Should leading worship through music be called “performing”?
TFWM rounded up various musicians and worship leaders to discuss this as well as other important issues.
Aaron Pratt has been actively engaged in music worship as a director and accompanist for over twenty years. During that time he has also served many years as a missionary, a financial clerk, and executive secretary in his congregation. His wife is also a church musician and an accomplished vocalist. They have seven children they are raising to the Lord. email@example.com
John is the Lead Pastor/Catalyst of Mosaic in Healdsburg California. He teaches at conferences nationwide on the topics of leadership, music and multi-media communication. firstname.lastname@example.org
Loren H. Griffin
Loren is an instructor at the Recording Institute of Detroit, Lead Audio Tech and Worship Team guitar player at The Rock Community Church, Audio Seminar Instructor, Guitar Player for the band Reign Tribe, and IT Specialist. email@example.com
Holland Davis is an assistant pastor, worship leader and writer of the popular worship song, Let It Rise. He serves at Ocean Hills Church in San Juan Capistrano where they host the annual Worship Life Conference. firstname.lastname@example.org
You may have heard her voice on the airwaves singing, “I’m lovin’ it” for a McDonald’s jingle, and she has had several of her original songs on numerous episodes of NBC reality shows during prime time TV. Brenda Harp toured with Richie Furay, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, as a vocalist/keyboardist in his band. Harp performed at venues such as Red Rocks Amphitheatre, The Troubadour, Humphrey’s and The Soiled Dove. Brenda also had the opportunity to open for Phil Keaggy, Richie Furay, and Emily Lou Harris.
Jonathan Allen is the Worship Pastor for Grace Chapel in Franklin Tennessee. His wife Allison just wrote a critically acclaimed play on the life of Mary Magdalene called Magdalena. Michael MacDonald is in his worship team.
Several years after Rick’s commitment to Christ, he felt led to commit his music to ministry. Eventually, he would release 11 albums, with six #1 songs and nine Top 5 hits, and a Dove Award nomination. He has performed across the United States and around the world for the better part of his life. Rick’s 12th and newest CD, “Won’t Fade Away”, celebrates 25 years of music ministry: 1982 – 2007.
TFWM: Do you incorporate main-stream secular music into your services? What impact do you feel this has on the congregation?
Aaron Pratt: My congregation does not incorporate main-stream secular music into our services. While I have respect for churches that have chosen a more energetic approach, our church engages in a conservative form of worship designed to encourage reverence and peace. We use auxiliary programs during the week to meet the activity needs of the youth, and try to work in opportunities to teach them how to enjoy a manner of Sunday worship that other youth might find boring – but can give them a better chance to mature through introspection and thoughtful prayer. It is a challenging approach, but it has been very successful for us as a church with our youth.
John Chevalier: Yes, we do on a regular basis; however we don’t just do it to be labeled as edgy or creative. It’s important to note that we don’t call it “secular music” either; we refer to it as “music from the culture”. I think we can learn a lot about the world that we are trying to reach if we listen; and music is one of the primary ways that our culture communicates. The impact this has is varied. The younger crowd and those who have not made a commitment to Jesus yet love the fact that we are “speaking their language” and that they can relate to the message. Those who lean toward traditional values tend to get offended. Although that’s not our intent, if we have to offend twenty Christians to introduce one person to Jesus, people are going to be offended.
Loren Griffin: Yes we do typically when appropriate as part of multimedia presentation. The band also performs secular music. I think it goes a long way in reaching people in a relevant manner. Music many times is an expression of a generation or group. To reach that group we need to be able to listen to them and then speak their language.
Holland Davis: We do not include mainstream secular music into our services. However, we do present our worship music in a style that is consistent with what folks would listen to on the radio. This is not because we are strategically trying to “reach” people, but we believe that God blesses us being ourselves and we love to rock. The congregation relates well to what we’re doing in worship.
Brenda Harp: Yes, when a song seems to be appropriate according to the topic, then I feel this can be quite effective in reaching the hearts of people. If they’re hearing something that is already familiar then I feel it prepares a wider audience for the message. Some may have a problem with the idea of secular music, but most of the time I’ve found that it’s understood our mission is to reach the lost and often times using music that is already familiar is most effective.
