Monday, November 09, 2009

Performance, Worship Leading, and American Idol



I have not put out too many blogs recently but I have several in the works. I’ve been thinking about something that I mentioned on a blog a couple of months ago – “Perhaps our biggest enemy is our own experience.” So I’ll explore this idea from another angle today.

On this last season of American Idol I found it interesting that more than half of the last 12 finalists were either worship leaders or sang in church on a regular basis. No doubt there are many who are elated that Christians are breaking into the mainstream a bit and finally getting their due. I think it's pretty cool myself. However as one who has lead worship in the church for years and played music outside of the church quite a bit I find that it brings me some conflicting emotions because I know just how easy it is slip from heartfelt worship to slick performance, to move from worshipping God into the idolatry of the adoration of the masses. Now before I go on, I am in no way passing judgment on the Christian contestants for making it into the final round. For all I know they are all devout and sincere and totally devoted to Christ. If anything I am considering my own journey as a worship leader, as a musician, as a performer who has spent considerable time wrestling with the dynamics of worship and performance. So this is just one of the few examples in popular culture where we see worship leaders taking big strides into the arena of performance and as such offers us a good opportunity for dialogue on this subject. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly raises questions concerning worship leading and performance, questions which deserve some wrestling with, which is what this blog is all about.

There’s a very real sense of being scared to death when one leads worship for the first time in front of people. It’s a good kind of fear though because it indicates that one is taking it seriously. It’s the kind of fear when one is attempting anything from skiing to cooking to public speaking for the first time. But it is so easy the more one learns about music and worship and what works in a service to lean on what you know rather than “who” you know.

I am a big fan of worship musicians taking the craft of music seriously and not just turning out something second rate because they have good hearts but are too lazy to put the effort into getting better musically. I am also a very big fan of worship leaders taking theology and study of the word seriously. However when one learns how to play the songs right and to say the right things it can be so easy to just coast on autopilot and the truth is no one out there will even know the difference… well at first at least.

I once heard a pastor talk about how when he started a church years ago in a small warehouse with a small group of Christians how they were desperate for God to show up because if God didn’t show up the whole thing was over. He noted though that over time as hundreds of people started showing up and they got a good sound system and lights and good musicians it didn’t matter if God showed up or not because it would still be good. This is the same struggle that we face as musicians and worship leaders (really as anyone endeavoring to follow Christ). We can simply lean on what we know works, on our own experience up to this moment, or we can humbly and sincerely seek to connect with God and lead others with our gifts.

There is a fine line between a heart-felt and passionate rendering of a worship song and just another good performance of that song, a line that is so easy to cross without anyone knowing your heart is not in it. And that should scare us a bit. We ought to remind ourselves regularly of the story of Israel in the Old Testament. The worst parts of their history, when they slipped into idolatry and neglected the poor, were when things were going great, when the blessings were pouring in, when nothing seemed to be going wrong. Too often when things are on the up and up we lose the plot, we drift, we lean on what we know rather than “who” we know.

So I’ll end this blog with these questions and I really would like to hear how some of you might wrestle with these ideas.

1. What does a Christian need in his or her life to consistently live from an authentic place?
2. What place is there for performance in worship leading?
3. How can we do a better job as Christ followers to support artists, musicians, and those in ministry in a way that fosters both excellence and authenticity simultaneously?

6 comments:

Pi Man said...

Good blog and good questions, Crispin.
I’m responding in two parts as my original response exceeded the 4096 characters. So here is My Response Part I:
First let me say that I do not personally look at the understanding of “performance” and “spiritual passion” as opposing terms, though I understand why some do. (Not that you do or did, I’m just talking in general here.) I don’t think that performance and spiritual passion have to be mutually exclusive, though I think it prudent to always keep your heart in check with your spirit. Frankly, I view them now in tandem, as working together as a means to a greater end, that being worship of course. At the end of the day, it’s a heart matter between the performer and God, for only those two know the truth as to the intent of the person.
For example, only a couple times in the past have I had to deal with others misunderstanding my motives when it came to my singing, playing music, and acting relative to the discussion/question of performance vs. passion. The kicker here is that this critique never came from my secular performances, but rather from within the Christian community that thought my performance was more about me and not enough about God. Being the over-thinker that I usually am, this wounded me. I knew my motives, but I wanted to consider the possibility of truth in what some were saying. So, I toned it down (the external performance), but inside absolutely felt that I was literally being held back. And I have come to realize that this is not who God created me to be. Truthfully I still restrain myself now to a degree, and without going off too much into that, I support that it is a worship leader’s place to offer constructive criticism of all facets of the performance.
Before I briefly answer your three questions, I want to provide the words to the song “Empty Me” by Chris Sligh, the nationally known performer/musician from American Idol who is a struggling Christian as are we all. It compliments what you have written and asked, as it makes us examine our motives, especially when they are selfish….

