Worship At A Crossroads: Congregationalism Versus Performancism

1The worship wars are over.

The worship wars were a battle between organs and guitars. Choirs and praise bands. Robes and blue jeans. Hymnal versus projector. Traditional versus contemporary. Old versus new.

They were mainly about style. The genre of the music, the instrumentation, the attire of the pastors, the vehicle for musical notation (or lack thereof), the authorship date of the songs.

And now, by and large, those wars have subsided and a delicate peace has settled in. Churches either went full throttle in one direction, and left any detractors in the smoke (and those detractors found a different church), or they went the “blended” route and offer multiple service styles in multiple venues in order to appease the factions and prevent them from killing each other. A small amount of churches survived the worship wars with their worship ethos in tact. Good for them.

Now we are at a worship crossroads.

This conversation isn’t so much about style. It transcends style.

This is about substance. It’s more about the “And so?” and less about the “And how?” It’s more about the heart of the leaders and less about the preferences of the worshippers.

This is about a fundamental distinction between two models of worship leading (irrespective of the style of music). The first model views the congregation’s engagement as integral. The second model views the congregation’s engagement as incidental. The first model I call “congregationalism” and the second model I call “performancism”.

Congregationalism: a model of worship leading that views the engagement of the congregation as integral to the success of a worship service.

Performancism: a model of worship leading that views the engagement of the congregation as incidental to the success of a worship service.

Engagement: the congregation’s active participation, in unity and with comprehension, throughout the majority of a worship service.

Gone are the days when the argument could be made that organs equaled bored congregations and guitars equaled revival. That argument has been destroyed over the last two decades as the embrace of “contemporary” expressions oftentimes resulted in drastically diminished congregational engagement in worship.

And vice versa, gone are the days when the argument could be made that contemporary worship meant death and destruction and drivel, and traditional worship meant the preservation of all things beautiful and holy. That argument has been destroyed as we witness not only the maturity of so many contemporary expressions, but also the withering decline of churches and denominations whose traditional liturgy and instrumentation have been unable to mask its internal rot.

It’s possible to have the most traditional of traditional churches, with organs and choirs and smells and bells and hymnals and robes and kneelers, and have a congregation whole-heartedly engaged in worship of Jesus Christ. And in this stylistic vein, it’s also possible to have congregations who sit in their seats and watch the professionals do their completely inaccessible thing which, while impressive, does not call forth any response from the congregation other than, perhaps, an “ah that was nice”.

And conversely, it’s possible to have the most contemporary of contemporary churches (so contemporary they don’t even use the traditional word “contemporary” anymore), with guitars, drums, screens, top-notch equipment, lights, loops, effects, video, and coffee bars, and have a congregation drawn in to see and savor the glory of Jesus Christ, singing their hearts out. And with this same style repeated down to the very last v-neck shirt, you can have congregations who are literally left in the dark, watching a performance, being sung at, and resigning themselves to a passive role as a passive observer of something that’s designed to look and sound dynamic.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve had a conversation with someone, usually a total non-musician, who has lived in the middle of this tension at their church (or former church) for a long period of time. They can’t put their finger on what’s so difficult for them about the worship leading model at their church, and when I begin to explain my theory to them, their eyes begin to light up as I appear to be verbalizing what they’ve experienced internally. Their stylistic preferences are all over the map – but in their heart – they’re weary and leery of performancism.

Style isn’t the issue anymore. It’s substance now. The “how” (i.e. what instrumentation will we use) has given way to the “so” (i.e. what is the end result of what we’re doing?)

The worship leading model of congregationalism says the “so” is: so that people will be engaged (actively).

The worship leading model of performancism says the “so” is: so that people will have an experience (passively).

Congregationalism is specific when it comes to the desired goal during the music: the congregation singing along with one another. Facilitating their singing is the worship leader’s number one priority.

Performancism is vague: the congregation is there to experience the experience, and if they happen to be able to sing along, then that’s great. But if they can’t sing along, then at least they had an experience.

This is the crossroads where we find ourselves.

It’s not about style anymore, though issues of style certainly flare up in many places with a good deal of noise. This conversation transcends style and begs a simple question: is the congregation’s engagement in worship integral or incidental?

The answer to that simple question will determine a church’s trajectory for the next several decades, and perhaps longer. I pray that a fresh commitment to congregational worship will sweep across the worldwide church, overturning performancism, and drawing the Bride of Christ into increasing unity in the years to come.

24 thoughts on “Worship At A Crossroads: Congregationalism Versus Performancism”

  1. Another great blog, Jamie. I think the true crossroads, though, is one that began with redeemed man in the enlightened west grabbing from God that which is wholly God’s – His church – and progressively transforming the local church into man’s own image.

