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“This Is No Performance”: Exploring the Complicated Relationship between the Church and Contemporary Congregational Songs

School of Arts and Business, Alphacrucis University College, Parramatta, NSW 2124, Australia
Religions 2023, 14(5), 578;
Submission received: 17 February 2023 / Revised: 12 April 2023 / Accepted: 23 April 2023 / Published: 26 April 2023
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Performing and Performance in Contemporary Musical Worship)


“Performing” and “performance” are potentially contentious words within the context of contemporary Christian worship. However, performative elements are explicit in the lyrics of contemporary congregational songs (CCS), and in video recordings of CCS, through the actions of those on stage and in the congregation, as well as in the broader context of staging, lighting, projection, production, and video editing. However, to date, there is only a handful of scholarly works that explore performing in contemporary worship or contemporary worship as performance and most of them are ethnomusicological. This paper seeks to address notions of performing and performance through a broader lens of the most-sung CCS globally, examined through the disciplinary fields of performance studies, musicology, media studies and theology. It involves a two-fold complementary textual analysis of the most-sung CCS lyrics and the most-watched ‘live worship’ videos of those songs on YouTube. In so doing, this study identifies how the Christian music industry at large officially portrays and languages performance in worship songs and also identifies how performative elements are enacted in the live worship videos released. These analyses are finally synthesized to identify how performing and performance are understood and actively portrayed to and by the contemporary church.

1. Introduction

The opening lyrics to Hillsong Young and Free’s popular contemporary congregational song, “Only Wanna Sing”1, are “This is no performance, Lord I pray it’s worship, empty words I can’t afford”. This lyric encapsulates the complicated relationship that many contemporary churches have with notions of performing and performance in corporate worship.
This paper examines notions of performing and performance through a two-fold complementary analysis of contemporary congregational song lyrics and their most-viewed ‘live worship’ videos on YouTube. The research question being addressed is how do the most prominent producers, promoters and disseminators of contemporary congregational songs (CCS), in other words, the CCS industry, reveal their understanding of performing and performance in contemporary worship? The reason this question is important is that no matter what context the most popular CCS are eventually localized into, there is an explicit and implicit understanding of performance in the lyrics and videos that are being presented as the exemplars of worship to those churches. Worship teams are likely to intuitively reproduce the expressions of performance they observe, and they will overwhelming maintain the original CCS lyrics. Others may negotiate between the projected ideal (that which is published/recorded) and the understanding and values of performance within their context. Others still will push against the perceived values encapsulated in the recordings and lyrics that are at odds with their own understanding of worship, as I have examined elsewhere (Thornton 2021b). No matter what the response is, it is negotiated in the light of the official lyrics/recordings made by CCS producers/artists. As such, these are important and didactic musical texts that provide us with insights into performing and performance in contemporary worship.

