Worship Is Performance

Stadium green seats

By Greg Jones 

What if I were to tell you that worship IS a performance? What if the real question is WHO is the audience?

In Genesis 4, we read about Cain and Abel’s offering of worship to God. Cain gave God the left-overs, giving God nothing more than his mediocrity. Abel on the other hand, gave God his best in the first fruits of his labor. This made Cain jealous.

When people say that worship music is not about performance, they are probably trying to guard against pride. I couldn’t agree more. One of the greatest dangers I see with culturally-relevant churches is that they risk losing humility. Humility is having the boldness to stare your weaknesses in the eye without flinching. You show me a church that is culturally relevant without humility and I’ll show you a bunch of hipsters, posing in their skinny jeans, drinking their lattes, sporting piercings and tattoos to lure you into a conformity that they have mistaken for coolness.

But does humility require the church’s virtuosos to hide their light under a lamp? Can a church be humble without lowering the bar to a mediocrity of skill and creativity? What if your church’s worship team has a singer with the lungs of Steve Perry or a guitarist with the skills of Lincoln Brewster? Should that church tell them to leave the high note descants and shred solos at home? Should we tell our most skilled worship team members that God doesn’t want their greatest skills used within the church? Should they be forced to only use such skill in secular contexts because we can’t possibly imagine them being used in humility? Why do we find that the Old Testament temple worship model incorporated a system of teachers and apprentices if skill is to be so restrained? And what about Psalm 33:3?

Now please understand, if you only have the skill of the average hobbyist, this is not an indictment. Attitude determines altitude. The real issue is not your skill but your heart. Are you willing to give God all that you have, whether that is a lot or a little? Are you motivated to do it better tomorrow than today because you are not doing it for yourself but doing it for the King of glory? If you can answer yes, then that is the attitude of a humble, perpetual learner. That passion is what God wants and it is what I celebrate as a worship leader when I see it in any worship team member, from the beginner to the most experienced and advanced.

In the movie “Chariots of Fire”, Eric Liddell is both an Olympic runner and a missionary. He is admonished by his family for putting so much time into his training at the expense of his missionary work. He tells his family that yes God has called him to be a missionary but God has also made him fast and when he runs he feels God’s pleasure. 

Is it not possible for a Celine Dion, Mike Portnoy or Phil Keaggy to be on our praise teams, itching not to impress people but just to give God the fruits of all of their practice time and dedication as an act of worship? Within the context of a tasteful fit for a song’s style, while preserving congregational singability, couldn’t moderate bursts of such skill be a witness to the people within our congregations? What could such displays, within the context of humility say about God and our worship to Him?

If we can’t imagine such a thing happening without pride, could it be possible that WE have the problem instead of the virtuoso? Did God admonish Abel for his gift because it risked being mistaken by Cain as ‘showing off’?

Light is best appreciated when contrasted with darkness. Humility is best demonstrated when contrasted with skill. Whose humility is clearer, the humility of a musician with the skills of a beginner or that of the virtuoso? Isn’t the power of Christ’s humility found in that He is the rightful King who gave His life? Or would this humility have been better displayed if He were just an ordinary man who died?

To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist. – Cardinal Suhard

What if people within our congregations were presented with a mystery? What if that mystery were of a church that is known for presenting worship with excellence and skill not to solicit praise from men but to give praise to someone otherwise invisible, but made real by their humility?

Romans 12:1-2 defines worship as giving our life to God through the process of sanctification. The sanctification process starts with how we think:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

This definition clearly transcends music, however

 

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    9 comments on “Worship Is Performance

    1. While I agree that Christian performers can be great worship leaders, I take issue with these talented people leading in such a way that the congregation cannot follow. We have such a leader in our church. She is a fabulous singer/musician but she thinks that every song has to have her personal imprint on it. She changes the tempo, melody and phrasing so that the congregation just stands there watching and listening to her. A church worship service is NOT a concert! A worship leader’s first mandate is to present the worship songs in such a way that the congregation is able to enter in, join in lifting our voices in praise to our Holy God. There is a huge difference between performance and worship leading. One can have excellence in their musical offering without becomming the center of attention. Over-the-top vocals and instrumental solos can often take the people’s attention off worshipping God and put the attention on the performers. It can be distracting. If the worship team is so wrapped up in exercising their gifting that they are presenting the music in a way that the congregation cannot join in or follow – they are no longer leading worship. If one thinks they are leading the way up the mountain, every once in while they should check behind themselves to see if anyone is following! As a worship leader, facilitating and encouraging an encounter with God is far more important than ‘shred vocals’ or guitar solos.

