In Defense of Performance

Today’s guest blogger is my husband, Jonathon. He addresses the concern about worship vs. performance in the church service. Enjoy!

I have seen a lot of articles on Facebook and elsewhere lately that try to parse the difference between ‘performance’ and ‘worship’. They state that the Christmas and Easter services should be much like their normal weekly counterparts in an attempt to avoid a sense of performance and focus all energies on worshiping Christ. They seem to pit the ‘production value’ of lights, sound systems, video production and multiple practices against ‘true worship’. They tend to advocate for us modern-day Christians to eschew the performance (or entertainment) and get back to true worship of the living God.
This past Easter weekend (2015), I spent 8 straight days volunteering at my church to set up for the Easter Production. I took 3 days off of work to cover it.
  • Ash Wednesday I drove to the closest major city to pick up rented sound gear.
  • Maundy Thursday I set up the rental gear in the sanctuary, as well as re-configured all the audio gear and instruments to make a space for the acting happening on stage….and picking up props…and building the back curtains…and typing and printing a 14 page cue list for multiple sound, light and video techs…and a 3 hour night rehearsal…and 30 minutes for dinner.
  • Good Friday was a day of rest….2 hours finishing set-up and a 3 hour night rehearsal.
  • Saturday I took another 2 hours fixing things and making the final prep for Easter Sunday.
  • Sunday call time was 7:30 a.m. and 2 performances (9 and 10:30), ending around 1 p.m.
  • Monday I returned all the rented gear back to the major city.
  • Tuesday saw me breaking down and reconfiguring the instruments on the stage.
  • Wednesday I cleaned the stage, reconfiguring the lights back to the regular services setting.
Eight days and 50+ hours of work for an Easter performance…and I loved every minute of it!
I believe every minute of work that I put into the production was part of my worship to my God. I want to be excellent in all the He gives me to do. I use my hands to honor Him. I use my feet to honor Him. I use my voice to honor Him. I will use every talent and ability available to me (and some I have not yet developed) in worship to the One who is worth of the best I have to bring.
So…excuse me for being a little defensive and cranky when I read that performance has no part in ‘true’ (or ‘pure’, as one article put it) worship to our God. I simply cannot disagree more. I thought it high time someone stood up for ‘performance’ in church.
I have a college degree in Music and am a classically trained vocalist. I attended both secular and Christian colleges to obtain my music degree, and at both types of universities, the music department was part of the college of fine and performing arts. Note that second descriptor: “performing” arts. Music is an art form that must be performed. Assuming the articles I disagree with mean the music portion of the service when they talk about worship (which is not a true association, but that’s another blog), then there’s no way that the music part of the service can be devoid of ‘performance’ unless your entire service is devoid of music. Singing “Heart of Worship” acapella is still music, and therefore ‘performance’, no matter how poorly sung.
I was a vocal major in college, so after I learned the notes and the correct pronunciation of the language (which is only the beginning of good music, not the end), I focused on performance techniques, such as:
  • Vocal inflection
  • Body Movement for emphasis
  • Facial expression for connection to audience
  • Vowel Modification for clear diction in extreme registers
  • Diction/articulation – for understandable words
  • Resonance – to carry the pitch further
  • Vowel Placement – for tone changes based on the song type
All of these aptitudes make for a better experience for the attentive audience and an easier and better performance for the artist. These performance techniques make high songs more manageable, difficult lyrical passages easier, fast-paced songs more understandable and a host of other benefits – but these are all techniques I learned to help in the ‘performance’.
In addition to my musical studies, I was blessed to study acting, psychology, education and marketing. I finished with a PhD in Education (in case you were wondering), but through my studies of other arts and sciences, I have learned more performance techniques, including:
  • Color theory in psychology and marketing (affecting mood of music/worship and extending the feeling of the song)
  • Lighting techniques (to guide attention of the audience/congregation)
  • Set building and set design techniques
  • Drama production and direction techniques (including a stint as a drama teacher)
  • Sound reinforcement techniques for live production…and many more
All of these count as performance techniques. I’m told to put all of this away so that I can get back to ‘true worship’, as if Jesus doesn’t want me to use what I’ve gleaned over the years in an effort to ‘only worship Him’. He gives us gifts and abilities. Using them to His glory is worship. Hiding them is the opposite of worship (see Matthew 25:14-30).
Some would say that the lights, multiple practices and scripted cues would lead to focus on worshiping ourselves and our abilities instead of God. I  concede that it can. In that concession, though, I would ask for a concession from you, dear reader. I would ask you to concede that having no lights and no ‘performance’ can just as easily lead to an attitude of ‘look at me worshiping the right way’…and then what?
See…the trouble has never been the talents, but the heart. It’s not ‘performance’ but what/whom you are performing for. Judging the heart by the ‘performance’ is just as evil as performing for our own glory, isn’t it? We are constantly told not to judge people by their outward appearance but that God looks at the heart. Yet we see one ‘high production’ number and think that everyone involved must be in it for themselves.
We should run away from performance that puts the focus on the performers. However, an intimate, acoustic set that worships its own simplicity should be shunned as well. Both could be equally effective in leading people to worship Jesus ‘in spirit and in truth’, but both could be equally damaging to a congregation when the focus is wrong.
So…how about we stop this fighting and complaining about the church shying away from performance and get back to ‘true’ or ‘pure’ worship? How about we discover what God wants from us and what our congregation needs from us worship leaders, and do it? Let’s serve our congregations, our pastors and our God the way they need us to. Stop telling us we’re doing it wrong because we utilize the different gifts our body has. Stop giving performance a bad rap.
I have always said that when I get to Heaven, I can’t wait for the wedding feast of the Lamb. I don’t want a place at the table though, I want to be the entertainment. That’s gonna be a party like we have never seen before, and I am gonna put on a show! He deserves nothing less.
Dr. Jonathon Isham
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