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.

Carefully Curating Your Congregation’s Song Catalogue

 

I love the word “curate”. It used to conjure up images of stuffy old men in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches carefully displaying artefacts in a museum. These days, the hipsters have taken hold of the term, and you can curate almost anything you like – magazine articles, photographs, ideas, images, conversations, recipes.

If you are in charge of your worship ministry at your church, hipster or otherwise, you have the job of curating your church’s song library.

What do I mean by this?

In the past, we used to give the worship leaders at our church free hand to choose whatever songs they wanted to sing. About a year ago, we introduced a catalogue of 30 songs for congregational use. Our worship leaders were told that, for a 25-minute Sunday worship set, they had to choose at least 3 songs from the library.

Ideally, the songs on the catalogue should be carefully curated, to take into consideration a variety of tempos, expressions and themes which reflects the current state of your church’s sojourn. We didn’t have that luxury, so we just identified 30 songs that we were singing at the church at that point in time. Then, every three or four weeks, we would introduce a new song, but as we did, we took out a song from the catalogue so the list always remained at 30.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure we’ve got it right. Maybe 30 songs is too few or too many. Perhaps it is too constraining.

But looking over the last year, I’m really glad we went down this route.

Here are some reasons why I think it’s important for worship leaders to responsibly and prayerfully curate a song catalogue:

1.  Consistency and Unity

Our church has an interestingly broad demographic. Being traditionally a migrant church, with an unusual bias of Methodists, many people were asking us to sing hymns and older worship songs (circa 1990). And yet, there was a group who had grown up in the Australian culture who would have never heard of those older songs, let alone be able to engage with them. This latter cohort listen to Planetshakers, Young and Free, Hillsong United, all replete with electro-beats and midi sounds.

Having a catalogue of songs wiped across, and wiped out, issues of preferences and preferential treatment. It was a means for the worship ministry to bridge the generational gap. Whatever your personal preferences, the church would be committed to singing from the catalogue.

What we found was that we began to move from a culture of singing my songs, to singing the church’s songs.

This also went for our worship leaders. I personally like the worship songs of the 1990s too, because this was a critical period in my own spiritual formation. But having to choose from the catalogue eliminated my own personal bias as a worship leader.

2. Increasing the Band’s Skill Level

Before we introduced the song catalogue, as a musician, you would never know where next week’s songs would come from. You hoped that you knew the songs, but there was a pretty good chance you wouldn’t, because a worship leader could choose an obscure song which was written before you were even born (such as Rich Mullin’s “Awesome God”, with verses!).

That meant that musicians would often have to learn new songs, even if they were in fact, old songs.

Having a catalogue means that musicians can target their practice towards a set of songs they know will likely be used on Sundays. Once they’ve got the 30 songs under their belt, they can continue to learn the new songs which are introduced over time. This levels the playing field, so to speak.

3.  Training New Worship Leaders

One of the most difficult aspects of a worship leader’s craft is song selection. I have always taught that if you can master this skill, then most of the work of Sunday worship is already done before you even step into your rehearsal.

But, in a landscape where new songs are being proliferated all the time, plus all the songs that have already been written, the different permutations of a Sunday songlist are virtually limitless.

On the other hand, if you are required to choose only from 30 songs, some of which naturally go together, and others which don’t, your choice becomes much more constrained. By limiting the permutations, choosing songs becomes a much easier exercise.

This means that as we train new worship leaders, we don’t have to worry so much as to whether their songlist is going to be a train smash. I have watched worship leaders create really bad song lists by the way. Train smash is the right term.

Instead, we can concentrate on worship leaders garnering their skills in stage presentation, flow, exhortation, prayer and leading the band. We remove one of the more time-consuming aspects of preparation.

As a seasoned worship leader who has to lead worship several times a month, having a compact song catalogue has also made it easier for me to choose songs, because I know what songs the church is singing and what they respond well to.

I have said that we are asked to choose 3 songs from the catalogue. Using a songlist of 4 songs, this means that we still have one free choice, just to pay homage to those of us who like to keep a bit of personal freedom!

Curating a song catalogue is therefore not just about putting together a beautiful list so that we can all gather around it, admire it and then quietly applaud. Curating a song catalogue is about cultivating a song culture in your church, right across a broad spectrum of generations, your band and your worship leadership.

One final thought. The old word “curate” also refers to a member of the clergy who has charge of a parish. To “curate” a song catalogue is therefore in essence a pastoral task, ultimately, helping your congregation and worship team to bring their best offerings in praise before the Lord. Have you thought about curating a song catalogue for your church? What songs would go on it?

Time for Breakthroughs

I love what God has been doing in our church lately. The only way I can put it is that God is bringing us into a season of breakthroughs. Glass ceilings are being broken through. Things which we thought could not be done are being done – and so naturally as well, without strain or striving.

Micah 2:13 (MSG) says:

Then I, God [the Lord of the Breakthrough] will burst all confinements and lead them out into the open. They’ll follow their King. I will be out in front leading them.

