From the Archives: Worship’s Dirtiest Word

Last night at Metroworship Academy, we completed our last module which was on “Stage Presence”. How we as worship ministers communicate on stage is an important part of our task in leading the congregation. It brought to mind the issue of worship vs performance, so I thought it would be apt to re-hash this blog post. Because for a long time, performance has been seen to be incongruent with worship.

In recent posts, I have been ruminating about worship auditions. Over the years, worship ministries have accepted auditions as a completely legitimate way to vet and induct new candidates into the ministry.

But whenever you talk about auditions, you also bring up another concept, which to mention in the context of worship is virtually taboo. It is one of worship’s dirtiest words. It may not be the dirtiest, but it certainly is up there. So, please promise me that, after you read this post, you will go into your prayer closet and ask for forgiveness for even entertaining the thought (actually, “entertain” is also a bad word, so pray for forgiveness twice!)

Used in any other context, the word causes absolutely no offence. In fact, it has a neutral to positive connotation. Used in the context of worship however, it is downright obscene.

That word is “performance”.

It is such a provocative word that, in fact, the July/August 2012 edition of Worship Leader magazine devotes itself to what the editor calls “an ancient controversy”.

The question is this: should performance be part of worship leading?

Ask me that question 10 years ago and I would have given you a very different answer to what I would give you today.

The church’s aversion to performance in worship leading can be traced to how those of us who have been in worship ministry for a long time were trained and brought up. We were told to “let no flesh glory in God’s presence”. Performance is therefore “fleshly” and therefore “not of the spirit”. And true worshippers must worship “in spirit and in truth”.

In an article published years ago entitled “Worship vs Performance” (I can’t find its source now), Kelly Carpenter (a Vineyard worship leader and composer of “Draw Me Close to You”) said this:

Worship is not performance. Performance is not worship. They are mutually exclusive. If we keep that straight, then we will be able to properly give God His due. Problems develop when we turn worship into a performance. When we bring the performance mindset and pattern into worship, it becomes polluted.

Over time, my mindset has changed. I no longer think that worship and performance are exclusive. I believe that for a worship leader to truly lead worship, they must actually bring an element of performance into their craft. This requires musical excellence, the ability to connect and engage the congregation, appropriate articulation of instructions and exhortations and being able to pray inspiring prayers.

To what end? If this is to bring attention to ourselves as worship ministers, then we’ve probably missed the point. But we equally miss the point if we don’t “perform” and by failing to “perform”, we fail to inspire the congregation to bring their best praise offering to God.

This is not to say that the ultimate audience of our worship isn’t God. Worship leaders should understand this point well. But, without derogating from that principle, worship leaders also need to (whether they like it or not) appreciate that there is a secondary audience – the congregation. This is of course not ideal but you just need to look at how we set up our worship in churches all around the world week-in and week-out to know that this is true. There is a stage; the stage is raised; the seating arrangements have the stage as a focal point; and the lights point towards the stage. What are we all looking at? I can tell you now that God is not on stage (at least not visibly).

The only visible people on stage are the worship musicians!

Until we get rid of this set-up, we can’t deny that performance will play an important part of our worship leading.

When I lead worship in cell group (where we usually gather in a circle), I use a different approach to worship leading to how I would lead in a Sunday service. For example, I gravitate towards simpler, more melodic songs. I use different language. I tend to speak as someone within the company of gathered worshippers, rather than someone in front of them. I am usually more laid-back and my tone is more relaxed.

When I lead worship in a Sunday service, I appreciate that not everyone in the church knows me like my cell group nor do I know them like I do my cell group. I need to be more exacting in my use of language; I need to craft my prayers more deliberately; I need to make sure that I use the 25 minutes with which I am entrusted to bring as many people in the congregation to a place of encounter with God.

I had a friend years ago who used to lead worship in cell group as he would on the platform. So he’d stand there (in front of all 8 of us), put on a faux American accent (because back then, all the good worship albums came from the USA) and give the most rousing performance he could muster. We were able to move past it all and worship anyway, and we’d tease him later and laugh about it. But he probably didn’t need to impress us so much in a cell group setting.

