Creative Leadership

Worship Versus Performance

I’ve had some interesting discussions lately about the difference between worship and performance. It started lately when I visited a number of churches with both a “traditional” service and a “contemporary” service – which made for an interesting  comparison between services. Honestly, I enjoy both. Having grown up in a traditional church in the South, I know every hymn in the book and love a good traditional worship service. But I’m also a rock music fan and love contemporary music.

Darlene and Mark Zschech are great friends, and good, contemporary worship music is great. I’m the Executive Producer of the concert feature film “Let Hope Rise” about worship band Hillsong United.  But I noticed one interesting thing:  In a traditional service, everyone knows the hymns and sings along. But in most contemporary services, I’m finding very few people in the congregation participate.

So what happened to the “worship” part? I’m finding in more and more contemporary churches – the worship aspect of the service has become a performance. Excellent music and musicians to be sure, but the audience isn’t participating at all.

Is anyone else noticing? Rather than being invited into the worship experience, the music leaders are just performing and there’s something important being lost. After all, we can attend a concert anywhere, but in my experience the point of the music service is to invite the participation of the congregation. Making it a “corporate” experience is what makes it unique.

Anyone have any thoughts on that?

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  1. Great thought.  i wonder how much previous experience, age, culture and geographic region play a role.  Might be preference rather than some spiritual defecit.


  2. If I go to the denomination (Methodist) I grew up in and attend one of their contemporary services, I find little congreational participation.  The same for our local Community church (noncharismatic)…minimal participation.  But if I go to my local A/G church, VCC in Tulsa, or Hillsong Australia, I get something totally different…mega congregation/audience participation.  I think it stems from the history/roots of the church, as well as the pastor's background and the leadership of the worship team and their ability to "lead the people into active worship."

  3. I don't think it has to be an either/or. I've experienced contemporary worship music that pulls in the participation of the congregation. I've also sat back, listened to a vocalist and band deliver a performance song, and it has ushered me into the presence of God.

  4. I have attended many church services here in Texas and I have to tell you, there is a LOT of participation during contemporary services. C'mon down for a visit- we'll be glad to show you.

  5. I’ve noticed this at my church. I think the problem is that there are too many new worship songs. It’s hard to worship when I have to read every word from the screen. Eventually I learn the new songs (and maybe even get so into them that I buy the CDs) but by then the church has often moved onto even newer songs. I’ve noticed that when the worship band does play an older song that everyone knows and loves all of a sudden everyone starts worshiping!

  6. At the church I used to attend in Oxford, the worship leader always actively taught the congregation any new songs that cropped up. That way everyone participated and got into it very quickly. Every church I’ve been in since doesn’t bother to teach the congregation new songs, it just assumes they know them from listening to CDs, etc.

  7. Our church worship leader has a hard and fast rule dictated to him by the pastor, and that is, if he is to introduce a new song, he is not to do it as the first or last song, and he is to do the song for a few weeks in a row. Our repertoire is HUGE (trust me, I'm one of the bass players, and I've forgotten more songs that some churches do in six months!), but slowly working a song in helps the congregation connect. Very few songs connect on the first go-round.

    I think a larger issue at play here is the fact that most new "worship" music is nothing more than songs about singing about God, rather songs sung to God. When we do one of the former, I notice far lass participation than then we do the latter. The next time you're at a service or worship event, notice how many of the songs' lyrics don't really worship God.

    Just my two cents… 

  8. Too often friends come to church and leave confused or intimidated.  Not by the sermon, but by the experience.  They feel like they've visited a "club" that they don't know the password for.  Same can be said for the worship experience.  In our church there are plenty of people who are very involved in worship.  THey're into it.  They get it.  But just as many look like a deer caught in headlights.  We assume far too much as leaders.  And that goes just as much for the leaders in the PEWS as on stage.  While an "awareness" of audience is vital for worship leaders, it's just as vital for leaders in the crowd.  Look around, have your radar up.  Who's new…how many people really understand what is happening?  Provide that feedback to the leadership on stage.  Engage them in your observations.  

