Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Are Worship Leaders Performers?

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.


Adam said...

I think the way you've framed it up then performance fits just fine. But like you said, its different than the kind of performing they do on "Idol".

It's tough. Because you don't want worship to be like a play, in that the audience doesn't participate. I know at our church sometimes I look out and not many are singing. I think when its more performance and less prompting, we are not acting responsibly in facilitating the worship of God. Not that singing is the only act of worship. I would love to see preaching take this same debate! Maybe instead of simply expository speech, the sermon could be a catalyst for discussion and sharing within the worshipping community.

Now that my buzzword count is high, I will bow out graciously : )

Adam Caldwell said...

The "Priest" has long "played the role" of connecting people with God, not necessarily as mediators so to speak but perhaps those who "usher" others into God's presence. It would seem to me that the modern/postmodern worship leader should fill this role as all others have filled this role. As you mention, the trick is to make it active not passive? Interestingly, even during the temple phase of Israel, worshipers were greatly involved in the ritualistic aspects of sacrifice. They were required to lay hands on the animals for instance along with the overseeing Priest. Never has worship been passive.

Kansas Bob said...

Worship leaders are performers in the same way that pastors (pulpit teachers) are performers. Teachers, like actors, draw their hearers into the scripture in an attempt to help them experience the Holy Spirit's enlightenment.

The real question is "are worship leaders and pastors/teachers entertainers". This probably goes more to motive.. none of us want to own up to the entertainer in us.. of course we don't want people nodding off during our sermons either :)

Anonymous said...

We are all performers. According to Soren Kierkegaard (Purity of Heart, Part XII), the whole sanctuary is the stage, as and the members of the congregation are performers. We want to think of worship as a drama, it is a far greater drama than that. The stage is not just the chancel or platform up front. The Worship leader is the director as well as being one of the performers. God is both the Audience and the Playwright. The script is the Scriptures, and the play is the drama of life. He continues to say that what we "do" each Sunday (or whenever you worship) is in reality the dress rehearsal for the rest of the week.

Anonymous said...

Andy, this was perfect! I rarely comment, and I don't read the blog as often as I should, but I find I come when I'm mulling something else "churchy" and I love what you give us to think over.

I was just wrestling with how to discuss this topic. I read a reported comment about how Boomers (which neither of us really are ;-)) need to change their emphasis on the value of a well-polished "performance" in favor of a true, authentic relationship. I believe that the "performance", when done well, helps focus our attention on worship. In contrast, a bad "performance" focuses our attention on the faults.

Doesn't it come down to whom we perceive is the audience? And now for some reason I'm remembering Tomie dePaola's _Clown of God_. I'll have to go check that out again...

"Bucky's Mom"

p.s. Thank you for that story!

Patrick Moore said...

My very long answer come from James B. Torrance, younger brother of T. F. and professor emeritus of systematic theology at the University of Aberdeen, as he describes the impact of the Trinity on worship as follows:
"As we reflect on the wide varieties of forms of worship… we can discern two different views.
The unitarian view: …We go to church, we sing our psalms and hymns to God, we intercede for the world, we listen to the sermon (too often simply an exhortation), we offer our money, time and talents to God. No doubt we need God’s grace to help us do it. We do it because Jesus taught us to do it and left us an example of how to do it. But worship is what we do before God… Indeed this view of worship is in practice unitarian, has no doctrine of the mediator or sole priesthood of Christ, is human-centered, has no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit, is too often non-sacramental, and can engender weariness…
The trinitarian view: The second view of worship is that it is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. It means participating in union with Christ, in what he has done for us once and for all, in his offering to the Father, in his life and death on the cross. It also means participating in what he is continuing to do for is in the presence of the Father and in his mission from the Father to the world. There is only one true Priest through whom and with whom we draw near to God our Father… It takes seriously the NT teaching about the sole priesthood and headship of Christ, his self-offering for us to the Father and our life in the union with Christ through the Spirit, with a vision of the Church as the body of Christ… [God] lifts us up out of ourselves to participate in the very life and communion of the Godhead, that life of communion for which we were created."

Anonymous said...