“Empty Me” by Chris Sligh

I've had just enough of the spotlight
When it burns bright
To see how it gets in the blood
And I've tasted my share
Of the sweet life
And the wild ride
And found a little is not quite enough

I know how I can stray
And how fast my heart could change

Empty me
Of the selfishness inside
Every vain ambition
And the poison of my pride
And any foolish thing my heart holds to
Lord empty me of me
So I can be
Filled with you

I’ve seen just enough of the quick buys
Of the best lies
To know how prodigals can be drawn away

I know how I can stray
And how fast my heart could change

Empty me
Of the selfishness inside
Every vain ambition
And the poison of my pride
And any foolish thing my heart holds to
Lord empty me of me
So I can be
Filled with you

‘Cuz everything is a lesser thing
Compared to you
Compared to you
‘Cuz everything is a lesser thing
Compared to you
So I surrender all

Empty me
Of the selfishness inside
Every vain ambition
And the poison of my pride

Empty me
Of the selfishness inside
Every vain ambition
And the poison of my pride
And any foolish thing my heart holds to
Lord empty me of me
So I can be
Lord empty me of me
So I can be
Filled with you.
Filled with you
Empty me

Pi Man said...

I will briefly answer your three questions here in My Response Part II:

1) What does a Christian need in his or her life to consistently live from an authentic place?

To consistently live from an authentic place requires an authentic relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It requires a genuine, natural, organic understanding of the magnitude of the grace, mercy, forgiveness, sacrifice, and love that we have been given through the perfect plan of God as carried out by Jesus Christ and as sustained by the Holy Spirit. And it all begins with surrender… surrender on a daily basis to the One who it’s truly all about. God’s plan is so profound that it blows the mind, yet so simple that a child can understand. If that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is. So to live this consistent life we need a personal desire to grow, and a community that will support and encourage this lifestyle. And that comes from a one-on-one relationship with the God of the Universe who loves us right where we are, with all our warts and imperfections. That, I believe, is the basis of it all.


2) What place is there for performance in worship leading?

I think I covered this in my opening statements. Let me again stress that in my experience and opinion, it is a matter of the heart, between God and the performer. To think otherwise is to judge the motives of another. With that said, it is still the leader’s responsibility to “control” the performance. In the final analysis, it will be the leader’s call on whether or not to have a performance tone down and/or be tweaked in some fashion. But I think that the performance, when done with the right heart, is the most awesome thing in the world. It’s another conduit from which the love of God flows. It’s no different than trying to change one’s style from the pulpit…. Only the preacher and God know for certain if it’s authentic or not. And I think God has a way of eventually removing the imposters in worship and in the pulpit.

3) How can we do a better job as Christ followers to support artists, musicians, and those in ministry in a way that fosters both excellence and authenticity simultaneously?

The million dollar question, no doubt. Kind of like when I was teaching, the never ending question is, “How can we get the students to remember what we’ve taught? I think the quick answer is again, not look at performance and spiritual passion issues as necessarily opposing, as mutually exclusive events. It begins with the heart relationship between the individual and God. Knowing that we are nothing without Him, and that anything and everything that is good in our lives is only from Him, and understanding that in terms of eternity versus the temporal, that is ultimately what matters. From a practical if not ideal perspective, both the spiritual development and the performance development must grow in tandem, toward that greater end of worship. So I submit, are there structures in place that will support both? Are there programs and people willing and able to facilitate these endeavors in both areas? Is there accountability and follow-up and “continuing education” to keep the masses moving forward? Answers to these questions and more will foster the excellence and authenticity that we seek as Christ followers.

Peace Bro. Good stuff. TA

Crispin Schroeder said...

Great song lyrics. Very honest and sincere.

It's funny what you mention about sometimes folks thinking you're performing when you are really just into it. I've had that happen as well. I guess I've seen a scarier thing personally when my heart was beginning to drift and I was really struggling with issues on the inside and I just put on a big smile and lead worship more from what I knew worked than any real place of brokenness. Not that one needs to be a real downer every time there is a struggle going on. But I have just found that sometimes the very experience of being on stage singing can lead you into a place of not being really real. It doesn't have to, but sometimes it contributes to that. And I have known many a worship leader who have been trapped in all kinds of horrible things while all the while leading worship. So then the worship leading becomes kind of hollow and the person leading feels doubly trapped because he or she can't truly be real with God or people.

Jonathan said...

1: I think authenticity is something that people see through immediately, professional or not, musician or not, Christian or not. I believe that at its core is an issue of honesty. That may be an obvious observation to some, but I have seen people attempt to "perform" authenticity.

I believe that too often, all of us, at some point or another live a private, and a public relationship with the Lord. When we get busy as worship leaders or any kind of leader in the church and/or ministry, we often find ourselves spending more time in our public relationship than our private. Now, I am not proposing that when we are worshiping publicly that we are not "real" in our communication with the Lord individually and corporately, I am simply saying that often BUSYNESS, takes space that is intended for intimacy. That said I believe that the lack of intimacy, privately, is often the killer of what is authentic in our reality and makes us limited in our honesty in corporate worship.

