"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Sounds
February 3, 2007

The Music, Worship, Performance and Leadership Thing

The question of “performance” arose in response to the “Leadership and Jazz” discussion. There is a relevant connection here with the role of music in church life. I’m sure you have either read or heard the suggestion that “worship is not a performance.” On one level I agree that anyone involved in music in a […]

The question of “performance” arose in response to the “Leadership and Jazz” discussion. There is a relevant connection here with the role of music in church life. I’m sure you have either read or heard the suggestion that “worship is not a performance.”

On one level I agree that anyone involved in music in a church context needs to understand how what they are doing in church differs from a conventional concert. Moreover, as a pastor, I’ve had to deal with the egos and creative needs of musicians and worship leaders.

However, as a musician, I find the notion that worship music is not a performance at best misleading and at worst, outright harmful.

Music is always performance – always. Want a church music group that doesn’t perform? Then, brace yourself for off-key singing, out of tune guitars, random drum patterns and lots and lots of feedback and noise from poor quality amplification. As a musician, I’m never not performing – never. Moreover, as a worshipper I’m not keen on being in a room with non-performing musicians either. I’d rather have silence thanks!

The real issue is not whether the musicians are “performing” but what “function” the music is serving. In the Berklee Film Scoring course, I encountered a very helpful distinction – between absolute and functional music.

Absolute music is any piece of music created for pure listening enjoyment. Self-sufficient, it doesn’t depend on reference to anything outside of itself to complete its meaning. It is music enjoyed by the listener at a concert or other live performance, or as a recording. “Absolute” music is without stylistic limitations—it may be classical, jazz, rock, or any other style.

Functional music is music that is created to serve another purpose besides being simply music. It can be a subtle accompaniment or a driving force that propels a specific event. Its initial purpose is to support some dramatic, artistic, or social activity.”

Church worship music was cited as an example of functional music (along with film music, computer game music, etc). Sometimes functional music can become absolute music (John Williams’ scores for the Star Wars films come to mind). But the test of functional music is always its ability to complement and strengthen the context it is written to function within.

I believe that “functioning to support another purpose” is a far more useful concept, if we are talking to musicians, than “avoiding performance.” It puts ideas like talent, effort, skill and artistry in context (rather than in denial). Moreover, it helps us address the complex issue of the role of creativity.

[tags] Leadership, Church Music [/tags]

Paul 17 years ago

ok i am out my depth so maybe something for the muso’s amongst us to muse on…

I wonder if we christians have functional music more often because they have the lyrics first and then try and work out a tune rather than creating great music and then fitting words…

It just made me think about U2 as an example of how they create as a band but often have great tunes first and words second and describe the moments it comes together like when God walks through the room… which is one of the great stories about how the song One came about, band about to split up, tired, creativity low but a great tune being played and Bono stumbles into singing some lyrics…

What are those of you who are more knowledgable about the process think?

Steve Lowe 17 years ago

Thanks, this is helpful.

Our worship band had a meeting a couple of weeks ago and our WL used the word ‘performance’ several times in the context of ‘during the performance do..’ It was taken the wrong way, I think, by a few members. One was threatening to quit over it. Secretly, I wish she had, but that’s the wordly side of me :/

For sure we’re not up on that platform to ‘perform’ in the ‘look at me, I am gewd!’ sense, but we are up there to ‘perform’ in the ‘I’m performing my task to the best of my God-given abilities’ sense.

The functional/absolute distinction is valuable. P&W music isn’t generally very exciting music, at least from a musician’s standpoint. The fact the music is expressing love, adoration, and worship of our Father is what gives it meaning and makes it exciting.

Becky Wright 17 years ago

Interesting distinction between “absolute” and “functional” music. As Christians, I have seen that many Christians (erroneously??) assume that Christian musicians & songwriters should ONLY create music OVERTLY for worship. Years ago, when I was young AND a young Christian, I made that judgmental mistake. I judged people like B.J. Thomas, and later Amy Grant, because they were creating music that was not “overtly” Christian. In my immaturity as a believer, I thought that was wrong.

I’ve long since come to realize that ALL our lives, ALL our talents, ALL our work (as teachers, doctors, construction workers, administrators [even in church], painters, artists of ANY sort, PARENTS, pastors, social workers, etc.) is SACRED. Our lives, even our MUSIC is not compartmentalized in that respect. ALL that we do should be with EXCELLENCE, SKILL, and diligence. Anything less is an INSULT to the God Who gifted us.

I understand how the member of the worship team got upset at the word “performance”, misunderstanding the intent of the semantics. For example, our own worship team practices diligently (and, by the way, we DO have some very exciting music!!! If we don’t, we WRITE SOME!!). We rehearse until it feels natural, so that our own personal worship on Sundays, as we lead the congregation to focus upon God, is not thwarted because we’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar (or unprepared) with the music. God deserves no less. AND, as musicians, we would (frankly– as was aluded to in the initial article) be UNSATISFIED with less. A poor “performance” is CERTAINLY a hindrance to worship, whether you’re on the stage or in the pew.

Call it what you will. We perform for our FATHER, as a little child would dance or sing a song or color a picture for their loving parent to “ahh” and “oohh” over in adoration and appreciation of their child’s offering of love and affection. As the congregation joins us in singing to our Father, with EXCELLENT music (well “performed”), this consummation of adoration, various emotions, the truth of the Word of God in the songs, the sound of voices and instruments IN TUNE and in one accord, can take place and not be hindered by a lazy, poor “performance”.

