3 Things Worship Leaders Can Learn from Sigur Ros

On Tuesday night, a group of us went to the Sigur Ros show. Even with ridiculously high hopes and expectations, they blew me away and have had my head spinning all week. Yesterday, I sat down to reflect: “Why did the show move me so deeply?” And more than that, “What can we in the church learn from Sigur Ros?” A couple reflections …

(1) Beauty needs to retain a bit of darkness to keep it grounded and real.
In many ways, the music of Sigur Ros is wildly, gratuitously beautiful … with lush strings, epic soundscapes and gorgeous melodies. But if you listen closely, there is almost always something cracked or dark or dissonant in the mix. Which is exactly like real life. Sweetness without ugliness is only half the story. It doesn’t ring true. It is mere sentimentalism. And as my friend Ian says, there is nothing worse than sentimentalism pretending to be art … or sentimentalism pretending to be theology.

So how can our communities, churches and worship experiences embrace and live in the tension of both realities? This is an easy question to ask, but honestly, I’ve found it very difficult to live out in a church service. Is there a way to whole-heartedly celebrate the beauty in this world and the hope we have in God without ignoring the very real darkness all around (and inside of) us? Both are true. And like so many of the Psalms do masterfully, both need to be reclaimed in worship.

(2) Amazing music (or art) does not require individual virtuosos.
Besides Jonsi’s superhuman singing, most of the parts being played Tuesday night were very, very simple. No individual musician did anything exceptionally impressive or complicated on their own. However, they played the exact right parts at the exact right times and created something collectively brilliant.

Here’s what they remind me: Amazing music does not require virtuoso players … but it does require an inspired and crystal clear vision. As a band leader, do I help everyone understand exactly what the song is trying to be? Can we create this together? Do each of my bandmates know their exact role at each moment of the song? Do I?

How do we all become musicians who would rather ask, “What does this song need from me right now?” than “What are the most amounts of notes I can fit into this measure?” … a band of simple players trying to realize a shared vision, rather than a collection of wildly talented soloists all playing at the same time? That’s when the magic happens.

(3) Embrace the weirdness.
Admittedly, there were a number of moments in the Sigur Ros show that I didn’t understand, connect with or even like. Some of it was just plain weird. But that’s part of what makes them so compelling. If they sanded off all the “weird” edges, they might end up sanding off the “brilliant” edges also.

Which is probably what happens to some of the music/art in the church.

In an attempt to make what we do inviting and understandable and comfortable for the wide range of people coming to church, I’m afraid that we often end up neutering it. So instead of offering art that is alive with passion, truth and the messy glory of real life, we end up with safe, middle-of-the-road, predictable music that it perfectly innocuous. The Christian radio in our town advertises that their music is “safe for the whole family.” They take pride in this fact, but I think they should apologize. Jesus was profoundly loving, but anything but safe.

So to my friends creating art, sermons and music in the church: Embrace the weirdness! Explore the edges! Lean into your uniqueness! Don’t try to be a short-order cook for mass consumption. Instead, live a life of deep prayer, connection and obedience … and then let it gush out of you in its purest form. Not all of it will be appropriate for a Sunday gathering, of course, but I think we’d be surprised by how much might be. And gloriously so.  

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Aaron Niequest
After majoring in music theory and composition at judson university, I joined the student impact staff at willow creek church as a worship leader. I loved my time there, but the definite highlight was meeting a fantastic girl named Shauna and convincing her to marry me. About a year later, we struck up a friendship with Rob Bell and moved to join his church, Mars Hill, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I jumped in as the worship leader and Shauna joined the leadership staff.

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