Church music does include a performance. This is a tricky subject because of our terminology and what it implies. What is a performance?
A person’s rendering of a dramatic role, song, or piece of music.
This makes sense. With this definition, any music played in front of other people and is meant for them to hear is inherently a “performance.”
So what’s really the issue? I’m sure we’ve heard that the orchestra/band/choir/pianist/whomever is not “performing” or that the music on Sunday should not be a “performance.” I think what is attempting to be said – and it’s correct – is more related to the reason for the performance.
An Audience of One
When church musicians perform, there should be one ultimate goal in view; that is, it should be done to the glory of Christ. We all know this; the question is… how?
I have heard, and I’m sure many of you have, too, the phrase an audience of one. In the contexts I’ve typically heard it, it’s either a well-meant attempt to abate nervousness (just play for God, ignore the fact that people are listening) or it’s a well-meant attempt to avoid doing a performance in church.
While I agree that we often get too nervous, I don’t think the fix for this is to ignore the fact that people are there and just play for God. Do I really think so highly of people and so lowly of God that I would rather play for Him rather than people? As though in some way, making mistakes is less important when playing for Him? One on hand, I can see how that logically works: people are less “forgiving” or more “judgmental” than God. On the other hand, it makes it sound like doing our best for God takes less effort than playing for people.
Perhaps the solution for nervousness should be something more like that – at least in a church context: work on your performance so that you are able to direct attention to God and not to yourself. Furthermore, think of the congregation not as an audience of judgmental strangers, but as a group of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, who actually desire to give glory to where it should go – God.
More could be said, but I’ll move on
The other context is such that we are trying to, in some way, not play for people so that we aren’t tempted to play in order to receive glory. While this is definitely a good thing to avoid, the solution is not to ignore people. If you are playing in church, and in front of people, you are inherently playing for other people to hear. The question is, why are you playing?
This gets into a very touchy and personal topic, and one that has convicted me. If my goal is truly to direct glory only to Christ and not at all to me, as the performer, how does that change how I play? How does that change what I play? Will this ever interfere with my musical ideals? The answer to that last question is a resounding yes! My skill as a performer allows me to do flashy things, but is that going to, in the context that I’m playing in, direct glory to me or to God?
This is a very contextual issue. One church may react differently than another church. One group of people may have a very hard time thinking about God during an entirely instrumental piece, and may need encouragement – such as lyrics on screen or a passage of Scripture to meditate on during the music. Other groups may do this more automatically. This requires wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit. It may mean you don’t do a really cool piece. It may mean you play simply. It may mean you don’t play at all. Which is better, silence or misdirected glory?
So what’s the solution? How can we perform in church? What’s the point? After talking to my pastor about this for a while, we came to the conclusion that it is the same problem as the preaching.
Preaching is, just as music is, for the glory of God. Preaching, though, brings no glory to God if you preach alone in your closet! God already knows about Himself, He does not need His Word explained to Him. 😉 So, to glorify God in preaching, one preaches to other people with a very specific goal. The goal is not to bring glory to the preacher; the goal is to bring people to a better understanding of Christ, to encourage them to hold Him more dear, etc. This means that the secondary reason of preaching is to be heard by people. The delivery, however, should reflect where the glory is supposed to go.
Music, similarly, is for the glory of God. Church music, though, is inherently for others to listen to. We are performing for others… but the goal of our performance is twofold.
Firstly, the goal of church music performance is the same as preaching: it’s to bring people to a better understanding of Christ, to encourage their affections for Him, to magnify Christ and increase our gratitude, etc. The list can go on for a while, just as it can for preaching.
Secondly, the goal of the church music performance is, in congregational singing, to encourage others to sing. We are told by Paul that we should teach and admonish each other – each other – with our songs. That implies that we are very much singing for others to hear. Individuals in the congregation are encouraging other individuals by their singing.
So, the conclusion? We do perform. Saying that church music shouldn’t be a performance kinda beats around the bush, I think, with terminology. The point is not that we aren’t performing – that is, that we aren’t giving a rendition of a song or musical piece for others to hear… the point is that we are performing not so that people glorify us, but for people to glorify God. That means the method of our performance should be different.
And at that point, there’s a lot of contextual and individual church decisions to be made. Can the musicians be onstage? One might argue that this encourages others to follow their example in worshiping God. Others may argue that it is distracting and makes it feel more like a audience-is-not-participating concert. This is going to be up to the wisdom and guidance, from the Holy Spirit, of the leaders of the church.
My opinion at the moment is that we should open and honest about this as we lead. The congregation should hear that this is what we want to do, that we don’t want glory, that we want to lead them and encourage them and we are here in service to God and in service to them. They’re not an audience nor simply the recipients; they are both recipients, but more importantly, they are participants, just as those on stage are. We are all on fellow heirs in Christ and are all worshiping God, giving glory to Him, and not to ourselves.