June 15, 2009 by

Rockstars, Church, Performers and Authenticity


Categories: church, creativity, food for thought, music

I was meaning to bring this up on its own, but since it works as a point of introduction for this post…I have been asked to be a regular contributor to the site I told you about the other day, Communitas Collective. I will be posting every other week to the “Survivor” blog, the “recovering church leaders” part of the site. My first post is already in the cue for Friday, although by coming into the mix at the last minute, I don’t feel like I’m quite in sync yet with the cool blogger vibe over there (be patient, guys, I’ll find the beat!). But anywhoo…I count it a great privilege to be participating with CC, and look forward to what is happening over there.

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)

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

5 Responses to Rockstars, Church, Performers and Authenticity

  1. Ruth

    I totally agree. It's no sin to cultivate ones gifts of speaking and music etc to further the Kingdom of God. It helps people to get the message, be inspired and remain engaged. I would rather see someone up front who is commited and gives of themselves than be withdrawn and placid because they don't want to attract too much attention to themselves. However, as you say motives matter and a leader always has to keep that in check.

    Looking forward to seeing your contribution on CC.

  2. jody

    i completely agree

    when i was little, i wanted to be an actress 🙂

    and a teacher

    some might argue that on going in to the ordained ministry there is part of me that is now going to get to do both.

    the art of preaching and of leading the people of God in worship has a 'drama' to it that is part performance as an act of remembering, and in doing so it brings to life the old truths, the old story, of which we are still a part.


  3. Erin

    Glad to have you on board with us at CC…but there isn't any "cool blogger vibe". If you want to join the "bumbling blogger vibe", then you are welcome to.

    It's funny, at my old mega church, there was a husband and wife team who led worship, and they had the barbie-doll syndrome. Painted on smiles, white teeth, massive amounts of energy, whenever they performed. I used to judge them for it because it seemed so inauthentic.

    But behind the scenes, they were just normal people, with many challenges and pain of their own. They recently left that church to start their own thing; at least one reason being needing to leave behind the "demand for excellence" of the big church.

    So it really was more the mentality of the church leadership, and not the people. I do believe it's possible to be an authentic performer…I've seen it myself. I think sometimes, at least, it is the environment and not the person that makes or breaks the authenticity.

  4. Jeff Nelson

    "…deep inside I somehow knew that "letting it out" was part of my worship, that it brought God pleasure when I did."

    Exactly! When I first started leading worship services, I felt I had to have a certain amount of stoicism, which just is not me. I really don't pay any attention whether I am being watched or not; now I just try to be myself.

    So is it possible to be a performer and be authentic? Absolutely. Now if you're getting paid, that's a different topic entirely.

  5. Jeff McQ

    "It's no sin to cultivate ones gifts of speaking and music etc to further the Kingdom of God." Yes to that. I think the reason I wanted to write this post is because I see the church in a transition period where it's easy to throw babies out with bathwater; and while I, too, react against the fake super-showiness of some preaching and some of the slick rock-show worship sets that obviously point to man and his bells and whistles…I still think it's possible to pigeonhole genuine folks by overstating our conclusions. I think the best litmus test is, as you put it…if it is furthering the Kingdom of God. (As opposed to man's kingdom or man's glory.)

    As I suggested in the post, "perform" has a much wider definition than putting on an act. It simply means to do something, to execute or carry out. I liked how you put this: "…part performance as an act of remembering, and in doing so it brings to life the old truths, the old story, of which we are still a part." This brought to mind the picture of church liturgy like in the Episcopal Chruch, which is waaaay back in my roots :), but still has deep meaning for me. Good to have you chiming in.

    Coolness is in the eye of the beholder. 😉 (My way of a hat tip.) On the other hand…if you're looking for "bumbling" over there…I'm down with that. Or, up for that…or, um, all about that…er, all *over* that? Whatev. 🙂

    Liked this a lot: "I really don't pay any attention whether I am being watched or not; now I just try to be myself." (Is this not the definition of authentic?)

    A friend of mine made a point in a book he wrote that we have the greater tendency to sin when our main focus is on NOT sinning. 🙂 I think there's a lot of truth in that…I think that's why I like to counsel young(er) church musicians not to be so hung up on whether or not they are being prideful, because ironically, that type of thing *still* makes it all about them! It's impossible to *try* to be humble. 🙂 The best path to humility is just get over yourself and enjoy Jesus. Thanks for the comment.

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