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Worship Performance

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.


Normative and Regulative Practice

Christianity is as wide as it is deep when considering the variations of worship expression. Discussions focused on the observable differences often centre on the extremes such as those seen between Roman Catholic liturgy and Pentecostal worship sessions. The opposing position of the pendulum makes it easy to discuss the differences while maintaining a sense of political correctness. James White, in his book Introduction to Christian Worship (2000) states,

Christian worship, like Christian ethics, is both a descriptive and a normative subject. Specific decisions have to be made locally in terms of people, places, and times, but they should be based on the experience of the whole Christian community throughout space and time. (p. 15)

This idea of descriptive (regulative) and normative principal has developed out of the era of reformation. Bob Kauflin explains

John Calvin and others developed what has come to be known as the regulative principle of worship. This is the conviction that anything we do in a public meeting of the church must be clearly commanded or implied in Scripture…Another approach is called the normative principle…Broadly stated, the normative principle holds that whatever Scripture doesn’t forbid is allowed. (2008, p. 154)

Difficulties develop when we start to explore the impact of such thought on persuasions that are not so easily discerned. For example, the Presbyterian church of Australia comes from the regulative position. This can be seen in such practices as the conservative pedagogical approach to the reading of scripture in corporate gatherings. However, on other topics of Christian practice such as the Eucharist (communion) the Presbyterian Church is forced into a normative approach. The scriptural instruction to “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” [emphasis mine] (1 Cor 11:25b, ESV), provides a platform for interpretation. In fact, John Calvin who birthed the regulative position advocated a weekly offering of communion in corporate gatherings, but today’s Presbyterian Church practices communion every six weeks or even quarterly.

Simply, Christian worship practice for the corporate gathering is rarely defined in scripture. It is this very nuance that has lead to today’s worship wars (Dawn, 1995; Morgenthaler, 2004; Parrett, 2005).

How does the regulative/normative discussion affect the practice of the Contemporary Worship Singer? We observe the effect in simple things such as dress standards and worship posture. We also see the influence of this discussion on such things as performance and celebrity culture. Take for example Dan Lucarini’s comment on the use of microphones. Lucarini says,

Put the microphones back on the stands [emphasis in original]. Take the mikes out of the hands of the singer’s. Handheld mikes encourage a performance style that emphasizes the performer, which often leads musicians to mimic secular entertainers in style and fashion and to desire music that is performance-orientated. (2002, p. 136)

Does it? Does holding a microphone in the hand ‘emphasize the performer’? I dare say that Lucarini approaches his worship practice from the regulative stand point. I venture to add that if one is to take Dan Lucarini’s comments to their natural end, church singers should not be using microphones at all. Indeed they should not even be on stage lest they draw attention to themselves. But can we be so dismissive of Lucarini’s comments? Warren Wiersbe writes, “If the worship service is platform–centered, then we will be only spectators at a religious performance” (2000, p. 88). And herein lies the challenge facing today’s Contemporary Worship Singer; to navigate a practice which has very few scriptural markers. The bible gives no indication to the use of microphones, nor does it provide clear guidelines for performance.

Does this then set the Contemporary Worship Singer adrift on a squally sea of indifference and personal preference? I think not, but it does require the Contemporary Worship Singer to give greater consideration to their task and resulting practice. A good starting point is to enquire as to a particular churches stance; regulative or normative. A general rule of thumb…if the pastoral staff are not aware of such terminology the church is almost certainly normative. Understanding a churches stance in this regard can help position the Contemporary Worship Singer to align both thought and deed.

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.
Kauflin, B. (2008). Worship matters: Leading others to encounter the greatness of God. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.
Lucarini, D. (2002). Why I left the contemporary christian music movement: Confessions of a former worship leader. Webster, NY: Evangelical Press.
Morgenthaler, S. (2004). Emerging worship. In P. A. Basden (Ed.), Exploring the worship spectrum: 6 views (pp. 215–230). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Parrett, G. A. (2005). 9.5 Theses on worship. Christianity Today, 49, 38–42.
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.


Class Wars: from without

Growing up I went to a good catholic primary school for grades 4 and 5. Walking to school we would often throw taunts, both physical and verbal, at the school bus carrying the ‘public’ school kids as it passed us by. Needless to say the kids on the bus would return the heckling with equal vigour to our own. Being no older than 9 or 10 years of age, I knew nothing of the public school system verses the ‘private’ catholic system, but what I did know, in my infantile wisdom, was that the kids on that bus were different; after all they wore a different uniform. Imagine the shock to my young system when my parents announced that my final year of primary schooling would be conducted in the public school system. Even worse…the same school that was serviced by the bus which I had gestured towards for two whole years would be my school for grade 6. To my surprise the kids at Lismore Public where no different to the kids at St Carthages Catholic.

Much of my adolescent spiritual formation took place in the Pentecostal traditions. I was baptised in a Pentecostal church and my first experiences of being in a worship team were within the Pentecostal church. Whilst I can’t recall a specific sermon or nominate any particular preacher, I grew up with a sense that we, as Pentecostals, were better than our Evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ. It could be argued however, that my innate sense of superiority was weaved into the very fabric of my cultural surroundings (Russell, 1997). How I came to harbour such vain thoughts is, perhaps, redundant, nevertheless I carried this spiritual vanity into my early twenties where I actively participated in a number of worship teams.

One area that my spiritual vanity found a ready platform was in my role as a singer. Pentecostal singers not only sang better; we worshipped better because we were spiritually more ‘mature’ (superior) than our evangelical counterparts. It was not only observable in the quality of our ‘performance’ but in the visual expression of our worship – lifting of hands; kneeling; jumping and clapping. The ‘Evangelicals’ didn’t do any of this (so I thought) and therefore we were more advanced in the evolution of worship. Similar to the joust between kids in the ‘public versus private’ war; equal derision, and therefore responsibility, is harboured by both sides. Sure, Pentecostals might think they have explored the range of available physical worship expressions, thus elevating their spiritual status, but Evangelicals are equal to the task of prejudice by levelling accusation of theological impropriety and misplaced self orientation squarely (and often incorrectly) at the actions of the Pentecostals.

A ‘class war’ does exist between Pentecostal and Evangelical singers. Is it fuelled by the larger ‘worship wars’ (Parrett, 2005) which take in the debate of ‘Hymns versus Chorus’ and ‘appropriate presentational styles’? (Carson, 2002; Warren, 1995) Probably! Regardless, it is an area that is very difficult to address given its ‘unstated nature’. Most worship team members, young and old, are aware (and regularly reminded) of ego and its disparaging qualities for a worship team member (Gilley, 2005; Rowbotham, 2008), but no one ever commented on my sense of spiritual superiority towards other expressions of the Christian faith. I now wish someone had.

Carson, D. A. (Ed.). (2002). Worship by the Book. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Gilley, G. (2005). This Little Church Went to Market: Is the Modern Church Reaching Out or Selling Out? (2 ed.). Webster, NY: Evangelical Press.
Parrett, G. A. (2005). 9.5 THESES ON WORSHIP. Christianity Today, 49(2), 38-42.
Rowbotham, J. (2008, March 22-23). Happy Clappers. The Weekend Australian, pp. 4-5,
Russell, J. (1997). A “Place” for Every Voice: The Role of Culture in the Development of Singing Expertise. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 31(4), 95-109.
Warren, R. (1995). The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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