2. Literature and Methodology

Some literature has emerged in recent years connecting performance and worship. Ingalls et. al. edited a volume entitled Christian Congregational Music: Performance, Identity and Experience in 2013 (Ingalls et al. 2013). This was the first book that emerged from the Christian Congregational Music conference held biennially in the UK. As such, it was a diverse collection, although predominantly ethnomusicological in discipline. In this case, the term “performance” was more about the observable phenomenon of worship practices rather than an engagement with the theoretical or theological constructs around the relationship between performance, performativity and worship. More recently, Abraham (2018) explored “sincere performance” in Pentecostal megachurch worship, and Kelman explored performance in chapter three “Leading Worship: Making Music in Congregations” of his monograph Shout to the Lord: Making Worship Music in Evangelical America (Kelman 2018, pp. 85–116). Performance is also a key theme in Ingalls’ Singing the Congregation: How Contemoprary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community (Kelman 2018).
However, it was Steuernagel who made the first serious attempt to explore church music through the discipline of performance studies (Steuernagel 2021). Steuernagel does state that performance studies is not a discipline per se, but rather “a constellation of questions that function as a lens and discipline” (Steuernagel 2021, p. 27). Although there may be scholars who disagree with this assessment, he is echoing one of the founders of performance studies, Richard Schechner (1988, 2013, 2015). Schechner states that, in performance studies, scholars “use many methodologies to deal with this contradictory and turbulent world” and that, as such, it “is not organized into a unitary system” (Schechner 2013, p. 5).
The field is further complicated with statements such as “anything and everything can be studied ‘as’ performance” (Schechner 2013, p. 1) and “it is hard to imagine performance studies getting its act together or settling down, or even wanting to” (Schechner 2013, p. 4). Although Schechner maintains that performance studies is open and malleable, he confirms that “artistic practice is (still) a big part of the performance studies project” (Schechner 2013, p. 1). It is in the origins of performance studies (the performing arts, but focusing on music rather than theatre), and its associated artistic practices, that this research is positioned. Furthermore, it is the artistic practices of CCS producers in the published and performed versions of their songs that demonstrate a conspicuous awareness that a relationship exists between performance and worship, as exemplified in the opening cited lyrics.
Steuernagel utilizes his ethnomusicological research in the USA and Brazil to contextualize and inform his theoretical arguments to useful effect. However, he is not solely dealing with contemporary worship and is only dealing with a few specific contexts. An ethnographic approach could also have been taken here to gain insights into CCS producers’ perspectives on performing and performance in contemporary worship. However, there are challenges to this method. Often, the most famous CCS artists/writers are shielded from the general public (scholars included). Even if they were accessible, attempting to interview not only all writers, but artists, producers, engineers, and other significant industry and church personnel, would not be feasible. Yet, in the published lyrics and recordings, we have the industry’s synthesized and endorsed expressions of performance in worship. Composers, arrangers, artists, musicians, singers, producers, recording engineers, graphic artists, lighting designers, videographers, editors, church leadership, label executives and more have all contributed to the final officially released CCS. Thus, although it can be problematic to isolate a musical text from its context (Rein and Springer 1986) and analyze it in isolation, musical texts (in this case CCS lyrics and videos) are still valuable artifacts that can and should be analyzed for the information they do convey and the role they play in the musicking of local congregations (Ruth 2021). As with all analysis, this research is potentially colored by my own presuppositions and experiences in contemporary worship as a scholar, practitioner, composer, performer, and recording artist over decades. However, this analysis is based on empirical data, leaving less room for subjectivity. Even so, I am not suggesting that lyrics and videos can tell us everything about performing, performance and performativity in contemporary worship practices. Rather, my aim is to show that these texts and the chosen research methods uniquely reveal some significant insights into this research question.
As articulated, this paper seeks to identify what official lyrical and media texts can tell us about the idealized versions of performing and performance in contemporary worship. This involves musicological and theological analysis of lyrics, and media studies and theological analysis of CCS videos, while also being informed by the lens of performance studies. As I have established elsewhere, the Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) top songs lists, based on church usage of CCS in worship services, are an ideal place to commence such an investigation (Thornton 2021a, pp. 35–37). In this case, I have chosen to analyze songs from the most recent USA Church Copyright License (CCL) report (April 2022) alongside their corresponding most-watched ‘live worship’ videos on YouTube (Appendix A). Given that YouTube has an international viewership, it would be ideal to compare it to an international top songs list from CCLI. However, CCLI only produces regional lists. That being said, top songs are quite consistent across various regions. Eleven of the top 25 songs in the latest charts appear in lists from the USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. A further eight songs appear on at least four of those lists. In fact, out of a possible 125 songs (five lists of the top 25) there are just 12 songs that appear only on a single list, and even then, those songs are often not far outside the top 25 on the other lists. The regions listed above are all Western countries; however, despite the majority-world church surpassing the Western church in growth and numbers, the Western production centers of CCS remain the dominant influences on contemporary worship globally (Thornton 2021a, p. 37). The USA CCL report, therefore, provides a reasonable cross-section of the globally most popular and widely sung CCS. Twenty-five songs are an ambitious sample size for a research paper of this length. However, given the narrow focus of the research question, it was felt that a smaller sample size may not have yielded as thorough a result.
