There are countless opinions on the idea of performance versus worship on a Sunday (or anytime you gather for worship). I am going to make a bold statement that will undoubtedly cause mixed emotions in many people. When all is said and done, worship and performance should be the same thing. No one wants to come across as performing on Sunday, certainly. But often, the appearance of performance is the result of being under prepared, and if you can prepare enough, you will stop looking like you are performing. Before I get into too far, I should say that the whole endeavor of worship vs performance is, in my opinion, a matter of perspective. A not-so-new example is: the same crowd that may feel certain aspects of modern worship are too showy would most likely go strait to heaven when they hear the “special music” on a given Sunday morning (for those who do not know the tradition of special music, it often is an individual or small group that performs a piece of music for the congregation to listen to). So what is the difference between special music and worship? What is all the confusion about? Why is there even an issue of performance versus worship? It comes down to semantics, and the distinction between the two is most often poorly conceived.
For me, I like to get down to the basic, simplest idea, behind what I am doing and go from there. When it comes to worship, and worship leading, the goal is to worship God (duh!) and to get others to do the same. While everyone has their own standard for what constitutes authentic worship, making a universal interpretation of authentic worship nearly impossible, the second part of the goal is very easy to examine and evaluate. Getting people to worship is not always an easy task, but it is the task of the worship leader and the musicians in the band. There is certainly an art to inspiring people to sing together, and it is the responsibility of the leaders to hone this art. An inherent piece to this art is the need to perform.
If a worship leader is not prepared to tailor their leading to the people in the congregation, they are oftentimes actively leaving people behind, or not taking them far enough. There are congregations that can’t quite “get there,” wherever that “there” is. For some places, too much jumping around and clapping and “carrying on” will ostracize the congregation. Some of us say that is their fault. I don’t agree. Every congregation is different, and sometimes, every Sunday is different. Being able to acknowledge the mood of the congregation and lead them to where we want them to go (which should be where God wants them to go), without going too far beyond where they are comfortable is an art in itself. For many, this will require a sacrifice, and this is the basis of performance.
Let me be clear when I say I believe the Spirit of God is among us when we worship…always. In fact, he lives in the believer and is with us…always. We often use words like “lead people into the presence of God,” and “I feel like the Spirit is moving today.” These statements betray a flawed theology. The Spirit moves. He doesn’t “show up,” He is here. And there is no 10% of God. The Spirit of God is among us when we gather. When we sense an “extra bit” of the Spirit and we attribute it to more of God’s presence, we assume that it is God that has changed. Better theology would suggest that we are different in that moment, we become more aware of the presence of God in our midst. So God doesn’t show up, we show up.
For the worship leader, then, it is imperative that we learn the art of getting people to engage in God’s presence. Our task becomes, in the most brutal of terms, manipulating (or motivate if that helps) the members of the congregation into a mental, physical, and spiritual state that best allows them to focus on God, which is the first and most important step in worship. When we focus on God, we become aware of his presence and cannot help but be changed by it. But getting back to the idea of “getting people there.” There is a reason then that we almost all have a big opening song that separates the pre-church time, from church-time. We want to prepare people. It is the big opening credits to our time together, which is a time dedicated to corporately seeking the face of God. Then we almost all do, in some fashion or another, the descent into the slower songs that lead into the message, which is followed by the big powerhouse slow song. This last song is often referred to at my church as the response song. It is not a secret, and it is certainly, like it or not, a recipe. And we set this recipe based on its effectiveness to get people where we want them to go. It is not a bad thing.
Again, we must acknowledge that there are people at many different spiritual “levels” in our congregation. The seeker, the new believer, the spiritual juggernaut all need to be given the best chance to shed the distractions of everyday life and encounter the ever-present presence of God. And so I make no excuses or apologies for doing it in the most effective way. And so for the seeker, I make some concessions (or perform). For the new believer I instruct in ways I probably wouldn’t (perform), and for the spiritual juggernaut, I understand there are times in which there needs to be space given that I may not be “feeling” (perform). We do these as sacrificial duties for the people under our care.
Someone may yet have an objection to my definition of worship being seeking the awareness of the presence of God. I will suggest that the act of worship is simply turning our focus on Christ. The songs we sing, the words we say, the prayers we pray, all are for the sole purpose of focusing on Christ. That is, in the simplest terms, worship. That is our goal. As worship leaders we perform to varied degrees in order to get our congregations to focus on Jesus. It is a sacrifice, it stretches us, and some people don’t like the sentiment, but it is our role, and it is important we do it as best as we can.