When God breaks out in front, he clears the way for us to simply follow Him into the open, into new territory.

For me, it began just before the end of the financial year, when our worship team had its team night. Dave Wong, our then worship director, was just about to be appointed worship pastor. Just before that, he and his girlfriend had, through what can only be divine orchestration, been asked to feature on a Sony Asia youtube commercial about long-distance relationships.

Here is the commercial:

And here is the full version of the song used in the commercial, which was actually written by Dave.

The commercial has already had over 540,000 views at the time of writing.

I told our team that it was significant that this happened on the eve of Dave’s installation. It was a prophetic moment for our ministry, because our worship pastor had broken through the song-writing barrier for us. We knew that if Dave could write a song which got recorded by Sony (!), then the idea of our ministry writing songs for our congregation, and eventually recording them, would not just be a pipe dream.

Next, came Children’s Sunday, the culmination of a three day Children’s Church camp. During the camp, the kids (with Cathie and Brandon Clancie) had written a song about Jesus being their superhero! And they led the congregation in the song that Sunday! And more surprising still, an eight year old girl had also written her own song which she performed in front of the whole church.

Not only that, our eyes were opened to the fact that the children could indeed minister as an adult would. I think for many, the limitations that we had put on kids ministry was lifted!

Then last week, our Young Working Adults zone hosted its very first Perspectives Conference: a whole-day conference about Christian engagement in the marketplace. Over 300 people, many from other churches and even unchurched people, came to hear notable Christian leaders in business speak. And we began to dream about what transformation in the marketplace might look like. It is probably the first conference of its type in our city. Yet another trailblazing moment. (I’ll write more about the Perspectives Conference shortly).

To top it all of, on the weekend just past, I had the privilege of leading worship at church. It was probably one of my favourite sessions so far this year. As you may know, I’ve been mentoring worship leaders in our church, and as part of the practical component, Dave and I have been getting them to co-lead worship with us on Sunday.

Last Sunday, I had Sunray Zheng and Ritchell Lim co-lead with me. It took away so much pressure to know that others were sharing the load. And the band just brought it. It was just an amazing time, with Ps Benny coming up to give an exhortation towards the end. The whole worship set lasted about 50 minutes!

Here is the recording:

 

I can’t wait to see what God has in store for us next!

From the Archives: Five Facets of a Worship Leader

Worship leadership 101: a worship leader does a whole lot more than singing songs in front of a congregation on a Sunday. This is obvious. The task of a worship leader is so much more than that. In fact a worship leader is called to help shape the corporate worship life of a congregation.

Here are at least 5 functions which I believe a worship leader must fulfil:

1.  The Worship Leader as Worshipper

The worship leader must first be a worshipper.  What you do in public should be an outflow of your personal devotion.

Matt Redman once coined the phrase “lead worshipper”. This means that  a worship leader is the first to worship, i.e. the worship leader leads by their example of worship.

2.  The Worship Leader as Leader

The worship leader leads.  A worship leader must be able to influence people into following him.  John Maxwell quotes the following proverb:  ‘He who thinks he leads but has no followers is only taking a walk.’

As a worship leader, you lead two groups of people.  First, you lead the congregation. Lead them by giving them examples of how to express worship to God in a corporate setting. If you don’t lift up your hands, you can’t expect the congregation to do the same.

The second group of people you lead is the band. Make sure you give them a direction and vision for where you want to take the service. Even though I’m not a technical musician, I always approach a worship set having mapped out its ebb and flow; its dynamics and the spiritual direction. I’m also at pains to make sure that I give the musicians and singers a set of accurate chord charts well in advance so they can practise and have some certainty to navigate with me. I do what I can as a leader, then I delegate the more complicated technical stuff to the music director!

As a worship leader, you should also lead confidently.

3.  The Worship Leader as Facilitator

I like the term “worship facilitator” because it makes it clear that the worship leader is not the only person who “does” the worship. The whole congregation must engage and the role of the worship leader is to make it as easy as possible for as many members of the congregation to engage in worship.

This will mean choosing songs that are easy for the congregation to sing; pitched comfortably; properly directing the congregation to participate.  Most of all, it means not making the stage the focus of attention!

4.  The Worship Leader as Pastor

Although the worship leader must be worshipping, they should not get ‘lost in worship’.  It is important to be keenly aware of how people are responding and how the Spirit is moving.

I have always thought that I wasn’t a “pastoring” kind of person, which is why worship ministry is great fit for me. I thought I could simply “inspire from afar”.  But good worship leading is practised in the trenches, especially if you are leading a congregation regularly.  You have to interact with people in the life of the church, get to know them better, talk to them, get a feel for their expectations etc. And serve with them, in cell groups, on mission trips, in prayer meetings.

Too often worship leaders have a sense of contempt for the people – “they don’t understand how to worship”, “why can’t they worship like me”, “if only they did God would really show up”, etc…. That’s called pride.

