The event: my first concert
The band: Quiet Riot
The venue: the Iowa State Fair
The time: August 1984
It was an aural onslaught my barely 14-year-old ears were hardly prepared for.
"Are you ready to rock, Des Moines?" shouted lead singer Kevin DuBrow.
Being a newbie, I wasn't quite sure if I did want to rock. What did that even mean, exactly? I was still taking it all in. The formidable wall of 4x12 speaker enclosures on either side of the stage. The sheer volume—I wasn't sure if the wind was blowing my hair (I still had some then) or if all those speakers were accomplishing that task. The larger-than-life rock star inviting us to join the proceedings with a scream. And the throngs of folks around me doing exactly that.
So when DuBrow shrieked, "Come-on-feel-the-noise!" I raised my fist and began making some of my own.
I'm not sure what my parents—who, in most respects, did a pretty great job raising me—were thinking. Someday I need to ask them: Didn't you notice the "Riot" right after the "Quiet"? I suspect they must have thought an afternoon concert at the State Fair with my best friend, Joe, couldn't have been too big a deal.
But it was a big deal.
In retrospect, I can see that for me, at least, there was something magnetic about the experience of rock music on a big stage. It seemed so epic, so alluring that I would seek it out again and again in the years that followed. To this day, in fact, there are very few things I'd rather do than go to a concert of a band or a musician whose music I love. (My last two concerts, for the record, were Switchfoot and, wait for it, Stryper—because you can take the boy out of the '80s, but you can't take the '80s out of the boy.)
A couple things have changed over the years. I always wear earplugs now. And I don't feel much compulsion to get too close to the stage. (Which is just as well, since those tickets are all sold in über-expensive VIP packages anyway.) But I still find the experience completely compelling.
As I've gotten older, I've gradually come to realize that there's a good reason for how I feel. Rock concerts, whatever else they may be, offer something akin to a worship experience in the way they invite the "faithful" to participate. I realize it might seem like a stretch to think of Quiet Riot and worship in the same second, but I assure you that once the comparison is unpacked, the significant parallels between the two will appear inescapable.
Here I Am to Worship
What comes to mind when you hear the word worship? Whether we've spent a lot of time in church or not, I suspect most of us would say worship has something to do with Sunday morning (or Saturday night, too, if you go to a larger church) and the songs we sing before the preacher preaches. Some folks might comment further that worship is the way we express gratitude and adoration to God.
Worship does encompass the songs we encounter in church. But a full understanding of what worship is doesn't end with the three or four hymns or contemporary choruses we might sing on any given Sunday. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul spends the first 11 chapters contrasting man's utter fallenness with God's transcendent greatness. The bridge across that chasm, he tells us, is Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice for humanity makes relationship with God possible. At the beginning of Chapter 12, Paul then begins to explain what it really means to worship this God who's taken the initiative to save us: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship."
True worship, according to Paul, is a joyful offering of all that we are because of all God has done for us. In her 2002 Discipleship Journal article "Created for Delight," author Tricia Rhodes put it this way: "God has made us for Himself that we might be delighted in Him, driven by desire for Him and captivated by hope of a destiny with Him. When we respond to Him in these ways, we will devote our lives continually and wholeheartedly to Him, and to His purposes, with joy. This, I believe, is worship."
In a most profound way, then, human beings have been created by God to worship. Because of that, we cannot not worship. If God isn't the object of our affection, we will put something in His place.
Taste and See
What's amazing about worship is that it pleases God—when we're worshiping Him, of course—and it pleases us, too. Many Christians experience a sense of God's nearness as well as His transcendence when worshipping Him. He envelops us. He's both close and huge, sort of like He's … onstage?
One of my favorite concert moments takes place just before it starts. An electric air of anticipation crackles through the air as faithful fans giddily await the arrival of their favorite band or singer. Then the lights go out. Maybe an explosion marks the beginning. Or a falling curtain. Or the band magically emerges from a trapdoor in the stage.
And the crowd. Goes. WILD!
What's going on here?
Rock concerts, like a church service, proffer something approximating a transcendent experience. And that experience is reinforced by sharing it with hundreds or thousands of other "believers." A concert invites us to lose ourselves for a little while, to surrender to the incredible sensation of music pounding ours bodies as well as the intensity of the feelings that the music itself may stir up inside of us. A good show distills the essence of an artist into something tangible, present, concrete, enthralling. It's a powerful feeling for those of us who are wired to appreciate it.
So I submit to you that what's happening is nothing less than worship. Just as worship in church invites believers to experience God's nearness and transcendence, a rock concert allows fans to see their favorite artist up close, in the flesh. At the same time, the lights, the sound, the stage, the massive video screens, the pyrotechnics—all of those theatrical elements present a singer or a band in a way that treats them more like superheroes than human beings. We don't call them rock gods, guitar heroes or American Idols for nothing.
All Honor and Glory
A while back, my wife and I had the chance to see Keith Urban in concert. At one point during the show, he walked from the main stage at one end of the arena to a small, makeshift platform all the way on the other side. He was surrounded by vigilant bodyguards, of course, but throngs of screaming fans reached out to touch him as he walked by and as he sang two or three acoustic songs on that mini-stage. People who likely didn't know they'd be able to touch the star they'd come to see literally went crazy. And that's nothing compared to how some young fans respond when the likes of Justin Bieber show up.
Now, I'm not suggesting that most people actually believe the people onstage are deities. And yet … the worship-like response from some fans comes close to treating them in just that way.
Our English word worship is actually derived from an Old English term we no longer use: worthship. As the word implies, worthship denotes the act of ascribing worth to something, of communicating its value. Literally, then, when we worship, we say, "This is good. This is right. This is worth celebrating and living for." And isn't that exactly what happens when we scream in adulation for two hours when Miley Cyrus takes the stage? (Or James Taylor, for that matter—not to let you boomers off the hook.)
We simply can't not worship. We will ascribe honor and glory to the things we find most beautiful and compelling and worthy of praise in our lives. Whether we realize it or not, the yearning, the sense of anticipation, the energy, the connection we feel with other fans at a concert are all shadows of our hearts' desire to experience God and express our praise to Him. And when we don't know how to offer our lives in worship to Him (or, worse, refuse to do so), we'll naturally seek out the best substitutes we can find.