When I was learning to lead worship, one of the things that I was taught early on was that worship is very different to performance. The two things don’t mix and in fact, I was told that performance made worship impure, for “no flesh should glory in God’s presence”.
I think a lot of that teaching derived from the early days of the Vineyard movement. Worship leaders like Andy Park were very laid back and it was a culture most probably set by John Wimber. Wimber had always been a proponent of being “naturally supernatural” and those who have documented his healing ministry always mentioned the fact that he was completely (and consciously) unpretentious.
This shunning of showmanship to an extent was (in that context) a way of answering the critics of the Charismatic movement who tried to discredit the movement by pointing to its emotionalism and frenzy, particularly coming out of the era of the healing evangelists. Wimber gave them something that shielded the movement from discredit. But in the context of worship, I believe that it has given way to a form of extremism which labels performance as carnal.
Even recently I have had detractors say that I am too performance-orientated, as if that were a bad thing.
The church these days is beginning to accept that performance is very much part of worship leading.
It was only around last year that I first heard this during a message by former Parachute Band frontman, Wayne Huirua. Huirua said that it wouldn’t make sense if worship leaders put off the performance aspect and instead tried to appear as level and emotionless as possible. This simply does not inspire anyone to worship.
Recently, as I was reading Martin Smith’s memoir Delirious, Smith makes the same point. Writing about his first foray into the American worship scene, Smith writes:
Getting your head down and ploughing on with worship was not the culture in America. I still think that the crowds in the United States are much more limber when it comes to being led: They expect the person onstage to take control and do a show even if it’s one full of God-songs. I’ve always said that the United States taught us how to play on those big stages and opened our eyes to a new way of engaging with an audience. We came offstage at that first Creation gig knowing that we had to up our game if we were going to play more “shows” like that. It was obvious that we had a long way to go before we could present what we did to a field full of people, and I can still remember feeling utterly petrified by not knowing how to do it.
Somewhere amid that fear was something else – the sense that this could all end by being something profoundly great. I’d always thought that the two parts of me – one liked to perform, and one liked to worship – existed in separate spaces, finding different outlets. But up on a stage with a crowd that stretched out in front of me like a lake, it was different. Perhaps those two parts of me weren’t strangers after all. What would it be like if I could learn how to draw the crowd in and then step aside to join them in worship?
At times, I felt that my showman side needed to be kept separate from the worshipper, but I knew deep down that the two were brothers, not strangers. And they enriched each other: My performance had meaning when linked to worship, which in turn was able to draw more people in when delivered with confidence in front of the crowd.
I’ve highlighted some of Smith’s insights here because I think performance is a very important part of worship leading. To try to look unemotional and uninvolved is false humility (unless that’s your natural disposition).
Think about the preacher. The most effective preachers are the ones who are animated, who translate their passion into words and gestures. And when the cloud of emotion settles, you know that the seed of transformation has been planted.
I think Smith is absolutely right: worship leaders need the performance element to bring people in before moving aside to join them in worship.
Of course, there is a line to be drawn. A worship leader can become so obsessed with performance so as to forget the reason why he or she is up on stage. A worship leader can be so performance orientated so as to bring attention on themselves rather than God. But a degree of performance is a good thing and I think it’s about time that the church recognises that performance is very much part of the art of worship leading.