Sing to the Lord, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day.– 1 Chronicles 16:23
We are not only permitted but commanded to sing, dance, and generally exalt the name of God. Artists, however, will tell you – it’s easy to cross the line where worship becomes performance.
What is worship?
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia online defines worship thus: “Honor, reverence, homage, in thought, feeling, or act, paid to men, angels, or other "spiritual" beings, and figuratively to other entities, ideas, powers or qualities, but specifically and supremely to Deity.”
How can we demonstrate “acceptable worship with reverence and awe?” (Hebrews 12:28)
Worship is our gift to the Lord, and like an earthly father receiving a lopsided clay pot from his kindergarten child on Father’s Day, God graciously accepts what we offer as long as we give it as an act of gratitude and a demonstration of love.
What does it take to put together a worship session that glorifies Jesus? There should be an element of sacrifice. Take time to carefully select songs so they support the pastor’s message. Take time to rehearse and prepare. Pray for yourselves and those listening; to give thanks to God. And finally, lead worship on Sunday morning.
When musicians lead worship on stage, all attention is redirected upwards and inwards; to Jesus and to His Spirit in us. The words we sing, the way we dress, and our movements are thoughtful and devotional.
What is performance?
Dictionary definitions of performance are not nuanced enough to convey the influence of pride and vanity. Performance directs attention to a singer’s acrobatics and range, the guitarist’s nimble fingers, trendy clothes, or a dazzling light show.
Performers want applause and recognition for themselves. Chosen songs may highlight the leader’s musical preferences and might not support the pastor’s message or encourage congregational singing.
So, when you’re preparing to lead worship that serves the Lord’s purposes, here are six facets to consider:
1. Plan for the congregation’s sake.
Tunes with catchy, memorable melodies are easiest to follow and remember. It’s helpful for worship teams to sing in a key comfortable for the majority of singers. Our worship teams make mistakes and we hear about them from the pastor or from a member of the congregation who found the songs hard to follow, the drums too loud, or the key too high.
On a good day, however, I cannot hear my own voice because the congregation is making a joyful sound.
A multi-generational audience represents assorted musical preferences, so consider adding at least one hymn to the set out of respect and kindness towards your older members. If you want to select a modern arrangement which follows the rules above, sometimes this helps worshipers to hear excellent lyrics with fresh ears while the words remain familiar.
2. Remember your job.
The job of a singer or musician on Sunday morning is to engage, not to entertain. Sing clearly and loudly enough so that, if a song is new, the building isn’t filled with uncomfortable silence. Practice and prepare to set a joyful, enthusiastic example.
Maybe someone in the congregation needs to see that it’s okay not to stand like a statue in church. Show some energy, but nothing ostentatious like spontaneous break dancing, vocal gymnastics, or a drum solo.
Worship leaders are communicating with God and helping others do the same as a “demonstration of respect,” but that bland definition misses the fullness of conversation. We don’t just sing into the ether and hope that God picks up the thread of a tune as He passes by on His way to do something more important.
He is everywhere, all the time, eager for us to talk to Him. We can do that in song, with full hearts, praising, asking, confessing directly to Him.
3. Encourage joy.
Here is the mind-blowing part: God talks back. When we worship the Lord in music, swaying, hands-waving, abandoned joyfully to the rhythms of the Holy Spirit, Jesus uses lyrics and music to express His love back to us.
As we sing, He reminds us of some truth we might need that week, or encourages us when we are suffering. He connects with us individually and corporately.
Music adds a visceral component to the voice of God for ears which often fail to truly hear Him through the week. Scripture set to song is more memorable, replaying itself in one’s mind for days. Even the unbeliever will find truth stuck in his or head throughout the week.
It’s okay to dance on stage; in fact, many people are moved to bounce on the spot by the activity of musicians and singers. This should be a time of joy. James asked “Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” (5:13)
A background vocalist raises her hands, gets excited, can’t hold it in. The truth about Jesus really is exciting, moving, and a reason for joy. How can one sing lyrics full of truth and beauty, yet not be moved to...move?
4. Support the message.
Our worship pastor has created a checklist for song choices. Lyrics must be supported biblically, not just enjoyable or popular. As noted above, setting words to songs makes them easier to remember, so we want the congregation to remember truth.
The words to songs we choose on a Sunday connect listeners to the message, helping them to recall what the pastor said more easily as they reflect during the rest of the week.
5. Honor modesty.
Even when the music points believers to Jesus, showing too much flesh or wearing a tight outfit causes competition between worship and gawking. In fact, if the job is done right, musicians become invisible.
True, God accepts us as we are, regardless of the clothes we wear, and praise the Lord every time someone enters church half-naked or unwashed. Churches are to open their arms to prostitutes and the homeless. Leaders on stage, however, are ambassadors of redemption. Carelessness in dress or visuals suggests a careless attitude towards the Messiah, the Gospel, and those we are serving.
A multi-colored light show isn’t necessary to promote praise, but good lighting helps musicians to see what they are doing. It enables the congregation to witness expressions of delight during worship, and also helps shy musicians focus on music and prayer, rather than an audience, by casting the congregation into shadow.
6. Lose yourself in worship.
When will you know that performance gave way to worship? Like discerning whether or not you are wise or humble: if you know you are, then you aren’t. You might be unaware until someone tells you.
I often close my eyes and the people in front of me disappear. Jesus descends over the whole place physically. I might be crying, or smiling like an idiot, and I am definitely dancing. I’ve seen this emotional response from other singers. If my mind was wandering, their emotion has jolted me back to the words.
What Christ did for us on the cross should overwhelm, even take us by surprise. No one is immune, and sometimes getting choked up is the eye-opener someone out there needs to understand that the Bible isn’t just words. Church is indeed more than a way to fill up Sunday morning. We worship a living God every day.
Don’t be afraid that this sense of abandon will happen to you; it will. It’s a reward of praising God authentically. He comes so close you can feel His breath. Zephaniah 3:17 says “The Lord your God is in your midst” and He will “rejoice over you with gladness.”
Worship in response to this promise, for the congregation and for yourself, but mostly to glorify the Father who taught us how to sing.
Candice Lucey is a writer who loves Jesus. She lives in one of the most beautiful parts of British Columbia, Canada, with her family.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/CarlosCastilla