Monday, January 15, 2007

performing worship

The church I lead worship in here is relatively performance-based worship. It’s in an old theatre, and the band has several professional musicians in it (and they let me play too, oddly…). This means that the band rocks, and enables us to have high-quality worship and do some cool things with a public-ish space, but it also means it’s hard for worship to not feel like a concert or performance. It’s one of the things I accepted when I started being involved here because no church will ever be perfect.

Having some experience as a worship leader, I know it is important to act as an example – to lead through the way you use your facial expression and body to show the congregation that it’s ok for them to participate too. I often make an effort to model the emotions present in the song we are singing, to reinforce the meaning for the congregation, and because it is more meaningful to me if I put that kind of thought into it. People have told me before that they appreciate this, which makes me feel good, of course. One person phrased it this way to me this Sunday “she is so spiritual. More spiritual than me.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that. Because the truth is, I’m probably NOT more spiritual. I’m sincere, and I’m reliable, and I’m gentle, but I don’t think of myself as spiritual. I forget to pray, I don’t listen very well, and sometimes when I’m leading worship I’m thinking about hitting the right note or when does the harmony come in. And I’m ok with that, but I don’t want other people to think that I am somehow superior to them. I’m a worship leader because I am talented and passionate, but not because I’m spiritually superior.

Perhaps this particularly bothered me this Sunday because I was performing more than I usually do. We sang “My Glorious” which any former WA knows* has some lyrical/theological problems. For one thing, it’s hard to pin down any kind of meaning to it. But I’m particularly bothered by “the world we’ll leave” because this kind of language makes it seem like the New Jerusalem is someplace else – this earth is temporary and evil. It leads to a flippant attitude toward the material trials of others and toward caring for the earth, and I find this deeply problematic. Anyway, I don’t like this song, one part I disagree with. So I faked it. Which was, I think, the right decision in the context. But now I wonder if my inauthenticity is problematic, because others see me as an example, and because they believe better than the truth about me.

I know that in many ways all of life we perform the person that we want to be – identity is constructed, so if you behave a certain way regularly you become that way. I believe in a sacramental view of worship that says participation in the prayers of the people matters no matter how you feel about it in that moment. But I also don’t want to deceive the people of God. I know there are other worship leaders and pastors who read this blog. Is this tension a problem for you? What do you do about it?

* as many of you know, I spent a year as a student worship apprentice at Calvin College. Problematic worship songs - and this one in particular - was one of the things we discussed in our training.


Katherine said...

This is a wonderful post, Bethany. I have struggled with how different my experience of worship is as a leader. I don't pick all of our music, and so sometimes we sing hymns that are theologically untenable, yet there they are. For the most part, the elements of worship I bring- prayers, the sermon, etc., reflect a theology and language that resonates with my own sense of God and sacred speech. But then I also sometimes use language for God- quite intentionally- that is NOT what I would personally choose. I know that "God the Father" is a name that is deeply meaningful to many of the members of my congregation, and so I use that as a way of honoring their spirituality. At the same time, I do protect some of my most intimate language for God. I think the worship leader/pastor is in danger of becoming sort of "professionally religious." I want to cultivate a personal devotional life (or piety, which is a wonderful yet maligned word) that is not directed related to my professional role. So the likelihood of me using my most personal imagery of God (Grandmother) in a sermon or prayer meant for the community is nil. Not only would it probably freak people out, it would freak me out.

I don't think this is exactly what you're talking about, but this is what your thoughts evoked for me.

My worship professor also had a background in theater. He readily acknowledged the drama of worship, but challenged us to celebrate worship as sacred theater. Elements of worship leadership require the same sort of presence and attention as acting. I don't think it's necessarily "faking it"; your decision to embody the song- even though it didn't resonate personally- was, like you said, appropriate for the context. Obviously we don't want to be put in that situation all the time, but when it does happen (and it happens to me as well, as I don't select all of our music), I suppose the best course of action is to honor the context but also be honest with yourself, as you're being. I might even bring it up to the worship leader or pastor whose selecting the music, because your insights might lead to some important discussion and real growth in the congregation.

And now I've got to get back to work!!

Morgan said...

Well I'm not sure if you and I have chatted about this or not, but I can certainly relate to just about everything you say. And in regards to the song you don't really like, the handy thing about being the person who picks out the music is that you can say "no, I don't want to do that song." In my time at Centrepointe, I typically didn't do songs that I would have to fake, which helps get around that.

Rachel said...

As a lay worshipper/theology nerd, I really don't see what we have to gain by not being honest in our worship. I have some experience with worship that is emotionally charged and yet still not authentic, and I kind of resent the worship leaders that would exclaim after worship, "wow, God is SO awesome," like God was a supercharged emotional high. But there are lots of soapboxes lurking under this comment, so we'll just leave it at that. :)

bethany said...

Rachel, I agree that faky out-of-hand emotions are off-putting. I suppose the difference is that I don't EVER feel the way those leaders appear to. What about when you're just feeling cranky but the song is about feeling thankful for God's love? I don't think the congregation needs to know that I had a bad week and also hate this song when they might actually be thankful for God's love. I feel like these are two different problems. What do you think?

Rachel said...

Oh, I certainly do think those are two seperate sets of problems. I've solved them for myself by attending a church where there aren't worship leaders at all (besides the piano player), at least during the singing parts. I love that everybody is singing the same songs and reading the same confessions out of the liturgy, but we're all coming at them from different moods, convictions, and experiences. I feel quite free to draw my own conclusions based on where the Holy Spirit is leading me, without feeling like there is some way that I should be feeling.

But that doesn't really answer your question. Under the circumstances, it sounds like "faking it" was the most charitable and least distracting thing for you to do during the service. But I think if you are consistantly singing songs you have a theological problem with and smiling away the whole time, you're not really being honest with the worship team or the congregation. And what if someone in the congregation was thinking, "man, I HATE this song?" and they saw the worship leaders looking alll worshippy and then they thought, "Wow, I must really be a chump for hating this song?" ;)

bethany said...

Rachel - good point. I agree that if this was a problem I faced on a weekly or even monthly basis I should probably express my concerns or look elsewhere. Fortunately that's not the case.

I've never thought about how leader-less worship makes the texts of the liturgy more open, as each congregant interprets it, but I think you're right. thanks.