January 28, 2018
The ongoing debate about the idea of performance – is it a bad thing in leading worship? This discussion rears its head constantly in Facebook worship leader groups, in local church elder board meetings, in conferences, and in church conversation. It’s a concern that’s been with us for a long time and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
From the perspective of worship leaders who aim for the team to meet the Biblical standard: trained and skilled in music for the Lord (from 1 Chronicles 25:7) as well as to reach for the goal of how God likes to be worshiped (see over 100 scripture passages pertaining to worship & praise), there is a lot to be said for performing skillfully. God tells us that a person skillful in their work will not stand before obscure people but will stand before kings (Proverbs 22:29). Certainly we would not expect that a skillful person would only stand in the king’s presence and do nothing; he would exercise that skill to perform a duty. We use the word perform with good reason: it fits the task at hand perfectly.
When pastors teach the Word in our weekend services, they are performing a task for a purpose. When ushers help people find their seats, they are performing a task for a purpose.
When musicians play skillfully before others, they are performing a task for a purpose.
Performance is necessary and is itself a very good thing, commended by the Lord.
I’ll argue that it’s the purpose we need to be focusing our conversations on, not the performance.
I’ll go a step further to say that the main debate really should center around whether what we do as musicians in our gathered times of worship is for the purpose of personally worshiping the Lord versus for sacrificially helping others worship the Lord.
There are two brothers I know, both outstanding musicians, and both worship leaders. They are each completely different in their approach to leading corporate times of worship.
One approaches leading worship with this attitude: “I’m going to be up here worshiping Jesus. If you want to worship Him too, that’s cool, but it ultimately that’s your choice to make. My job is to minister to the Lord in song. I’m going to be closing my eyes, blocking out all distractions, and focusing on the Audience of One. You can follow my example, or not. It’s up to you.”
The other brother approaches leading worship with this attitude: “I’ve already spent time worshiping Jesus in private this week, so I’m here to serve you and invite you to come along where I’ve already been. My job here is to help you worship Jesus. If I don’t get to have as intimate of an experience with Him right now because I’m serving as a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord to usher you into His presence, that’s okay. Come taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Neither approach is in itself wrong. Both can be Biblically defended. One is priestly, one is pastoral. Both are ultimately necessary.
However, I’ll argue that the first example is really what should be done in private as part of preparing for the second example, not the end goal of what should be done in the context of the gathering of the saints to seek the Lord together, pray together, sing together, and worship together. It’s our private worship of the Lord that fuels our public leading of others in worship, not our private worship done publicly that is the end goal.
And that’s really the key here: our public leading of others in worship. That is the end goal of our jobs as lead worshipers. Servant leaders. Helping others.
If the purpose of our performance is helping others, then how we perform will be molded by that purpose. That means that our performance is contextual. Tailored to suit the needs of our congregation, our vision & community culture, our pastor & leaders, our team, our worship set, our song, and even the particular moment in that song. Everything we do performance-wise needs to be scrutinized not legalistically but with loving discretion, weighed and measured to see if it fits the purpose of helping others worship Jesus.
Should I punch in my transtubulatingboostifier pedal and wail out with an expressive guitar solo right now? Should I use that new keyboard patch I just downloaded on Mainstage right now? Should I exercise some vocal gymnastics as part of a spontaneous aria of praise? Should I add more cowbell?
Well, it depends.
Working from the inside out, does it serve the moment? Does it serve the song? Does it serve the set of songs? Does it serve the worship service as a whole? Does it serve the vision of the leadership? Does it serve the culture of our local church?
If performing with more cowbell is all green lights for all those criteria, then you know the prescription you need, and you can bring it with a loud, joyful noise. If it’s not... discretion is the better part of valor. Show love and kindness in how you perform to help others worship.
Performance with kindness and love for the sake of others leads to a more excellent way. Performance without putting others first is just an obnoxious noise like a clanging cymbal.
Brendan Prout is a husband, dad, pastor and worship leader. He loves training and equipping others to do the work of ministry they are called to, all things geeky, good food, cars, coffee, and not driving off cliffs anymore.