Performance Worship and Authentic Worship: Can a Worship Leader be an Artist?

It seems in worship culture right now there is this back in forth conversation with ‘performance’ or ‘artistry’ in the midst of worship. When does a worship service cross the line and come off as a show, and when is it just talented people who practiced to make things transition well? I think the answer may surprise you. I don’t think it’s moving lights, it isn’t deep 808 bass you can feel in your chest and it’s not even the fog that you can taste and choke on. ‘Performance Worship’ becomes that, when the band on stage steals glory from God. That is the moment it changes from a worship set to a concert, and that makes God unhappy pretty quick.

I have gotten into a lot of the conversations lately about worship culture and they all seem to eventually end up on this topic. What I have often concluded is that someone who is adamantly against ‘performance worship’ often times prefers a mediocre worship team/leader because it ‘feels’ more authentic than when they have a well-rehearsed talented band/leader. After digging a little deeper, their problem almost always was with the worship leader. I heard over and over that in a church with production (lights, cameras, projectors etc) the worship leader came across as showy (someone actually said braggadocious, and I applauded their superior vocabulary). The thing is when you aren’t well rehearsed and you aren’t talented, humility comes pretty easy. It is fairly easy to not brag or show off when you don’t know how to play an F power chord (seriously, they hurt). We have all been there once in our lives. The issue comes up when you are talented and when you are well rehearsed. As a worship leader it is easy to get pushed over that edge and become cocky (or braggadocious).

Scripture has some pretty great and applicable stories about this actually. The greatest worship leader who was ever created, became so conceited that he began to literally believe it was all about him. He knew he was created to reflect God’s glory. That was his sole mission, and was told that by God Himself, and yet he felt such a pride that it set in motion an epic story that is still coming to fruition. I am referring to Lucifer. The sin that got him cast out of heaven was self generated pride. In fact, there wasn’t sin before he became so enthralled with how good he looked and how smart he was. He started elevating himself into a position that did not belong to him, and was subsequently thrown out of heaven. Lucifer was created to be the best worship leader, but so was another in scripture, John the Baptist. John was filled with the Holy Spirit before he was even born, he was created and called to prepare the way for Jesus (Lk 1:13-17). John (in my opinion) is the greatest example of what a true worship leader should be. Everything that John did pointed to Christ. When others elevated him, he corrected and pointed back to Christ. He had such a boldness to guide others to experience who Jesus was, but also humility that was quite evident when Jesus showed up to be baptized. (Matt. 3:11-17).

When you compare those two ‘worship leaders’ the difference can be boiled down to one thing. One of them elevated himself and the other lowered himself.

I’m not trying to call some worship leaders Satan! I am just reminding you that pride is a sin that spreads like cancer and effects more than just you! So this begs the question, how do tow that line? How do you play well, lead a talented team and still lead authentically? I think there are a couple of ideas but first and foremost; it all comes back to Him.

  1. Him not you. When a leader or band on stage does not consistently remind the congregation why people are singing, what people are singing and why there are lights, cameras, ect, it becomes a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. You end up elevating the band and not Christ. Consistently and constantly reminding your people that this worship is for God; to honor, to celebrate, to exalt Him, will help put the emphasis back where it needs to be.
  2. PRAY! Spending time in prayer with the band, praying for the people of the church, or even other churches should be key for you and your team. You need to love the people of your church more than the music.
  3. Get out of the ‘green room.’ Staying in the back room, hanging out on the couch and staying separate from the congregation is easy to justify, but will eventually become a hindrance to the worship experience for the very people you are trying to lead. You will begin to be looked at as separate and more of a ‘rockstar’ than a pastor.  Use your green room as a place to bless and encourage your team, don’t use it to get out of interacting with the people you lead in worship.

This all sounds basic, but we as worship leaders need to be reminded it is about the Church and not just our music. This is not an excuse so you can slack off and not put in effort, push for excellence always, but it is a reminder to not put music above the people we are called to minister to. Don’t elevate yourself to be above serving, swallow your pride, love the people in your church, and lead them not just from the stage on Sunday but throughout your week as well.

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