Episode | August 1, 2022

Transcript for Elias Dummer’s Episode of The Walk

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Joshua Swanson: Welcome to The Walk. A devotionals podcast led by Worship Leaders. In this episode, Worship Leader and songwriter Elias Dummer goes deep on the “P word” – performance. Here we go.

Elias Dummer: One of the things that changed the way that I understood what I do as a Worship Leader and who I am as somebody who’s responsible for helping people sing this stuff was looking at the thing itself. And I mean, this is gonna sound crazy, but looking at even just what it means to be human differently than I had been taught and I would argue in maybe even a more Christian way.

I wanna just kinda read really quickly from Luke 24. Uh, and I’m gonna read it from the message just cuz it’s a, a neat way of putting it versus 1-3: “at the crack of Dawn on Sunday the woman came to the tomb carrying the burial spices they had prepared. They found the entrance stone rolled away from the tomb. So they walked in, but once inside they couldn’t find the body of the master Jesus.

I think in worship spaces, we so often think of worship as this strictly spiritual or even disembodied thing that God is working primarily through invisible forces in our world and where we define that our bodies have some role to play.

That would be a real problem. Suddenly the curtain would be pulled down on Oz and the whole thing would be over with. But the thing is we can see those things at work. We can see mechanisms in the body and the brain physiologically, responding to music and to prayer and to each other and to God.

So, I think we kind of need to make a change in the way that we view what’s happening in the room so that we can kind of relax and take a more healthy approach to some of the skills we might need in doing this. If God is working only through invisible forces and never through what we are and what we’re doing and the skills we learn, then we’ll spend our whole time as a worship leader, as a Worship Pastor, thinking about technique, practice, and practical things of all sorts.

How do you plan a set list? Which way should I look? How do I help people to feel more comfortable? When I step on a platform, these things become a place of fear. Instead, if we look at every human being in the room as a complicated, intertwined thing, not a spirit needing to escape their body, but a human being embodied just like the tomb was empty. Jesus resurrected an embodied person. If we look at each person in the room in the same way, suddenly the idea of performance doesn’t seem so crazy. Not because I’m up there pretending, but because I’ve learned the skills which help me to connect with people, make them comfortable and build trust meaningfully so that we can pray together and go somewhere worth going.

And so, I think taking the fear of what it means to be a human being out of leading worship is maybe one of the most crucial tools I’ve ever had in my toolbox.

To really drill down, you know, if you think about the human experience on the way into church, for example, there’s sort of this tendency amongst Worship Leaders to kind of lead with their banger. They come out strong and they’re like; “Hey everybody, whatever it is that you came from, you’re gonna turn that off now and you’re gonna come into this room and you’re gonna be at a place where pogo jumping and having an overwhelming transcendent, emotional and spiritual experience is the assumption from the downbeat.” And I’ve just never found it to be true.

My wife and I have five kids. We’re chasing kids out the door. We’re just trying to find shoes. Five minutes earlier, you’re getting signed into church and try to get into your spot and by the time you’re in your spot, you are not ready to go there. You need to be a human being for a few minutes, adjusting to a new space and when we Worship Leaders come out and assume that everyone is ready to go, where we already are, we do them the disservice of having to pretend they’re not a human being who’s frustrated and needs to take a deep breath before they can go there. We don’t earn the trust because we take for granted that everyone there is already in the highest heavens and it’s practically never true.

So again, whether it’s performance skills, how to plan a set list, how to write a song, there’s a lot we can learn about the mechanisms of this that isn’t evil, dark, or broken, but instead is potentially God redeeming the very world he made and called good, including all the people in it.

I remember hearing a story, uh, from this classic musical performer, legendary singer, she was talking about how, ironically, the best sorts of performances are not pretending something, but instead recalling and embodying something. And I heard this interesting thing about the word performance itself, and to many Worship Leaders there’s so much anxiety about the word performance. The etymology of the word performance is church Latin. It’s formo; to form thoroughly. So, there’s a degree to which figuring out how do what I do is a helpful skill in discipleship. We are putting on the person of Jesus as we do that. So very, very practically you’re singing a song, which is emotional. You’re singing a song, which is sad. That’s part of the embodied experience of prayer we want people to have in that moment. So, it can be really helpful to take that moment as one song transitions to the other and figure out what was a time in my life when this feeling I’m, I I’m wanting to lean in on was something that I experienced firsthand to think about that.

