Reclaiming Performance in Worship
By Monique Ingalls
As a musicologist, part of my day job—and, if I’m honest, my hobby as well—is researching and writing about the performance aspects of music in present-day Christian worship. It doesn’t take “empirical” observation, however, to see how music in any Christian tradition can be understood as a performance. Whether we like it or not, 21st century Christians have developed a recognizable set of musical genres for congregational worship that have predictable musical and lyrical patterns. We’ve developed a repertoire of acceptable body movements, postures, gestures, and facial expressions meant to convey sincere exertion or sublime peace. (I think we can all recognize what I’ve heard referred to as the “worship leader’s grimace”—the signature facial contortion meant to convey sincerity that falls somewhere between excruciating pain and divine ecstasy.) Even congregations that frown on dancing often have a codified set of worship “moves,” including the youth-group favorite “pogo” (jumping up and down in place to fast-tempo songs) or the more stately “washing machine” (swaying in a circular pattern while keeping one’s feet fixed in place). In a worship set, there are particular times when (depending on the tradition) worshipers will raise their hands, sing louder, turn their faces heavenward or bow their heads. Often these correspond closely to musical cues: to the arrival of the song’s climactic bridge, to the song’s melodic highpoint, the changes in musical texture as instruments are added or subtracted. We’ve probably seen many of these performance aspects parodied (I’m thinking of Tim Acuff’s “10 Styles of Hand-Raising” or North Point Media’s “Sunday Morning” video on “contemporvant” worship[i]), but they make such effective parody because they contain much more than a grain of truth.
In the face of all of these “scripted” performative elements, how many times have you heard a worship leader—or found yourself as a worship leader—say something like this? “This is NOT a performance.” Or, “We’re not up here to perform for you, but to lead you in worship.” Or, how about this comment that would make any worship leader cringe if leveled at him or her: “That wasn’t authentic worship, it was just a performance.”
If we engage in it all the time, why does performance get such a bad rap? Can we really so easily ditch the concept, or will we miss out on something important by denying the performative dimensions of our musical acts of worship? My purpose here is to rehabilitate the idea of performance as a metaphor for understanding what we do in worship.[ii] First, we need to get to the root of our anxiety about “performance”; then we can move on to a fuller understanding of what performance is and does. Based on an understanding of performance as transformative communication, we’ll explore a few key skills to develop in order to perform more faithfully.
1. Understanding Our Performance Issues
I don’t think I need to belabor the point that “performance” is a dirty word in our church circles, something to be avoided rather than embraced. It seems we use “performance” as a contrast to two things that we value: the quality of authenticity and the action of participation.
In the first instance, in the context of our worship, we often use the word “performance” to describe what happens when someone acts in a way that is inconsistent with the way they really feel or the way they are in “real life.” We impute questionable motives to their actions: “performers” in this sense act with an intension to deceive or manipulate, like an actor adopting a persona (the original metaphor from which we get the word “hypocrite”). This emphasis on performance seems to run against the imperative we often hear to be “authentic,” to express our true feelings and not to try to be someone we’re not. Conceived this way, authenticity (being “natural” and just doing what comes to us) and performance (self-consciously playing a “scripted” role) seem to be at odds with one another.
In the second instance, performance is contrasted to participation. In the context of congregational worship, “performance” is used to negatively describe what happens when the focus is placed on the musicians onstage (“performers”) while the congregation (“audience”) remains passive and uninvolved. In this view, performance is understood as engaging in a public act for its own sake—singing for the sake of people hearing us sing—rather than for a larger purpose beyond the act itself. When we “perform,” there is a sense that we’ve lost sight of our goal of leading the musical prayers of the people—that we’ve become distracted by something that should not be our main focus.
Paradox & Puzzelment
But, how do we reconcile the imperative to be “authentic” with the reality that many things about the way we conduct our services—from the song styles, to the spaces in the service where songs fit, to the gestures we use during worship, to the words we say even in our most “spontaneous” prayers—follow a recognizable pattern? How do we account for the uncomfortable fact that, even the act of saying that we’re not performing has become a predictable part of our performance during congregational singing? How can we deny that we are “performing” when we are positioned above or in front of other worshipers, have bright lights shining on us, and expensive sound systems amplifying our own voices and instruments?
Sometimes we have a tendency to react strongly. We recognize these elements by trying even harder to be “spontaneous,” to seek to destroy patterns for fear that they become ruts. However, I’d like to suggest that the way forward is not to deny that we perform but instead to retool our understanding of performance.
There is more to this article in the July/August issue of Worship Leader Subscribe now to continue reading this issue in the WL Archive.
[i]Jon Acuff (http://go.wlmag.com/wlacuff); North Point has removed the video in question with a brief explanation (http://go.wlmag.com/wlsundaymorn), but it is still available in several places on YouTube.
[ii]I offer this reflection in humility, aware that my comments parallel ideas and insights from several other pastors and worship leaders—to that end I suggest you check out the following resources: Ben Patterson’s “Worship as Performance” (http://go.wlmag.com/wlpatterson); Zanne Dailey’s “Redeeming Performance or Performing Redemption?” (http://go.wlmag.com/wldailey); Fred McKinnon’s “Is There a Place for Performance in Worship?” (http://go.wlmag.com/wlmckinnon); and Paul Baloche’s short exploration of the relationship between worship and performance (http://go.wlmag.com/wlbaloche)