The reasons for analyzing the most-watched videos on YouTube rather than simply the commercially released audio recordings are two-fold. First, YouTube has become the dominant repository of music accounting “for more than half of all streaming music, surpassing CDs, tapes, records and even audio services such as Apple Music and Spotify” (Osborn 2021, p. 1). This is the primary source from which worship teams in local churches learn the CCS that will appear in their services (Thornton 2021a, pp. 20–23). Second, because YouTube is a visual medium, it contains performative activities which are observable and can therefore be analyzed in a way that the audio recording alone could not be. Even if there were no performative activities in these videos, Leeker et al. note that “digital cultures are performance cultures” (Leeker et al. 2017, p. 17). In other words, people engage in performance, performativity, ritual and play with digital mediums quite apart from the content of the media. Although this is true and worthy of its own research in relation to CCS on YouTube, it is not the focus of this paper.
Lyrical analysis of Christian worship has a long history, particularly in liturgical studies which, in research before the twentieth century, did not have audio or video recordings to contribute to its analysis. Liturgical scholar, Lester Ruth continues to advocate for the analysis of lyrics in contemporary worship (Ruth 2021). I am, however, acutely aware that lyrical analysis in isolation has limitations. Song lyrics are not experienced or performed in isolation to their musical context, and that musical context has a profound impact on the meaning of those lyrics and how they impact the listener/singer (Frith 1998, p. 164). When a word is sung at a high pitch, extended in length, or is part of a tag line which is repeated, it is elevated in importance above the words around it. The volume and complexity of the musical accompaniment will also have an impact on the lyrics’ meaning. And ultimately, the lyrics themselves may not be the primary focus of a musical moment meaning that the lyrics are either forgotten or become interchangeable with other lyrics (Gilbert 2013). Some of these factors will be considered in the analysis that follows, as my musicological background demands.
The focus of the lyrical analysis, despite the caveat above, is on specific words that relate to performing and performance. The analysis utilizes the official lyric sheets from CCLI’s SongSelect, the largest and most accessed repository for official CCS charts in the world (Thornton 2021a, p. 20). The analysis intentionally limits its focus to action verbs from the perspective of the worshiper. In other words, actions that God performs are not examined. Furthermore, only present-tense active verbs are included to focus on performance and performative expressions whilst the worshiper is singing the song. Future tense verbs, as in the example “our hearts will cry”, are not included as they reference a future activity of the worshiper rather than something attached to the immediate present of the performance. Passive verbs were also omitted, for example “Worthy of all the songs we could ever sing”, as even though that lyric is sung in that moment, the lyric is not instructing worshipers to sing nor is it arguably denoting the present activity of singing during worship.
The approach to the video analysis used in this study was based primarily on the work of Brad Osborn (2021). Although excellent foundational research on music videos has come from Goodwin (1993), Auslander (2008) and others (Trainer 2015; Vernallis 2013; Cook 1998; Hennion 2003), the benefit of Osborn’s work is that his publication is recent and therefore takes into account the way music videos are currently disseminated and consumed by modern audiences, that is, through streaming services. He divides his analysis into three sections: music (including lyrics), video, and sociological concerns. This paper reflects Osborn’s approach both structurally and methodologically. At the same time, Osborn’s work sits outside the religious and co-performed concerns of CCS videos. As such, I am utilizing previous research (Thornton and Evans 2015) which already bridges that gap to gain a more comprehensive picture of how performing and performance are understood and presented in CCS videos. Of the 25 videos correlating to the CCLI USA CCL top songs, only 13 are ‘live worship’ videos2. Six are lyric videos, five are more typical music videos, and one combines static pictures and text with audio. Only the ‘live’ videos are analyzed, as the others do not show congregational engagement in performative elements of worship. It is possible to find ‘live’ videos of all the songs listed; however, to be consistent, this study only explores the most-viewed videos. In other words, I am interested in the dominant form of the most-sung global CCS as these have the greatest influence, en masse, over how individual worshipers and churches perceive performing and performance in contemporary worship. It is in some ways an arbitrary line, but it is one that must be drawn in order to make such a research project manageable and meaningful. Further research could certainly be undertaken that utilizes different parameters for the videos analyzed to ascertain whether the results are consistent with the findings articulated here.