  9. Most churches are creating a contemporary service because they think they will reach more people, but often it is the traditional crowd migrating to the contemporary service because they prefer to "hear" the new songs.  I think that is why churches that have always been about participation get participation and those that create a new "contemporary" service don't.

  10. Cool observation. When you create environment where people can participate and not spectate it will creater growth and yield from the people – Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize what I am saying. When you meet, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in an unknown language, while another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must be useful to all and build them up in the Lord…But be sure that everything is done properly and in order.

  11. Spectacle is a good word for this.

     When I was in Vegas for the 1st time for NAB the other week, I wanted to see the spectacle of the strip. I did not participate in most of what Vegas has to offer,but it was an interesting experience. I don't wish to go back. But, if I do, I will see parts of the strip I missed this time around.

     I wonder how many people come and see the spectacle, but don't really care to come back. I have been in too many services that were all about who was singing, and not about who was being worshipped.

     When a worship leader/team has sought the Spirit in planning, is responsive to Him while leading, and has prepared well, the service becomes less show and more worship. 

  12. The first time I was ever in a contemporary/charismatic service I probably had that "deer in the headlights" look.  But I visited this church because I had heard from some friends about it and I was "hungry for God" in my life.  The more I observed and the more I desired to know God in a more intimate way…the more I learned from those sincere worshippers how to enter in and experience what they were.  I am thankful they did not "tone it down" because I was visiting or new to this type of worship.  I could see they really loved God and were seeking Him with all their hearts.  And as Breaklight said in quoting the Epistles, "One has a song, a psalm, a word….and God brings it all together for His glory."  Through true worship, whether in quiet solemn reverance of His presence or waving arms with uttterances from the depths of one's heart, God manifests Himself and we come to know that He is the "I AM."

  13. Joanna…THAT is what I'm talking about.  Educating/explaining what is happening both on and off stage in a very relevant manner.  If you can do it in a football stadium…you can do it here…and here's why.  Simple.  Relatable.  I WANT SOME OF THAT ENERGY is what I'd be thinking….



  14. I'm not suggesting any church "tone it down" as a result of folks giving them that "deer in headlights" look.  I AM, however, suggesting that a church be AWARE of it…and find ways to make those understand what their worship experience is about…rather than taking weeks to get comfortable with it.  With many, it's a one-shot deal.  You are the exception by sticking around and trying to make sense of it.  I applaud your hunger…I'm just suggesting we do our part as the church to help educate and not ignore/assume.

  15. I think it has nothing to do with the music style or with knowing the songs or not knowing the songs. Excellence is important and it seems to me that churches forget that because they hide behind the Holy Spirit. We don't do things as the world does but sadly the world does thing with far more excellence. 

    If contemporary music is all about performance thats sad but if they are trying to be excellent and therefore it may seem it is all about performance that's not bad. 

     Look at this clip

    It's what happened during transition a couple weekends ago at a very contemporary church in Las Vegas. You can have both contemporary music and corporate worship.

  16. The more contemporary services I've been in, I haven't noticed lower participation.  Maybe that says something about my church however and I certainly haven't seen a lot of others to be able to generalize.

    I wonder if the more contemporary services where this is the case has a higher percentage of previously unchurched people who aren't as familiar and comfortable with corporate worship and it has more to do with the seeker sensitive mode attracting those people who just don't know what to do?

    To put it in another context, if you have a traditional liturgical church which goes through the rituals of genuflecting, kneeling, crossing and repeating liturgical phrases and you have one congregation who grew up with it and another one of new people, who simply stand still or sit because they aren't familiar and comfortable, would you conclude that those unfamiliar people are somehow less spiritual or trying to make a statement by their passivity?

    Just a thought as to what else might be at work. 

  17. Having grown up in the traditional worship service with the piano on one side of the platform and the Hammond organ on the other, and the combination of the two managing to turn every song into a funeral dirge, I have really enjoyed where worship has gone to in such a short time. And it did so very rapidly if you think about it.