I heard Andrew Ironside say this once: if you’ve got a few minutes before the start of the service and the sound’s not ready, you have a duty to make sure the sound is good so that the people can worship.  He said that the worse thing you could do in that instance was to pray!

It was a bit of a hyperbole, but you get his point.  The worship leader must love the people he leads.

5.  The Worship Leader as Prophet

A worship leader must continue to break new ground in worship expression, for example, in introducing new styles of worship and new songs.

Why?  Because otherwise, we can rely so much more on tradition and ritual than to really worship God.  Can you imagine waking up one morning and saying to your wife: “Honey, truly thou art beautiful and thou dost smell like the sweet fragrance of a bouquet of flowers”?

The next day, you do the same thing.

And then the next day.

In due time, what was once a sweet spontaneous gesture has become a rote thoughtless ritualistic repetition.

Yet, many of us hang on to tired old familiar songs and expressions even though they have ceased to be meaningful to us, and presumably also to God.

Worship leaders need to continue to keep on the prophetic edge, in the sense of both exploring new songs and new expressions and also in allowing a sense of unpredictability to come into the worship.

But it is also very important to balance the ‘prophetic’ and ‘pastoral’ role.  That is, we need to find the right balance between the desire to break new ground and the desire to take people with us.

So those are the five functions I think worship leaders need to fulfill. Are there more? Share your thoughts with us!

Why I’m Going to Name My Kid Heman (or She-ra if She’s a Girl)

Okay, I may not name my first kid Heman. It’s not a particularly popular name and I’m worried he might get bullied in school. Or maybe his peers might place incredibly high expectations on him to produce feats of supernatural strength.

I did want to name my kid Ethan though, until my good friend’s sister stole the name and bestowed it upon her progeny.

Think about it: almost every Ethan you know, famous or otherwise, is good-looking (if you have proof to the contrary, I don’t really want to know about it!). This is a bonus. The cool thing actually is that it is a name of one of the worship leaders in the Bible. So is Heman.

When I started reading more about worship leading, it worried me a little that the term “worship leader” or any other permutation of it like “lead worshipper”, “worship facilitator” or “song leader” isn’t mentioned in the Bible. I started thinking: is what we are doing as worship leaders a construct of the modern church-growth movement, or does it have biblical precedent?

Thankfully, I came across this passage in 1 Chron 15:16ff:

David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brothers as singers to sing joyful songs, accompanied by musical instrumetns: lyres, harps and cymbals.

So the Levites appointed Heman, son of Joel; from his brothers, Asaph, son of Berekiah; and from his brothers the Merarites, Ethan son of Kushaiah…. The musicians Heman, Asaph and than were to sound the bronze cymbals… Kenaniah the head Levite was in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it.

The context of this passage was that David had just brought the ark up to Jerusalem. The ark was never meant to be in Jerusalem; it belonged (according to established institutions) at Mt Gibeon, in the Tabernacle of Moses – in the Holy of Holies. Yet David longed to have God’s presence near him in his capital city, so he pitched an ad hoc tent for the ark. And then he instituted a new form of worship, one not based on sacrifices and protocol, but one in which music and singing became the “housing” for God’s presence.

And so, amongst others, four leaders were appointed. Their names are interesting:

  • Asaph means “one who gathers and removes reproach.”
  • Heman means “one who is faithful.”
  • Ethan means “consistent and permanent praise.”
  • Kenaniah means “established by Jehovah”.

The names together give us a powerful picture of the role of the modern worship leader as follows:

  • Worship leading is about gathering people to focus them on God. This means an ability to bring unity, break down walls between generations and cultures, drawing people from all walks of life, pointing them away from their own circumstances and differences and towards praising God and His greatness. I might add that often, and ironically, we see worship as something that divides us down denominational lines and along age and cultural preferences. I long for the day when we can put aside our preferences and unite around God’s presence, irrespective of style and expressions!
  • Worship leading is about allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to people was they draw near to him; removing their reproach, sins, hurts, pain, sickness, brokenheartedness and bondage. We don’t cleanse ourselves in order to worship, but as we worship and enter into God’s presence, we are transformed! This means that every time we gather together, we should expect a divine transaction to take place in our hearts.
  • Worship leading is about being faithful to the house of God; pastoring our people and supporting our church’s vision. We aren’t rogue soldiers who do our own thing, but we learn to submit to leadership. We are faithful to God’s call on our lives, not striving to become more popular and famous, but realising that we please God by fulfilling our call wherever we are planted, whether we lead a small group of 10 or a large congregation of 1000.
  • We are established by God. We don’t struggle to gain recognition and approval from people, but we know that our approval comes from God; our anointing and qualification comes from Him alone!
  • Worship leading is an outflow of consistently and permanently praising God, not only when we lead a gathering, but wherever we are, in the trenches of life, in the good times and hard times and bringing the worship to God that is forged out of those experiences.

On second thought, I might name my first kid Kenaniah. It’s got quite a nice ring to it.

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?