3. Lyrical Analysis

Across the CCS sample, there are 24 present-tense action verbs from the perspective of the worshiper. These include (in alphabetical order) bless, bow, breathing, bring, cast, come, confess, dance, drink, find, give, hear, live, pour (out our praise), praise, raise, rest, see, shout, sing, speak, stand, taste, and worship. The following four songs under analysis contained no present-tense action verbs: “Battle Belongs”, “Graves Into Gardens”, “What A Beautiful Name”, and “Who You Say I Am”. As we will see in the media analysis, just because songs do not contain performative verbs for the worshiper does not mean they lack performance expression. However, it is important to acknowledge these songs which lyrically deal more with a divine truth, revelation, or testimony than with an activity of the worshiper. Sometimes these songs are consumed by a focus on God’s character or actions, for example “What a beautiful name it is, the name of Jesus” or “You turn graves into gardens. You turn bones into armies. You turn seas into highways. You’re the only one who can”. In my previous work on identifying categories within the CCS genre, these songs would fit into the Praise/Thanksgiving category (Thornton 2021a, pp. 157–61). Other times, the focus is on the worshiper but rather than on what they are doing, the focus is on who they are in Christ. “I am who You say I am” is an example, and this and similar songs fit into the Prophetic/Declarative category. This song type that ‘sees things from God’s perspective’ also characterizes the song “Battle Belongs”, although here the focus is on our future victories as we gain God’s perspective. As such, there are many action verbs in this song, but they are all oriented towards the future, for example, “when I fight, I’ll fight on my knees” or “I’ll sing through the night”. They give a sense of how worship is intended to be performed but in an idealized future.
Prayer/Petition songs are the rarest type across the lists of CCLI top songs. When they do occur, the only present-tense action verbs that are likely to be included are “I/we ask/pray” as these songs are, by definition, requests of God. There is little other performative expression the worshiper can engage in without the song shifting from this category. Songs in the Worship/Devotion category, however, are often filled with active verbs for the worshiper, although they maintain their emphasis on the One worshiped rather than the activities of the worshiper.
Among the 24 verbs mentioned above, most occurred in only one song on the list; however, some occurred in up to seven songs. The most common performative verb in the genre is “sing”. This is consistent with previous research, which showed it to be one of the most common words across all lyrics in the CCS genre (Thornton 2021a, p. 155). It is also the most self-conscious performative word as the lyric “sing” is always sung unlike other performative verbs that may or may not be accompanied by the action they describe, for example, “stand” might be sung standing or seated.
The next most common performative verbs, occurring in four songs, were “praise” and “worship”. Again, this is conspicuous because similarly to the lyric “sing”, these lyrics are enacted in the process of being sung. In other words, when the worshiper declares they are “praising God” they are actually “praising God”, although perhaps the obvious difference between these words and “sing” is that singing is an observable physical phenomenon which can be measured; whereas, to praise or worship God involves elements that are unobservable, such as the state of the worshiper’s inner world. Even so, it seems that performative lyrics that describe the activity being expressed or invoked are important to the genre. As mentioned, twenty-one out of the twenty-five songs (85%) contained at least one active verb.
Up to this point we have been discussing the relationship between performative verbs across the sample. However, it is also worth exploring the number of action verbs within a given song, both in terms of the number of times verbs are repeated and how many different verbs occur. The higher either (or both) of these numbers is, the more the lyrics are self-consciously performative. In other words, an accumulation of performative verbs in a song becomes an increasing focal point in the song. Six songs3 (almost a quarter of the corpus) utilize three different performative verbs. For example, “Great Things” uses “worship”, “bow” and “dance”, and “10,000 Reasons” uses “sing”, “worship”, and “bless”. The song with the greatest number of unique performative verbs is “God So Loved (Live At The Wheelhouse)”. Here, six unique action verbs are used including “praise”, “come”, “drink”, “taste”, “find”, and “bring”. This is an invitational CCS in the Praise/Thanksgiving category. It is also one of the fastest songs on the list. This type of song lends itself to more active verbs. Although, it is worth noting that these verbs are directed to fellow worshipers, for example, “Come all you weary”, rather than verbs describing the actions the worshiper is undertaking personally. Despite the discussion earlier about not including future tense or passive verbs, these verbs, although being directed towards fellow worshipers, may equally be responded to by the worshiper singing them. If I invite you, based on the song lyric, to “come and worship the Lord” and at the same time you invite me, we may both actively respond to each other’s invitation, thus the verbs become performative for the worshiper. Even if that were not the case, the invitation itself is performative in that it offers the potential for the utterance to shape worship performance.
As mentioned, it is not only the number of different verbs used but also their frequency within a song that gives us some insight into the intensity of those performative utterances in worship. Starting with the song we just examined, “God So Loved (Live At The Wheelhouse)”, “come” is included six times in the first and second verses. It opens each lyrical phrase driving home the invitation for worshipers to respond. Similarly, the third verse uses “bring” as the repetitive admonition. Finally, “praise (God)” is repeated in the bridge four times emphasizing the intent of the song upon the worshiper. There are a few other songs which utilize similar repetition. “House Of The Lord”, one of the other fastest songs on the list, repeats the words “worship” and “sing” three times in verses one and two, respectively, then repeats “shout” in the chorus, a section which is repeated multiple times throughout the arrangement. This point is worth pausing on for a moment. Lyrical analysis generally does not take into account the repetitions of sections, such as the chorus, in the analysis but rather uses the official lyrics which only include unique song sections and not repeated ones. This is compensated for by the media analysis in the following section, as it deals with the songs in their officially arranged format, and therefore will highlight the impact of repeated sections on the performance of worship.
A few other songs with repetitive use of action verbs include, “King Of Kings”, “Raise A Hallelujah” and “Way Maker”. “King Of Kings” repeats the verb “praise” at the start of four of the chorus phrases. Given the repetition of the chorus in the arrangement, this is a forceful statement of action by the worshiper. “Raise A Hallelujah” starts each phrase of the verses with “I raise”. The complete phrase is unusual in CCS lyrics. If the action verb “raise” is used, it tends to be related to the raising of one’s hands or the raising of one’s voice. In this case, the thing that is elevated or lifted up in the process of worship is “praise (to) the Lord” (the English translation of the Hebrew word, “hallelujah”). This song further drives home its performative verbs with “sing” occurring eight times in the bridge, and this section is then repeated multiple times in the arrangement. In most of the cases mentioned, the active verb is also stressed because it occurs on the strongest (first) beat of the bar at the start of the phrase, thus the emphasis is multiplied. This is where musicological analysis is vital in qualifying the weight given to performative expressions in worship songs.
The song with the greatest repetition of a single performative verb (on paper but not on the strongest beat nor commencing the phrase) is “Way Maker”. The repeated word is “worship” occurring in the phrase “I worship You, I worship You” as a response to each of the two opening phrases expressed in the verses. As a result of this pattern, it achieves 12 mentions. In practice, the chorus and bridge sections are repeated more than the verses; nevertheless, this repetition is noteworthy and reinforces the active performance of worship by the worshiper.
Returning to a point raised earlier, an analysis of this type is not only interested in the number of verbs occurring within and across the selected sample, but it must also consider the specific verbs that song writers chose to employ as the actions of worshipers. Song writers are literally putting ‘words in people’s mouths’. Why do they choose those particular words? Each of the 24 verbs can be found in multiple biblical references and relate to biblical expressions of worship. Rather than listing each verb with its scriptural links, I will draw out a few features of these chosen verbs. For example, vocal verbs are the most common, “bless”, “confess”, “praise”, “shout”, “speak”, “sing” and “worship”4. The senses of sight, hearing and even taste are also featured. In a more general sense, embodied verbs such as “bow”, “breathing”, “dance”, “drink”, and “stand” dominate. We should be mindful here of Schechner’s assertion that “(r)ituals don’t so much express ideas as embody them” (Schechner 2013, p. 57). These are not just ‘doing words’, but they are potentially embodied words providing us with an insight into how worship is (to be) performed.
This section on lyrical analysis tells us a number of things about performing musical worship. First, it tells us that song writers appear to be quite intentional about including active verbs in their songs in order to instruct and exhort worshipers to perform worship through specific expressions. Those expressions are embodied, sensory, and predominantly verbal. They are reinforced through repetition that is either written into the lyrics, or occurs through the typical arrangements of the songs. They are sometimes positional or conceptual (for example, “live”, “rest”, or “stand”). The literal dynamic volume of worship is referenced (consider “shout” compared to “rest”), as well as the range of physicality (consider “dance” compared to “stand”). Singing is the pre-eminent and most explicit activity in performing worship. Some words have no direct religious connection but are interpreted religiously because of their context (for example, “dance”, “drink”, and “speak”). Other performative verbs are inherently religious, such as “bless”, “praise”, or “worship”. In summary, CCS lyrics use ‘performance words’ and refer to ‘doing something’. Therefore, worship is intentionally performed, even if the notion of “performance” from a secular Western perspective is still problematic for many Christians and song writers, as seen in the lyric that appears at the opening of this paper.

