In a recent Church Leaders article, Jamie Brown fretted about the state of evangelical worship. He fears the “performancism” found in the modern worship culture will ultimately lead to a crash.
I actually agree with him on a number of his points, but the sad reality is that his greatest fears have come true.
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It’s too late.
I’m calling it.
Evangelical worship has crashed, and performancism is at fault.
Don’t believe me? Check out a few clips from some of the largest evangelical churches and networks.
Performance worship is now the norm. I fear this is the case with practically all evangelical megachurches and their emulating congregations, which now includes a growing number of desperate mainline congregations, as well. We also see it in the hip, edgy, urban emergent congregations that tout their return to liturgy, but still find themselves enslaved to commercial entertainment forms. Yes, performance worship has killed worship, and it’s done it in several key ways.
Performance worship substitutes entertainment for liturgy. Our new worship language even reflects it. We once had sanctuaries, but not we have “auditoriums.” We once had chancels, now we have “stages.” We once had altar guilds, now we have “weekend stage managers.” We once had a liturgy, now we have a “performance set” (some call this a “worship set” in an effort to maintain some decorum). We once had worship services, masses, liturgies, now we have “traditional” or “contemporary” worship, “modern” worship, worship “experiences.”
At the heart of these changes is a focus on customer service. We want to offer a performance product that will rival anything offered by mainstream commercial entertainment so that they will choose to park their butts in our seats.
Congregations built on entertainment, provided by a combination of rock musicians and celebrity pastors, to be blunt, are more orgasmic than organic. The slavish, masturbatory pursuit of the feeling itself inevitably leads to the worship of something other than Christ. It rejects the Christian story in favor of our own. It rejects true human connection in God’s church and replaces it with introspective preoccupation. It ends with the narcissistic worship of self. It can deliver a spark, yes, and it may get butts in the seats, but in the end, it leaves us wanting. The excitement over the bright shiny objects that attract masses today will eventually wane, and the church will have to offer something brighter and shinier to hold out hope for the future.
Oh, and when we’re successful at selling our worship product, we call that “evangelism.”
Performance worship substitutes music for worship. Music is the sacrament of the performance worship culture. Instead of gathering to tell the Christian story – our story – we gather to “worship” (sing along with a musical performance) and hear a sermon. We talk about “worship bands” and “worship leaders” and “worship time” before the speaker comes to deliver the message, we have lost sight of what constitutes an act of worship. Corporate prayer, creeds, confessions, have no place. No more gathering, proclaiming, thanksgiving, and sending out. Just music, sermon, more music.
Performance worship diminishes the congregation’s role. The congregation’s only job is to sing along, but performance worship doesn’t really require that, either. They use music crafted in the style of commercial performance genres, which doesn’t lend itself well to congregational singing. The band is amplified, and the worship leader and team sings into their mics as if they were giving a performance. The congregation’s voice is ancillary at best, and irrelevant at worst. Performance worship sends the message that there participation doesn’t matter, only their feelings of enjoyment matter.
Though the megachurches continue to grow at the expense of the local congregations, the cracks are showing. Worship attendance is declinining and not just among the oft-maligned mainline traditions. Older generations are (to put it mildly) aging out. Younger generations are growing up with no cultural/social use for the church. And what’s worse, they can sense the emptiness of the marketing scheme; the targeted attempts of performance worship culture to attract young people are offensive, and will continue to lose their effectiveness.
This should be welcome news to those congregations that continue on with their historically-rooted worship in the shadows of the mighty megachurches. Here are some words of encouragement, tempered with a few sentiments of caution, for those carrying on outside the performance worship culture.
Don’t expect crowds to suddenly burst through your doors. A few may, but the inevitable decline of the performance church won’t mean an influx back into the traditional church. Some may disagree, but I think this is a good thing. It means cultural Christianity is waning. It means the church will have the opportunity to refocus its mission, the culmination of its worship, into the surrounding community. And it means the church will rediscover its identity as an asylum, a safe place, a contrast to the ugly world around us.
Don’t be afraid to be small. Performance worship says that it’s successful because it gets butts in the seats. Performance worship hooks them in, but worship sends them out. Jesus himself chose twelve followers to work with him in changing the world. Worship feeds and sustains the church through Word and Sacrament, so that we can be sent out as Christ’s hands and feet into the world.
Don’t use music to attract a crowd, use it to express your faith. Proclamation is not only the pastor’s job. It belongs to all of us. Use music to deepen your sacred storytelling.
Don’t be afraid of the new. Performance worship culture has spread the lie that to be against them is to be against anything new. The Spirit still gifts men and women to strengthen the church through their creative talents, so choose from the best of current generations, and be sure to look outside the worship industry and performance culture.
Don’t be desperate. It’s easy to be overcome by delusions of grandeur, by attendance envy, by hunger for the fame, power, and prestige offered by the performance worship culture. Don’t be so desperate for the crowds that you compromise your liturgical identity.
Don’t be lukewarm. Performance culture what happens even in the most committed liturgical worship settings. The urge to loaf through Sunday after Sunday is stronger than ever. Don’t let that win. Pray, sing, listen, and serve with your whole hearts, your full attention, and your best efforts.
Don’t idolize your traditions. Tradition for the sake of tradition alone is toxic. Embrace the meaning behind the symbols, the liturgy, the sacraments. Allow the rituals (not a bad word, whatever anyone says) to anchor and center your lives around the gracious acts of God in Jesus Christ, so that we are able to more fully live out Paul’s admonition to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, which is the greatest and ultimate act of worship.
We are not the performers in worship. God is the performer. We tell God’s story, and God pours out God’s gifts on us, renewing us, restoring us, and reshaping us into the likeness of Jesus.
The show must not go on any longer.
Let TV win, already.
It’s time to stop acting.
It’s time to stop entertaining.
It’s time to be the church.