So why are we so averse to performance anyway?

Musicologist Monique Ingalls says this in her article “Reclaiming Performance in Worship” (Worship Leader, July/Aug 2012):

We often use the word ‘performance’ to describe what happens when someone acts in a way that is inconsistent with the way they really feel or the way they are in ‘real life’. We impute questionable motives to their actions: ‘performers’ in this sense act with an intention to deceive or manipulate, like an actor adopting a persona.

Next, Ingalls continues:

In the context of congregational worship, ‘performance’ is used to negatively describe what happens when the focus is placed on the musicians onstage (‘performers’) while the congregation (‘audience’) remains passive and uninvolved.

Recognising the cause of our aversion is part of the way towards our healing. When we actually analyse those two causes, we come to realise that (1) when worship leaders perform, they aren’t necessarily being fake or manipulative; and (2) our performance isn’t to negate the congregation’s involvement in worship, but rather to inspire and enhance that involvement. In fact, I believe that a worship leader must perform well if they are to faithfully steward their anointing.

And I’m glad to say that in recent years, the church has begun to embrace “performance” as a legitimate skill to be deployed by worship leaders. Very much in the same way that we would like our preachers to be interesting and engaging.

Paul Baloche, in his article “A Leading Worship Performance” (Worship Leader, Jul/Aug 2012) says that musically preparing is important because it will “greatly affect the participation of the congregation”. Baloche goes on to say:

We have to acknowledge that leading worship has aspects of performance. It’s naive or dishonest to pretend there is no element of performance when we walk out onto a platform or stage in front of others.

In an interview with Israel Houghton in the same issue of Worship Leader magazine, Houghton talks about a big Easter event that Lakewood Church had put on:

We poured great effort into how the songs wold be structured, how we were going to go about it, we planned this big drum feature thing. I asked our team, ‘What if we did that every week?’ Just put it all out there every single week? Some would see that as the wrong kind of performance, but I would see it as caring for the people that are coming to hear from God.”

Properly motivated, performance is a powerful thing. As Houghton might say, if we want to honour God and if we care about our congregations, then we’d better put some effort into our craft and our delivery. Not because we want to bring glory to ourselves. Not because we seek the adulation of others. But because, as worship leaders who pastor our congregation into God’s presence, we want to maximise participation both in breadth (in the numbers of people who worship) and in depth (in terms of the quality of their encounter with God).

Maybe the worship team should think of themselves as the “support act” (oops, ‘act’ is probably another dirty word!). When God’s presence comes (the main event), we will get out of the way and join back with rest of the congregation in giving our praise and adulation to the audience of One.

So what do you think? Is this the right balance to strike?

A Historical-Prophetic Approach to Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Today, I want to continue the series on Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

As a recap, I introduced two key texts.  The first is in Ephesians 5:18-20:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The second passage is Colossians 3:16:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In one sense, we can see these passages as defining different styles of songs which are sung in the church.  I have suggested in previous posts that perhaps the distinction between the three categories may be quite artificial.  That is certainly the perspective I take in the current renewal of worship.

But I’ve found it interesting also to look at psalms, hymns and spiritual songs from a historical-prophetic perspective, where the different types of song can be seen as representative of the different eras in the history of worship music.

Firstly, hymns.  The classic hymn can be described as doctrinal statements set to music.  Certainly, Luther saw this as an important burden: that music carry a teaching function.  As hymns evolved however, they started taking on a very personal, experiential flavour, describing a person’s encounter with God, such as “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine”.

We could say that in hymns, we are declaring God’s wonder and works through song.  From a historical perspective, hymns represent the first great era of the recovery of worship after the Dark Ages.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the Jesus People movement. The movement brought a new immediacy and impetus to relevant expression.  

Andy Park observes in his book To Know You More:

This new generation of Christians had to find a way to express their newfound love for Christ.  In this milieu of radical cultural change and genuine spiritual renewal, it was only natural that a new style of worship would be born.  Baby boomers rejected the rigid forms and styles of their parents’ generation.  For the boomers, rock music was their language of choice.

