I have always believed that to be a good leader of worship you need to be aware you are on a stage, not in a lights, camera, action sense but certainly as someone who needs to command and keep the congregations attention, someone who gives the congregation a sense of well-being and confidence so they can concentrate on worshiping.
It shouldn’t however be about whoever is leading the worship for if the leader becomes the focus rather than the worship itself then a line has been crossed and it has become theater. Of course it is for these reasons that robes were first used, to remove the personality from the equation but the nature of church is changing and increasingly individuals who wouldn’t normally robe are taking part in the service and rather than it being ‘a’ priest it is Fred or Ginger up there doing their thang. The worship leader, be they lay or ordained, has to keep the congregation participating in worship and not turn them into onlookers by turning the attention onto themselves. To lead worship is to be an icon for the congregation so that they may better view God, not a diva that distracts away from God.
I have been reading Christine Schnusenberg’s The Mythological Traditions of Liturgical Drama: The Eucharist as Theater, and I would recommend it to anyone who regularly leads worship in Church. Of course each congregation has their own traditions and foibles, however it is always worth remembering that Jesus was a great showman. He used the tricks of the trade to keep his listeners attentive, indeed in some cases they were so attentive that they didn’t let him rest. The delicate balancing act we his followers need to perform is ensuring that any tricks we use don’t diminish the message about Christ and turn worship into a show about us.
Schnusenberg ably demonstrates in her engaging book that whilst it is often thought that the Greeks invented theater, in reality the way that various cultures expressed their cosmic dramas to primordial gods, heroes and ancestors at festivals; at festivals which contained symbols, dances, masks, dress codes, and dynamic personification, was in fact theater par excellence. So she starts not in Athens, but by the Nile in ancient Egypt. weaving a path through Ancient near east to Rome.
Her exploration around the matrix of Roman theater and the universal drama of Jesus Christ is fascinating. It makes perfect sense in a world of grand conquerors that the story of Jesus would end in the victory of life over death, after all how could victory be anything less than what the Romans had achieved. We are familiar with how New Testament writers looked back into the Old Testament to cement what they had to say about Jesus in the prophets, but we are maybe less aware of the symbiosis and osmosis with Romulus and how for those who listened with Roman ears their own ancient stories and symbols were imbued with new meaning.
As I came to the end of the book I was left thinking that maybe we worry in today’s world too much about whether the church is being secularised, for it always has reflected the culture as much as it has God. Maybe instead we should go back to learn from those in the past and embrace the culture in which we live and in that way the Church will seem far more relevant to those who currently pass by on the other side.