Jonathan Allen: We have, at times, used mainstream songs in our service if it helps to make a point or serves to inspire the congregation. I like the idea of someone hearing a song such as “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty or the theme for “Cheers” and think about what they experienced at church on Sunday.
Rick Cua: It would depend on the focus of the church. If your mission is more of a seeker congregation then this is an obvious yes. Generally speaking I am never opposed to secular music as long as there is a purpose for it, i.e., the lyrics speak to the pastor’s topic. When you incorporate a secular song you have the added benefit of two things, 1) it’s probably a hit song and most will know it, 2) the congregation will relate to you on a human level. The potential downside is from legalists who will not like it… but then again there’s probably not much they like anyway.
TFWM: What technical equipment have you incorporated into your music that you feel has truly helped improve your live delivery?
Pratt: We have a good sound reinforcement system, and we have the ability to project video onto a large display or record services when appropriate. But I think my favorite piece of equipment is the Rodgers Organ we had installed when we built our new chapel five years ago. It is a technological marvel, and it helps us achieve the kind of sound that you would expect in a much larger, more expensive facility.
Chevalier: Wireless! I lead worship on guitar, and not having to remain behind a microphone stand or be tethered to the platform makes all the difference in the world. I have chosen units with multiple frequency settings so that when I travel I don’t conflict with the house systems where I am ministering. The less I have between the people and I, the better. I have the freedom to interact with vocalists, band members and the congregation up close and personal, as is appropriate. Being able to turn around and meet eyes with the team and continue to sing helps us to stay together as we lead worship. In this case the addition of technology frees us from being tied to technology.
Griffin: We use the typical P.A. system, computer based presentation software, and projection. Also we have a committed, continually learning tech team (the most valuable of all things).
Davis: The greatest addition has been the Aviom in-ear monitoring system. That has greatly improved our performance on many levels. (1) We can keep the volume at a manageable level. (2) The musicians can hear what they need to hear to “feel” the music. (3) The musicians can actually hear the other musicians and change their parts to fit better together. Another addition has been to add a plasma screen that displays what is being displayed to the congregation. That way, we can eliminate music stands and the singers can see the lyrics on the plasma. We have recently mounted the plasmas on the back wall so the singers will always have their heads lifted, which makes a good presentation to the congregation. It also keeps us in the loop to make sure the congregation is seeing what they are supposed to be seeing. We use technology differently depending on the type of service. We have a midweek service called “24 Seven” where we take a news-based approach to communicating the timeless truths of scripture. Our theme verse is Jeremiah 24:7 which speaks of developing a heart to know God. We have a news desk with a plasma screen that we use to show news clips, man on the street interviews, video short stories that we produce in-house… all developed around the theme of the passage of scripture we are studying. We also use video vignettes to set up the message. Some we get from Sermonspice.com, some from bluefish.com and some we produce in-house.
Allen: In-ear monitors have made a huge difference for me as a singer and for our team in general. My pitch is better, we are tighter as a band, and our congregation and tech team appreciate the lower stage volume. The benefits have definitely outweighed the challenges that in-ears might present.
Cua: A great display program such as Media Shout and other visual aids. A great monitoring system is critical – Aviom personal mixers… Shure in-ear monitors.
TFWM: What do you feel is the best cure for anxiety prior to a service or event?
Pratt: I only feel anxiety when I am unprepared. Preparation includes ensuring that every element that I have control over is devoted to worshiping God, and then dedicating our efforts to the Lord in prayer.
Chevalier: Knowing what we are doing and why we are there. A well-prepared team is rarely nervous before an event. It’s easy for me to instill confidence in my team and they seem ready to go on a regular basis. If I’m completely honest though, I don’t get anxious because of crowds, lack of talent or preparation; my anxiety comes from trying to fathom the size of the task. Keeping my spiritual life and relationship with God in a healthy place is hard at times; not out of a lack of desire, but due to the circumstances of life. I pray regularly that I can see past my shortcomings and just look to God as my Father. I am totally honored as a dad when I know my kids are trying to please me. Knowing that our heavenly father loves us so much more helps relieve any anxiety that I may have.