4. Media Analysis

As stated earlier, among the most-watched versions of the 25 top CCS only 13 are “live worship experience” (Thornton 2021c) videos, or what Osborn calls “performance-based videos” (Osborn 2021, p. 65). Osborn states that across the music video landscape, “entirely performance-based (videos) are quite rare” (original emphasis) (ibid.). This presents perhaps the biggest deficit between this research and Osborn’s. Entirely performance-based videos or live worship experience videos are now the dominant form of music video for the contemporary congregational song genre. Only a few years ago, the dominant form of CCS on YouTube was lyric videos (Thornton 2021c). This shift mirrors the increase in official channels posting CCS videos. Although official channels will often release both lyric videos and live worship experience videos, it is the latter that tend to gain the highest number of views. If that is not the case, it is usually because the CCS is more than 15 years old and early versions of the song (often fan-created lyric videos) have been accessed by viewers over many years ensuring that, even with the upload of official live versions of the songs more recently, the lyric videos still appear at the top of the search list on YouTube.
Some of the non-live most-viewed videos from the selected sample are simulated live worship experiences, or what Osborn calls “simulated-performance videos” (Osborn 2021, p. 66). Although there is no congregation, there is an active ‘worship team’ singing as if to lead an invisible congregation. Examples of this include Phil Wickham’s “Living Hope”, “House Of The Lord”, “Battle Belongs”, and “Great Things”. Lyric videos and other non-performance videos could still reveal something of the perceptions of performing and performance in contemporary worship; however, they were not a focus for this research paper. On that basis, it is the 13 live worship experience videos that are analyzed below. They include, “Build My Life”, “Cornerstone”, “Glorious Day”, “Goodness Of God”, “Graves Into Gardens”, “Great Are You Lord”, “I Speak Jesus”, “In Christ Alone”, “King Of Kings”, “This Is Amazing Grace”, “Way Maker”, “What A Beautiful Name”, and “Who You Say I Am”.
Even though each video was analyzed separately, this section will draw on specific examples and attempt to identify broader issues and themes related to performing worship as exemplified in the official visual media of this genre. In thinking about the relationship between digital cultures, performed/recorded CCS, and those who engage with them, Leeker et al. state that performance theory “(o)ffers a two-fold agenda of critique: to investigate the intricate relation of power and performativity, and to insist on the openness and changeability that is immanent to performative processes” (Leeker et al. 2017, p. 15). This agenda offers tantalizing possibilities for research into CCS videos on YouTube; however, it can only be touched on in the present paper to the degree to which it helps answer the research question.
The media analysis used in this paper followed Osborn’s methods. A spreadsheet was created that captured the timecodes against visual/musical/lyrical features relating to the research question. Features considered included the interaction of visual and musical rhythms/form (Osborn 2021, p. 28), instrumentation and other sounds (Osborn 2021, p. 31), visual narratives (if any) (Osborn 2021, p. 68), camera angles (Osborn 2021, p. 92) and speed of cuts (Osborn 2021, p. 109). In particular, performative actions captured in the videos were documented and checked against lyrical content.
Among the 13 videos, seven different CCS producers are represented: Bethel Church, Casting Crowns, Elevation Church, Hillsong Church, Leeland, Passion Conference and Phil Wickham. All except Hillsong5 are based in the USA. Three of these are churches, three of them are artists, and one is a conference. Hillsong is a somewhat unique case, not only because of its geographic distinction. Its conferences do not look much different to regular church services in terms of their worship, except perhaps for the size of the venue/congregation/stage. Many Hillsong albums have been recorded at their yearly conferences; however, the YouTube videos only sometimes clearly reflect the distinction. Despite the variety of producers, the live worship videos are surprisingly consistent although the three categories of producers described above contain subtle distinctions in their videos which identify them as concert worship (from artists) (Ingalls 2018, p. 39), conference worship (Ingalls 2018, p. 72), or church service worship (Ingalls 2018, p. 107). The following analysis will highlight the profound uniformity of performative actions across worship and also point out those category distinctions.
One of the first consistencies is how live worship videos commence. They fade up on a wide shot at the back of a venue showing the silhouette of the congregation facing towards a lit stage. They also overwhelmingly have a sustained sound (often a synth pad) that seems to already be in the audio before the video fades up along with shots that often show both worship teams and congregation members with eyes closed, bowed heads, and/or lifted hands. A result of this is that one gets a sense that the song is not in isolation but rather a part of a worship set. In other words, unlike most popular music, CCS are understood as more than just individual songs, they are contributors to a worship set within the context of congregational worship. In popular music genres, songs may well be a part of an album, presented together within a concert, or back-to-back on a radio channel, but they exist on their own. Songs are released as “singles”. They chart individually, and there is no sense that the top 100 Billboard chart songs have any particular relationship to one another, other than that they fit the definition of popular music. CCS, however, are overwhelmingly performed together. The transition between songs is not random but carefully constructed to build an atmosphere conducive to worship. Therefore, the conspicuous audial and visual elements that remind us that these individual songs are to be understood within a larger context of gathered musical worship is important. Put another way, the performance of musical worship assumes an understanding that it is more than a song in isolation, it is a “flow” (Lim and Ruth 2017, pp. 32–36).
The second consistency is the presence of a “worship leader”, as distinct from a “lead singer”, which almost all popular music genres feature. Invariably, once the introduction is completed, the opening verse is accompanied by a shot of the worship leader. More often than not, that worship leader is also playing an acoustic guitar (examples include Brooke Ligertwood, Kristian Stanfill, Leeland, and Phil Wickham). This picture also gives us an insight into the performance of worship; it is musical. Many of these worship leaders are also song writers. They play and sing and compose. The perceived authenticity of the worshiping singer/songwriter based within a local church is reinforced across these videos (Thornton 2021a, pp. 43–45). The role of the worship leader is not just to be the lead singer on the recording but more importantly to exemplify how to perform worship, or as Schechner describes it, there is a complex interplay between “showing doing” and “doing” (Schechner 2013, p. 28). Initially the action comes from the worship leader, but it is reflected by the congregation. Worship leaders are center stage and feature on large screens, and they are expected to communicate with the congregation to encourage and exhort them. Invariably, that is what they do both demonstrably and verbally. The verbal exhortations should not be confused with the ad-libbing of secular artists. For example, worship leaders specifically pre-empt lines of the song for the congregation. Examples include “mending every heart” (“Way Maker”, 2′45″), “sing praise” (“King Of Kings”, 4′03″), and “Christ alone” (“Cornerstone”, 3′03″).
