Is worship a performance?

Can we clap after a beautiful song?

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Is it okay to clap for the choir? This perennial question often triggers a larger conversation about performance in worship. Many of us share a strong aversion to anything in worship that feels like a performance for fear that it will draw attention away from God. After all, the purpose of worship is to glorify God, not glamourize people. We’re also afraid that a performance is somehow inauthentic, that it’s “putting on an act.” If our worship is an act, that makes us actors, the Greek word for which is hypocrite (and we know what Jesus had to say about them — see Matthew 23).

These concerns are legitimate, but they also risk missing the positive aspects of performance. A skilled performance can give more attention to Jesus, and ironically, it’s often the best performers who can draw our attention beyond themselves. Nor is a performance inherently inauthentic. We don’t just perform when we’re acting; we perform whenever we’re doing something. Putting on a play and putting on boots for work are both performances, and an act of worship doesn’t make worship an act.

The truth is that worship itself is a performance. Worshiping God is something we do. This idea comes up often in Scripture. The psalms frequently speak of worship as something we perform: “Make your vows to the Lord your God and perform them” (Psalm 76:11). Jesus ended his Sermon on the Mount by exhorting his listeners to not only hear what he said, but to do it (Matthew 7:24). And later, James famously wrote: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (James 2:18). The witness of Scripture tells us that worship is something we perform.

But how do we know if a particular performance is, in fact, worship? Worship is a performance, but not all performances are worship. Three questions are begging for an answer: What are we performing in worship? Who are the performers? And how is the performance conducted?

First, the thing we are performing in worship is the kingdom of God. In worship, we actively participate in the larger performance of God’s reign in Christ. When Christians gather in worship, the thing we are performing is not primarily ours, but God’s. Our worship is for the sake of manifesting God’s kingdom here and now through the presence of Christ. In worship, we act out our heavenly citizenship and become characters in the performed reality of God’s kingdom.

Second, the performers in worship are God, the church and the world. The triune God is always the primary performer in worship. Just as Eugene Peterson described all prayer as “answering speech,” so all worship is answering performance. God always performs first, and the church responds with the performance of worship. The hidden performer in worship is the rest of the world. The church does not perform worship for its own sake only but also for the sake of others, thus continuing Abraham’s legacy of “blessed to be a blessing” (Genesis 12). The entire world is the intended recipient of God’s blessing, and our performance of worship enlists us in a disciple-making mission “to the ends of the earth.” That’s why our Reformed tradition includes the prayers of the people in the liturgy. Our performance of worship includes praying for each other and the world. On any given Sunday, the rest of the world is an unknowing character in the drama of salvation history.

Third, the performance of worship is conducted with a script. All performances need a script that dictates what is performed, whether a national government, a wedding ceremony or a child’s bedtime routine. The script also dictates who the performers are; it assigns everyone a part to play. Whether the script is written or not, every performed reality involves characters who follow a script of expected words and behaviors. The same is true of worship. Even “Spirit-led” worship follows a script defined by its spontaneity.

In worship, we give this script a special name: liturgy, “the work of the people.” What makes liturgy unique and necessary is its focus on the presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament. Whether it’s printed on paper or not, the result is the same: what would otherwise be merely human performances – readings, songs, sermons, prayers – are symphonically woven into the performance of worship. A choir cantata on its own is good; the liturgy makes it godly.

The liturgy also involves the whole congregation in the performance. It gives everyone their lines and allows even the most novice worshiper to play a key role. It looks for ways to turn the work of a few into the work of all the people. When a choir sings, for example, the liturgy can invite the congregation to respond. Whether the response should be spontaneous applause, a responsive reading, or even a deliberate time of silence is a matter for pastors and sessions to decide based on their context, but a good liturgy will always seek to include the whole congregation in others’ performances whenever possible.

Worship is something we perform, and we do it best with a Christ-centered liturgy that responds to God and blesses the world. When we face questions like whether to clap for the choir, we have a golden opportunity to be thoughtful about how our performance fits within the larger performance of God’s kingdom. We can also explore ways to include the whole congregation and keep everyone’s attention on Jesus as much as possible. It’s hard to imagine a more authentic performance of worship than that.