Today we are going to be talking about worship and “the P word”.
…that’s right: Performance!
Now, if you’ve been leading worship or have been around churches long enough, you’ve almost certainly come across a critique of a church or maybe a worship leader’s style or approach. And it usually takes the form of suggesting some kind of undeniable conflict between worship and performance. In fact, this attitude is so commonplace that when I posted about this topic on social media, I had a deluge of responses, just like these:
So apparently, worship and performance cannot coexist. No element of congregational worship can be considered a performance, and we should spend our time and energy sniffing out such heresy, hungry performers in favor of true worshipers. Case closed. Right.
But does that even make sense? Quite importantly: does our approach to this debate reveal a pretty significant cultural blind spot that isn’t all that Christian? Well, it just might. Let’s dig in!
First of all, my hope through all of this is to foster deeper and healthier conversations about worship and following Jesus. If that’s important to you (and bonus points if you’re a little nerdy) you should hang around and subscribe to keep in touch.
I should also say that today’s topic was chosen by my lovely Patreon supporters who have early access to everything I release and also have the ability to vote on and choose topics for me to dive into. So if you’d like to support what I’m up to in ministry and in music, I want to encourage you to head over to Patreon.com/eliasdummer and join the party.
Now, today, I hope to shed some new light on the age-old worship vs performance debate and help us to think about this a little differently.
But part of the problem we have is that both words are frequently taken to mean very different things. So if we’re going to make any progress at all, it’s probably important to start by clarifying exactly what we mean. First, “worship”.
See, the root of the word means something like “worth-ship”. So, with that in mind, I have a working definition that I think is pretty good.
Worship is the active practice of assigning ultimate value to an object or entity placing that object at the center of your love, desire, attention, and actions.
So worship means intentionally correcting our focus with our whole selves and sort of an intentional present newness to Jesus. This can be true in a really broad way, and also when we come together as the church. In the broadest sense, we’re repeatedly instructed in scripture, take Romans 12:1, for example, to offer our whole lives before God as an act of worship. Obviously, worship can refer to more than the devotional acts we carry out together. And while we’ll be mostly focused on the next understanding of the word, I’ll come back to this, so keep it in the back of your mind.
In a more specific way, worship refers to the more participatory devotional things we do together at church: singing group, prayer, liturgy, communion. In my experience, when people are questioning the role of performance and worship, this is what they’re talking about. In fact, more specifically, they’re usually talking about the aesthetics around or the approach of the person or group leading the singing.
Performance is also sort of a funny word. It’s been kicking around English for a long time too. And its roots are in the Latin languages, French and Latin itself, and it originally meant simply to carry out what is required. It is still used this way today, particularly in the business world, so this is no surprise.
perform: to carry out what is required (c. 1300s)
Interestingly, the church also used a Latin compound word: “perform”, and this meant to “form thoroughly”. Basically, to mold or become. This is important, too, so remember it. I’ll come back to this too.
performo: Church Latin for “to form thoroughly”
It’s sort of obvious that we want our worship teams to carry out what is required of them. In this sense, the word “performance” can be accurately applied to every worship leader ever. As Psalm 33:3 puts it: “sing to him a new song, play skillfully and shout for joy for the word of the Lord is true and he is faithful in all he does.”
So, yes, do your job, worship leaders! Sing skillfully!
But of course, it’s not that simple and that’s not exactly what people are talking about here because somewhere between the year 1300 and today “perform” also became associated with the act of representing something on stage, like a play or a piece of music or more recently film and TV.
perform: to represent a play or a piece of music on stage
And this is where we run into trouble in the church, because performance came to suggest “pretending”, maybe even in an exaggerated way, which might be fake, which might be lying. So I have to assume that people’s concerns about worship and performance ultimately come down to a single word: authenticity.
And this is where things start to get, honestly, a little weird. See, I’ve rarely heard someone say, “it seems too much like our performance” about themselves. This whole thing hangs on judging the momentary sincerity of others. It’s like we’re saying: “you’re not being who I want you to be. So you must be lying.” We tend to mistrust people whose personality seems inconsistent in this way.
But this is a big problem because overconfidence in our ability to detect deception is a known bias. The human species is generally really bad at judging whether other people are being authentic. Studies have shown that most people are no better than 50/50 at detecting deception in others. In fact, we’re so bad at reading body language that only 27% of people can even tell when someone is flirting with them. So we should be really careful about moralizing our authenticity hunches of others. Chances are we’re wrong about what’s going on behind the scenes.
