Worship … or Performance?

I don’t really like the term “worship music” for some of the same reasons I don’t like the term “Christian music.” Worship is an offering of your self, a loosening of grips, a heart open wide, not a genre of music. Worship can be experienced through anything. For Brother Lawrence, worship was primarily experienced through washing dishes. For Mother Teresa, worship was primarily experienced in bandaging wounds and kissing lepers. Anything can become worship, including music and even “performance.”

But there is something dangerous about performance that can easily make it the opposite of worship. Performance can become about trying to gain glory for yourself. Christian worship is about letting go of that false glory and offering it to God.

So as both a “worship leader” and a “performer” of sorts, the primary tension between “worship” and “performance” for me is an internal one.

Still, there is also something about “performance” that doesn’t line up well with “congregational” or “liturgical” music. Historically, the Church gathers to center themselves around Christ in the sacraments, not around human celebrity. There is a reason we used to build Cathedrals that drew the eye upwards. There is a reason we used art to draw attention somewhere other than priest.

Today (in much of Protestant Christianity at least), we build big stages as the focal point of the room. Many of our churches use big video screens that plaster huge images of the people who are leading the gatherings. Many of our church buildings are built as altars to worship ourselves.

I’m not trying to be cynical here. This really is how it is in a lot of places. We use nicer words, of course, but the reality is a lot of churches are simply performing arts centers that use the myth of celebrity to attract people to a weekly, religiously themed Sunday matinee show. I don’t necessarily think there’s anything inherently wrong about putting on religiously themed shows. They can be enjoyable and helpful. But why not just be honest about what it is?

I think one of the reasons we build our buildings and services like this is because many of us are not interested in encountering our brokenness through the sacraments. This is why we don’t lament. This is why our religious art can sometimes be so soulless and safe. We want our religious experience to be about something else—about protecting ourselves from the Truth rather than being ruined by it.

So here is the danger of a congregational experience that becomes more about the stage than about the people gathering around Christ. It easily becomes idolatry. It easily becomes a way of us using the name of Christ to avoid the reality of Christ. (In other words, using His name in vain.)

This is why, for me, I want to be part of a congregational experience that is more centered around the sacraments than human celebrity or performance. At our church, this translates to us having the communion table at the center of everyone’s view rather than the worship leader. In the room we meet in, there is a stage, but we never stand on it. We stand on the floor with everybody else, facing toward the Table.

I’m not saying everyone needs to do this to avoid having an idolatrous worship gathering. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a stage. After all, I spend a lot of my time on stages. I’ve been extremely inspired and helped by other people’s performances. Performance is art, and art is sacred. Stage work can be holy work. But, like anything, there’s a danger to the stage. And that danger gets magnified when it is infused with religious power and status. So, for now … use your stages. Use your lights, your pulpits and your screens. Just try to find ways of using them better.  

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Michael Gungor is a singer/song writer living in Denver, Colorado United States. He leads a musical collective called Gungor that tours around the world performing and leading worship music in both mainstream and religious venues. Aside from his work with the band, he has written and produced music for other artists as well as help start a church in Denver called "Bloom".