Worship not performance

In contemporary Christian worship, a distinction is often made between worship that is “really worship” versus “just a performance.” For example, does the music invite authentic congregational participation or is it filled with guitar solos, pyrotechnics, and fog machines that make the service a concert that gives people goose bumps for cheap manufactured reasons? I want to look at a different contrast between worship and performance that I see at the heart of the gospel. I believe we were created to worship every moment of every day. The purpose of gathering to sing and pray and learn each weekend is merely to retune ourselves for a week of worship. The problem is that we misunderstand what worship means: we think it’s performing for God, putting on a show to prove to Him that we really believe in Him so that He won’t throw us in hell. But performance is actually the greatest obstacle to true worship, the definition of which is summarized in a single verse — Psalm 37:4: “Delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” It’s not hard to learn how to worship; my three year old son knows perfectly how. The impossible challenge that Jesus died on the cross to make possible is unlearning performance.

Every Monday, I go to mass at the Catholic basilica in Washington, DC. For the last several months, I have been chewing on part of the liturgy that relates to the question of worship and performance. The priest says, “It is right and just, our duty and our salvation always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, creator of the world and the source of all life.” I have been intrigued by the theological significance of calling Eucharist (“giving thanks” in Greek) our duty and our salvation. The knee-jerk evangelical response to a theological statement like this would be to cry out, “That’s work-righteousness! We can’t ‘earn’ our salvation through ‘giving thanks’. Salvation only comes through faith in Christ.” It seems like the liturgy makes giving thanks to God into a performance, a show that we put on for God to try to convince Him that we’re worthy of salvation.

But I think evangelicals frame the question of salvation in the wrong way and, because of this, they completely misunderstand both the Catholic and Orthodox theological perspective that have been a source of deeper salvation for me over the past couple of years. When all that “getting saved” means is doing or being something that causes God to say “Yes” instead of “No” when we hit the pearly gates, then whatever it is that we do or become to make God say “yes” will inevitably be a performance, an act of works-righteousness that evangelical theology detests. We might insist that the Holy Spirit is the one who made us do or become whatever it is that God says “yes” to, but saying that is just part of our performance. “Faith” itself is a performance if it’s something God evaluates and either approves or disapproves, which is why the doctrine of justification by faith as it’s normally conceived in evangelical theology creates a logical crisis (if we are saved by our faith and not by our deeds as Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, then how is “faith” not the deed that saves us?). The Calvinists side-step the logical conundrum of justification by faith with their doctrine of predestination in which the elect are marionettes that God shakes on a string in a contrived performance to please Himself into saying “yes” to them.

But what if the thing we are saved from is performance itself? And what if worship is our salvation, not something we do to earn it, but the content of it? What if God wants to rescue us from performance so that we can worship Him without inhibition, not trying to show how “saved” or “anointed” we are by throwing our hands way up in the air or emphatically closing our eyes and scrunching up our faces really tight, but simply allowing ourselves to be swept up in the spontaneous delight of His presence that might well include the gestures I just named and other more ridiculous things without the burdensome purpose of convincing God or our fellow worshipers that we really believe in what we’re doing? What if giving us the freedom to worship is God’s purpose in providing the sacrifice for our sins through Jesus Christ that unconditionally justifies every flaw we have ever made in our performance of life to prove to us that our Judge gives us a perfect ten we don’t deserve so we can rest in this knowledge and enjoy dancing before Him like our ancestor King David did?

Performance was the trap that ensnared the Pharisees, Jesus’ arch-rivals and teaching examples of how not to be. I’ve been reading Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy in which he shares that the Greek word hypokrites had always been a theatrical term that simply described “performers” on a stage (hypo + krites meaning “under [the gaze of] the critic”). According to Willard, Jesus’ use of the word in the Sermon on the Mount was what led to hypocrisy acquiring the meaning that it has today. Consider how each of these examples is Jesus’ critique of Pharisaic performance:

“When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the performers do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others.” Matthew 6:2

“When you pray, do not be like the performers, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” Matthew 6:5

“When you fast, do not look somber as the performers do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” Matthew 6:16

It is not a question of whether the Pharisees do one thing in public and another in private (though this is an issue Jesus raises elsewhere in Matthew 23). In calling the Pharisees “performers,” Jesus is calling attention to the fact that everything they do is “in front of others to be seen by them” (6:1). It’s all performance. And I don’t think the problem is that we are supposed to perform for the “audience of One” instead of other people, as so many Christian pop artists talk about doing. When we perform for God (in the sense of performing before a panel of judges), then we’re still trying to prove our worth to Someone who has said over and over again, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9), which is a pretty ungrateful slap in His face. No, thanks, I’ll pass on Your grace; I’d rather earn my perfect ten!

