Why Worship Should Be Risky

Michael Gungor on how concept albums could save worship music.

Last year, Gungor released their most recent album, Ghosts Upon the Earth. Technically, it's a "worship album"—but not like the Church is used to. Here, frontman Michael Gungor gives some insight into the process of creating a concept album and what “worship” music means to them.

The primary building blocks for a musical artist’s career are the songs he or she is known for singing. As an artist, if you don’t eventually have at least one song really connect with a larger audience, it’s going to be very difficult to have a lasting career in music. The result is that most records today become about swinging for the home run song. Albums have largely become collections of eight to 15 of the best snippets of musical ideas the artist or label can come up with. These short musical ideas or songs may or may not have any connection to the rest of the work in the album. Most modern albums, then, have become more like a series of journal entries than a single narrative or story.

The exception is the concept album.

A concept album is an album where all of the music is connected by some overarching theme. In the last century of music-making, artists ranging from Woody Guthrie to the Beatles to Coldplay have written concept albums.

This can be a challenging and risky undertaking as a musician because the songs you must pick for the album aren’t simply the best songs you’ve written but the best songs you’ve written that fit into the concept. This is sort of like not simply wearing your best suit to the prom but your best red suit. In a highly difficult time for the music industry, it’s no wonder most artists leave concept albums to the more idealistic or eccentric.

Worship as a story, not a sound byte

I knew from the start I wanted Ghosts Upon the Earth to be a concept album, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the concept would be. I’m not sure why I was so set to make a concept album. I guess there was just something attractive to me about trying to make an intentionally cohesive work rather than frenetically swinging for the fences with random songs. Also, with the nature of our music often being somewhat liturgical or spiritual in nature, I liked the idea of moving the listener through a longer meditative or worshipful experience than just three- to five-minute intervals.

It would be naive to think our liturgy has not been affected by today’s culture of pop music singles. Our church services can become disconnected from a consistent story. Planning the worship service often becomes about finding the best four or five worship singles that will keep people engaged, and then a sermon is given that is separate from anything done in the service up to that point. It’s all about the hits.

I don’t think most Christians today give much thought to the overarching stories that form not only what we claim to believe but how we live in the world. So, we wanted to try to be more intentional about the larger context of the individual songs. We wanted to move away from the more typical pop Christian method of trying to create the best short, inspirational sound bytes we could, and instead try to create an experience that immersed the listener into a cohesive narrative of some kind.

We began the album with a musical interpretation of the creation of the universe. We moved through songs recognizing the beauty of life and the created order. Then, in the fourth song, things take a turn at “The Fall.” We all experience the wonder of creation at times, with all of its exquisite tastes, sounds and colors. But we also all experience the pain of a creation tinged with entropy, poverty and death. Who among us who has experienced the goodness of the Creator hasn’t also experienced a feeling of His absence?

This carries us into songs expressing hope for redemption and resurrection, as well as healing from the jadedness our fallen nature leads us into. Humans are a ghostly comparison to the real humanity we could be. We are like a bride who has turned from her love and prostituted herself to the world. It is only in our reuniting with our first love that our eyes are opened again to the gift of life and the beauty of everything around us that is filled with the very glory of God. It is in this beholding that the beauty of the bride is restored to her and the ghosts upon the earth are able to become more alive.

It’s a strange time in both the music industry and Western Christendom. Both are dying to their current forms in some pretty real ways. Regardless of what happens to the structures of either, though, there are things I am sure will remain in the ashes. Honesty. Art. And certainly love.

Michael Gungor and his wife, Lisa, started Gungor. They also lead worship at Bloom, a church they helped plant in Denver. This article originally appeared in RELEVANT magazine.

49 Comments

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Peter commented…

I don't know of anyone who has purchased just a portion of Ghosts Upon the Earth - everyone I know has the whole album - and it's been a success. Part of the foundation of that success is in singles like "Beautiful Things" and "Earth Is Yours." What he's saying is that whenever you break away from the singles model, it's risky - and it's what worship music should be. Thank you Michael for taking the risk - this album (and the concert) have profoundly impacted my life.

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Jeff commented…

Another trend is also streaming services like Spotify. So people now have the option to listen to as much stuff as they want without feeling like they wasted money on an album if they don't end up liking it. So in that sense it's a really good time to be making concept type albums.

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JennaDeWitt commented…

Jeff - I love that you commented on this because today has been an on-going conversation about the ethics of Spotify (which artists say doesn't pay well at all) with everyone around me. So thanks! Adding this point to the debate. :)

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pianoman3217 commented…

Yes, worship and praise should be risky. Church is not and never ever should be a production! As a praise and worship pastor for many years who has taught at conferences all over the nation, we must never lose sight of keeping God forever glorified, exalted, and adored at all times. Worship and Praise is NOT an industry! How dare we ever do this to sell albums and use His worth for our own gain! I remember when I signed with Universal! I wish I had never done that! They are not a bad company or anything, but as a minister of the Gospel and a worship leader, I did not need to sign with Universal Studios. It was not the thing to do at the time. I just didn't listen to my heart. Instead, I spent 3 years trying to get out of a contract. Wow! When they tried to send me on tour with whoever, and I told them NO!!! They were furious! You see, It's never about us! It's always about Him! It's about His glory! It's about HIs worth! It's about His goodness and His love! It's about us becoming invisible and Him becoming visible! That's a non-negotiable! If we want to walk in the power of God and see people visibly healed and set free and demons cast out of people while we worship, then our praise and worship must come from a pure heart and a pure life! I'm totally sold out to you Jesus!

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Anonymous commented…

I could not agree more.

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