From the Archives: Worship’s Dirtiest Word

Tonight, our worship team is running a round of auditions and it reminded me of this post. In fact, when I look back over the year, I’m really proud of how far how worship ministry has come in putting in more effort into expressiveness and harnessing the power of performance. 

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.

A New Season in 2015

Happy new year friends!

Two thousand and fourteen has been a bittersweet year. There has been some good stuff and also some not so good stuff.

As I reflect over the past year, I am thankful for my amazing church, Faith Community Church and what God has been doing in our worship ministry. Some of the highlights include growing our team’s technical skills; an increasing sense of His presence in our worship; and an amazing leadership team who have together taken the ministry to a new level.

I’m grateful for the opportunity for our team to do new things, push boundaries and continuing to grow outside our comfort zone.

I’m also grateful for increasing fruitfulness in my work as a lawyer, both within my own firm and also in the broader profession and a personal re-orientation in what it means to be a marketplace minister.

But 2014 has also met with some personal and family health challenges. Towards the end of the year, I had a tear in the membrane at the back of my eye which led to some fluid leaking into the middle of my eye. Praise God that three injections later (directly into the eye which was pretty traumatic!), my vision is clear again.

In November, my father-in-law also had a major operation to install a heart pump. Most doctors have never heard of this in Australia, but in Singapore, they have been just under 50 cases of the procedure. Even though his heart was weak, the rest of his vitals were in order so he was able to receive the pump. Now, he is stronger than he has been all year! It did result in my wife being in Singapore for the last 2 and a half months, so I have had to fend for myself (whilst looking after Lucy our pug!). And just as I was leaving for Singapore last month, Lucy had a corneal ulcer which covered most of her eye. (We are really grateful to Cindy our vet who has been looking after Lucy in our absence).

Whatever season you went through, I am believing God for you that 2015 will bring in a new season in your faith.

When I’ve gone through difficult times, I would play this song “New Season” over and over again and declare the truths it presents over me. Here is a video I found of the song (as originally recorded) with Ps Michael Pitt’s powerful exhortation at the beginning:

Here are the lyrics:

It’s a new season, it’s a new day
Fresh anointing is flowing my way
It’s a season of power and prosperity
It’s a new season coming to me

Verse 1:
The devil’s time is up no longer can he bother me,
‘Cause the Creator of the universe He fathers me,
and it’s transferable my children’s children shall be free;
it’s a new season

If you don’t know by now, you need to know it’s jubilee,
Where debts are cancelled and your children walk in victory.
It’s so available to you right now just taste and see,
it’s a new season

Verse 2:
The new millennium presents a new horizon,
And no greater time for us to make a choice and take a stand.
All that we need, is resting in His hands;
it’s a new season

All that was stolen is returned to you a hundred fold,
Tried in the fire but you’re coming out gold.
Cling to His hand, yes, to every promise take a hold;
it’s a new season

May these promises hold true for you in 2015

I am declaring Deuteronomy 28:1-13 over my life and yours:

“Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God:

“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country.

“Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, the produce of your ground and the increase of your herds, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks.

“Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.

“Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before your face; they shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways.

“The Lord will command the blessing on you in your storehouses and in all to which you set your hand, and He will bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.

“The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself, just as He has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways. Then all peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. And the Lord will grant you plenty of goods, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your ground, in the land of which the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. The Lord will open to you His good treasure, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand. You shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath, if you heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe them. 

These blessings are available now to us because of Jesus’ perfect obedience and His righteousness imputed to us. He has taken the curses of the law that we might receive the blessings of obedience. We are blessed not because of our own merit and works, but because of Jesus’ finished work!

So whether 2014 was full of triumphs and victory or moments of discipline and recalibration, may 2015 be your best year yet as you step into your new season!

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?

What’s Gone Wrong with the Worship Song?

I recently came across Andy Chamberlain’s article “Radio Killed the Worship Song” in this month’s Worship Leader magazine and I couldn’t agree more with him.

Chamberlain’s point is that today’s worship songs are no longer “congregational”, more particularly, that they aren’t being written with the average church congregation in mind:

Many of our best known worship songs simply aren’t congregationally singable in their original format, and sometimes if you change the format, the song just doesn’t work at all….

But it’s not simply a matter of changing key. Lots of big songs written in the last few years have a range as wide as a 15th, meaning that whatever key you place it in, parts are going to be too high or too low for too long, and then people just stop singing.

He goes on to add:

Another way to get big climactic lift is to jump up an octave in the final chorus, and many newer songs use this idea. Again it works brilliantly on CD and in huge gatherings but simply isn’t usable in avery sized churches.

