Is There A Place For Performance in Worship?

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Growing up as a kid of the church (my dad was a youth pastor, worship leader, pastor), I’ve heard just about every church cliche you can think of. Being a youth pastor and media/music pastor myself for most of my adult life, has also led to me probably BEING some of those cliches at times.

WORSHIP IS NOT A PERFORMANCE

I think one of the most misused, yet well-intentioned churchy phrases is “Worship is not a performance.” Most of the times (if not all) it’s used when talking about the quality or excellence of our worship MUSIC. I definitely agree that worship itself is not a performance. But I believe when we in the church use the cliche we’re talking about the music we use to worship (not worship itself).

For the record, I agree with the general heart behind that cliche. We don’t worship for our own glory, or for the glory of our bands, or even our church. We worship to glorify God. Period.

But I wanted to break down the idea a little bit and present a different angle.

As a trained and fairly skilled musician (almost 30 years experience on trumpet, and all of my high school and adult years on piano, drums, guitar + studied music theory & composition in college) I’m aware of what it takes to be a “good” performer. My entire “school” experience was based on practicing endlessly, then coming together to rehearse daily, and then being a part of performances, the goal of which was to be as close to perfect as possible. It was all about the performance.

PERFORMER?

What does the word perform even mean? Is it a bad word? We have made it out to be a very ugly word in our worship leader circles. It carries such a negative connotation. In fact, because of the negative stigma, I think doves probably shed tears when we even think about our worship experiences as a performance.

From dictionary.com:

perform
4. to act (a play, part, etc.), as on the stage, in movies, or on television.
5. to render (music), as by playing or singing.

Of course, there are other definitions but they’re not applicable to this discussion. We’re specifically talking about performance as it relates to being in front of people (on a stage). I think the negative stigma comes from the first of the two given definitions:

“to act (a play, part, etc.), as on the stage, in movies, or on television.”

If we think of performance in this way (even indirectly) we’ll see ourselves as not being genuine or sincere. Our desire as worship leaders and pastors is to be authentic and real with the people we’re worshiping with. We don’t want to ever come across as an actor, as a person wearing a mask. In this sense, I definitely agree that we should NOT be a performer. We need to be who God made us to be.

You don’t need to be Chris Tomlin, Kathryn Scott, Matt Redman, Paul Baloche, Kari Jobe, Israel Houghton, Matt Maher, Darlene Zschech, or any other well-known worship leader. You need to be you. I need to be me.

WE ARE PERFORMERS

The second of the two definitions relates specifically to music. It is an action oriented verb and has nothing to do with being something you’re not. It’s about music. Period.

“to render (music), as by playing or singing.”

Pretty straight forward. To perform means to convey or express music by singing or playing. If you sing or play an instrument YOU ARE A PERFORMER by simple definition. Music requires performance. Musicians and singers ARE performers.

WORSHIP HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH PERFORMANCE

So, how does WORSHIP fit into this discussion? Well, here’s the easy to grasp, simple truth: You can be a great performer but not be worshiping at all. And you can be worshiping wholeheartedly and be a terrible performer. One is not dependent upon the other. Worship has nothing to do with performance.

WORSHIP LEADING DOES INVOLVE PERFORMANCE

But here’s the deal. EVERY time you lead worship (or even use music to worship) you ARE performing because without performance in its basic sense you couldn’t render music. If that’s the case, I suggest (and even challenge) that you be the best performer of music you can possibly be. If you already ARE a performer by default, then why not give it everything you’ve got. Perform as unto the Lord. Make your “rendering as by playing and singing” the best rendering that it could possibly be.

Let your performance bring glory and honor to God. How do we do that? Here are some ways to be a better performer so that maybe OTHERS can worship more freely without distractions. Keep in mind this list has nothing to do with YOUR HEART of worship, but everything to do with your skills to render music.

  1. Practice. To be a good performer, you HAVE TO practice. Develop your skills. Increase your song repertoire. Challenge yourself to learn new things musically.
  2. Rehearse. Bring it together with others. Combining your skills with others’ skills in a measurable, collaborative way is a wonderful way to not only build your own skills, but also to broaden your horizons and stretch your skills in rendering music with others.
  3. Perform. That’s right. Go ahead and perform. Render music in front of others. View the times that you are in front of others as a performance that can be either good or bad, but that ultimately serves a divine purpose (glorifying God and helping others to do the same). I’m not sure about you, but I am definitely keenly aware of a distractingly bad performance in a time of worship. Does it make it “not worship” – not at all – but it does make it harder for people to move past that distraction to collective worship. Sure, there’s that pesky “make a joyful noise” notion that basically cancels out all “performance” oriented “shows” – but the point is that as a Worship Leader/Pastor you are tasked with the privileged responsibility of HELPING OTHERS to make a joyful noise. Hopefully, your noise is joyful AND skilled (and not a distraction)!

Here are a few thoughts from TWC Members (from the TWC forums):

“Performance in worship is what it is – the ability to provide musical leadership to the musical worship of our Creator. I see no problem with striving for excellence unless we fail to acknowledge the source of that excellence – the Holy Spirit, or if we allow our pride in those skills to be come a barrier to worship. Part of that leadership has to be mentorship, both to the congregation as a whole, and to individuals who may be growing into a worship leading role. That is where having the humble spirit to follow God’s will is far more important than our individual musical skills.” — sycamoredave

“There IS an element of performance in leading worship, even if it is simply to play well enough that people aren’t distracted by your wrong notes! There’s nothing wrong with encouraging excellence.” — Shine4Him

“I think that it is important to note that worship is different and it probably is unfair to compare to performance as we think of from the secular world. It’s kinda in a category of it’s own in my mind. As a result, I try not to dwell on the term ‘performance,’ nor do I run away from and deny it. I think of the role as worship musician as kind of a messenger first and foremost, my personal preference is for a more understated type of performance where I can digest the lyrics (if any)… I don’t need or like it to be too showy.” — Louis

“…we must be wise when discussing this topic with those who have a limited view of worship. It’s one thing to encourage others to grow in their understanding of true worship, it’s another to put them down for their lack of maturity. From my understanding of Scripture, it would not be a difficult task to show how worship can be a performance. Unfortunately, many people have a false sense of humility that prevents them from ever wanting to ‘perform’ in any way.” — milepost13

So what are YOUR thoughts on performance and worship? Is the whole “worship shouldn’t be a performance/make a joyful noise” notion a knee-jerk reaction from people who aren’t skilled in their ability to perform (render music as by singing and playing)? Or is there a place for performance in worship? Are you a worship performer?

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is the Associate Director of Worship & Media at St. Simons Community Church, where he mentors, oversees and helps lead Family and Student worship environments. He is also the content curator and editor here at The Worship Community and at HighestPraise.com.

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