Performance Anxieties and Worship

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The Mennonite culture I am a part of has had a tradition of music that spans a few generations.  The tradition is acapella congregational singing (typically in four parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and hymn music.  It is my preference, it is what I am accustomed to and comfortable singing in a church worship service, but some conservatives would have it as the only right way.

The other night, as is not uncommon, we had a choral program at my church. A group of a few talented individuals (dressed with matching outfits and practiced) sang together in front of an audience of family and friends.  Their selection of music had meaningful lyrics focused on distinctly Christian themes and the Christmas season.  It was a beautiful presentation.

Afterwards, the pastor (asked to give the benedictory prayer) went to pains to explain that the presentation that preceded was not a “performance” or “entertainment” and was worship.  I understood what he meant.  However, is it actually truthful to say that a presentation to an audience is not a performance?  Are concepts of worship and performance mutually exclusive?

Mennonite Tradition, Progressive Evolution and Lingering Guilt…

Mennonites have historically avoided elevation of some in the group.  Leaders were expected to be servants to all rather than a privileged hierarchy.  In fact, even raised pulpits were a controversial topic because of the potential for pride and spiritual inequality they represented.  Traditionally there was a table for those who preached to put their Bibles on and no pulpit.  Preaching was not to be done flamboyantly or in a way that drew special attention to the presenter.

Music in worship was ordered likewise.  There were no solo instruments or vocals in worship services because it was believed that would draw too much attention to the individual(s) performing.  In the church service singing was strictly congregational and in unison rather than divided into parts.  Four part singing only became part of Mennonite practice in the late 1800’s and special singing groups likely followed some time after as Mennonites adopted more mainline practice.

But it is an uncomfortable position to the conservative Mennonite mind.  There is still an urge to distinguish between performance for entertainment and worship of God.  In my own congregation we allow solos and special singing groups.  However, we are also dutifully reminded that the point is the worship God rather than recognize those presenting and (except for a few occasional outbursts by rebels) we do not offer any applause.

It is this careful avoidance of applause and tendency towards the over-wrought explanation that makes me wonder what is truly amiss—It seems too anxious.  If nobody else but God is getting the attention, shouldn’t that just be self-evident, why the need for an explanation? Why the contrast and comparison?

Our Worship *IS* Imperfect, Be Honest…

I believe the reality is that a special group singing before an audience is obviously a performance and for entertainment.  No, this does not nullify the reality it is intended as worship for God either.  What we do for others is an expression of our worship for God and that can certainly include wholesome entertainment.  Our performance for the good of others is ultimately what brings God honor and glory, is it not?

Furthermore, we aim to be perfect expressions, but we are not and might as well be honest about it.  Of course there is potential for pride in performance.  Did anyone on the stage not want to please the audience they sang to?  It would be utterly absurd to claim otherwise and with that the danger of self-aggrandizement. 

Yet, denial of that potential for self-centered worship doesn’t get us any closer to perfection of worship either.  If anything it is the same fatal error of Ananias and Sapphira who were judged instantaneously for dishonesty in their claiming to give all while secretly withholding some for themselves. Their deception, likely rooted in their wanting to maintain appearances of perfection or religious pride, was their downfall.

We are imperfect even at our best. Yes, even in our worship we can have mixed motives. We enjoy being talented, we often keep some of the praise for ourselves, and that’s okay if we are honest about it.  We are saved by God’s grace and not by our own perfect efforts.  It is this admission of our own imperfection that leads us to be more gracious towards others and a more true expression of the worship Jesus described.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

In conclusion, we should do as Jesus instructed and learn what it means in Hosea 6:6 where it says God desires mercy not sacrifice.  This is a reference back to the religious sacrificial rituals observed as worship in the Old Testament.  Sacrifice is an impractical expression of worship whereas mercy is not. 

Our better worship is not having the right mode or music style as much as it is in our expressed in our genuine love for each other. 

Pie in the sky…when you die…

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The expression “pie in the sky” is used to describe an impractical idea.  It originated in the lyrics of the song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” that was written to the tune of a populis Christian hymn:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and Pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

If you are familiar with Christian hymns, you may recognize it as the same tune as “In the Sweet By and By.”  It was written in 1911 by Joe Hill as a protest song reflecting the frustration of those who were looking for something now. 

Hill pokes fun at Salvation Army street evangelists for their impracticality. His lyrics are cynical, self-interested and agnostic, but honest.

The critique of Christian evangelical efforts is stinging.

True evangelical faith…cannot lie sleeping…

Evangelical Christianity has earned a reputation.  It has frequently centered on condemnation of what those ‘outside the faith’ are doing wrong and yet lacks the introspection to know it is failing to live to the example it claims to promote. 

Jesus did more than sing happy hymns or preach sermons about future glory; he also healed, provided food, wine and urged his followers to give selflessly of themselves. The words of Jesus are reflected in this poem:

True evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping. It clothes the naked and comforts the sorrowful.
It gives to the hungry food and it shelters the destitute.

It cares for the blind and lame, the widow and the orphan child.
It binds up the wounded man and offers a gentle hand.
We must become everything to all men.

Abundantly we have received and gratefully we will respond.
So overcome evil with good and return hatred with love.
That is true evangelical faith.

That is the writing of Menno Simons (1496–1561) urging a Gospel that met real needs today.  It was put to music by Larry Nickel and would be much harder to parody as a message of pie in the sky only.  Each line can be traced to something Jesus told his followers.  It is a evangelicalism of practical value rather than only immaterial abstractions.  It promotes a faith of concrete action in contrast to words-only ministry.

A message that focuses on being a solution…

The mocking words of Hill point to a purely human effort.  While the ‘love’ of too many who profess faith is empty of real sacrifice and true empathy for human need.  Both are an incomplete message.  One piously over-spiritualizes faith while the other is dripping with resentment and bitter carnality.

The true evangelical faith of Jesus is bread today, shelter today and clothe today.  The example is a love of substance and help today rather than of just pleasant words.  It is so much more than impractical pie in the sky promises of something tomorrow.