In my post Confessions of a Dyed-in-the-Wool Worship Musician, I said that worship should be more like a jazz bar than a rock concert in a stadium. It needs to convey connection and intimacy. Growing up in church during the 90s, worship expression was beginning to develop its own form as the wave of the Jesus Movement receded. Spearheaded by the likes of Hosanna Music, Maranatha and Vineyard Publishing, there was a real emphasis on musically-excellent, well-crafted worship experiences with the church congregation in mind. Worship leaders were worship leaders, not worship artists.

The era of the worship artists meant a new emphasis on technical excellence and creativity. This is actually not a bad thing because it began to restore to the church a renewed call to capture the arts but also to speak a creative language that the unchurched could understand and connect with. But it also meant that worship delivery was starting to move beyond the grasp of the average church musician who tried to emulate what was on the CDs without the ability or resources to do so.

This gap has now widened.

Worship songs used to be a lot simpler, more economical in thought and focus, more repetitive and simpler to sing. I used to be able to sing almost any worship song that was published.  Recently, I was trying to find a comfortable key for Israel Houghton’s “Your Presence is Heaven” (which by the way, is a song I love to listen to) and realised that it was almost impossible to find that key which would still allow me to sing the high octave part.

So for all the good that worship artistry has brought us, including a greater emphasis on skill, excellence and creativity, perhaps the pendulum should start to swing back slightly. Let’s keep the good things, but let’s return to the roots of congregational worship. Let’s make the songs simpler to sing so that as much of the congregation as possible can take part. Let’s take worship away from the radio, the big conferences and the stadiums and make it accessible to churches both big and small.

Maybe radio hasn’t killed the worship song completely, but let’s do something before it does.

What do you think?

Global Day of Worship Song: Hosanna (Be Lifted Higher)

There are certain songs which make your spirit soar, especially the ones that have multiple “key ups” like Dennis Jernigan’s “Who  Can Satisfy?”

Hosanna is one of those songs.

The beauty of the song is in its majesty and simplicity: a four-line chorus and the repeated cry “be lifted higher”. May this be our cry for Global Day of Worship, that the name of Jesus be lifted higher and higher over all the earth!

Your Presence is Heaven to Me

We often prepare songlists for church services which go for 25 minutes. It gets quite easy and routine. You do four songs, two fast, two slow, maybe have a scripture reading somewhere, a bit of open worship after the first of the slow songs and finish up with some enthusiastic applause.

But how do you prepare for a 2 hour worship set with 6 worship leaders? And also make sure that it spans the generation divide?

This is what I’ve been struggling with as we prepare for Global Day of Worship in Perth.

I can tell you now that I think I bit off more than I could chew!

Here are a few things I learnt in the last couple of days about the process (in no particular order except where this is obvious):

// Focus on God first!

// Then focus on the journey of worship.

// Make sure your songs help people to worship (a timely reminder from Pastor Yoy)

// Make sure there are some newer songs that are currently relevant.

// Make sure there are some older songs that aren’t so old that no one remembers them.

// Work on tension and release – break the tension at key points.

// You don’t need as many songs as you think. Give some time over for “soaking”.

// You don’t need to do all the songs that you like. Remind yourself this is not the last time you’ll do something like this.

// Cull, cull, cull again!

// Worship lots in the process, lest you lose focus again and start thinking through the unending variables.

One of the songs young Derwin suggested, which is fairly new, is “Your Presence is Heaven to Me” by Micah Massey and Israel Houghton. It’s an amazing song and I think God will really use it to draw people to His presence.

Here is the video:

And here is another version which medleys “Forever Reign”, “There’s Just Something About That Name” and “Your Presence is Heaven”:

I worshipped a lot with this song as I was preparing – and it helped bring in the focus.

In Exodus 33, Moses prays a prayer of desperation. “God, You might get us into the promised land; you might bring us victory, success, prosperity, wealth, but if Your presence doesn’t go with us, don’t take us from this place”.

There’s something about worship that invites and invokes the immediacy of God’s presence (Ps 22). How we need His presence more and more!

I can tell you now that if we do the Global Day of Worship just for the sake of playing music, or even getting churches together (whilst all good reasons), it would be in vain if God’s presence didn’t show up.

How important is God’s presence? The whole Biblical narrative is about the loss and recovery of God’s presence. The fall is about banishment; the law is about hosting God’s presence; the Psalms is about inviting His presence in song; the Prophets are about not taking God’s presence lightly; the Gospels are about God’s incarnate presence through Jesus; Acts is about God’s empowering presence through the Spirit; the Epistles is about God’s presence being manifested through the church and Revelation is about the permanence of God’s presence in the new Jerusalem.