Worship leaders also exhort the congregation to sing with lines such as “Come on. Every voice.” (“Cornerstone”, 0′51″), “Come on. Tell Him.” (“Graves Into Gardens”, 1′15″), “Somebody testify!” (“Graves Into Gardens”, 2′22″), or “Sing it to Him church.” (“Great Are You Lord”, 2′46″). There are very few songs that do not have some point at which the worship leader encourages the congregation to worship by singing, specifically, by singing the song. This is sometimes further enhanced by the worship leader pulling back from their microphone in order for the congregation to feature. Examples of this include “Build My Life” (7′10″), “Great Are You Lord” (4′39″), and “King Of Kings” (2′39″). Sometimes these features are combined as can be seen in “What A Beautiful Name” where the worship leader, Brook Ligertwood, at 4′17″ exhorts the congregation by saying “Come on, sing it out. You have no rival!”, directs her microphone towards the congregation and pumps her fist in encouragement.
Despite the dominant leadership role of the worship leader and the clear power they are invested with by church authorities through their amplification and prominence, there are also examples where the congregation initiates the singing of a section of the song that is not in the standard arrangement. An example of this occurs in “Who You Say I Am” at 3′30″ where, during an instrumental involving the bridge chord progression, the congregation starts singing the bridge lyrics until the worship team vocalists join in. Even if one argues that there is a level of contrivance to this, the importance of such a moment is to communicate not only the co-performance of CCS by the congregation but also the co-leadership of CCS. The congregation are not just an ‘enhanced audience’, they have agency as worshipers within the context of corporate worship, or as Steuernagel puts it, contemporary worship is something which all “participants perform together” (Steuernagel 2021, p. 5), even where distinct power imbalances are maintained.
A third consistency is the presence of a band, which might at first seem like a banal observation. The typical constitution of that band is equally banal, including electric guitar(s), acoustic guitar(s), keyboard(s), bass, drums, a worship leader and supporting vocalists (Thornton 2021a, p. 209). Each producer may embellish a song with multiple keys or guitars, or other instruments such as live strings in “What A Beautiful Name” and “God So Loved (Live At The Wheelhouse)”, although again this is nothing revelatory. What is important to note is that although visual footage of the band is often quite selective, it is still prevalent and featured. For example, most musical riffs (occurring outside of sung sections) include a shot of the instrument playing the riff. Some examples of this include the piano riff at the start of “I Speak Jesus” or at the start of “King Of Kings” or the electric guitar riff in “Who You Say I Am”. The drums, as one of the loudest and dominant rhythmical drivers of CCS, will often also be featured in short shots. Because of the nature of the instrument, these short shots create a dynamic visual which contributes to the sense of energy and enthusiasm expressed in performing worship. This active choice by video directors alongside often consistent “jump cuts” (Osborn 2021, p. 109) speaks to the understanding that energy and enthusiasm are important performative elements in worship. In summary, despite the problems of the conflation of worship and music, worship is actively constructed as enthusiastically or passionately performed vocal and instrumental music.
A fourth consistency is the in the actions congregants and worship teams perform during worship. I have already noted that the action verb “sing” is the most common among CCS lyrics. This is supported by the videos which invariably show both worship teams and congregations singing. Of course, it would not be a song if it was not sung, so perhaps it is spurious to note the prevalence of singing. However, in a secular live performance of a pop song, the audience may or may not sing along. There is generally not an expectation for them to sing. The opposite is true in CCS. There is an expectation for the congregation (audience) to sing. Despite many people complaining about the lack of singability of CCS6, the videos reinforce that these songs are not only singable, but they are being sung enthusiastically. In addition to singing, there are physical actions that are replicated consistently. It may seem like an inconsequential feature, but people overwhelmingly worship standing up. Although one might argue that many audiences enjoy popular music concerts while standing, standing in worship is viewed differently. It is a part of the act (performance) of worship as are the following embodied expressions. Videos consistently show worshipers (whether on a platform or in the congregation) lifting their hands, closing their eyes or looking upwards, moving (swaying, bouncing, dancing), and clapping. Although Steuernagel rightly states that “Christianity’s suspicion of the body is deeply ingrained” (Steuernagel 2021, p. 97), contemporary worship makes a point of these particular kinds of bodily engagements as both a reflection of the inner state of the worshiper and an authorized public expression of Christian faith.
A final feature of CCS that is consistent across the videos, except when a slow song finishes with a quiet ending, is clapping (and cheering) at the end of the song. The difference between the way it appears on CCS videos as opposed to a video of an audience’s response to a live secular concert is that it is not only the congregation that claps/cheers, but it is also all of those on the worship team (on the stage). What would traditionally be directed as praise towards the performers is redirected as praise towards God. In live settings, it is not uncommon to hear a worship leader exhort the congregation with a statement such as “Come on, let’s give the Lord a hand of praise”. None of the CCS videos analyzed contain such redirections; however, perhaps this is so entrenched in contemporary worship culture that many no longer feel the need to specify that the redirection should, or has, occurred.
Schechner states that performance is “(r)itualized behavior conditioned and/or permeated by play” (Schechner 2013, p. 52). The features identified above reflect this definition. There are rehearsed, repeated and conscious actions of contemporary worshipers which reflect their understanding of the nature of worship and the cultural context that has ‘taught’ them how to worship in the weekly gatherings of a congregation. There are also (controlled) spontaneous elements, or “free worship” (Ruth and Hong 2021, p. 146), otherwise described as a kind of worship ‘play’, which allows worshipers the opportunity to explore and express something beyond the ritualized components.
Despite the profound unity across the live worship videos, there are, as mentioned, subtle differences. The concert worship videos where there is an identified, featured artist (such as “Great Are You Lord” and “This Is Amazing Grace”) have congregations who are less likely to sing and more likely to have a phone in hand, recording the performance. In other words, they act partially like a secular popular music concert audience and partially like a congregation. Conference worship videos (such as “Glorious Day” and “In Christ Alone”) tend to have a dispersed stage (facing in multiple directions) where, although there is still a worship leader, each of the vocalists is oriented towards a different part of the conference congregation. The stages are often much larger than typical church stages and the correlating physical movements of those on stage tend to be exaggerated. The differences noted above do not detract from observations made earlier of the CCS industry’s understanding and portrayal of performing in worship. Ingalls’ language is telling when she states that “performative moves (are) used to bring a concert congregation into being” (Ingalls 2018, p. 49). However, I would argue that performance pervades worship no matter what the context.

