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Perform: Reclaiming Performance in Worship

Perform: Reclaiming Performance in Worship

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” worship1 ), but they make such effective parody because they contain much more than a grain of truth.

Performance Denial

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 performance2 as a metaphor for understanding what we do in worship.

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 & Puzzlement

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.

Did you know that Worship Leader has a podcast episode on this topic of performance and worship?

2. Understanding Performance as Transformative Human Communication

Drawing from insights of worship pastors and scholars of performance, here is one way of thinking about performance that might help point the way forward:

Performance is a human activity that communicates our deepest beliefs and values through repeated, public action and transforms us in the process.

Public performance is, first of all, a quintessentially human activity. Trying to deny that we perform is ultimately futile because we can’t get away from it. Across time and culture, we make music, we enact plays, we relish the ritual of festive ceremonies (public and private), we tell jokes, we give structured speeches. Each of these kinds of performance have elements that give them shape and display patterns that allow us to understand how to interpret them. Recognizing these patterns in our musical performance of worship—for instance, the fact that we more frequently lift our hands on choruses than verses, or that we choose a particular set of four chords when “improvising” a transition—doesn’t necessarily make what we do “fake” or “contrived” or “manipulated.” A repertory of meaningful sounds, texts, and gestures is part of the culture that we as humans and image-bearers of a communicating God have created.

Spontaneity: Practice Made Perfect

Any successful performance relies on skills which must be intentionally cultivated, and when we’re not careful, we can minimize the importance of preparation for a quality more frequently seen as “spiritual”: spontaneity. But increasing our freedom and honing our skills are closely linked. In his post “Worship as Performance,” Ben Patterson offers a memorable metaphor for the interdependence of disciplined skill and spontaneity in our worship:

A good metaphor for the true freedom of disciplined Christian worship can be found in the dancer’s art. Nothing looks more free and spontaneous than a great dancer performing. But beneath all of that freedom and spontaneity are years of drills, repetition, sweat, strain, and more drills. Sunday morning worship is to the rest of our lives what cultivation is to a garden. We weed, prune, water, and feed to the end that the garden may be beautiful—spontaneous gardens are not; disciplined gardens are.

When we’re tempted to minimize honing our skills, we should examine the reasons why. We may have the best of intentions, but is our refusal to cultivate our skills a cover for laxity or laziness? When we deny that there is performance, we deny our own agency as co-creators and, we deny any responsibility we have in the process.

The Language of Music

A second aspect to this understanding is that performance communicates. Musical performance in worship—a composite art that includes speech, sound, movement, gesture, and often visual imagery—is one of the many ways we communicate to one another. Even without lyrics, music is by definition a communicative medium; it is something that stands between two (or more) people and is interpreted to express ideas and emotions. Just like speech requires shared words and grammar, our musical performances rely on unspoken rules. Music, like language, communicates, but in a very different way. Because it is so context-dependent and subject to a variety of interpretations, we often find it difficult to put into words what exactly our musical style is “saying.” But we should not confuse difficulty with impossibility.

We all have a set of associations developed through our experience with different kinds of music, but what the musical styles and sounds we choose actually communicate might sometimes surprise us. Rather than assuming we already know, as music leaders we are responsible for figuring out what a musical style “means” to our present and potential worshipers and whether this is the message that we want to send. What are we communicating when we use a particular song, style, or instrument … or when we don’t use it? What do we communicate when our songs are only the most current (or only the most “time-honored”)? All of these performative aspects “speak” volumes, both to our congregations and to those visiting our church communities.

See Also
Nashville Bridge

Musical Metamorphosis

Finally, performance transforms. When we take part in a performance, we communicate and reinforce to one another our shared beliefs and values. There don’t even have to be words involved, since each aspect of our actions—music, gesture, movement—communicates to us in a language beyond words. The act of co-performance in a worship service—including making music together—forms our identities as Christians, much the same way as our taking on spiritual disciplines during the week. These shape our inner being through our faithful actions, in the presence of and with encouragement from other members of the body of Christ.

What our understanding of “authenticity” sometimes fails to take into account is that God can and does use influences from outside us to effect our transformation, to help us become who we want to be but aren’t yet. Sometimes in our performance, we are called to put on shoes that are too big for us and walk around in them, seeing what it will be like when we grow up in Christ. As a child, my favorite set of too-big shoes were my dad’s cowboy boots. Even though they came up to my thighs and my feet swam around in them, how fun it was to prance around the house, looking forward to the day when I was a grownup (or at least a bigger kid) and could actually wear them out and about.

