But what prompted this post is a little snippet from a little reply to a little comment I made on Cory’s first post in the “Survivor” section. He was talking about the RockStar persona of pastors, the bigger-than-life image and the performance mentality so many pastors feel compelled to maintain. (An excellent post, btw.) I joked in the comments about how I still want to be a RockStar not in ministry, but in the original, musical sense of the word. (I might elaborate some other time about my midlife fantasies of Rockstar fame and glory. Or not…)
Cory replied to the comment (and here comes the snippet):
“For church leaders, is it possible to be a performer and be authentic?”
To clarify at the outset…this is not a rebuttal to Cory’s post, because I agreed with his points completely. But this one question sort of stepped out and rattled my cage, and launched my thoughts in a slightly different direction. (And I’ll be discussing this mainly from the perspective of music and the arts.)
I want to shorten the question to: “Is it possible to be a performer and be authentic?” Because while I totally get what Cory was talking about (eliminating the fake Super-Christian persona)…I think the question should apply to everyone, not just church leaders.
So…is it possible to be a performer and be authentic?
You might be surprised at my answer….
Despite the fact that I am about as “done” with church-as-usual as anyone else who is out of the box, and despite the fact that there is definitely too much “show” going on in our churches, it is still possible to make generalizations which inevitably marginalize some people. In this case, I have to admit that sometimes I feel like the one marginalized when someone generalizes words like “performance” or “excellence” with a negative connotation. I feel a tinge of pain. Why?
Because as a creative type, especially as a musician in the performing arts…performance is a normal part of my world. Part of the creative flow is to try and do what we do with excellence (meaning simply, doing our best). Good art is art that is performed well, whether it be music, or filmmaking, or painting, or whatever. To take that away from an artistic/creative person is to ask them to be less than who they are.
I realize that some of the disconnect is in the connotation surrounding the word “performance.” We understand that the “performance mentality” of many Christians (i.e., trying to earn the favor of God by doing well) is not a good thing. We understand the pitfalls of allowing “performance” on the platform to draw attention to ourselves rather than to God. And not to detract from Cory in the least, I fully understand what he’s talking about when he speaks of the “performance” of RockStar Pastors–meaning the bigger-than-life image that is projected–because that is inauthentic, and is not befitting to the role of a pastor. If this is the kind of performance we’re talking about….then yes, it’s negative.
But there are many (not necessarily Cory) who jump on the word “performance” in general and turn it into a negative thing, period, when it comes to church. To them, any “performance” draws attention away from Jesus and turns it on the person “performing”, with the additional implication (as with the RockStar Pastor) that anyone who performs is being inauthentic. These well-meaning folks might acknowledge that such performances might have a place outside the church, but within the church gathering, it is considered inappropriate.
But let’s unpack this just a little bit. Is this what “performance” really is?
Let me ask a question. Have you ever stood up in a church gathering and done something publicly, anything publicly? Said a prayer, sang a song, read a Scripture text, passed the offering plate? If so…you were performing. Tsk tsk. 🙂
Do you see my point? In order NOT to perform at all, we must do nothing. Anything we do, especially in a public setting, by definition, is a performance of some sort.
Now let me ask you this. When you prayed that public prayer, did you mean what you prayed? When you sang that song, did you sing it from the heart? When you read that Scripture, did you find meaning in it, not just in the words, but in the act of reading it? When you took the offering, were you trying to be a servant?
If so…guess what? You were still performing. But your performance was authentic. It came from who you are, as an honest heart response to God. By the same token, when a musician plays, when a worship leader leads, when a dancer dances in the meeting…they, too, are performing. But that fact has no bearing on whether or not they are being authentic. That is a matter of the heart, not of the deed.
Certainly we face the pitfalls of pride and self-absorption, and certainly motives can be mixed. But it should not be assumed that such things exist in every performance.
And that is my point. We should not see performance and authenticity as polar opposites by default. It should not be either/or. It should be both.
I realize this might sound like splitting hairs to some…but maybe sharing a little bit of personal experience will explain why I think this is important.
I’ve been leading worship or playing worship music in churches for most of my life. Early on in my church experience, the message was made clear to me: do not bring attention to yourself, only to God. This is not a performance. And you know something? I got so paranoid over whether I was drawing attention to myself that my own worship suffered. I could not worship as I played. Every time I started to enjoy the music I was making, I felt guilty, because I thought I was focusing on the music rather than God. Every time I played a challenging riff, I felt the need to repent. I felt like “dumbing it down” was the only way I could keep from sinning in my heart–and doing that just made the whole thing incredibly boring and lifeless. With that kind of setup, it’s no wonder the vast majority of creative types who are raised in church end up leaving–and leaving their faith along with it. If I’d remained in that mindset, I think I’d probably have done the same thing eventually.
But somewhere along the way, I relaxed. I somehow realized that it was not a sin to enjoy the music I was privileged to partake in, and that it was not a sin to make it sound the best it could be. Even without the vocabulary I have now…deep inside I somehow knew that “letting it out” was part of my worship, that it brought God pleasure when I did. When I stopped worrying about whether I was in pride, or whether I was trying to draw attention to myself, I was free to turn all my energy and musicality and creativity toward God.
And yes, it was performance. AND it was authentic.
Because I believe this and experience this, I can’t help but get a bit annoyed when I hear some pastor or church leader talk about things like “performance versus anointing” when it comes to the worship music. Whoever made the rule that a good musical performance couldn’t be anointed, or couldn’t bring people into worship? Whenever I hear this kind of thing said, I wince; because I know that leader is literally crippling the creativity in the church, and eventually, the creative people in that church will get tired of the ball and chain and go elsewhere. I don’t think it should have to be that way. But for creative people, good performance is part of their worship. If we don’t afford them that outlet, if we stifle them, eventually they will have to leave to preserve their own soul.
Does this mean worship leaders should be RockStars? Nope–not if you mean prideful, self-indulgent and narcissistic, of course not. But is it okay for them to perform their art with excellence, as an act of worship, without being pre-judged as prideful for doing so? I believe so.
Is it possible to be a performer and be authentic?
(There is more to say about this…stay tuned.)
(Photo above: Air guitarist Ryan “Stryker” Strecker–AP Photo)