This also reveals something really key: momentary authenticity, also known as “personality consistency”, is practically useless as a benchmark for whether or not a person is pretending because seeming authentic is little more than a learned skill. And, very importantly, the secret to performing a song or even a fictional scene with excellence isn’t to pretend better, it’s to not pretend at all. I once read an interview with a famous vocalist about how she performed so powerfully, every time. Her secret, like many actors, was to recall personal and deeply emotional memories, linked to themes in the lyrics and recall them quickly.
She didn’t pretend to cry. She meant it. She temporarily embodied that emotion.
This is the same thing great actors do. They don’t pretend, they become–they perform the job given to them. They perform by representing the character on the stage skillfully and they perform by becoming the character through remembering and living it out. They aren’t pretending, they’re embodying by remembering. And this same remembering is what we’re told to do all throughout the Psalms, the songbook of the faith.
So could these concerns around worship and performance be completely misplaced and actually signal something more worrisome? Maybe.
Is it possible that the negative feelings we connect to the idea of performance have much more to do with our cultural understanding of authenticity than with the idea or act of performing itself?
Well, I think it all depends on how you view authenticity. Is it about personality consistency? Or more importantly, is it about the idea that your actions should line up with what you believe to be true about Jesus and the world?
Your actions should match your values, right? Well, if we’re concerned that a worship leader is sincere in their faith, that they are loving and following Jesus when they are off the stage as well as on well, momentary authenticity and personality consistency tell us literally nothing about that at all. It’s entirely plausible that a person could pass our authenticity sniff test–that they could seem the same from one place to the next–but live a completely duplicitous life. So unless you really and truly know a person, be careful about how you judge them.
It’s crucial to identify that in our day and age authenticity does tend to be pretty closely linked to this idea of maintaining a consistent personality. It’s viewed as being true to yourself and expressing how you feel, basically all the time. I mean, that’s straight from Psychology Today. Our cultural understanding of authenticity is anchored to the idea that our true nature is somehow found within. It’s a deeply individualistic way of seeing your place in the world as people who are, are called to live not as ourselves, but as little Christs.
This is more than a little troubling. It might even be fair to say that the only people who are truly authentic by this popular understanding are completely self-absorbed. I mean, the Christian life itself as a performance of sorts. The Holy Spirit acts out the life of Christ on the stage of our lives, our relationships, and our communities. And this is what it means to die with Christ and be born again in Christ. It means to become somebody you were not. This performance isn’t inauthentic pretending, it’s an authentic becoming. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit helps us out here in a big way, but that very real tension we feel between our instincts and our desired actions based on our Christian values suggests that this sort of faith-filled performance must be true.
Some folks have said that this means I’ve got a misunderstanding of what it means to have the identity of Christ. While I can see where they’re coming from, it seems to me also like abandoning effort for the sake of identity is a recipe for misery, and it’s something that the Apostle Paul never figured out. Why then would he write about the tension of doing what he wants not to do? Scripture seems much more concerned with making sure your actions and your words match than the question of individual identity, at least in the way that we talk about it today,
Here are a few examples (paraphrased):
Amos 5: don’t sing one thing and live another without justice and righteousness.
Matthew 22, love the Lord, your God, with every part of you and your neighbor as yourself.
1 Corinthians 11:1 “follow my example, Paul, as I follow the example of Christ”
Ephesians 5:1 “be imitators of God”.
Follow. Imitate. Copy. Act. Perform.
Willful performance isn’t insincere, and it isn’t fake. To do what is required, to perform at your job, isn’t to be fake. It’s to value something other than your own wants in service to the role given you in something bigger than yourself. To represent something on the stage isn’t (always) to be fake, it can also mean that you recognize that there’s more to you than “you”. I mean, part of the human vocation itself is to be a reflection of Jesus into the world. Jesus may use our uniqueness in that, but there’s more going on than just being yourself. The question is: to what extent do we all do this all the time? And is that lying? Is playing the role we’re supposed to play at any given moment the same thing is being fake?
I was talking about this with my wife (who is brilliant by the way) and she pointed out that the entire genre of mommy blogs and Instagrammers have popped up because there is an obvious cognitive dissonance between the mother you want to be and the mother you are. Now, when you’re acting like the mother you want to be, are you being fake? Would it be better to go around being the mother you want not to be simply because it’s “real”? The truth is there are plenty of times as a parent where your parenting style is a performance, and that’s probably better for everybody.
This is also true of you in a broader sense. You’re being authentic by acting like the person you aim to be. And over time you find that it is who you’ve become. Or, as C S Lewis puts it in mere Christianity, “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbor act as if you did.”
