I asked my PLUM group Monday afternoon if worship leaders were performers. (btw - "PLUM" is the first year contextual ed class at Saint Paul School of Theology.) We were discussing a case study that involved a new worship leader, and the issue of worship / performance was a central theme. So I just wanted to take a little poll around the table to see what people were thinking.
I asked, "Are worship leaders performers, and why or why not?"
One of the responses really got me thinking. Someone said that worship leaders should try to draw the congregation into the worship service. That's a pretty good description of a worship leader's role, I think. Worship leaders facilitate the experience, creating the time and space in which the people who have gathered are able to encounter the presence of God.
Okay, I thought, how is that different from performing a play? (Go with me for a little while, here.) When I perform in a play, I try to draw the audience into the narrative. Actors try to facilitate the experience, creating the time and space in which the people who have gathered are able to encouter the story being presented.
Likewise, musicians perform in order to draw the audience into the piece of music being presented. Dancers dance to facilitate the audience's encouter with the art, and so forth. It seems to me that in any art form, especially performance arts, the artists' goal is to draw the audience into the experience in a meaningful way.
To be sure, some performers have less noble intentions. There are those whose only desire is egotistical self-aggrandizement, who want only to receive accolades and be applauded. And to be honest, it feels pretty good to get a standing ovation! Clearly a worship leader should not be motivated by such selfish incentives; a worship leader should point to God, not to self.
But leaving that idea aside, I think that the parallels between performing a play (for example) and leading a worship service are very obvious. Leading worship is very much a performance, and the goal is to draw the congregation into the experience toward the end of facilitating that divine/human encounter. And as performance, leading worship is a skill that can be honed with training and practice. That doesn't diminish or minimize worship; that doesn't make leading worship "fake" or anything. Far from it - it is a sacred activity and a vital part of healthy, vibrant congregations.
I have changed my mind on this issue a bunch, and probably will again. I have used the metaphor of God as audience and congregation as actors and worship leaders as prompters for the performance before. But that leaves God as a passive observer, and I really think God is very active in a worship service. Because worship planning and worship leadership are spiritual gifts of mine, I'm sure I'll be thinking about this idea for a long time.
What do you think? Are worship leaders "performers"?
Update: Also posted here.