So let’s tackle the controversial subject of Performance in Worship. For some the subject immediately raises red flags of concern while others readily admit that performance is a necessary aspect of their worship; both in presentation and participation.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2008) defines performance as “a person’s rendering of a dramatic role, song, or piece of music” (p. 1064). The definition elaborates on the term stating that performance is “the action or process of performing a task or function” (p. 1064). Given our context we will centre the discussion on the task of the church musician and singer (from hence forth ‘musician’); and in doing so acknowledge, according to the dictionary definition, that each Sunday (and besides) church musicians regularly perform songs in the role as worship leaders. Of course our consideration of the topic cannot stop at the sterile dictionary meaning. To do so would heavily dilute the cultural considerations which fuel the debate.
James White (2000) observes, “In worship, all are performers” (p. 115). According to the dictionary definition White is justified in his summation. Culturally however the issue is not performance – the issue is entertainment! Again, in contemplating the Contemporary Worship Singer’s task, does the individual orientate their performance towards entertaining the audience or is their intent directed toward ministering to the congregation? And herein lays the crux of the matter – entertainment vs. ministry.
Gary Gilley (2005), in his book This Little Church Went to Market, laments “The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them” (p. 47). Of course in some instances Gilley’s appraisal is accurate. Nonetheless, the difficulty facing those who wish to discern the line between entertainment and ministry are often confronted with the dilemma of questioning another person’s intent. Advocate of Emerging Worship Dan Kimball writes “We want to honor God in all we do, but some worship gatherings do feel so much like a performance that it comes across as being inauthentic, even if the hearts of those leading it are authentic” (2009, p. 312). Indeed, how is authenticity determined when the individuals under scrutiny, in our case the musicians, are not able to sufficiently ascertain their own position? As Mark Evans suggests, it is difficult. Evans (2006) observes, “Similarly, how does the music team of a church distinguish their functionality, being simultaneously performer desirous of quality,… and ideally, humble servant leader of the congregation” (p. 13).
One cannot escape the cultural notion of ‘giving God your best’. For church musicians this means developing their craft to a point of excellence. Christian artists seek to do their best with the talents God has bestowed upon them. Sadly, as Marva Dawn suggests, it is what we then do with those honed skills which creates the tension. Dawn (1995) writes “sometimes congregations who feature lead musicians and singers are tempted to put them on pedestals, with the result that worshipers simply let them perform and no longer participate in communal singing” (p. 51). Warren Wiersbe (2000) agrees. He states, “If the worship service is platform–centered, then we will be only spectators at a religious performance” (p. 88).
So is the challenge of worship as entertainment found only on the platform? I don’t think so. It is my view that for decades (possibly centuries) the accusation of performance and entertainment has been laid at the feet of church musicians; all while congregational members wipe their hands of the role that they as fellow participants and, by White’s earlier definition, performers play in the theatre of worship. Of course our musicians and singers should be conscious of their heart’s sincerity when taking up the responsibility of leading their brothers and sisters in congregational singing. Additionally I contend that congregational members – participants in worship – should be mindful of the subtle, but ever-present, temptation to consume worship. Being a worship consumer transforms worship performed as ministry into worship consumed as entertainment.
The discussion of ‘where did the problem originate’ is now moot and falls into the category of ‘the chicken and the egg’. Every worship participant must take responsibility for their part to play. Ultimately we all have a responsibility in the corporate activity of worship. Whether we stand on the platform or stand in the pew our performance of worship should be presented with a sincere heart before God for the encouragement of all.
Dawn, M. J. (1995). Reaching out without dumbing down: A theology for worship for this urgent time. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Evans, M. (2006). Open up the doors: Music in the modern church. London, UK: Equinox Publishing Ltd.
Gilley, G. (2005). This little church went to market: Is the modern church reaching out or selling out? (2 ed.). Webster, NY: Evangelical Press.
Kimball, D. (2009). Emerging worship. In J. M. Pinson (Ed.), Perspectives on christian worship: 5 views (pp. 288–333). Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers.
Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (Eds.). (2008) Concise oxford english dictionary (11th, Revised ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
White, J. F. (2000). Introduction to christian worship (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.