    But recently I've begun to think that what we've made worship into sometimes becomes a distraction from connecting with God. There is so much happening on the platform now, and with the power point presentation with the lyrics, it's easy to be distracted from what we came to do. So do we go back to piano and organ music? No, I would guess that those days came and went, but somewhere we need to learn to connect with the Holy Spirit in the midst of all that's going on.

    Maybe we also need to give people room to worship as they choose to, and realize that someone can be sitting in their seat, and not even singing but doing so because they have connected with the presence of God and they are just sitting quietly enjoying Him. It may not look good on our video as we pan the audience, but worship was never meant to be a spectacle or a spectator sport. Sometimes we put pressure on people to respond, and if the crowd is not jumping up and down together or doing the Tulsa two step in what passes for unison, it's not worship. But what we are really doing is calling it worship based on what we can see with our eyes, and real worship probably goes deeper than that, and may occur even if we're not following the pleas of the worship leader to move around. But this is relatively new territory for the church, with new music and expressions of worship, and the Holy Spirit who led us here will get us where He wants us to go. With His help, we'll figure it out.

  18. A while back I attended a yuppie charismatic church in Southern California.  The worship music was terrible, I think, because of the digital instruments and drums.  This, despite the fact that the pastor's wife, who lead the worship team, had a very strong connection with God.  But the ushers had secret service type earphones and microphones at their shirt sleeves, so it was kind of controlling there.  Well, suddenly the power went out!  And the worship team had to sing a cappella!  And God's presence CAME BIG TIME…. until the secret service team… oops, I mean ushers, rolled out an orange power cord down the front aisle and restored the power and removed the God presence.  Everyone appeared quite happy to ignore the message God provided because, you know, it isn't God when things like that happen… that's unreal, you know.  God wouldn't do that, would He?  We're supposed to ignore such.


    I oversee the 3 youth worship bands at our church, and I'm always getting on them for "shooting themselves in the foot" with their song selection.  I try to remind them what it's like when you go somewhere and the whole service you're trying to learn the new songs!  

    We try to shoot for the balance of always having fresh music that resounds with what God's doing in the season (having a fresh song to sing soooo helps people "lock-in" to what God's doing in their lives) but never pulling so many unknown songs that the songs steal the focus from God.

    Have you heard anything from the House of Prayer people?  They're doing a new kind of songs that consist of multiple short sections that are easy to pick up right away.  It's really unusual and I like a lot about it.

    Misty Edwards – is my favorite of them.

  20. Something that can get lost in this important discussion is singing. I sometimes hear worship leaders talking about how many hands were raised, eyes closed, etc., which can show engagement in a beautiful way, but by far the strongest biblical command when it comes to music is to sing! Are the people of God singing out in worship? Are we helping them to do so? It is not the only thing, but it is important. Like the Christian faith, singing in itself is counter-cultural. I remember as a child hearing my parents and everyone around me belting out the national anthem at sporting events. Now the anthem is usually ‘performed’ for the audience, something we watch rather than participate in. This is just one example of a modern expectation that can follow us to church. If we go with the cultural flow, a few sing, most observe. Worship is of course a matter of the heart first, and regardless of where we land on the traditional to modern continuum, corporate worship also includes the proclamation of the Word, offering, prayer, communion and other elements (it’s not just about the music). But when it comes to music, we who lead have to give attention to all of the musical variables in helping people participate – key, dynamics, the balance of new and familiar, how we introduce a new song, instrumental ebb and flow within a set, mix, volume (can I hear myself and others?), to name a few. It is worth the work. What can compare to being in the midst of a congregation that is singing their hearts out!?

    1. Brilliant comment Tim. I absolutely agree. Two things people don’t do anymore: 1) Sing 2) Learn to play a musical instrument. I think something important has been lost in the culture when we stop participating and expect to be entertained. Thanks for posting!

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