5. Synthesis and Conclusions

The most common performative actions in CCS videos, as mentioned, are standing, lifting hands, closing eyes or looking up, moving (swaying, bouncing, dancing), and clapping, yet most of these actions do not appear in the current top CCS lyrics. Some have historically occurred in popular CCS. For example, in lyrics such as “clap your hands all ye people”7 or “lifting holy hands to you”8. As with clapping-as-praise-to-God discussed above, perhaps such actions are so entrenched in the performance of contemporary worship that they no longer need to be mentioned. Pentecostal-charismatic worship leaders may well direct the congregation with exhortations to lift their hands or close their eyes, but it seems that these are at the discretion of the worship context, rather than written into the lyrics. This is perhaps particularly useful in allowing CSS to become ecumenically popular. Not all worship contexts support or promote demonstrative expressions of worship. By not including certain performative actions such as jumping or clapping, the song does not preclude such actions in the performance of worship, but it also does not promote them in a way that might be alienating for certain congregations (except in versions of the video recordings that contain such actions).
As articulated at the start of this paper, the actions ascribed to God in CCS lyrics have not been explored. However, it is still worth noting that they are present in abundance. For example, in “Way Maker”, the first verse states “You are here, moving in our midst”, and in “Great Are You Lord”, the first verse commences with “You give life, you are love, you bring light…”. The point here is that the performance of worship is not one directional. It is not the performance of a worshiper to a passive Divine audience. Worship (performance) is both in expectation of Divine action and driven by a revelation of Divine action. As 1 John 4:19 puts it, “We love Him, because he first loved us”. In an adaptation of Vondey’s Full Gospel narrative, performing worship is initially about our response to God’s (Jesus’) historical performance as Savior and Spirit Baptizer, His present performance as Sanctifier and Healer, and His expected performance as Coming King (Vondey 2018, p. 5). This reciprocal nature of performance is inherent to contemporary Christian worship. This is a profound distinction between other popular music genres and CCS and should continue to be recognized in any analysis of contemporary worship.
It should also be acknowledged that performance is not solely an outwardly visible set of actions. It may equally involve significant internal processes such as the “performed reflexivity” that Steuernagel (2021, p. 81) identified in some worshipers. The research methodology adopted here does not have the capacity to explore those internalized performances related to worship and further ethnographic work would help to affirm or contextualize the findings presented here. That being said, worshipers perform worship or, as Steuernagel puts it, “all participants are performing in church music” (Steuernagel 2021, p. 4). Whether on the stage or in the congregation, they understand that this is for the Divine audience and not for the benefit or approval of their fellow worshipers. At the same time, the embodiment of worship postures becomes both an encouragement to fellow worshipers and a rubric for other worshipers to evaluate their own worship (“doing” and “showing doing”). CCS producers actively create images and sound (cultures) of worship performance that reflect and reinforce the essential performative elements of appropriate or desirable worship. These embodied elements are profoundly consistent across the industry and are historically driven from “pentecostal-charismatic” paradigms of worship (Ingalls and Yong 2015, p. 4). At the same time, they are constantly being influenced by both industry and worship contexts (for example, churches or conferences) that emerge in prominence from the evangelical landscape.
The gap in the research that has been filled here is the identification of the perspective and influence of CCS producers in establishing, reinforcing, and/or redefining performing and performance in worship as it intersects with both other popular music genres and other expressions of Christian worship. This research acts to counterbalance the large amount of ethnomusicological works that explore contemporary worship in a specific context. By having a genre-based analysis, further research can compare and contrast localized expressions of worship with industry-endorsed expressions of worship.
Worshipers perform worship, while at the same time they are constantly reframing performative language and actions to align with their theology of worship and to avoid misinterpretations related to secular performance culture. Hillsong Young and Free’s lyric “This is no performance, Lord I pray it’s worship” is not anti-performance, all evidence (even from their own videos) to the contrary. Rather, “performance” is used here to encapsulate the potentially negative aspects of secular performance; a lack of authenticity, a focus on the performer, something so rehearsed that it has lost any genuine meaning, or something whose sole value is entertainment, in other words, the antithesis of worship. Lyrics must often distil a complex thought into a simple phrase. This simple lyrical phrase on the surface appears to be a dichotomy, but the very fact that the words “performance” and “worship” cohere in this phrase is, in fact, a sober reminder to the worshiper that they are indeed performers of worship and that that position requires a thoughtful and concerted reflection by worshipers of how they worship.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.