2: What place for Performance in worship?
I would be willing to say that I believe personally that the only area of worship leading that should allow performance a place is the music playing (instrumentally). I am a big fan of excellence in worship, HOWEVER excellence is not the same as perfection. Too many people involved in the ministry of music often look for perfection related to the art of music in worship. In my opinion, there is NO room for perfection and much room for, expression of giftedness, art, and skill! To often the evangalist mindset of our leadership has given direction to the worship team, and the worship leaders are asked questions about what they are wearing instead of "what is God saying to us this weekend?" and "Where are you leading us?". I think it is important that we LEAD people in worship, not cheerlead, or try to stir up some sort of artificial reaction based upon our religious influences. So often worship leaders are told things like, "Make eye contact, smile, lift your hands, tell others to lift their hands, clap, tell others to clap." These things are all valid expressions of worship, but again when performed it is like looking at a manekin in the store (it looks similar, and yet is CLEARLY not the real thing... not honest, in-authentic). With these types of conversations with our worship staff, there is no wonder there is so much performance in our worship. Clearly we have to focus, and therefore talk about the right things.

I heard a very respected business person say once, that the only difference between a professional and an amateur is that a professional does the right things right. If we don't have regular conversations about LEADING people in the presence of Almighty God, then we will NOT lead people there when the time comes. Another way to say this is "what you practice, is what you will perform". If you talk about what you wear, look like, and say... then that will be your result. Performance.
-next

Jonathan said...

-continued

There is something quite theatrical and performance natured about what we do as worship leaders, therefore I don't believe that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. However, I do believe that often those things come naturally to most people who desire to lead worship and what is important is that we focus on Communion with the Lord and LEADING others to enter into that communion. I believe the performance side of our nature gives us the ability to show others how to do what we have already been doing privately. However, if we have NOT been truly entering into worship privately, we are simply leading songs.

I often have viewed worship leading much like a journey in each and every service. If you as a LEADER have not been on this very journey that you are attempting to take your followers on, you are not really leading anyone. You are simply going for an aimless stroll. It is important that we know where we are going. I have found it useful to take the worship list and actually worship with it privately before ever taking it to practice. Often God has shown me some of the most intimate times there, and then I have been able to lead others back to a similar place because I have already been there. I am also more aware, and secure with what God may want to say or do spontaineously in that situation.

A lot of worship leaders today view this as "Not letting the Spirit lead" or "Being too prepared", however this is in no way intended to be stale. It is simply a way that I have found myself to get beyond the technical and into the spiritual. That said, I also believe that is why it is important to find your own, personal, way to lead. I can't say that I have ever seen two worship leaders, lead exactly the same, even if they are trying! I can't say that I have ever heard two people lead the same song EXACTLY the same... even if they are trying! This is the uniqueness of God in all of us! So, why do we try to emulate each other so much! Quit! Lead from your heart, ask God what He wants to do, and ask Him where does He want to go/say/do?

That said, I think there is another aspect to this discussion. I have gone through moments where I was sort of stuck in a pattern of leading and it became a routine and not organic. I think in those times it is most important to recognize it, then get on your face! Sometimes just getting out of your normal world is the only way to "break out"(ie://serving someone who is hurting, go on a mission trip, do an outreach to your neighbors, go to the hospital waiting room and sit for a little while... anything that will help remind you of how blessed you are and what true desperation is!)
- next

Jonathan said...

- continued

3: I think this is one of the ways that we DON'T support artists within the christian culture. We all love individuality and uniqueness, however we all keep listening and trying to emulate the same people! I know pastors who are afraid of letting their worship leaders actually lead! Like God is going to jump out and do something to scare everyone off or something! (Don't get me wrong, I understand their being order, however that is a LAME excuse for not allowing God to use someone as a leader! New or otherwise!)

Let's give each other room to grow! Let's support raising great, quality musicians who are passionate about expressing the gift that God has put there!

As I said earlier, I believe in excellence and skill, so I am not proping that we stick every guy with a guitar who knows three chords up there, however, let people breathe. And, if they need a few months before they are ready to take their show on the road, let them hang out with you! Give them the audience! You!

There is also a REAL need for a platform around the church that is NOT worship based. There is much more to the arts (musically and otherwise) that is NOT being utilized in the church! I believe that some of these are not nessisarily the most appropriate for worship settings, however they can very well INSPIRE worship! I am not sure what the answer is to this issue. I have seen a few churches make pretty good attempts at this, however, this is where we are loosing much of our talent. This is another way to cultivate community and we are loosing this battle big time across the larger church family. Everything doesn't have to be a ministry! Everything doesn't have to be in a service! Lets get creative! After all, that's how we were all made... Let's make room for that, and who knows, we might just see a larger part of the "world" reached!

thoughts -

Jonathan