God deserves the best. As Martin Luther (who started the Reformation and birthed the modern-day evangelical church) said, “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Well said.

Perform your best– for an audience of ONE! Everyone in the congregation will follow along and point their attention UPWARD, with no (musical) hindrances, at least!! http://www.beckywrightsongs.com http://www.indieheaven.com/artists/becky_wright (Becky Wright is up for her first DOVE Award with the Gospel Music Association!)

Toni 17 years ago

To me, it’s all about the purpose and focus of the music we create.

Yesterday morning I saw a bit from a Delerious DVD. The band were into it and the audience dancing away. Then I caught the lyrics, and it was a worship song that I’d happily use in church. Something jarred badly, but it wasn’t until now that I could put my finger on it. It wasn’t that the band were doing the wrong thing – they were entertaining – but instead the music was wrong for the purpose, with everyone focussed on the stage show and party.

Now it may be wrong to judge it like that, but this is my take. I’ve played for a few ‘worship’ sessions with a very serious band, where we put on a show using worship songs where it felt far from the heart of worship.

I guess the flip side is one of my bugbears. ‘Worship’ bands that are trying so hard not to be involved and performing that you just wish for more energy, drive and dynamism. I don’t want the lightshow, but I do want to see the worship leading team looking like they are going for it for God and us; leading the way with energy and desire. Too often it’s tight, controlled and sounds just like some theatre showband instead of people eager to worship and praise their God.

Phil Reilly 17 years ago

There’s some good discussion here and a bunch of points I’d want to take further but they are perhaps separate to the post you’ve given Fernando.

Creativity, performance and our weakness to be praised by others is something I guess we all will hold in tension throughout our lives. For myself it’s been a struggle and no matter what we call it or get our heads around it, it will be there.

I’ve been at concerts like The Doves, U2, Coldplay, Muse and a bunch of others accomplished bands and have come away thinking – do you know what, I encountered God tonight. I guess seeeing the Creator’s hand in the creativity and delight of the musicians was journey, in some small way, into the Heavenly. Or on the other side, I’ve worshipped at a L’Arche community with folks with varying degrees of disability and cognitive understanding, who clapped out of sync, sung out of tune and there in the midst of a cacauphony of noise I encountered God in a very real and tangible way.

I like guitars that are in tune, vocalists who know how to sing, tight bands and drummers who kick some… bass drum! Do I want them to perform? Well depends if I paid good money to be entertained. But I’m not at Church to be entertained. But like I said, I appreciate (being a musician myself) good musicianship. But it is not the be all and end all in me encountering God – I’m glad I don’t have to rely on that. I try through my feebleness to become atuned with the Spirit. Lets be honest, we know when people are performing for performance’ sake… personally, I get a little turned off at that.

Not sure if this has even been remotely helpful…

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Paul, thanks for the comment. I’m asking a few more musicians I know to comment or email about this discussion for some alternate points of view.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Steve – thanks for your comment; looks like we are on similar wavelengths.

Without doubt there are two different ways we can use the word “perform” and that is part of what can be confusing inthese sorts of discussions.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Becky – thanks for the comment and for the reminder of what the ultimate goal and focus of all this should be.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Toni – good examples. That “detached” approach is what I also seen as a consequence of the misunderstanding of “performance.” I’ve been in churches where musicians have been genuiely afraid to look like they are either trying or enjoying their musical task. That’s not the “heart of worship” is it?

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Phil – the way you contrasted experiences of God at different levels of musical talent is powerful, thank you for sharing that.

In terms of what I’m working through here, I don’t see performance and entertainment as being the same thing. I agree with you fully that I’m not at church to be entertained (though many are). However, I’m not sure there is a universal agreement on when musicians are simply trying to entertain only. In fact, it seems to me that’s its one of the least agreed upon areas of worship ministry.

For example, I recall being pulled up on ce for performing in church, having taken a “loud solo.” In fact I was playing a written part, as per instruction and whilst the person quizzing me was convinced I was obviously “getting off on the attention,” I was actually struggling through a counter-melody I didn’t enjoy and had asked to be dropped during rehersal. I did my best with it, but I sure wasn’t “performing” in the sense my interlocutor suggested.

jay upp 17 years ago

I totally agree in the aspect that worship serves as our performance funtion to God, if we aren’t prepared to perform in front of an audience, it can become a mass disaster. I think there should be a balance of reverence and performance. i’ve seen with older generations, its reverence, and with a younger generation pastor or leadershi team, its performance (way overtly performance). as smart muscans and worshippers though, we should rely on the spirit of God to direct our paths, obviously not only in worship. but for example, i was at a sarah groves concert (my wife likes her) and just sitting there watching the conecert, and the band was finishing a song and just started to worship and this bass player she had, he was prob. 21 or something just began to tear it up, not in a a look at me way, but as stated before “his performance”. it was probably the jazziest, greatest improv soloing i have ever seen. when they finally stopped, sarah groves was basically in tears and commented on his great ability and awareness of God in that peice. my judgement of performing to a crowd in worship changed right then and there. God has placed this hunger for performance and musical skill and ability in us for a reason, just as long as we remember reverence in our performance, i think God looks highly upon it, as matt redman sings, “Let the songs of the saints be like sweet smelling incense”, that is what its about to me anyway.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Jay – thanks for the comment and examples!

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