It’s a curious question…is it OK to “perform” in order to draw folks into the moment/experience so they might encounter something real and profound?

If so, is it OK to “market” church in order to draw folks in so they might encounter…? Is it OK to place ringers in the pews who will respond to an altar call in order to encourage others to do the same so they might encounter…? Are these examples of the ole’ bait and switch?

Augustine felt that preaching had three objectives: teach, delight and move, (not necessarily in that order.) Delighting sounds like performing, but may also be a key to moving. Barth on the other hand rejected any sort of rhetoric…and one can assume performance. I’m not sayin’ I think performance in the milieu of worship is all bad, just pointing out that it’s a slippery slope. -Mitch

Pastor Dave said...

I'm with the previous post on Augustine's viewpoint (and I disagree with Augustine often, don't get me started on "just war theory") about the function of preaching and think we need to apply the same measure of "performance" to musicians that we do to preachers. If the music is poor, people will not come back. If the sermon is consistanly poor, will the worshippers return? This is tough stuff but I'll tell you that I find more often than not that I will be forgiven the poor sermon if my relationship with the congregation is strong. As you might expect, the same is true with my experience of musicians. If a musician has a strong relationship with the congregation ... even to the extent that they serve in a pastoral role ... I have found that they are quickly forgiven for the occasional sour note.

Nevermind the theological issue of God's opinion of our performance. We all know that God loves a "joyful noise" but I somehow doubt that God loves a noise (preaching or singing or playing) that turns people away from the gospel. So... perform to your greatest ability, I say.

ContinuallySeeking said...

I think we've all seen "performers" on one stage or another. One of my favorite movies is Steve Martin's "Leap of Faith" -- it should be required watching for all wanna-be pastors. Personally, I find it interesting to find a minister's "tell" -- that little trigger that says "this is next", or the trigger that says their favorite heart-tug is coming up. I know one minister who always did a Rod Serling "Submitted for your approval"-type of statement when he was getting ready to wrap things up. Another one who moved from one side of the chancel to the other when he was closing. Another - well, 'nuff said. I don't go in looking for those things, but after awhile, it becomes somewhat evident, esp. when it appears to be a "performance" for the congregation, instead of for God. Just because we're methodists doesn't mean we have to be predictable-ists. With most ministers delivering the same sermon more than once, please, encourage your brothers and sisters to use different jokes, or go to a different internet site for their favorite anecdote -- that one about the guy on the roof with the flood who missed God sending the helicopter is old. :)

Anonymous said...

I think the issue here is that people see all performers as divas. They see over produced spectacles (i.e most of broadway) which don't engage them, but want to overwhelm them. And they think of performances that are emotionally manipulative (performers who say "I want to make them cry") This is why people want to dissacociate perfomance with worship. We need to remember that there is a difference between performance and spectacle.

1)Audience and performer are not two distinct things. They are engaged in community with one another. The minute a person walks into a space in theatre/dance/music/whatever they enter into a community. This time and space that is shared allows both performer and audience to have an experience...funny thing is isn't really a performnance without the audience. A community must be present in order for it to be a performance, or else it is rehersal. In engaging performance there is no distinct audience and perfomer...there is only community.

2)In good art the space isn't yours or is ours, it belongs to community. Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, calls it Democratic Space.
Addams believed that is was weird that we as a society had "private spaces" she merged the public and the private. Isn't that what we do in worship and performance, we meld the public and the private through sacrament, song, dance, preaching. worship and performance space is democratic space.

3) I just danced in Susan Vogels retirement chapel service. I have to say that every bit of that was choreographed right down to where I would stand as she blessed the elements. But, the day of the service we began to improvise things that just "came up". I think that in our movement choreographed and improvised we were able to invite the congregation into time and space and help them experience what God was doing. At the same time in being able to see the community I experienced time/space/God differently and then moved differently. I think that is what worship leading is about...not manipulating people to feel things or experience things...but to ask them to join in democratic time and space so that all can experience God in a new way.

Worship leaders are performers...I don't know another way to describe them. It is when worship/performance falls into spectacle that we have a problem.

I love this stuff!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Justy (J.Z, JustINtern (ha, ha))