Griffin: Beside the obvious answer being prayer, laughter. Expose the feeling and find a way to laugh about it, and rejoice in the God-given gift of Joy.
Davis: The best cure is prayer. Prayer refocuses our attention off of ourselves and onto Christ. The second best cure is preparation. The more I prepare personally before a service, the less anxiety I feel coming into the performance.
Harp: This is an easy one for me. As a young person I was so shy and afraid to perform in front of even my own family. As I’ve grown, especially in the Lord, I find that it’s really about the audience of One. While I am singing and playing I imagine that I am worshiping at the feet of Jesus. Colossians 3:17.
Allen: Preparation and Prayer. If you know what you are doing as a leader, player, or singer, and you have committed what you are doing to the Lord, then you can be free from anxiety. I find great freedom in remembering that the outcome of a services isn’t my responsibility, it’s God’s. If the anxiety is based on being in front of people then just remember that our job is to be invisible and point people to God.
Cua: Prayer and the realization that there is only one person at a time looking at you. And the knowledge that you are well prepared, you are doing this for God and He is with you. And lastly know that you are not the only one that’s anxious, it’s probably everyone in different degrees.
TFWM: What is the best way to approach a member of the band that is falling short due to lack of commitment? (Badly executed notes, forgotten chords or lyrics, bad attitude, not showing up for rehearsals…)
Pratt: We never turn anyone away. We adapt our program to benefit all individuals, regardless of what kind of resource they can contribute in terms of time and effort. For example, our choir chooses a repertoire that is appropriate to the lowest technical capacity in the group – music does not have to be complex to be beautiful. We then extend personal invitations to the more technically capable members to participate in special musical numbers that will be appropriate to their abilities. None of our groups have any sort of permanency to them – and that allows people to come and go as their schedules allow, and gives new members the chance to become a part of it. We never want anyone to feel like the music is controlled by a clique, or that it is a closed group.
Chevalier: I do not walk on eggshells. I ask them to hang after rehearsal or we set up a time to connect. I do this personally, not in front of the team. First of all we have a pretty good screening process so that we don’t bring people with low commitment on the team in the first place. So, for us, this would have to be a “change” in someone’s behavior. Rarely does this take place for no reason, and rarely is it a character issue. Most of the time it’s a personal issue or problem that the individual is going through. I have found that approaching a team member, in humility, and sincerely caring about the individual goes a long way in solving the problem. People come first. If you love your people, these become healthy/healing times and not confrontations.
Griffin: Grace. We have all been there. Most musicians know when they mess up, and with encouragement they will strive to do better. If there is arrogance or a blaming of others, then there is another underlying issue that issue needs to be resolved. That is where pastoral discipleship comes into play. The musicians are people too, and many times don’t have all their hurt, habits, and hang ups worked out. They need as much and (sorry to say, I am a musician so I know) sometimes more, grace.
Davis: I believe that we’re called as ministers and leaders to serve, equip and train disciples to follow Jesus. My first tact is to serve my team. To give them everything they need to succeed. When it comes to arrangements, song selection, and musical direction, I begin choosing a course of action that puts the team in the best possible light. My next tact is to equip. When I have a team member that isn’t up to the standard I’ve set for the teams, I do what I can to equip them. Sometimes that means giving them “homework.” I give them music to listen to; bands that reflect the sound I’m trying to achieve. I suggest seminars that they should go to. My final tact is to train. We have an ongoing attitude of growth and education. If someone isn’t up to par, then I help them see the need for training and guide them in that direction. I don’t like to close the door completely because often these folks come back better musicians, prepared to serve.
Harp: First, I would give the benefit of the doubt and ask if there’s something going on to cause this. If there’s a sudden change in someone then perhaps there’s something personal going on that hasn’t been shared. Who knows? Also, I would gently confront the person one on one and ask what could be done to help correct whatever the issue is. I would ask, “What do you think would help you?” I find if people feel a sense of control over their choices then they’re more likely to be active. If in time there is no sign of improvement, then perhaps it would be time to have the person take a break.
Allen: The best way to deal with any of those issues is to invest in an existing relationship that will allow you to challenge one another. If the person already knows that you love them, then you are free to deal with the issue without the conversation being perceived as a personal attack.
