Recently, I read an article a friend posted on Facebook about modern worship practices and the problem of “performancism,” which is described as:
The worship leader as the performer. The congregation as the audience. The sanctuary as the concert hall.
The article struck a chord with me. I’ve seen this several times (this was the worst offender). Sanctuaries resemble nightclubs — no windows, dim lights, cool stage set-up. Choirs are mostly absent — instead, it’s a 4-5 member worship team. The words are projected on a screen and we rarely, if ever, sing the old hymns of the faith.
It’s a style I’m not comfortable with, one that often leaves me feeling cold and empty. I voiced these thoughts on Facebook, and a friend chimed in with some good thoughts that prompted this blog, in which I try to wrap my head around why I feel the way I do about this topic.
Let me start with a clarification: having grown up in an old-school Baptist church, I understand just how out of hand discussions about worship styles can get. When I was a kid, older people complained about using drums or guitars in the worship service. I remember when our youth group showed a video for the “30-Hour Famine” event in the Sunday service and my dad (the worship leader) got nasty notes about the video using a song by The Newsboys (oddly, no one cared that U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” was also used).
There’s no such thing as a biblically prescribed instrument or atmosphere for worship. There’s nothing more biblical about a choir than a worship team; there’s nothing sinful about a dim sanctuary and concert lighting. An old hymn isn’t any more pleasing to God than a Chris Tomlin song — and, indeed, I love many of the modern worship songs and agree that many of our beloved hymns can be just as problematic and empty. I have been ministered to by the music of Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman and others.
I agree with my friend that there needs to be an atmosphere cultivated that engages our emotion and lifts us outside of ourselves. Most Sundays, I don’t walk into church excited and ready to worship — I’m frustrated about having to get my kid ready, anxious about a billion other things set to occur in the coming week, tired and craving a nap. The role of a worship leader/team/choir is partly to snap my focus off myself and point me Heavenward. It’s to remind me that I’m part of something bigger than myself; that my problems are small compared to the great God we serve; and to excite me about the truth we’ve come to celebrate. As the child of a former worship leader, I appreciate and celebrate this.
But, still this problem of performancism bothers me.
In most churches I’ve attended with this setup, the worship leader’s personality overshadows everything else. They’re cracking wise from the stage. They’re stopping things cold to single someone out for a solo. They’ve calculated the order of service so that our emotions shift from celebration to sobriety. When churches rotate their worship leaders, we often think “oh, so-and-so’s doing the music this morning…this is going to be good” and start thinking “good worship” is based on song selection, a singer’s talent or the rapport a worship leader has with the audience.
Certainly, this same risk exists in every single worship atmosphere. “Good worship” can too often be based on whether we liked the song the choir sang, whether the PowerPoints were correct or whether the jokes were funny. And if my worship isn’t centered on God but on external elements, it’s at least partly my problem, not necessarily the worship leader’s. But by placing a single performer or group front and center, we risk moving from a setting designed for corporate worship to one that is personality-driven, the same way that some churches with well-known pastors become too celebrity-driven.
But more than the form, it’s the calculation behind the services that worries me. It’s the detail paid to lighting choices. The music flowing under the prayer to heighten the emotion The predictability of the three-song format — my wife and I used to attend a church where I could predict going in that, each week, we’d have two upbeat songs and, right before the sermon, a more subdued one. No more, no less. And at least one would, 95 percent of the time, be a Chris Tomlin song. Church is often as formulaic as a rom-com.
I worry that we can walk away feeling like we’ve had a worship experience when we’ve actually just been responding to a particular beat or the way the lights made us feel happy or sad. If we are ecstatic and moved in a service and flip right back to our normal mindset the minute the lights come up, have we truly worshipped? I understand that these elements can help draw us to worship and capture our attention and emotions. But if we’re not regularly transported from there into a place where the lyrics of a song prompt us to meditate on deeper truths, have we worshipped or just had a carefully calibrated emotional experience? Again, only my heart can determine that.
But the biggest concern I have here is that I feel this form is adopted through so many churches because of a belief that this is the way it has to be done.
There’s a fear in many modern churches of losing relevance and turning away young people and families. There’s a panic among church leaders that a service has to have a certain look and feel to keep people coming. That’s why most church services today are more like TED Talks than worship services. A church’s worship atmosphere has become part of its brand — when my wife and I were looking for churches, I noticed that most churches now have a page on their website describing the look and feel of their Sunday services — comfortable, contemporary, come-as-you-are. When I was living in Ann Arbor, I once read a local magazine where several pastors — including one on staff at the church my wife and I were attending — talked about how important marketing was to their congregation. That bothered me.
It’s not the church’s job to cultivate relevance or to make the Gospel interesting, fun, cool or sexy. When you depend on marketing your worship, you risk making people care more about your church than your God. I still remember sitting in a worship service at a local megachurch and seeing ads for so many ministries and pleas to get the word out about the church on social media — the entire theme of the service wasn’t “what a great God we serve” but “what an awesome church this is.”
It risks placing our faith in our tools, talents and concepts, not in Christ. Yes, we have great tools and talents, and yes we often have great concepts and fun churches — those are all good things. But if we think spiritual growth and worship comes from those things, and doubt the power of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit to capture hearts, be relevant in people’s lives and inspire true worship, we’re doing church wrong.
In the end, as with so many things, it’s not the concepts or the tools I have a problem with — it’s the intent behind it. And there’s no perfect church. No perfect worship.
In full disclosure, my wife and I currently attend a Baptist church that is a mix of the old and new styles.We attend the contemporary service that uses a worship team. There are no lights or comfortable chairs — just pews in a simple, well-lit sanctuary. Very little video, no drama program. We sing very few hymns and a lot of Chris Tomlin. It’s not perfect — the PowerPoints often have misspellings, the jokes are cheesy, and sometimes you can’t quite hear the worship team. But there are smiles on the congregants’ faces and those of the worship tam. Even if a song is bad — even if it’s “Shine Jesus Shine” — hands are raised, tears are shed and I leave feeling like I’ve worshipped. It’s not because of the form — it’s because of the united hearts and the belief that God accepts our imperfect praise.