    In short, will we live out our lives together as the church, God’s colony/embassy on earth, our way or God’s way? Our way includes specialization toward efficiency (in the guise of “spiritual gifts”), accommodation of the unholy (excused by our misunderstanding of Jat theesus’s relationships with “sinners”), and the me-too-ism of patterning after an NFL football game (the substitution of robust cheering and excitement for enraptured wonder at the person and works of our Holy God).

    In many cases, the intention seems laudable – everybody giving their best for the praise of the God who gave us these gifts. But 30 seconds in prayer reveals that we are hopelessly man-centered, passionately pursuing or own glory, and living like God has no power except through us and His precious gifts.

    Ask one of these musically “gifted” people what led them to their church. Amazing how they church-shop based on where they can get into the worship band. Unmistakable proof of what they prize most highly. But God doesn’t need our gifts. Our churches don’t need our gifts – in fact, as Jamie keeps pointing out here in his blogs, our acumen with an axe (or our genius with a pipe organ) are effectively shutting down the corporate congregational worship of our local churches. Whether the people are hooting and hollering with grandstand enthusiasm, or sitting in stunned wonder as the organist’s fingers fly in a fury of flourish, we’re still just the audience, watching the professionals do their thing. And the preacher comes out and it’s the same thing – we say, “Wow! I could never explain the gospel our interpret the Bible like that!” And our “evangelism” devolves into bringing people to church. But in God’s design, we are all sent ones, all priests, all ambassadors, and all answerable to the Bible’s most frequently repeated call to God’s people: Let ALL God’s people PRAISE THE LORD!

  2. Thank you for sharing your observations on the current state of worship in our churches. I appreciate it when others are willing to step into the ring to comment on worship and not be afraid to risk the wrath of the “worship” community when doing so!

    While I wholeheartedly agree that substance has become a main issue for us, I think the root problem of “worship” run deeper than this.
    I think it is foundational. Many of our well-intentioned, God loving leaders, have no idea WHY God calls us to worship. If you don’t understand the “why” of worship you will be hard pressed to understand the “what” of worship. You will have an even more difficult time planning and executing the “how” of worship.

    Many of our churches are willing to spend a lot of money on “worship” because they view music and singing as an effective means to attract non-church attending Christians and non-Christians to their services. These same churches view the “worship” they present to the congregation as an exciting “experience”. None of this is why God gave us the gift of worship.

    It is undeniable that people are running away from churches at never-before-seen speeds. My studied conclusion on the matter is that the evangelical church at large has contributed to its own demise. In failing to understand the why of worship, we adopted models of worship that neither feed the majority of the congregants who attend the service nor matter to the lost. The lost don’t come and certainly don’t come back, and the found are leaving.

    Of course, there are exceptions to what I have just described. Those exceptions are why we continue down the same failed path.

  3. I think the trajectory a church takes on it’s worship gathering is determined by how the following question is answered: does corporate worship exist primarily for believers or unbelievers?

    PS. I think Jesus answers the question clearly in Jn 4.

  4. I enjoyed this perspective. It resonates with me. I would also be interested in your thoughts on the what (definition) and why (purpose/calling) of worship. Thanks again, Lon

  5. I would add that we are at the crossroads between corporate worship–worshiping together–and parallel worship–worshiping in the same space but not together. Parallel worship is like parallel play observed in small children. They may be playing in the same room but they are not playing together with each other..Rather they are playing beside each other but separately from each other.. While the band is playing the worship set in a number of churches, a part of the congregation is sing along with the vocalists in the band; a part of the congregation is listening to the band; and a part of the congregation is doing their own thing–prostrating themselves, dancing, looking at their smart phone, texting, or “snogging” with their significant other.

  6. “does corporate worship exist primarily for believers or unbelievers?” No. Does corporate worship exist primarily for us or for Him?

    You’re still talking about style. Music and preaching. What are the elements of worship? Gathering, confession and absolution, reading of the Word, preaching, sacrament, etc.

  7. Larry, I think you pose a very good question: WHO is worship for, us or Him? I do not believe that God calls us to worship Him alone because He needs our worship. He is not the ultimate megalomaniac, who throws a temper tantrum because he is not worshipped. Our worship of Him adds nothing to him and the lack of worship takes nothing away from him.

    One could argue that God has given humanity the gift of worship for our own benefit. If we become like that which we esteem the most, then worshipping God helps us to become more like him. At least true authentic worship should have that kind of impact. God then is the object of worship, and humanity is the benefactor of it.

  8. Interesting analysis. For some years, I’ve looked at the worship wars battle from the perspective of the congregation instead of the worship leader, pastor, or band. From this perspective, the dichotomy is about being “makers of music” versus being “consumers of music”. In my opinion, Scripture commands the former. The contemporary church has adopted, for the most part, the latter.

    We went from about 200 hymns, to which everyone knew the words and the parts, to about 20,000 songs, to which few know the words and no one knows the parts (parts? what parts?). Look around you on any given Sunday and see how many *adult males* are singing (moving the lips doesn’t count…singing).

