I am sharing these thoughts as someone who is Christian and also a professional performer. They are intended to stimulate discussion with a view to re-evaluating our thinking and practice when it comes to what we understand as the quality of corporate worship. I am also talking, of course, from the perspective of a middle-aged, middle-class, white, western – specifically UK – male.
What can I tell you about my friend Wally? Or, to give him his full name, Wallace Worzkay-Zenarrio. Yes, I know, unusual surname. Anyway, Wally is a vicar. He often leads, preaches, does the Bible readings, prays, and sings and strums the guitar in every service. He rarely washes. He shaves every fourth Monday. He never uses deodorant. He never tunes his guitar. He mumbles to the side of the microphone – when he remembers to turn it on. He reads the Bible like reading a shopping list. He leads prayers like reading a shopping list. He preaches like reading a shopping list. The only thing he doesn’t read like a shopping list is, curiously, a shopping list. He is an entertainment marvel in Tesco. But I digress. Wally wonders why his congregation migrated to other churches. The only soul to cross the threshold these days is Smelly Pete, the local vagrant who has a thing about anyone reading shopping lists aloud. But Wally carries on oblivious. His attitude is that God sees the heart, that true worship is a purely spiritual thing and that outward trappings mean little or nothing. But let’s talk about Wally later.
What comes to mind when we use the word ‘Performance’? And what comes to mind when we think ‘Worship’? For the last half dozen of my 38 years as a performer working extensively with children and adults, together with my 43 years of standing, sitting, kneeling, praying, thinking and singing (some would describe this as grunting) in churches – I have found myself pondering on the dynamic of both these things and their relationship one to the other.
In the context of worship I have discovered that a lot of Christians view the role of performance as something specialised and distinct from what we take for granted as ‘normal worship practice’. In other words, it is a piece of prepared drama or dance or a particular song or piece of music. Quite rightly so. I think there is no doubt that such specialised items can enhance and augment what we offer to God and many people draw from them inspiration and delight at the efforts involved. But it’s when we consider the role of Performance in preaching, reading the Bible from the front, or simply standing up to testify about an experience or to interview or be interviewed, as well as the more ‘day to day’ role of music, that our thinking and our expectations can become at best fuzzy, and at worst dismissive.
I hear many fellow worshippers talk about performance in these contexts as something which is false. I understand and agree that this can be the case, but to dismiss entirely the notion of employing a rudimentary level of performance is to eject our unfortunate proverbial offspring with its bathwater. Quite often this is done in the name of integrity. We say “it must be real” we say “it’s not about gloss and production.” The only problem with this attitude is that, with the best will in the world, when it comes to any level of performance, as a species we are lazy. We don’t raise our game. We shortcut because of time pressures. We believe too much in our own ingenuity to ‘carry it off’ on a wing and a prayer. But I also think we can be afraid of Performance.
But hang on. What is Performance? What do I mean by a ‘rudimentary level’? Let’s take a step back. Imagine:
Your phone rings, you see it’s a close friend and you answer with “Yo, dog-breath, how’s it hanging?” She says that her mum has just died. Suddenly your tone changes … and of course your choice of words. You seek to comfort and console – and feel embarrassed at your unfortunate choice of greeting.
You have altered your performance. You didn’t learn any lines, you didn’t rehearse for that moment, other than in similar situations throughout life. You have recognised that the first approach was not useable and another needed to be employed and fast – unless you had decided to alienate that close friend. Quite clearly, your register has changed. This is one of the most basic of problems that I see afflicting our approach to speaking and/or presenting in public. Most of us are innately aware that the register is vital, it’s just that, for the most part, it’s invisible and because we don’t focus on it, we generally and subconsciously default to something we consider passable or workaday. But when the register is wrong for the occasion we know it straightaway. Imagine reasoning with a five year old in the same way a professor lectures a group of post graduate students, or whispering romantic intimacies to a police officer who has just pulled you over for speeding, or giving Peter Kay free rein to conduct the coronation of our next monarch in Westminster Abbey. Clearly there is a change of language involved but it is also the demeanour, approach, tone and appropriateness that we recognise as an imperative.
When it comes to church services that do not follow a traditional form, modern public Christian expression here in the west has seemingly embraced the lowest common denominator in terms of register. In aiming for the casual, for approachability, for ‘realness’ we seem to have found ourselves in a subculture where informality has turned into slapdash. A church service can sometimes feel like a ready meal slung in the microwave to wolf down quickly standing around the kitchen, rather than a carefully prepared dinner served at a pleasingly laid table. Being in a ‘place of public worship’ we should want our guests to feel honoured as well as welcomed, to say nothing of wishing to honour God our father. Yes, God sees the heart but meanwhile we see each other and how wonderful it is when someone makes an effort to do something just a little bit special.
