Finding the right balance between simply being yourself and giving a purposeful performance for an audience can be a difficult, humbling, and confusing process for any musician—in or outside of the church. As worship leaders, finding this balance can be particularly daunting. Should we really be ‘performing’ music intended for God? Doesn’t ‘performing’ focus the attention on us instead of Him? Shouldn’t our audience be an audience of one?
When dealing with how much or little to perform, I have found that the most important decision you can make is to make a decision.
People want to be led. Leaders exist for this purpose. As worship leaders, the stage is our leadership platform and our role there is to love and serve those that God has placed before and around us. I have been equally distracted by both worship leaders and coffee house musicians who have not led an audience well. The distinction I have found in both experiences has been a lack of purpose in leading the audience to a predetermined outcome. Creating an experience that serves the audience and our message well, and purposing everything that we do on stage to feed that experience, grants us the opportunity to simply lead people well.
With this in mind, there are some things that cannot be avoided as we navigate the relationship between an audience and a person on stage. We must be responsible to consider this relationship and purpose to lead well in it.
1. The audience is watching you.
There’s no way around it. And if they are watching, what do they see? I heard performance coach Tom Jackson say once that an audience walks away from a live performance remembering only 15% of the content of the performance! They remember 30% of the passion and tone of their experience, and 55% of what they see and experience with their eyes. This leads me to ask, “Are we communicating our message clearly? What are they walking away with?” When deciding how much or how little to perform, consider whether or not what your audience is seeing is clearly and accurately reflecting the message that you have been given to convey. If ‘performing’ more leads your audience to understand and retain your message more effectively by allowing them to see it with their eyes, shouldn’t you be giving them the performance of your life?
2. The audience does have expectations.
Yep, there’s no way around this one either. Let’s be honest; you do to! Think about it, when you show up to a place where there is a stage and a sound system and musicians ready to play, you can’t help but have a certain number of expectations about what is about to happen and even about what you would like see. The question that often arises in worship music is this: Should we be striving to meet the audience’s expectations or should we be purposing to change their expectations in a worship environment? I’m sure we have all seen the pendulum shift to an extreme on both sides in response to this question. One church decides to meet and even exceed the audience’s expectations by making their experience performance driven, feeding the audience by entertaining them. Another church chooses to have no lights on stage, so that no one is even seen, thereby seeking to adjust the audience’s given expectations and even creating new ones for them.
Is one way right and the other wrong? Is one way more effective that the other? I don’t believe so. As Christians, the message we have been entrusted to give away is the same, but the vision for how the message is to be expressed varies in different places with different teams in different cultures. We can all meet and even exceed our audience’s expectations by first understanding that they have them, and then creating a clear vision for how we will communicate that message to them.
3. The audience can read you.
Scary, but true. They are not only watching you, but they are also able to recognize your behavior. Your body language is often communicating way more than your mouth is. Audiences can tell if you are unprepared, insecure, or unsure. But they are not against you. They actually want to be fed.
Preparation is often the largest key to overcoming the distractions we present in our behaviors on stage. Practice breeds confidence, which frees us up to be completely present on stage—to focus our attention on them and not ourselves. Having a well-defined, practiced plan for how you will look and sound as you lead others in worship will silence most fear and insecurity and allow for your mind to be focused on the work of leading.
One final thought on this topic: As followers of Christ, we have been called to a clear, simple mandate—love God and love others. As worship leaders, it is our job to determine how to best fulfill this commandment from the platform we have been given. Love always gives. What if we thought about performing as an act of giving?
We have the opportunity to express the love of God to our congregations by focusing our attention on meeting their needs and building a relationship with them from stage. Give them yourself! They want to connect with you emotionally so tell them how you feel so they can relate to you. An audience will not always understand musical things, but they will walk away having had an experience with you. Our preoccupation needs to be with the people, not the music or the performance. Our performance should just be a part of the equation as we are seeking the best way to communicate love to the audience. We are there for them, to give them the message we have been given. If performance speaks of giving and giving speaks of love, let’s consider their needs above our own and give everything we have to them.