I was reading through something just the other day, when I came across one of the statements of practical theology with which I disagreed most strongly in some time. I hit a fair amount of bad theology – I live on the internet, where the Bad Thinking Mines are – but this particular line really steamed my lobster, enough that I needed to comment on it.
The sentiment was that “worship is not a performance.”
Now, I need to be clear with my biases – I was a theater/performance kid in high school and early college. I’ve been to see more plays in my twenty-nine years than most people will go to their whole lives long, what with the season tickets at four Pacific Northwest theaters in the late nineties and early oughts. I love theatre. I love performance and performing. It’s a part of my matrix that I will never overcome.
Even so, I have a definite stake in the “anti-performance” school of worship, especially as it concerns music. I recall the first time I ever saw a “praise band” that was so loud and so overwhelmed with what they were doing, musically, that the intent of the remainder of the worshippers was unimportant. I’ve been known to deeply and genuinely enjoy what is still, somewhat erroneously, called “contemporary” worship – some of the best worship experiences of my life were one-guitar praise music on an overhead projector.
So I agree with the sentiment this far – that worship is not, cannot be, should not be, a performance by leaders or musicians for congregations. The purpose of a pastor is not to entertain, but to facilitate or lead. The purpose of church musicians is to point our hearts to God, and not to show off. It is for this reason that I am not a church applauder – it shows up from time to time, but applause (distinct from clapping) in worship really doesn’t work for me.
That said, whoever says worship is not performance is dead wrong.
Every Lord’s Day that we gather together, we are performing*. We are preparing ourselves to do a thing, to act out once again a very ancient script. All the pieces of our service of worship are laid out, and we read and sing and listen and speak once again out of the old, old manuscript. Note those words – a service of worship. Who are we serving, with this service? Are we so self-centered to think that it is merely our own congregation? By no means!
Worship is a performance – it’s a show we’re putting on for God. That doesn’t make it less authentic, less real, or less heartfelt. If we can separate out our own egos and remember that everything we do, every word and gesture and note and breath and child’s cry is meant for – and beloved by – God’s ears, then perhaps we can approach God’s worship with a real attitude of joy.
I don’t know anyone that goes into a performance of any kind out of a sense of obligation. Every musician I’ve ever heard worth their salt, every actor, every athlete, started their career with joy. That’s the attitude I crave when I walk into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, not just for me, but for everybody, that we’re going to dive into our performance with both feet. I don’t care how well we sing or how well I preach or how well the kids pay attention. I care about the fun – the joy of being on the stage God has set up for us.
So, as I remember paraphrasing what I heard as a child, it’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights. It’s time to meet our Savior in the worship show – tonight!
*This, by the way, is one of the only arguments that I find compelling for appropriate dress in worship. It has nothing to do with “respect,” and everything to do with costume.