But not long after the birth of what we now call the “Praise and Worship Era”, there was a distinct move towards the objective and back to Scripture.  In the 1970s, Dave and Dale Garrett from New Zealand rose to prominence with “Scripture in Song”.  This was, in effect, the era of the modern-day psalm.

If I were to define “psalms”, I would say that the psalm is Scripture set to music.  In psalms, we declare God’s word through song.

The Praise and Worship Movement hit its zenith in the late 90’s with the catch-cry “an audience of One”, rejecting the subjectivity of the hymns and the earlier “psalms” and instead emphasising the need for objective praise.

Around the early 1990s (possibly earlier), a new sound began to emerge, which I would call “spiritual songs”.  The early pioneers were Kevin Prosch and Kent Henry.  In this movement, the songs of the church began to take on a more spontaneous character and a more prophetic edge.  Scripture reading, prophetic release and intercession began to intermingle with singing and music.

In the New Testament, the Greek term for “spiritual song” is ode pneumatikos, songs that are breathed or inspired by the Spirit of God.  In the spiritual song, we welcome God’s will in song.

This stream was given wide exposure through Delirious and continues in the music of the International House of Prayer and the likes of Jason Upton and Rick Pino.

In a way, whilst I have generalised a fair bit, we can see distinct prophetic moves of God through worship music represented by psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Where does that leave us today?

Well, I believe that the three streams are merging.  The distinctions between each stream are going to get more and more nebulous.  We will reach into the hymnody of our forebears, respecting our historical/denominational influences and we will push prophetically forward in contemporary (post-modern) expressions.  Our songs may seek to embed doctrine, and yet be entirely experiential.  We will be completely content with the healthy tension in saying that worship is objectively to God, but subjectively for the people.  We will be less and less fussed with form (even though we will seek to push artistic boundaries) and more and more concerned with substance.

Let me give you two examples in which to process this new paradigm.

I remember in the mid-1990s when our church started to sing Delirious’s “History Maker”.  It was a song like no other before it. It was edgy and raw, but it also didn’t lyrically fit the mould of “audience of One” worship.  Leaders in our church worship ministry started asking:  is this even a “worship song”?  Should we sing it as a “worship song” or present it to the congregation aan “inspiration song”?

I can tell you now that as our concept of worship has evolved and broadened, there’s no argument about it:  “History Maker” is a worship song because it depicts a generation of sold-out, sacrificial worshippers desiring to change their world for God.

A more recent example is John Mark MacMillan’s “How He Loves”.  Essentially, it is a song entirely about God’s love for me.  It  does nothing to express praise directly to God.

But, I submit, it is still worship.

Recently, I heard again a message by Joseph Prince about boasting in God’s love for us.  The starting point for Prince’s thesis was that the reference to John’s being the “disciple whom Jesus loved” could only be found in John’s gospel!  In other words, John refers to himself as the “beloved”.  And the point is this:  when you receive God’s love for you, you will be inspired to love God back.  We no longer need to be told to love God.  We do not need to strive to love God.

Further, when we learn to receive from God, it makes God feel more like God.  Take the example of Martha and Mary.  Martha kept serving to the point of exhaustion and frustration, but Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and “took” from Him.  Who made Jesus feel more like God?  Martha who sought to minister to Jesus’ apparent tiredness out of her own strength, or Mary, who recognised Jesus’ inexhaustible sufficiency?

In summary, in the current revolution of worship, we recognise that becoming is through beholding.  There are no longer rules, but worship revolves around relationship.

So a song like “How He Loves” is a perfect representation of worship today:  to be able, like John and like Mary, to humble ourselves before Jesus and to receive His love for us.  If nothing else, this elevates His deity all the more and is, quintessentially, worship.

In the current move of God in worship, the streams of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs will merge into a mighty river of God’s presence.  Expression, style and content will be subsumed within the relational graced-based focus on the person of Jesus, that in worship, He may be unveiled in all his loveliness, so that the world may see and put their trust in Him. And yes, this is revival!

Worship and Performance

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.