      • I agree wholeheartedly with Rena. Can a virtuoso or “shredder” still give their best without the vocal run, the high and lofty note, or the instrumental feature. I believe the answer us a resounding “YES”, because our best, toward our audience of ONE, comes from within much more than without. From time to time, in humility, the atmosphere of worship may call for the extra lift, and praise God for those He has gifted with that ability! But, one who has been blessed with that kind of gift, I believe, will lead his/her congregation into deeper worship by refraining from the overuse of it and take intentional care to steer clear of the slippery slope of pride and showmanship. That is a real sign of genuine humility to me. For example, I can walk much better and faster than my 5 year old daughter, but how much sweeter it is for me to walk with her as our relationship grows with each step! What, then, of a gifted rapper? Would we be moved into the presence of The Lord each service if the virtuoso lyric shredder performed excellently with the “mad skillz” of a DJ behind him? Or would the congregation, as Rena illustrated, be left behind and be reduced to observer rather than worshiper? There IS a place for performance, which seems more outward focused, but it doesn’t seem to be conducive to congregational worship, where the “least of these” gather, in all of their glorious out of tune voices and off beat clapping. Is God less interested in their worship? Be excellent, sing amazingly, play your heart out for the King, but discern (another gift of the Spirit) the best way to utilize your gifts in the context you’re in. May the Lord bless us all as we engage as iron sharpening iron, not to prove points, but to honor God as we wrestle through the subjective pitfalls of taboo subjects such as this! Thanks for initiating the topic…

    2. I agree with Rena’s previous post. The call of the worship leader is to lead the congregation in such as way that it is easy for them to step into worship of the King. The type of leadership the author is suggesting becomes very distracting and takes away from focused worship of the Lord, “Is it not possible for a Celine Dion, Mike Portnoy or Phil Keaggy to be on our praise teams, itching not to impress people but just to give God the fruits of all of their practice time and dedication as an act of worship? Within the context of a tasteful fit for a song’s style, while preserving congregational singability, couldn’t moderate bursts of such skill be a witness to the people within our congregations? What could such displays, within the context of humility say about God and our worship to Him?” Yes, there may be a place for this “burst of skill,” but I don’t have much confidence in the idea that the worship service is the appropriate place for it. If so, rarely and with much prayer and consideration. Coffee houses, evening worship concerts, and church musicals may provide a better venue. With the responsibility of such visibility, we as worship leaders and teams, also need to be an example that is above reproach knowing that we have many non-believers coming into any given service who don’t understand worship and can be easily distracted by what they see and hear. The concept of this is interesting to discuss, but in general, I have not found it done well. I don’t think that Ps. 33:3 refers to shred vocals, guitar solos and the like when it encourages us to offer our musical skill, vocal or instrumental, to worship the Lord with skill.

    3. I agree wholeheartedly with Rena’s comment, especially:
      ” If the worship team is so wrapped up in exercising their gifting that they are presenting the music in a way that the congregation cannot join in or follow – they are no longer leading worship. If one thinks they are leading the way up the mountain, every once in while they should check behind themselves to see if anyone is following! As a worship leader, facilitating and encouraging an encounter with God is far more important than ‘shred vocals’ or guitar solos.”
      If they’re not joining in, you’ve lost the worship spirit. Also, sloppy video can be a great distraction.

    4. I agree with what is said. As a worship leader I encourage you to have a heart to heart with your worship leader. Communicatation is key. There is nothing more discouraging as a worship leader to know that people have been feeling a certain way and talking with others instead of dealing with it head on. You may open their eyes and yours could be opens as well if the open communication is there. Nobody is perfect. God bless!

    5. I understand the point Rena and Bill are discussing however I think the intention of this article is merely stating that we give our best in worship to God. I’ve been on many praise teams where I haven’t showboated and played with humility as well. iSometimes humility is misconstrued as lack of ability and even leaders don’t realize what u are capable of as a musician. I thunk what Rena and bill say has merit. We of course don’t want to shred distaste fully but shouldn’t be worried about giving our all technically if the opportunity presents itself.

    6. Found a great quote from Luther that I thought relevant:

      Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in
      the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits.This
      precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind
      himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and
      extolling God. However, when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and
      polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great
      surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all,
      His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice
      sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip
      lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple
      melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a
      heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and
      embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music
      as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not
      deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing
      but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

      http://www.worshipmatters.com/2006/02/07/what-does-a-worship-leader-do-part-6/

    7. Pingback: Analyzing worship as performance. | Critically Analytical

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