How often have you heard or been involved in this discussion?
“Worship isn’t about performance, it’s about participation. We need to craft a service where our people can actively participate, not one where they passively sit and watch our leaders up front perform.”
Often this idea of participation vs. performance creates tension in planning worship gatherings, as worship facilitators attempt to craft opportunities through a variety of elements for congregations to fully engage in worshipping our Living God.
Recently I had the pleasure to read the reflections of Todd E. Johnson (Fuller Seminary’s William K. and Delores S. Brehm Associate Professor of Worship, Theology and the Arts) on this very dilemma. He made the point that perform, as defined by Presbyterian Pastor Dennis Dewey, “…means to be fully formed or to form fully. Who wouldn’t want the Word of God and its recitation to be formed fully into life in its reading? After all, when a surgeon performs surgery, we don’t say that it’s ‘just a performance.’ We want the entirety of the surgeon’s skill, training, and attention in the execution of his work. Should we expect less of those who minister through the reading of God’s Word?”
He then goes on to say, “I was persuaded that worship and preaching were performances of our faith. They were both (or both should be) fully formed offerings of thanks and praise to the God of the universe, who so graciously fully formed us and all creation, and offers a return to this state of being fully formed through the redeeming grace of God in Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. This perspective shaped my opinions about worship for many years.”
As a theater major myself, as well as a worship consultant, I’ve been musing on and processing this idea of “performance” in worship, and the negative press it’s gotten over the last decade or so. Most notably in contemporary-styled churches, the idea of a performance as part of the worship gathering has become the bête noire of worship planning. It’s part of the conversation that flows around the idea of providing an opportunity for congregations to actively participate in worship rather than be “entertained” from up front.
If, however, we take the approach Johnson and Dewey suggest, that performance is a fully formed expression of our faith, then performance can take its place as a positive and uplifting part of our worship experiences. After all, who hasn’t been privileged to sit at a live concert and feel their heart moved and encouraged by the music? And, we human beings love to be told stories in such a way that they resonate with us, giving us access to deeper emotions, and new thoughts and perspectives, than we had before seeing a rich movie or play. These kinds of opportunities to be exposed to and, yes, experience these depths through performance can help revive and expand our faith in ways that might not be available if we were to solely rely on participatory experiences. We do allow for this kind of presented experience through sermons, where one person speaks and the rest listen. But somehow, especially when it comes to other kinds of faith expressions in worship gatherings, we shy away from it. By doing so I wonder if we’re cheating our congregations of opportunities to move closer to God through performance. After all, I don’t play a musical instrument, but the experience of being present while people who are gifted and passionate play theirs allows me a special kind of entree that would be impossible for me otherwise. And a beautiful classical hymn sung by a skilled choir can create a “pathway” for me to awake to God’s presence in a unique and glorious way.
However, there are pitfalls for this kind of perspective. As facilitators of worship services, it’s vital that we’re aware and intentional about utilizing performance so that it enhances and supports our people’s worship, rather than being the be-all and end-all. In order to achieve this, it’s helpful to remember a few points:
- We should seek excellence, not perfection:
Excellence is the pursuit of the best possible given your team’s abilities and resources. It means understanding that people aren’t perfect and aren’t going to be, but that we can bring our best to the table. As Todd Johnson said, it’s important to keep in mind that “our worship and preaching and music and all offerings of our worship, therefore, are all rehearsals of our faith. They are not performances in the sense of a finished product, but performances in the sense of works in process, pointing toward, even approximating—but not realizing—their fullness.” Excellence shows our awareness of reaching toward that fullness without the tyrannical expectation of accomplishing it. That’s perfection: something that won’t be attained in this life.
- We should remember that “professional” is NOT a four-letter word:
As part of the “performance” discussion, I often hear people comment that worship gatherings shouldn’t present as too “professional.” By this (I think) is meant something that’s slick, artificial, or dispassionate, and often this is associated with performance elements. But if we think of the true meaning of the word professional, we realize that it means something quite different. Professional is defined as: “…(of a piece of work or anything performed) produced with competence or skill…” When including elements that are performance-based, it’s important to execute them with as much skill and competency as possible. Poorly produced elements often distract from worship, while excellence can be a wonderful enhancement for the congregation’s experience.
- We should seek to know our people:
The success of a true, effective performance element is grounded on worship facilitators’ understanding two groups of people–their congregation, and their teams. We’re called to understand a congregation’s accepted voice of worship. Especially if newly introducing elements that might be labeled “performance,” it’s vital to present them in the worship language that the people understand. If contemporary worship music is unfamiliar to the congregation, the stylistic nature of a performance piece replete with a full drum kit and electric guitars is likely to be an obstacle to freedom in worship.
Secondly, it’s important to know our team members’ skill level and abilities. While it’s completely fair to ask musicians to grow and develop, a good leader will do so in a way that sets them up for success, rather than risking that they won’t be able to demonstrate the skills needed for the performance. Choices of songs, readings, or even drama sketches should be made with the skills and abilities of the team in mind. Pieces that stretch them to go to the next level certainly should be considered, but those that are beyond their competencies, even if appropriate to a worship gathering’s theme or focus should be avoided.
As someone whose heart is for the beauty and richness of artistic expression, both participatory and performed, as a regular part of our worship gatherings, I’m glad to know that this conversation is continuing. I’m also very excited to see what the future will bring in the area of performance elements in our gatherings!