Cua: First of all you have to know him or her well enough that you have the “right” to approach them on a sensitive topic. Know your musicians, be genuinely interested in them and their families. Set some ground rules that are in place for everyone. Model what you expect from others. Confront in love, don’t let it turn into a battle. Say things like “it’s not fair to the team that most are giving their all to the group effort and you are not. Maybe they are too busy and over committed in the first place. Meet with them privately and let your first concern be for them and where they are at in life. We have a dual responsibility, first to accomplish the group goal and second to help people learn how to work as a team. Love will help you through this but don’t be afraid to confront the issues at hand.
TFWM: What do you feel is the most effective way to engage a congregation and help them to participate? (standing, clapping, singing along, etc.)
Pratt: I think the best first step is choosing or training a song leader (chorister) and accompanist with a strong sense of line and the ability to communicate it. When introductions are played strongly, appropriate tempos are carefully selected, and the music team is in tight lock step, the congregation tends to feel the Spirit of the music more and you get a stronger set of voices and music. Rhythm and phrasing, not harmony, is what gives life to the lyrics – and that is where the gospel teaching occurs. We will have the congregation stand from time to time for the rest hymn, but we try not to overuse it. We also take a minute sometimes in our other meetings, such as Sunday School, to teach the hymns better, including some background – history and meaning – that helps them to become engaged with the hymns.
Chevalier: Being real. Being a worshipper yourself. Treating people with respect. These are all keys to evoking participation. Standing, Clapping, Singing, Dancing, etc, are all outward signs of an inward desire to express worship to the Lord. I engage the people by greeting them and inviting them to sing, clap, and raise their hands. There is a high degree of hospitality in leading worship and we need to understand that. Many churches act as if we should be different people as soon as we walk into “God’s House”. We’ve made worship into a theological act that takes place once a week, instead of it being an outpouring of the love that we’ve experienced in walking with Jesus all week long. That’s how I engage the people. No commands, just an invitation to being in a safe place to express their love to God. My job is to help them express worship to God, not to coerce certain behaviors.
Griffin: First of all having a WORSHIPPING PASTOR, then making participation inviting, and then if necessary encouraging the congregation to join in on the fun of praising and loving God in and expressive manner. If it looks exciting and fun and there is a welcome to be part, people will typically participate.
Davis: I work hard to create a dialogue with the congregation. This happens over time. It usually takes me two years to develop a relationship where I can speak into their lives and guide the corporate culture of worship. After I’ve developed that relationship, I will bring in short encouragements that help them “discover” where the boundaries are. I don’t like to say – “Come on guys, you should be clapping.” I like to say “Isn’t our God good, look at all He’s done for us… let’s give him the honor that He deserves to have. “ By giving them permission and explaining the boundaries, it creates a culture where the congregation begins to move into a more expressive style of worship without me having to tell them what to do.
Harp: There are several effective ways and it’s probably good to mix it up. Usually I feel that getting people standing, which is at least some participation, is effective. Begin with a recognizable song and save something to teach for further down the line. Also, using humor always engages an audience.
Allen: People want to be led. I have learned this from my pastor, whom I’ve worked alongside for ten years. It’s not natural for me to “warm up a crowd” per se, but I have learned to articulate where we are going in a worship service. In the past, I knew where we were going, it just never occured to me to let the congregation in on the secret. The call to worship can take the form of scripture reading, prayer, and even asking the question, “Are you willing to worship?” So, I try to lay out a “verbal map” of sorts. Once people know where we are going and how we are getting there, our church is great about going on the journey.
Cua: Open with a song they all know and maybe a prayer that says “Lord, we recognize who you are and what you have done for us, we want to honor you this morning with everything we have giving you our very best in worship”…start an energetic song they all know after a prayer like that, and hopefully you’ll be on your way!
TFWM: What do you think of the words “entertainment” and/or “performance” when referring to communication through music in a house of worship?