Everything ugly about Christianity today is a result of people performing instead of worshiping. The reason Fred Phelps protests military funerals with his “God hates fags” picket is to prove that no one could possibly be more conservative than he is about homosexuality. He’s putting on a performance. And it’s not for other people, but for his “audience of One.” The only sense in which other people matter is to reap enough scorn on himself so he can say, “See, God, see what I’m sacrificing for you!” When uber-Pharisees like Phelps engage in this type of radical performance, I suspect it’s because they genuinely believe that God will burn them in hell unless they prove their “faith” in God by hating (other people’s) “sin” more than God does.

Worship, in contrast, is delighting in our Creator every time we smell the fresh air He never stops making, every time we see the majesty of the smallest of one of His plants, every time we let ourselves be swept away by music or any other form of art whose earthly creators are only channeling the beauty of the One who is their true Muse and constant Source. Worship is what children do all the time in their natural interactions with God’s beauty, which is why Jesus says about children that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). But the tragic fall from grace that happened in the infancy of human history is the same thing that happens in each individual human life. At some mysterious moment that none of us can pinpoint perfectly, every one of us eats the apple that Adam has never stopped eating, and the garden of God’s abundant delight turns into a plantation of scarcity where we perform to compete for God’s limited resources.

Sin can be narrated as the product of performance in the sense that its greatest damage is the disfigurement that occurs within our hearts as we try to rationalize or hide it from our panel of judges. Sin is deadly when it causes people to “love darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19), when we make ourselves crazy in the spiritual gymnastics we do to try to play off all the bounces and stutter-steps in the landings of our life floor routine. Sin only has power over us as long as we are in performance mode, as long as we self-justify instead of recognizing that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, [who] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 2:1-2). In the safety of this knowledge, we do not need to be right, which more and more I am coming to see as the core freedom of salvation. Needing to be right, also known as “spiritual pride” in Christianese, is often described as the root sin behind every other sin. Hungering for righteousness instead of wanting to be right is yearning for the removal of all the obstacles that keep us from a life of pure worship. Sin in this sense is whatever keeps us from worshiping perfectly.

People who don’t need to be right are okay with the fact that only God is right and that God is the only performer worthy of worship. Just imagine what it would be like to see God’s performance directly and not filtered through all of His creations that we confusedly worship as idols. Imagine being in eternity with Him where He’s DJ-ing the most amazing dance party you could possibly imagine using intergalactic noises we’ve never heard before and suddenly He leaps over the DJ booth and starts break-dancing in front of us, doing moves that we never could have pictured in our minds. And watching this happen and joining His dance, we experience the pure exhilaration of simply becoming God’s poetry (Ephesians 2:10) rather than having cheap, spiritually disfiguring goals that define stereotypical dance clubs like trying to get a piece of !@#$%^&* from some hotty, which turns our dancing into a self-conscious and neurotic performance no matter how deeply buried beneath our adolescent projection of hubris. Imagine what it would be like to be absorbed into sub-woofers coming out of quasars and a light show of nebulae until we really become one with God’s song (yes, I’m riffing on Louie Giglio a little bit here). Maybe that image doesn’t work for everyone, but I really hope that heaven is a rave. I’m sure it will be even better than a rave.

To come at this a different way, so many stupid things we do are for the purpose of putting on a performance for other people who are secretly projecting a fake image that is their performance for us. Think about sex, the beautiful, mysterious act of radical vulnerability at the center of human existence. The fact that so many kids today are trying to perform sexually up to the fake manufactured standards they see in the pop culture that whips us into an erotic frenzy to sell its products is the reason that sex has become so cheap and meaningless. I’ve been one of those kids, by the way. What if sex were worship instead? And not worshiping the idol of a banal bodily urge, but instead being able to enjoy the experience of the radically interpenetrating embrace of God that caused Paul to see an analogy between human marriage and Christ’s “marital” relationship with the church in the way that “the two become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31-32).

One way to narrate the interconnectedness of the two Great Commandments to love God and love your neighbor is to observe that when we stop performing and let ourselves worship God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, then we encounter each other without facade in raw authenticity. We become neighbors in a way that we cannot be otherwise. That’s why I think it’s legitimate to say that another name for worship is authenticity and to recognize that human community is only as real as the worship that it is founded upon.

I’m not sure how to come in for a landing on this one, so I’ll just say that I hope one day I can stop performing. I hope one day that I will stop being afraid of all the haters, real or imagined, who question my credibility as a pastor and fill my mind with wasteful obsessive paranoia. I hope one day that I will stop throwing my integrity to the wind because I’m trying to put on a performance of agreeableness with everyone I talk to. I want to worship You “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Keep on cutting all the stone away so that I can get out and dance with You just like Michelangelo did for David. Make me someone who really can “dance like no one is watching, love like I’ll never be hurt, sing like no one is listening,  and live like it’s heaven on earth.” Make me a poem that You can delight in.