Take a moment on that, take a breath and then have that be the starting place of the song you sing at. At the end of the day, we talk a lot about excellence in, in church, probably too much, frankly. Um, but if it’s far more important that we have an excellently connected experience with each other and the Holy Spirit then it is that we simply make a great presentation and that’s one of the fundamental misunderstandings about performance in general. The best performances aren’t simply great presentations that went off without a hitch. The best performances are things which allowed humans to connect to one another and in worship, particularly to connect to one another and God.

Joshua Swanson: That is one thing we can’t deny, that we have bodies and God-given abilities. So, relax into those gifts and help people find Jesus through worship. Awesome. All of us at Worship Leader Magazine and Authentic Media are so grateful to you for listening to this podcast. We have a favor to ask. If you could subscribe, leave us a review on your favorite podcast network. Share about us on social. That would really help us out. Thanks. Here’s more from Eli.

Elias Dummer: When I plan a worship set, just in terms of getting into the nuts and bolts, I tend to think of it more as gaining trust in order that we can collectively go somewhere meaningful and intimate in prayer. I mean, the goal isn’t the big banger. The goal is the silence after the big boom. You know, there’s kind of this building towards something in order that what immediately follows can be so really profound and meaningful in where we’re honest with ourselves. So instead of one, uh, there’s a live performance coach by the name of Tom Jackson who talks about set planning and he says, it’s a great idea to identify the songs in your set, uh, on a scale of one to five, with one being super intimate, five, being your big fun, engaging, asking a lot of people, asking them to get out of their shell a little bit. And he would say never open with a five. Always open with a three or a three and a half and work your way up to the five. And you don’t unlike what is often the case in worship set planning. I think immediately after that five, you go to your one. If people have come outta their shell, if you have a four song set, for example, that would for me look like a three and a half. Four and a half that becomes a five. Maybe a, maybe I introduce a moment that is kind of a five moment instead of playing a five song. And then we go immediately to the one and we build back out from the one. And the reason is that one is where you’re really trying to get people, you’re trying to get people to a place of having let off their inhibitions of being kind of almost like flow state in a sense where we’re kind of as a group doing the same thing together.

So, we’ve got, we’ve become truly present as a group of people to what God might want to do in our heart’s minds, and lives. And that, that one space is so often where that happens. I mean, I think in my own life, the most profound experiences of prayer, haven’t been in a big room. They’ve been when I’m alone on my floor in prayer and so to a degree, that experience is part of what we’re trying to recreate together with God. And so, shooting for that one you get there by the five is kind of a really practical way of organizing a set list.

When you’re looking out at a room, it sort of means leading with your eyes open, you exist, not as a conduit for everything God wants to say in the room, you exist as a reflection of humanity, back to the human beings that are in your church. You are a shepherd, a servant trying to lead the guy at the back of the room. Not the girl at the front who’s got the flag and she’s ready to go and she doesn’t need you. You’re there for the guy at the back and partnering those two things together, leading as a human leading humans in the spirit, uh, is, is I think a, a really, really, really helpful way of looking at what it is that we do.

And it, to me,  kind of flipped everything on its head in terms of what I do with practical skills, like setlist planning and performance skills, and that sort. So, if you’re a Worship Pastor, Worship Leader, volunteer, paid, whatever, I think one of the most important things you can do for your church community, for yourself, and for your people is to recognize that all of you involve your human beings. You have bodies, you’ve got brains, you’ve got souls. You’re gonna get tired. You might be on the verge of burnout. And to recognize that you need rest. You need human connection. You need a relationship.

Joshua Swanson: Thanks to Elias for blessing us with his thoughts on performance and on our God given abilities on how we as worship leaders and worshipers can navigate that sticky topic of performance. Elias has a song called Expectation, which we’re going to use as we play out this episode, he has a lot of songs. But we decided to choose that song expectation.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Thanks to Matt McCarty for producing and editing today’s episode, Jacob Fairclough produced our theme song. The walk is brought to you by Worship Leader Magazine, which is an Authentic Media brand. I’m Joshua Swanson. Thanks for listening.