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?