18 thoughts on “Worship not performance

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  2. Finally made it all the way through this post, and I definitely agree with your premise. A lot of these ideas find parallels in existentialism, with “performance” relating to “being-for-others” and your proposed solution bearing much resemblance to my own concept of “being-with-others.”

    Our truest worship stems from the times when we are not trying to change ourselves just to satisfy another, be it God or people, but when we find ourselves *with* them and desiring authentically to act and be in such a way that displays harmony with those around us.

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  9. When the priest says, “It is right and just…”, if the meaning is the same as that portion in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, is recalling Revelation 5, where the Lamb is praised for opening the seven seals:

    “Worthy [axios / meet and right / right and just] is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.’ And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, ‘To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion to the ages of ages.”

      • Definitely potent.

        In The Constantinopolitan rite it says:

        Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord.

        People: It is proper and right.

        Priest: It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God [apophatic portion] ineffable, incomprehensible, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; [cataphatic portion] You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit; for all things that we know and do not know, for blessings seen and unseen that have been bestowed upon us.

  10. Morgan,

    Thanks for the FB invitation to read and ponder. This post and your previous one sound to my ear like you are having some tensions in your ministry. While tensions are part of life, I hope these are the ordinary kind and not the “yea though I walk through the valley” kind.

    I’m not quite so convinced that all performance is a bad thing. But even more to the point, I’m not convinced that all your arrows hit real targets. Lots of evangelicals, for instance, would not recognize themselves in your description of them. That said, I certainly share your concern for false or hypocritical performance and have seen the pressures you describe in some worship settings.

    The description you have of heaven as a rave is unsettling to me. Perhaps a signs of my spiritual hang-ups. But I hear in your description the obliteration of identity and personality. It sounds a bit Eastern to me or conversely pagan. I understand the new heaven and earth as an experience in which I will still be I, not lost in a pulsing throng.

    This may be a misreading of your point, though.

    • Yikes… I actually thought in this piece that I wasn’t “targeting” an object of criticism so much as offering new metaphors for the “from what” and “for what” of salvation. Honestly I’m just responding to what Dallas Willard had to see about hypocrite literally meaning “performer.” The difference between feeling under pressure to “be right” and dancing in the safety and mercy of God’s grace is what I’m trying to capture. It’s not so much being washed away in a blob of non-identity as it is losing the deformities of sin that keep us from being who we really are as God-worshipers and image-bearers. Are there particular sections of this that make the rest of it read like “arrow-shooting” because I’d like to revise those if that’s the case? That’s a distraction from what I’m trying to accomplish.

      • If I can spend some time with the text, I’ll post my thoughts about it. It may very well be that my reading is more about me than about what you wrote. But, I will try to show you the places where I heard things that led to my reaction.

        It just may not happen in the next 24 hours.

      • Quick thoughts. I just went through and read it again after reading your comment about the intentions of it. Reading it the first time, I did not pick up that the Willard piece was the genesis of the post or the driving thrust of it.

        Indeed, as I read through it again, I’m not sure I could lift up a single sentence that clearly struck me as the central claim of it. I think you use questions in several places where you are making your actual claims.

        The early paragraphs are built around contrasts. Not this, but this. And perhaps this heightened my sense that you were defining your point by setting it in opposition to others. The opening paragraph is set up as “here is what some people think” but “what if it is this instead.” Later, you argue evangelicals have a mistaken theology (and are in the same category as Fred Phelps). I’m not even sure Phelps would agree that he is doing things for the reasons you speculate he is. These early paragraphs are where I was picking up a critical focus in the piece.

        It might help put the focus where you want if you led more with the Willard stuff and stated your basic claim as a positive statement and less by setting it against the “bad” stuff you see Christians doing because of a misguided understanding of God and salvation.

        At least for me, the compare and contrast sets up a tone in which I hear this not a liberation (which I see you hitting hard at the end) but as a critique of wrong ideas and wrong practices. I gather that is not your intention. It it may not even be a fair reading. It is how it struck me. I hope I have offered some indication why I reacted that way, so you can decide whether my comments are worth paying any attention to.

        In peace.

        • Thanks. That is immensely helpful. I think if I lead with “I have been reading Dallas Willard and…”, it will set up a much better frame for the message to come through without distractions. I can also try to “de-prickle” some of what I’m saying so it doesn’t sound like it’s bashing (I self-identify as an evangelical by the way albeit a confused and wrestling one). I’m grateful for your willingness to take time with this.

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