Several weeks ago we purchased a tent. We scored a real bargain on a huge family sized behemoth. Our purchase comes as we prepare to camp over the Christmas break with some close family friends – it’s going to be a great time! Actually, this will be the first lot of camping we have done since we (Jodie and I) started having children. We used to do a lot of camping with friends and family, but over the years (nearly a decade) we have sold our small tent, and most of our camping gear. We are now slowly rebuilding our camping equipment stock.
One of things I love about camping is walking through the camp site and viewing all the different ‘set-ups’ that people have. For instance, our set-up will be very family friendly with a few creature comforts such as a gas-powered ice-box and perhaps a small generator for the recharging of mobile phones etc. (not exactly roughing it!). Almost certainly at the same camp site will be the young couple with a two-man tent and very few accessories, while another group might have all the mod-cons including solar panels for electricity which in turn runs fridges, microwaves and even a TV. Essentially, everyone at the camp site will be ‘camping,’ but we’ll all do it differently according to our needs, experience and budget.
As we prepare for our big camping adventure I am conscious that in many respects, camping is not too dissimilar to worship. We all approach it differently. Personal backgrounds, experiences, personality and even education all contribute to our individual choices of worship style. Over the past decade Jodie and I, along with our young family, have had the good fortune of celebrating God’s greatness with three different churches, each with a distinct worship style and form. As I survey our short worship history, I can see that each of these church families and the construct of worship that they employ have been timely for both our spiritual formation and personal maturity. For example, when we were DINK’s (double income, no kids) our camping set-up was simple; a small tent and limited accessories. Now that we have three children ranging in ages of 9 down to 2½ we have a much larger tent, bikes, toys, swimming paraphernalia…and the list goes on! Our original set-up when compared with the set-up we will erect over Christmas was not wrong; it fittingly met our needs for the time. Likewise our previous worship environments were not wrong; God used them in order to continue His good work in us (Philippians 1:6).
Those of you who know me well can attest that I have not always had the maturity to review my spiritual journey with such pragmatism and grace. I’m learning and growing. I think Jesus’ friend Peter was on a similar journey of growth when he suggested some camping. Matthew records the Transfiguration of Jesus in the following passage,
[17:1] And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.  And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:1-4; ESV)
Why not? It seems like a good idea to build some tents and prolong the experience. But Peter, in his zeal to honour Jesus, Moses and Elijah by building tents, also reveals his “weakness and ignorance” (Henry, 1871, p. 243). Simply, no man-made tent could house Moses and Elijah who had both passed through to eternity, and Jesus was keen for the three friends (Peter, James and John) not to tell anyone of the occurrence until he had risen from the dead (Matthew 17:9). I think we all fall into the same trap of Peter’s enthusiasm when we experience God’s tangible presence in our corporate meetings. I am confident that each worship style, whether new or old, contemporary or traditional, can point to a time when God’s presence was experienced in a tangible way by His people. I know that I have personally felt God in a range of worship constructs. The temptation is to then erect a tent in order to capture the moment. God will not be housed by man’s constructs whether it is the Anglican prayer book or a Pentecostal church’s week of ‘prayer and fasting.’
Another interesting point to be considered is Jesus never returns with the three disciples to the same place; possibly Mount Hermon (Green, 2000, p. 185). In fact the next time we see Jesus inviting his three closest disciples to join him in prayer like this is in the Garden of Gethsemane – a place of sorrow and trouble. Ultimately, Jesus requires us to leave the ‘worship moment’ and re-engage with our society. Tents are temporary structures. With time and exposure to the elements, any tent will eventually wear and tear exposing its inhabitant’s to the buffeting of life’s general concerns.
As we prepare for our Christmas camping trip I am starting to see where I have built many tents over the years to house God’s glory. Our current worship experience is not, and never can be, designed to be complete and perfect. That experience is reserved for another time and another place.
Green, M. (2000). The message of matthew: The kingdom of heaven (Vol. 2). Leicester, UK: Inter-Vasity Press.
Henry, M. (1871). Matthew henry’s commentary on the whole bible (Revised ed. Vol. 5). McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company.
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.