Pratt: I think they belong outside of Sunday worship – they distract us from the purpose. I would hate to be guilty of making people worship me instead of their God. I know I can feel the difference between when I am showing off at the piano at home and when I am worshiping through my music at the organ at church, and I think most musicians understand the difference inherently. It’s easy to get carried away and want to demonstrate technical ability and musical passion. But the end effect is not as fulfilling as coming away from a service with the words to a hymn engrained in your mind because they brought special meaning to you that day. And it’s especially meaningful when you have helped another worshipper to tune their thoughts in to the Lord – it gives me great satisfaction to know that my music was the spiritual carrier for another person who doesn’t have the musical ability to bring about that level of devotion on their own.
Chevalier: I think the word “performance” has gotten a bad name in the church. Of course we perform. My goal is to perform in such a way that my ministry brings human beings face to face with God. I hope to hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant” when Jesus refers to my performance. I perform for the Lord and with the desire that those who view (or participate with) my performance can connect with the God of the Universe. I don’t use the word entertainment when it comes to ministry, however if people are entertained, there is generally something that resonates with their soul. If this is the case, that’s totally fine with me because then it’s not me that’s resonating with them, it’s the Lord Himself.
Griffin: When we divide secular and sacred, we create false dichotomies. It forces us spiritualize our activities as we carry them out in the church. To “entertain” means to show hospitality to (i.e. entertain guests) and to keep, hold, and maintain in the mind (i.e. entertain a deeper understanding of God’s love through that song). By giving definition to the words, what I would hope to do is bring us back to the simplicity of life, not to over spiritualize. All of life is spiritual, (Romans 12:1-2) so using words like “perform” and “entertain” isn’t bad, it simply communicates activity of a person or a group.
Davis: I want to be careful about the kind of language I use to describe what happens in church. Worship Leaders and musicians give musical performances every week. It is a descriptive term that fits what we do. The difference between the performance we do in church and the performance a musician does outside of church, is the audience. In the church we perform for an audience of one – the Lord Jesus Christ. Outside the church we perform for the crowd. When the worship begins to be centered around performing for the congregation, then we can lose sight of the purpose of our performance – to glorify the living God. Having said that, there is an entertainment reality as well for those who come and listen to us as musicians. If what we do doesn’t entertain or bring some benefit to the congregation, then we will be replaced by someone else who is more entertaining. Now I realize that many will be shocked by what I just said, but it’s the truth. In church lingo we call it principles of church growth, but in musical terms we call it entertainment value. That means we do need to be conscious that what we are doing is communicating the appropriate message and holding people’s attention in the process. I read somewhere once that the greatest crime of the church in the 21st century is that they would gather together and bore God with their worship.
Harp: Well, I think sometimes we get a little too caught up with semantics and we should focus more on the purpose which is to glorify the Lord in all we say and do. The Lord will use anything to draw people to Himself. There is a time and place for entertainment and performance and truly if the “performer” is worshiping the Lord then the audience will most likely worship as well. Worship is an attitude of the heart, which is then reflected through our actions. It seems that an audience can pick up on that difference – if someone is just entertaining or if they’re entertaining with a spirit of worship.
Allen: By their very definition, entertainment and performance can shift the focus from the Creator to the created. In our world of iTunes, iPhones, and Youtube, where most forms of media offer diversion as a treasured commodity, it’s good to come into a place where the focus isn’t ourselves. As worship leaders, we will all be faced with the temptation to subtly “flirt” with the Bride of Christ through performance, but I believe that if we will sing and lead for the pleasure of our God alone, He will keep us safe.
Cua: Well, as you know entertainment means capturing one’s attention for a purpose. That’s what we do in a service. That word doesn’t bother me but having said that, I try and avoid it because somehow it is likened more to secular “entertainment”. Performance is another tricky one. I would avoid that one too, not because I have a big problem with it, but if it weren’t a problem of some sort it wouldn’t have been a question. Let’s educate when we can but not let semantics get in the way of our ministry effort. We are still there for the people and we have to know what they can and can’t handle.
Performance and entertainment are the types of words that tend to come up a lot when referring to worship. As you can see from the varied responses in this discussion, they are terms that need to be thoroughly discussed by worship teams everywhere, to clarify the way everyone on the team feels about the overall vision. With more clarity through discussion and the exchange of ideas, the team will only gel further and communicate the message more effectively. We hope this discussion has been helpful! Thanks so much to Holland Davis for helping to pull these talented folks together. KRC