Appendix A

Table A1. CCLI USA CCL Top 25 Songs List and YouTube Links.
Table A1. CCLI USA CCL Top 25 Songs List and YouTube Links.
Song Name and CCLI#Copyright DateSong WritersYouTube Link
Goodness Of God—71177262018Ed Cash, Ben Fielding, Jason Ingram, Jenn Johnson, and Brian Johnson (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Build My Life—70703452016Brett Younker, Pat Barrett, Matt Redman, Karl Martin, and Kirby Kaple (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Living Hope—71068072017Phil Wickham and Brian Johnson (accessed on 12 April 2023)
House Of The Lord—71689952020Phil Wickham and Jonathan Smith (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Great Are You Lord—64602202012Jason Ingram, David Leonard, and Leslie Jordon (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Graves into Gardens—71382192019Chris Brown, Steven Furtick, Brandon Lake, and Tiffany Hudson (accessed on 12 April 2023)
What a Beautiful Name—70684242016Ben Fielding and Brooke Ligertwood (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Way Maker—71157462016Osinachi Kalu Okoro Egbu (accessed on 12 April 2023)
King of Kings—71276472019Jason Ingram, Scott Ligertwood, and Brooke Ligertwood (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Battle Belongs—71481262020Phil Wickham and Brian Johnson (accessed on 12 April 2023)
10,000 Reasons—60163512011Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman (accessed on 12 April 2023)
This is Amazing Grace—63338212012Jeremy Riddle, Phil Wickham, and Josh Farro (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Glorious Day—70813882017Jason Ingram, Kristian Stanfill, Jonathan Smith, and Sean Curran (accessed on 12 April 2023)
How great is our God—43483992004Ed Cash, Jesse Reeves, and Chris Tomlin (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Great Things—71113212018Jonas Myrin and Phil Wickham (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Who You Say I Am—71024012017Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan (accessed on 12 April 2023)
In Christ Alone—33503952001Keith Getty and Stuart Townend (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Raise A Hallelujah—71193152018Jake Stevens, Melissa Helser, Molly Skaggs, and Jonathan David Helser (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Lord I Need You—59256872011Matt Maher, Christy Nockels, Jesse Reeves, Kristian Stanfill, and Daniel Carson (accessed on 12 April 2023)
O Praise The Name (Anástasis)—70377872015Marty Sampson, Dean Ussher, and Benjamin Hastings (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Amazing Grace (My Chains are gone)—47681512006Louie Giglio, John Newton, and Chris Tomlin (accessed on 12 April 2023)
How Great Thou Art—141811949 and 1953Stuart Wesley Keene Hine (accessed on 12 April 2023)
God So Loved (Live At The Wheelhouse)—71385992019Ed Cash, Scott Cash, Franni Cash, Martin Cash, and Andrew Bergthold (accessed on 12 April 2023)
Cornerstone—61589272011Reuben Morgan, Jonas Myrin, William Batchelder Bradbury, Eric Liljero, and Edward Mote (accessed on 12 April 2023)
I Speak Jesus—71362012019Jesse Reeves, Carlene Prince, Raina Pratt, Kristen Dutton, Abby Benton, and Dustin Smith (accessed on 12 April 2023)


By Aodhan King, Michael Fatkin, and Ben Tan ©2015 Hillsong Music Publishing Australia.
The term, ‘live’, is used in single quotes here because the videos are purportedly live, but substantial amounts of postproduction occur on such recordings before they are released, rendering the audio overwhelmingly studio-recorded and edited, even if it attempts to match the live visuals.
“House Of The Lord, “10,000 Reasons”, “Great Things”, “Lord I Need You”, “O Praise The Name (Anástasis)”, and “How Great Thou Art”.
I acknowledge that the Hebrew and Greek definitions of “worship” do not have explicitly vocal connotations, even though in modern English, most people would associate this word with songs.
Hillsong church has campuses around the world but is based in Australia.
A quick internet search reveals countless popular press articles and blogs lamenting the current state of CCS, many of which raise the ‘problem’ of singability.
©1972 Carol and Jimmy Owens.
©1978 Dallas Holm.


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