So is that all I’m talking about? Giving things a significant tweak here and there? Sometimes, yes. But we always need to know why. It’s no good thinking someone is simply trying to ‘come across better’ so that we might think how clever they are. Of course not. And sometimes a shambolic, slightly clumsy and vulnerable ‘performance’ is endearing, moving and can also be inspirational. We need to know that we are collectively striving to give God and each other our best wherever we can so we are able to create something worshipful together.
I must mention Chris. And blow her trumpet. In our church Chris does the flowers. When I say ‘does the flowers’ I mean DOES the flowers. She can do with flowers what magicians can do with doves or Mary Berry with cakes. Chris is a flower sculptor and superb at her craft. She will spend hours and hours, thinking, designing, choosing blooms, arranging, tweaking and incorporating quite often something unexpected. Which shape goes where? Which colour goes with that one? How much green? And so on. Let’s compare that with reading the Bible aloud. Our perception is that reading something is a heck of a lot easier than sculpting with flowers. But if you think of the task as creating a word sculpture, something interesting happens. Quite often what I’m hearing when someone is reading a passage is a ‘church voice filter’ – in other words a fairly nondescript flat tone. A bunch of daffs in a jam jar. Just a little more thought and a sideways look at the text and a pertinent question or two in preparation about who is speaking and why and how it’s coming across and … suddenly the daffodils have been joined by honeysuckle, gypsophila and perhaps even a bit of barbed wire. (There you go Chris, your next creation!)
Let’s think for a minute about preaching. Obviously, it’s only over the last hundred years that radio and then television came into existence. Up until that point it was oratory in the form of public speaking that held sway for millennia. My wife tells of her, now long departed, great-grandmother who once went to hear Sir Arthur Conan- Doyle speak. All that survives of that experience is her great-grandmother’s recollection (in a broad Welsh accent) that “Ooh, he was a poor speaker.” The expectation of the day was as much about form as it was about content. I find it interesting to note that today the great orators of our age are stand-up comics. Look at the crowds and the revenue that Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans, Michael Macintyre and the like can command. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are fantastic preachers – of a sort. They wield huge influence and power over assembled congregations hungering and thirsting after comic insightfulness. They employ personality, wit, rigorous development and writing, hard graft and practised likeability to create what they want and need to succeed. To say that people now do not expect great oratory because we have radio and television, clearly do not appreciate how alive and well the art is today. Our culture has set the bar high. I’m not saying every preacher has to be a stand-up comic but I am saying that it is not beyond the realms of expectation to understand how these comics do what they do so well. And when it comes to using visuals, Dave Gorman shows anyone who cares to notice that even Powerpoint can be very entertaining. Some YouTube analysis of these people doesn’t go amiss.
Preaching is a specialised form of Performance. Expounding Gospel truths by captivating means is a particular form of communication that preserves an integrity at its core. Do we like to describe it as entertainment though? No. That irks us doesn’t it? It’s far more than entertainment we say. Or, even, it’s not entertainment at all. To sideline ‘entertainment’ as something superficial or unimportant is to miss the point entirely. A captivating melody may lift our spirits, whether the song is about ‘Danny Boy’ or ‘I Cannot Tell Why He Whom Angels Worship’ … the point is, we are captivated by the melody even before we consider the lyrics. I would argue that the ‘music’ or ‘melody’ of the way someone speaks captivates us in a very similar manner. We need to be entertained before we can truly listen. At some level, entertainment, engagement, fascination, reassurance and comfort all play their part to aid the process of effective communication. Good public speaking is two-way, it thrives on the relationship created by the giver to share with the recipients.
Okay, let’s get back to Wally. I imagine you think he needs to up his game somewhat. Which things should he try harder to change? Everything? Or just a significant tweak here and there? Which are the priorities? And which are less important to the extent that is doesn’t matter as much if he doesn’t get around to fixing them? My guess is that, for most people, the mumbling just off mic would be the least of our worries given the catalogue of other pressing needs. But despite the fact that we recognise and highly value the potency and importance of scripture and the message of the Gospel, what I often hear intoned from the front of churches is a slightly glorified shopping list … often mumbled off mic. I’m sure the leader, reader or preacher is perfectly fragrant, nicely turned out, deodorised and wonderfully committed to God in their heart – at least they have surpassed Wally in those respects. But perhaps this sense of ‘making it more casual’ has had an interesting knock-on effect. (Bear in mind we are not alone in this respect, our culture in general seems to have forsaken the traditions of pure rhetoric and the art of eloquence.) We’ve stopped calling what we do when we’re not singing, ‘Worship.’ Perhaps you’ve noticed that. Worship has come to mean singing. Who is the ‘Worship Leader’ in a modern church? Not the one leading the service. Once we stop to question this we might agree that this is a nonsense. But its usage continues and it only serves to compound the notion that nothing else matters as much as the music. (And sometimes with the odd song I am tempted to feel that the music doesn’t matter much either.)
