RELEVANT talks with worship leader Jason Upton about the commercialization of worship and making the church relevant. Part two of a two-part series.
[RM:] With the popularity of worship, it’s easy for it to become a commodity. What is your take on the commercialization of worship?
[JU:] It’s real distressing to me because I don’t think worship can ever be a commodity. In the sense of real worship it can’t be a commodity any more than real art could be. If most artists today are asked the question, “What’s the greatest art that you’ve ever heard?” most would say, “Real musical art just doesn’t sell.” And I think it’s the same thing with worship. I think that musical and artistic worship and deep worship has become hooky. There’s so much more in the Psalms than just singing choruses.
We’ve made worship into a commodity of “get your latest chorus CD.” There’s no room to go deep. My concern is that we take the same songs and industrialize them, rehash the same material. Worship is not worship just because you get the hottest songs and throw them on a CD and put it out there.
I guess it’s better than the alternative, but I think we need to be careful because raising a whole generation to believe that worship is having a good groove isn’t worship. Worship is when we express and expose the broken places in our heart to the Father. It’s not even necessarily sounding good.
[RM:] How do you deal with this problem?
[JU:] I’m not trying to be top 40 material, and I know I’m not. When my wife and I decided to worship in our house, we never called a church or a record company or asked for a record deal. We just made the decision to worship the Lord in our free time and whatever came out of that came out of that. If God doesn’t want me to be a worship leader, I won’t be a worship leader.
[RM:] How can we make church and worship more relevant?
[JU:] If we really want to be relevant, people don’t come to listen to another speaker or preacher. At the Call (conferences) it’s amazing to me that there were 100,000-200,000 people there and some bigwig would talk and the kids would totally disengage. And then there would be some nameless, faceless nobody that would get up and begin to pray and you’d look out upon the crowd and it was like nobody moved—it was still. People were totally engaged. I learned a lesson from that too. I think that’s what makes worship relevant—God meeting us. In another ten years, if the worship industry continues in the way it is, it will be so boring. People are totally tired of it. I think God is raising up a generation that is longing for real expressions of worship.
Keith Green said, “I want to hang out with radical saints and radical sinners.” Radical sinners and saints will both come to a place of brokenness eventually. People who are radical for the Lord are the ones who’ve realized they’re not “it.” Most every great man and woman of God [would say] the secret to their life was surrender or abandonment. The Lord is looking for people, and in Isaiah it says that the Lord dwells in the high and holy place, and in the heart of the broken. I think that I’ve been to AA meetings in NYC where I’ve experienced the Lord more there than in churches.
If we came to church broken and in need, it wouldn’t be a surprise when the wealthiest man there or the elders run to the altars screaming and crying. We need to be at a place where our freedom means more than our dignity, our reputation. The Lord isn’t coming unless we’re vulnerable with Him.
A lot of us are like Israel because we’re stubborn and we don’t realize He didn’t choose us because we’re good, but because He feels sorry for us and He loves us. We jump up and write a book about how awesome our lives are or think we’re winning the battle or that the Christian church is a great organization. But when we’re broken and proclaim the real gospel of Jesus —boom, God comes in. Our arrogance holds back God’s presence. When Jacob was sleeping and not fighting God is when God blessed him with the covenant.
[RM:] Tell me about “Let the Thirsty Come” in Israel.
[JU:] I was afraid to go to Israel. We’d just had our first child, and were pregnant with the next. So I just told them I was scared. They told people and everywhere I went there were intercessors there and people would say “You’re afraid; let us pray for you.” My wife got a peace about it, and I ended up going. I got there and amazing things happened. When I went there I realized why the Lord had given me so many songs from the Old Testament. The stories are so important —we have the same issues and arrogance.
As we went over there we got the religious people—religious Jews—boycotting and throwing rocks. There were Palestinian and Jewish believers from Israel, Russia, Ethiopia, and all these people gathered together and all these different translators were there. In the middle of “Freedom” I told the translators, “Don’t translate. I’m just going to sing it over them.” I didn’t know it was happening, but this Ethiopian Jewish young man started manifesting these demons. So they pulled him out of the sanctuary and into the back room and prayed for him. All of a sudden, this kid sits up and starts speaking to his mother. She goes ballistic and starts screaming and laughing and running around the room and the people said that she was demon possessed, but the interpreter said, “No, the boy was mute since the time he was four and hadn’t spoken to his mother since then.”
The bombings created more and more fervor for prayer. To have that many people praying for Israel and the peace of Jerusalem, it was unbelievable. Having all that going on and then all these explosions was almost like there were spiritual explosions going off in the prayer gathering. The enemy was doing these crazy things in the natural all week long. It was a confirmation of what we were doing. People went ballistic and prayed for hours.
One of the things that was major for being there was [the idea of] Jacob lying down. Every time Israel has laid down their weapons of warfare, God rises on the scene and defeats their enemies.
[RM:] What did you take away from “Let the Thirsty Come”?
[JU:] I realized that Christianity in America has become a post-Jesus Judaism: “God came to make our lives better, to make us an awesome people and nation, so I can be an awesome person and make money and have a nice house.” I think He came because we were in absolute need of Him and He annihilated the power of death and sin and set us free. When I came back, I came back with more of a fervor for this nation. We have freedom—why not speak it out? Why let the religious rule? We’re going down the same pathway as the rest of the Western world. We become prideful, and believe we don’t need God anymore because of our intellects. We need leaders who won’t bow down to the religious tyranny in America or the politics but really cry out for God’s will to come, even if it means we have to change our philosophies.
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