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Prophet, Priest & Performer

By Alun Brookfield.

Three recent events caused me to reflect on the connection between performance skills and the leading of worship.

First was a conversation with a friend, an Anglo-Catholic priest with a true heart for evangelism, who spent most of his working life as a professional actor before being ordained. Over dinner, I asked him how he squared his natural and professional performance skills with the leading of worship. His answer was: “When I’m leading a normal Sunday Eucharist, I play it pretty straight. But when it’s a baptism or wedding, or even on occasions a funeral, then it’s showtime!”.

The second was a visit to Greenbelt where I went to hear the only Welsh language performer in the place. She sang beautifully, but had no performance skills, by which I mean that she made little or no attempt to engage the audience in her performance. She was a product of the Eisteddfod tradition in Wales with its emphasis on purity of voice rather than engaging with the audience.

Finally, I attended a service in a parish church where the parish priest is, in his spare time, leader and conductor of a highly regarded amateur choir and orchestra. Yet one would never have guessed this from the way he led worship. It was as though he was completely oblivious to the need to lead the congregation rather than just say the Office.

And that led me to reflect on the sheer dullness of so much leading of worship in Anglican parish churches. It’s not that the clergy are incompetent - indeed, many are, I know for certain, caring and conscientious parish priests - but many have no performance skills, or if they have them, they do not use them. They make no attempt to engage the congregation in the Eucharistic process. The say (or sing) the service beautifully, but there is no sense of ‘performing’ the service, by which I mean that they make little or no attempt to involve the congregation in the drama of the Eucharist.

That led me on to remember that my four years at theological college contained no training in these skills. I shared two of those years with the Revd Steve Chalke, a natural and now well-known TV presenter and performer. At his third year ‘sermon class’ (for the uninitiated, sermon class was an experience too awful to explain beyond saying that one was required to preach a 20 minute sermon, then to have it and oneself torn to ribbons by the rest of the students!), Steve had us laughing helplessly as he expounded a passage of Romans 5. At the subsequent dismemberment, he was strongly criticised for overuse of his sense of humour and for playing to the gallery!

Now some would no doubt say that the job of a priest/preacher/pastor is not to perform, but to lead others to Christ. I don’t disagree with that, but I think it leaves out the element of leading the people in worship. Surely it is my job as a Parish Priest, or as a Pastor, to lead the people to the throne of grace, to lead them into the presence of the Lord. And that means that it’s not enough simply to mumble my way through the service without any thought for the needs of the congregation.

It means ensuring that every word I say is clearly audible and given its due emphasis. It involves announcing what’s coming next, then pausing until most of the rustling of pages has stopped, thus telling me that the congregation are ready to proceed. I was in a church recently where this latter was not done. In fact the priest - lovely pastor though he is - simply launched off into, say, the Creed at a very fast gabble, leaving the congregation to catch up several lines later.

Leading the congregation also requires eye contact. I once attended a service in which the visiting minister led the whole service from start to finish without once looking at the congregation. I wondered how he was going to manage the sermon - he simply preached with his eyes closed!

I have often recommended that anyone who wants to lead worship should watch a video of Robbie Williams performing on stage (Kylie Minogue or Cliff Richard would do just as well - a clerical colleague makes the same recommendation with regard to Billy Connolly.). These professional performers grab the audience early in the show and never let go until they leave the stage. It’s worth watching how they do it - eye contact, movement, facial expressions, pauses to let the audience catch up when necessary. They are an excellent example of how to lead people.

Professional performers do this for their own glory or for the good of their audiences. We who lead worship have a different agenda. For us, everyone in the service is a performer and God is the audience. For that reason, it is essential that those who lead worship should not be indulging in a personal spiritual experience. Nor should they ever simply ‘go through the motions’. Even less should they ever fall prey to the temptation to wallow in their own self-importance. Rather “it is our duty and our joy, at all times and in all places,” to be the ones who lead others into the presence of God, and to use every available tool at our disposal.

Growing up under the care of a father who was very keen on DIY, I learned three very important lessons. First, use the right tool for the job. Second, learn to use it properly. Third, clean it and/or sharpen it before you put it away.

If we lead worship, performance skills are among the right tools for the job and we need to learn to use them properly. But we also need to make sure we keep them in good working order so that, next time we use them in front of a congregation, we have no need to be ashamed of them.

Alun Brookfield

Editor of Ministry Today

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You are reading Prophet, Priest and Performer by Alun Brookfield, part of Issue 38 of Ministry Today, published in November 2006.

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