So am I just a grumpy old man muttering away in the corner to myself about dropping standards? Of course I am! That’s the primary function of old men! Look, there I am gnashing my teeth on the fringes. But, apart from eating hair, all I am simply asking is that people recognise what’s happening and bear in mind two things:
1. Like it or loathe it, we live in a culture of shopping. Window displays, merchandising, sale offers. It is relentless. But, hey, church is different. Church is quirky. Church is Other. The values we offer are lasting and life changing. The main problem I have with shops and shopping is not all the hullabaloo surrounding marketing, it’s the quality of the goods. I don’t want to waste my money on tat and if something isn’t up to scratch I’ll complain (ask my family). We often talk about ‘the shop window’ that our church has ‘out there in the world’. John Lewis can teach us a thing or two on presentation – and why not? However we dress things up we know, though, that the quality of the goods on offer are wonderful. We want our church building to be inviting, clean, interesting, attractive. We want to welcome people personably and warmly. We want to say how wonderful and vital and astounding and miraculous and unmissable the message of Jesus is – so why not find the best way possible of saying it? The quality of the ‘goods’ should be undeniable.
2. I have used one extremely important word three times so far. Did you spot it? Chances are, you didn’t and you won’t. That’s because many of us don’t stop to appreciate the role it plays in every part of our lives. There is nothing that we think or do or say or dream or hope for, that is not powered by it. In fact, without it we would have no faith at all. Without it we would barely survive. The word is ‘imagine’. For me, alongside Love, this is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. All we need do in our acts of corporate worship is to exercise our imagination together with, of course, a little intelligence:
“How am I coming across?”
“Is this the most effective way of doing this?”
“Can I find a different way of doing this?”
“Is the register of my voice the right one to use at this point?”
“Do I sound bored, tired, uninteresting and dull?”
“Have I tried my hardest to rehearse that song?”
“What if it’s not ‘alright on the night’?”
“How long do I actually need to leave that visual on screen for?” “Is my mouth aimed towards the mic?”
“Should I speak louder?”
“What if I started speaking gobbledigook, would anybody notice?”
So how do we help each other to improve? Firstly, we need to agree together that we want to ‘up our game’. Secondly, take the initiative to invite one or two people you trust and respect to give you feedback on how they think you’re doing. Finally, don’t make any assumptions that anything is finally final. More on that in a bit …
People have sometimes asked me over the years “Where do you worship?” My reply is often ‘in the bath’ or ‘walking in the countryside’ or ‘on Holkham beach in Norfolk’ … of course I am teasing, but the truth is not very far away. This is because I simply need to see the greatness of God reflected in his creation and, to be honest, the reflection in most churches is often dulled or imperceptable. Okay, in our church there are Chris’s flowers. Yes, and there are the times when someone is overcome as they share an experience with the congregation. And, yes, there are songs and hymns that hit the mark every now and then. And there are the children, the wonderful wonderful children who consistently reflect God’s playfulness, joy and love. So I’m not grumpy all the time.
So what about you? Where do you stand? Or should I say how do you stand? How do you speak, play or sing? How do you gesticulate? How do you read aloud? Is it the best you can do? All the time? Who is it that people are seeing and hearing? Like it or not, every time you stand up in front of others you adopt a persona. It’s natural human behaviour – the You that leads something publicly is not the same You that shares intimacies at home with someone very close to you. Neither is it the You who is dealing with an awkward work colleague you haven’t met before. There is nothing false about any of these roles, you are still being yourself, it’s just that the register has shifted.
I’ve focused quite heavily on those who preach, who obviously number far fewer than those who read, pray, sing and play. It’s understandable that preaching comprises the main element of ‘the shop window’ to many minds, but actually the culmination of all the other factors has the potential to have an equal impact. Music especially can hold a significant sway over our perceptions and where there may be a lack of rehearsal or confidence, it only serves to undermine that sense of reassurance and focus that we need. Conversely, when a piece of music or song really gels well our spirits can soar. The same can be true for readings and prayers and even, maybe, the notices too!
And finally … I’ve been standing up in front of people and doing things publicly for a long time and I am still learning how to do it. Complacency doesn’t come into it and I am never satisfied that I have achieved perfection. (Hah! Some hope.) I recognise that fellow human beings need to know they are in safe hands when someone is leading them and that a sense of safety can only be generated by you when you’re confident you’re giving it your best shot. And you’re enjoying doing it!
Whether you have accumulated 38 years or 38 minutes experience of standing up in front of others to lead something, the challenge always remains. Isn’t it everybody’s duty to care about effectively communicating the message in whatever way we feel we can? Try to start thinking about your Performance as starting with heightened behaviour. Remember it’s still You, but employing a particular register. This isn’t ‘putting on a show’ or projecting what we might interpret as artifice. Raising our game in this way is not artificial, it’s essential, it helps build up the body of Christ. It is also useful to remember that a congregation never ceases to be an audience too.
And if people in your church use my criteria and decide to play ‘Where’s Wally?’ – who will they be pointing at? It’s a huge shame that God’s immense glory and the richness of the fabulous global and local community you and I are part of often gets lost because we simply do not care enough about how we’re coming across.
Footprints Theatre Trust Nottingham