Sometimes we don’t feel like singing— let alone leading—certain worship songs. Sometimes a rhythmic, up-tempo song grates on our nerves when we’ve had a rotten week; sometimes what a song’s lyrics ask us to affirm cut us to the quick, pointing out our failure to trust in God’s provision, or our belief that God gives good gifts, or—in the darkest nights along the journey—whether Christ was not raised and our faith is a lie. But in spite of this, we find grace when we sing songs that do not reflect what we are currently feeling: here we perform the messy comingling of doubt and faith expressed so well by the father who brought his afflicted son to Jesus: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24 ESV). Sometimes performing or leading certain songs involves admitting: This is not where I am right now. But I want to be there, and in time, if I follow this path with the encouragement of all these brothers and sisters and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, I will be.

Rather than beat ourselves up for our lack of “authenticity,” I contend that in these situations we should “perform” in faith because by doing so we open ourselves to being made new. By putting on a role that feels too big for us for the sake of imitating Christ and loving others, we can express our desire for these things to be true of us, even if they aren’t just yet. We acknowledge that the shoes are too big, but we trust that our Father, who delights in giving good gifts to his children, will lead us by the hand. Through performance, we reconcile our ideal selves—the selves being made new in the image of Christ—with our present imperfection. The transformative power of performing together suggests we can be transformed from the outside in as well as the inside out.

3. Faithful Performance: Taking Responsibility

We’ve spent a good amount of time exploring performance and making a case for why, when understood differently, it can be such a powerful concept. I want to wrap up with a few general suggestions and diagnostic questions we can ask ourselves as we encourage our teams and congregations to more faithful performance.

1. STOP DENYING THAT WE ARE PERFORMING.

Like denying that we have a “tradition” (beliefs and practices handed down across generations) or a “religion” (a set of beliefs and practices through which we understand and approach God), our constant denials of performance ring hollow. Worse, our denial can be a stumbling block that devalues disciplining and developing our God-given skills. We’ve got to get beyond the question of whether or not we are “performing” and start asking if our performance is faithful.

2. CLARIFY OUR BELIEFS AND VALUES, GOALS AND MISSIONS, AND WORK TO EXPRESS THEM.

In addition to the main tenets of our faith, what are our congregation’s core values that we’re trying to express through our musical offerings of worship? What musical styles, instruments, facial expressions or body movements might work together to help us communicate these aspects? We should pay particular attention to the tensions—the “both/ands”—that are necessary parts of our faith. Does our music express both sides—discipline and freedom; old and new; intellect and emotion; contemplation and joy—or does what we’re “saying” through our choice of performance styles, gestures, or movements veer to one side or another?

3. INVITE HONEST EVALUATION OF OUR MUSICAL PERFORMANCE.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to know what aspects of our performance are distracting or hindering clear communication. Here, it’s helpful to have a mix of trusted “insider” and “outside” perspectives: a committed teen, a faithful younger couple, an insightful older member, and maybe a musician friend from outside your church. These perspectives will help you watch for ideas that aren’t coming across or messages that your team conveys without meaning to.

4. EXPLAIN REASONS FOR OUR PERFORMANCE CHOICES.

Once we’ve clarified our core values and what the best means are for expressing these, we can actively work to shape the way our co-worshippers interpret our performances. Many worship leaders already do a good job explaining these aspects to their teams; they find ways to bring the congregation on board. Include a “did you know?” in the bulletin or on a PowerPoint slide before the service. During announcement time, educate the congregation: “This is why we’re singing this,” or “For this special service, we’ve decided to use only the organ/electric guitar/choir/ soloist, and here’s why.” Teach a Sunday school class or newcomer’s class on music in worship—it’s a good excuse to do outside reading and learn new models. Taking these steps will help to create an open dialogue with our congregation where we’re all on the same page about our values and ideals and can perform these together.

When applying these to our performance, it’s good to keep our actions in perspective: we believe that our performance transforms because it is ultimately not our show. As Michael Horton has written recently in a thought-provoking article4 , we are not performers for a Divine “Audience of One” who is passively sitting back to enjoy our show; rather, we are co-performers in a weekly enactment of the story of our redemption. In characteristic graciousness, God gives us important supporting roles to play in the weekly drama He has ordained. As iron sharpens iron, our human activity shapes us as a community from the outside in through faithful performance, even as the Spirit works to transform us from the inside out. Our weekly meetings are the “stage” on which our interactions with other “performers” intertwine with those of the source of all our creativity. As lead actor, the Spirit comes into our midst, takes our broken efforts and makes them whole; gathers together our meager offerings and makes them acceptable; takes our mixed motives, our doubt, and even the filthy rags of our good works, and washes them clean. Ultimately, this is the reason we meet for worship and that we work hard to perform to the best of our abilities: because we trust the divine performer to breathe life into our “script,” to take up our efforts and make all things new.

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