So it seems to me that every worshiper is participating in performance: a representation of who God is into the world and back to God in worship. A pastorally minded worship leader will necessarily deploy an element of performance by all three definitions because they should always have an element of serving others before themselves, representing the role they’ve been given and becoming like Christ. And that’s a very good thing.
I used to be in a band called The City Harmonic, and we would tour from city to city all the time. Sometimes we’d be in quite a different time zone from our families and the only opportunity I’d have to talk to my wife or my kids would be to squeeze in a couple of minutes between dinner and their bedtime, and this would often happen minutes before I was to go onstage. We traveled for seven years together, so you can imagine that once in a while, that brief and often rushed conversation wouldn’t end in an ideal way. When it came time to go on stage, I had to ask myself a question: which is more like Jesus? Which action loves my neighbor better?
Do I put aside my momentary but very real feelings and serve these people here in front of me in love? Or do I make the first few moments of that event my own personal therapy session in the name of authenticity?
When I took that stage, it wasn’t inauthentic for me to remember why it was there, why it mattered. When I’d step into that role with my whole self–emotions and all–I wasn’t pretending. It was consistent with what it means to follow Jesus. The irony, in case you missed it, is that the solution to my problem of authenticity was to perform more, not less. It was to recognize the role I was given by God in the moment and embody it fully, to let the office be bigger than the man in it. And to reconcile those things, just like that famous singer I mentioned, I simply needed to remember my purpose. I needed to remember what God had done in my life. The solution to the problem of “performance” is to learn that the role is bigger than you and find a way to be present to a moment that’s bigger than you, too.
It’s about all of us coming before God and representing/reflecting Christ to each other and the world. You need to use performance skills to become and lean into that better and more Christlike version of yourself, the version that serves others and can become the role.
The truth is that a hypocrite is a bad performer, not a good one. Now, of course, there are times when a performer might showboat and attempt to make it about themselves, but this has nothing to do with the idea of performance itself. The truth is that person is a terrible performer. The purpose of the performance is to represent something well, not to detract from the story or music to make it about yourself.
Ultimately, the question isn’t whether or not you perform. Like it or not, you’re performing. The question is whether the self is at the center of your performance, or God and neighbor.
Truth be told, I’ve met plenty of preachers who might want to think about the pulpit like this, too. When you approach worship, on stage or off, it might be worth asking yourself that same question: Who is this for?
Because the ability to summon emotion is a learned skill and not in any way a dependable indication of an authentic Christian life. It is entirely possible to be deeply sincere in the moment and deeply hypocritical in the grand scheme of things.
A 2018 study found that people’s personalities were much more contextual than fixed. People may seem like one person at work and another person at home without feeling like hypocrites at all. Once more, we’re much happier and healthier people when we judge authenticity as behaving consistently with our values. In other words, if you had to choose between playing a role in order to live a life consistent with your values or being yourself at the expense of everyone around you, the first should win every time. To quote: “Authenticity was understood as acting in line with personal values, rather than demonstrating behavioral consistency across situations.”
When it came to personal wellbeing, trying to be yourself all the time makes you miserable. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that sincere momentary passion without faithfulness is completely inauthentic. Your spouse doesn’t know you love them merely because you say so once in a while, no matter how passionately you say it. And the truth is that plenty of us worship leaders have been guilty of that while thinking we weren’t performing. Authentic love is faithful love. And when it comes to Jesus, authentic love is obedient love. As Jesus said in John 14: “if you love me, do as I command.” Authentic worship then is about the whole package, not just the presentation. It’s about discipleship, what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction”.
It’s about becoming.
It’s about being formed thoroughly.
It’s about “performo”.
Do you remember being 18 and trying to act like an adult? It was clunky, awkward. You maybe wore pants in a style you wouldn’t normally wear or cut your hair in a way that made you feel more like an adult. But it was also sincere. You were definitely pretending and you definitely meant it. You were being thoroughly formed, some of the time, by the act of playing into adulthood itself! This is normal. We all do this. It’s part of growing up.
So the next time you find yourself worried about whether or not you’re “being yourself” in worship or, worse, worried about whether or not your worship leader is doing the same, remember that when it comes to others, you’re probably wrong about what’s going on underneath.
When it comes to you, your job is to be Jesus. So, please, do your job–perform! Represent the role you’ve been given (perform) and thoroughly become a little Christ in the moment and in all you do. Worship “in the pots and pans” as Brother Lawrence said and also in the congregation. Because worship, like the Christian walk, is necessarily a performance. And that’s not semantics, it’s the only way to be authentic.