    We have become consumers of music.

  9. I would add to my earlier comment that this development is not a new one. From Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we may gather that worship in the New Testament church was congregational and participatory. By the late Middle Ages worship, however, had become a performance of the priest and the choir or the priest alone. This was particularly true in the Western Church. In both the Western and Eastern Churches church buildings were divided into two rooms–the congregation in one room and the priest, deacons, and servers in another. In the Western Church a rood screen separated the altar from rude gaze of the people and in the Eastern Church, an iconostasis.. In the Western Church the more devote members of the congregation said their private devotions in the nave of the church, kneeling on the straw-covered law, while the priest and the choir sung the Mass or the priest said the Mass in the chancel. The less devoted gathered in the back of the nave to gossip. The congregation either stood or knelt. There was no seating. When the Mass was sung, it was sung in Latin to elaborate polyphonic settings; when the Mass was said, it was also said in Latin.

    The Reformation introduced a number of important changes. They included services in the vernacular and congregational singing–the chorale in Lutheran churches and the metrical psalm in the Reformed churches. Hymns were not introduced until the eighteenth century. In most Protestant churches the congregation would become the primary source of music in worship. In the nineteenth century the choir would begin to displace the congregation. In the twentieth century there was a revival of congregational singing. In the twenty-first century the pendulum has again swung away from the congregation but not back to the choir. A band with vocalists has displaced both congregation and choir. Instead of leading the congregation in singing and supporting the congregation’s singing–the proper role of any music group–schola cantorum, choir, or band, the band is singing FOR the congregation.

    The Scriptures contain numerous passages that exhort us to worship God in song. See http://worshipsounds.wordpress.com/lift-your-voice/ for a list of these passages. In his letter to the Romans Paul writes, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:5-6, ESV) Note the emphasis upon gloriying God with one voice. If anything can be gathered from the Scriptures, it is that the whole assembly, not just a small part of it, should be singing and the whole assembly should be singing with one voice.

    From my own experience most people are able to carry a tune. The problem is usually that they are asked to sing songs that are not accessible to the average congregational singer. They are also faced with a range of unrealistic expectations: they must sing in four-part harmony, like professionals, and so on. .

  10. This is insightful writing, thank you. It’s a good distinction. I see fewer people arguing over contemporary vs. traditional as well, much of that is due to the fact that people have sorted themselves so there’s less conflict.

    Do you think performancism can creep into a service even if the congregation is enthusiastically singing along and fully participating? For example, if the people leading worship are unnecessarily drawing attention to themselves for the sake of the “show” or experience?

    Obviously, if a musician or singer is up in front of a congregation, he or she can’t help but have a little attention drawn to themselves. (Though this can be mitigated to an extent by the musicians and singers not being front and center or elevated, but off to the side. But regardless, by virtue of having a microphone they are going to get a little attention.) But what I’m talking about is worship leaders needlessly inserting themselves into worship – giving the congregation directions when it’s not necessary, playing music so loudly that people can’t hear others around them singing, inserting words into songs that aren’t there for the congregation to sing along with, playing music during a pastor’s prayer, telling the congregation to repeat verses or choruses over and over, etc. When I see these things I feel like the worship leader is doing them in order to achieve a desired emotional effect or a mood for his or her own satisfaction.

    I see these things all the time during worship and find them distracting. Do they fall into the category of performancism or am I expanding the definition beyond what you’re talking about? Is there another word for what I’m describing?

  11. Jamie,
    Thanks for sharing. Two quick thoughts.
    I have seen this argument coming. I went to a Large Church Summit in Florida five years ago. One presenter spoke specifically against performance-driven worship. I was curious and listened (it was a bit out there), but a generous number of people actually got up and walked out. Not subtle at all.

    I agree on a number of levels. I would like to caution, however, against setting up a polemic before the debate begins. Using “congregationalism” and “performancism” will make it hard for some to even hear the good case you are making. Robin suggested “corporate” vs. “parallel” worship. I’m not sure what to use.

    This trend is one logical end to excellence in worship. Would it be too much of a stretch for someone to begin to limit who can participate in the congregation? Especially if we are broadcasting? Might one section be reserved for those who “look better” on camera or “worship better” for camera? I believe we already see that in the worship industry as it is.

  12. Michael,

    In my humble opinion, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch. I know a large church in my area that limits the age of the worship team members. You have to be under 30. Period. I think they can even cite chapter on verse for why they do it!

    It is these kind of issues that make me think that we have no idea what worship is any longer. It has ZERO to do with any of this.

    As I have stated on numerous occasions over at NotForItchingEars.com, this “worship is a song, join the band and sing along” concept of worship is a dead man walking. Our leaders are too busy singing the latest Kumbyya song by Chris tpo see the writing on the wall. We won’t be doing this in 20 years.

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