outreach events aimed at unbelievers. An even more serious charge against production ministry is that of being ego-driven, performer-centered variety shows rather than serious presentations of gospel truth. Either way, Christmas and Easter productions are under attack as unnecessary, ineffective or even counter-productive. Such criticism points to the loss of process and focus as the event is elevated beyond its importance.

I am convinced that the weekly ministry of preparing and presenting worship that is both transcendent and intimate by singers, players, actors and technicians is the perfect process to produce dynamic artistic events at Christmas and Easter. It has been well-said by many that each Sunday’s worship should have a touch of Christmas and Easter in it. Amen. The incarnation and the atonement are the deep wellsprings of our faith. If we celebrate it properly, the Table of the Lord celebrates the Big Story. As with the ancient confession of the church, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again,” each service we construct and conduct should tell both the intimate truth of Jesus as my Friend and God as my Father, and the grand story of God’s saving acts throughout history from creation to the new creation to come.

If your worship music only celebrates grandeur, explore the sweetness of intimacy with the contemporary song. The majesty you admire will become even more amazing as you touch the hem of His garment. If your worship only expresses intimacy, lift your eyes above your own heart to the Throne of God and of the Lamb, to the One Who sits upon the throne and to angels and believers gathered before Him. The intimacy you enjoy will grow sweeter and more amazing in light of His majesty.

The Jesus Story is both grand and intimate. He has brought us together, let us learn from each other how to celebrate His fullness.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

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