Performance vs. Worship: When Keeping It Real Is Wrong [4/5]

[Word count: 635. Approximate read time: 3-4 minutes]

“Here we are now. Entertain us.” —Kurt Cobain

In music ministry, we’re instructed that our worship should be extensions of our authentic relationship with God. However, your authentic expression may be to fall to your knees and cry uncontrollably for 15 minutes at a time. When on stage in front of people, this becomes unacceptable.

As I understand it, worship is about genuinely loving your god and expressing that love in song, dance or whatever. But… there is an element of performance to it. God requires sincerity, but if the presentation isn’t right, people will turn their noses up.

ideal (adj)
1. conceived as constituting a standard of perfection or excellence.
2. existing only in the imagination; not real or actual.

We set an ideal example so people will join in. We are cheerleaders. And we are actors. Our worship on-stage is not unlike a TV dramatization. What’s being portrayed actually happened, but we only want to show the best scenes. Wait. I thought it was supposed to be authentic though?

Do it like a porn star

When I brought up concerns about this, I was told to try and give an “authentic performance,” because an authentic relationship with God should yield such a performance. Another common rebuff was to “fake it ‘til you make it.” But after awhile not making it, all I was was fake. It felt forced and wrong. To wit, being a worshipper on stage felt like being made to have sex on camera.

  • “Okay, you’re on. Just be natural.”
  • “What the hell was that?? It doesn’t matter if it’s real. No one wants to see that.”
  • “I know that’s how you usually do it, but for today, can you turn a little more towards us while you’re being natural? And try to smile some more.”
  • “Oh that was awesome. Can you do it again just like that?”
  • “Wait. You did it different. Do you need to see what you did before?”
  • “You don’t look like you’re into it. I thought you loved this. Act like you love it.”
  • “Can you lift that any higher above your head?”
  • “You’re not putting your all into it. I want to see some passion. Make it feel real.”
  • “What’s wrong with you? You gotta be conscious of your audience. But not too much. Try to imagine they’re not there. But don’t forget they are.”
  • “Maybe we should get somebody else. If you were really good at this, it wouldn’t matter who was watching.”


Lift hands during fast song. Close eyes and wave during slow song. If you’d told me to do choreography, that’s fine.  I can do choreography. Call it that though. Don’t ask me to testify that this performance is how I actually worship. That’s tantamount to perjury. And I’m NOT okay with that.

After some time being told what to do and how, I got good at it. This is how my worship got broken.

And the way intimacy becomes elusive for a porn star, the same has happened for me as an ex-worship leader. What was a one-on-one relationship had to be contorted and stretched in order to become pleasing to a public audience. The outcome was: I lost the ability to tell whether I was being authentic or performing.

Can I offer a solution?

As a ministry, be honest with yourself about how much the physical appearance and presentation of your ministry affects your ego. Also, assess what condition you need your worship leaders’ spirits to be in. Recognize that those two needs will almost never perfectly align, and be real about what you expect.

If the people who really love God aren’t exuberant enough or just can’t sing, maybe have them perform off stage and let the church’s drama team lip sync. Will that get you what you need?

This is #4 in a 5-part series called Exit Wounds: Song of an Ex-Worship Leader.
Read the introduction here. You just read “Performance vs. Worship: When Keeping It Real Is Wrong.”

  • PART 1: The Miseducation of the Worship Leader [1/5]
    — Whatever worship is, I thought it was more powerful than it actually is. When I found out how mystical it wasn’t, I could not deal. I wish someone would have done a better job warning me worship wouldn’t protect me from life happening.
  • PART 2: Church Superstars: You Ain’t Got It [2/5]
    — Music was one thing I was sure I was good at, so to hear that I wasn’t good enough was crushing. It left me unsure of “my calling,” and doubting whether I was good at anything.
  • PART 3: More Than You Know What To Do With [3/5]
    — Help. I don’t fit in church, but I don’t know how to get outside of it. What do I do now?
  • PART 4: Performance vs. Worship: When Keeping It Real Is Wrong [4/5] — The act of worshipping in front of an audience blurred the lines between what was for God and what was for people.
  • PART 5: So You Think You Can Worship? [5/5]
    — The hokey-pokey dance of trying to understand what worship is and isn’t left me confused. I’m still not sure what it is right now.

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