Lord, we need Your presence!

You are Good – Lakewood

This song is one of my favourites to use as a call to worship. I actually thought the song was brilliant and complete in itself and then tonight, I come across this version which echoes Psalm 150:

Praise the Lord.

Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.

It’s simply amazing when you hear instruments prophecy! Check out the amazing instrumental interlude in this version. You’ll be blown away! After you hear something like this, like the psalmist, your only conclusion will be “Let everything that has breath, Praise the Lord!’

Cindy Ratcliff’s Insights into Worship Ministry

I just got back from an amazing evening at Metrochurch’s OneNight with Cindy Ratcliff, the Senior Worship Leader of Lakewood Church. I had always been a big fan of Cindy’s ever since I heard the album We Speak to Nations. That album was for me a return from an artist-centric approach to worship music back to the grassroots of home-grown church worship (albeit on a scale that most of us wouldn’t usually experience). There is an unusual sense of God’s presence particular in the medley culminating in the song “Show Me Your Glory”.

After hearing Cindy in person, I am now even more of a fan. I was impressed by the strength of her leadership in a ministry with people like Israel Houghton, Steve and Da’dra Crawford (from the Christian group, Anointed) and world-class vocalists and musos. But even more impressive was her transparency, humility and sensitivity to the Spirit.

Cindy shared insights into worship ministry in the context of her own journey to Lakewood and building a worship team which numbers about 1000 members today (that’s right, their worship team is larger than most churches!). I thought I might just quickly record some of her thoughts here:

// As worship ministers, we need to guard the condition of our hearts. The purity of our hearts displays the glory of God.

// What you do in private sets the stage for what you do in public.

// Submit to your leaders and champion their vision. Your ability to submit sets an example of how people should follow you.

// Choose to think the best of the people in your team, even though it’s much easier to think the worst of them. Doing this helps diffuse conflict quickly.

// Be yourself – be confident in who God has made you to be.

// The job of the leaders in the ministry is to provide a touchstone and sense of family for members of the team and to provide prayer support. They do not do counselling. For counselling, these are referred to trained counsellors in the church.

// Have accountability to people close to you (like your spouse – they are like your personal Holy Spirit!). They keep things from getting to your head.

// About worship musicians who play on the secular stage: they are not there to partake, but to impart. In other words, they are sent out as missionaries as positive influences in the secular arena.

Above all, from what I heard tonight, I think the secret to Cindy’s success in ministry is her reliance on the Holy Spirit. Worship ministry often throws up tricky questions like “how do you balance skill and heart?” or “do you allow non-Christians to play on your band?” Cindy’s response to these questions was about knowing what is right for your team in a particular season or situation. More than a prescription (on the one hand) or gut instinct (on the other), I am again reminded that effective leadership requires that we lean in and listen to what the Spirit is saying, just like how Jesus would only do what He saw the Father doing.

 

Worship’s Dirtiest Word

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?

Our New Stash of Stuff

We went to the Christian bookshop today and stocked up on some new stuff for our next season of reading and listening.

Here’s our stash:

20120707-130238.jpg

Books:
// Healing Unplugged / Bill Johnson and Randy Clark
// Hosting the Presence / Bill Johnson
// Sun Stand Still / Steven Furtick
// Intercessory Worship / Dick Eastman
// The Devil Has No Mother / Nicky Cruz
// Expecting Miracles / Heidi and Rolland Baker
// Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes / Kenneth E Bailey

CDs:
// Decade / Israel Houghton and New Breed
// Cornerstone / Hillsong
// Centre of It All / Desperation Band
// Lift Him Up With Ron Kenoly – 25th Anniversary Edition

DVD:
// Experience Unceasing Fruitfulness / Joseph Prince

These are going to keep me occupied for some time!

I’m particular pleased with Lift Him Up which was in the bargain bin. I’ve decided that given the volume of new worship recordings coming out all the time, there’s no point buying old worship CDs anymore. If a church hasn’t taken a song up, there’s very little chance of finding good, usable songs from two or three years back. We will just need to give them up to music heaven and push forward with the new things. But I make an exception for classics like Lift Him Up, an album that in my opinion really changed the worship landscape. I listened to my old Lift Him Up cassette so often that the ribbon eventually snapped, relegating the cassette to a different type of music heaven. So glad that I was able to find the CD incarnation. It’s like connecting with an old friend after all these years.