Recently, a friend shared a video rendition of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" that had been making the rounds on social media. The YouTube clip from a long-ago public-access channel performance features two uncomfortable-looking women warbling out of tune in a karaoke-style performance backed by an overpowering synthesizer and clunky bass. An overenthusiastic introduction and awkward camera cuts add to the cringeworthy factor of the clip, which has attracted millions of views, thousands of snarky comments, and multiple knock-off videos on YouTube.
I watched until the end of the video and was rewarded with a long list of "recommended" videos of "worst" church singers and performances. YouTube was offering me an apparently endless supply of "bad worship" performances, and I realized it would not be hard for me to slip into the rabbit hole of video voyeurism and watch for hours.
But after watching one or two, I experienced an uncomfortable dissonance. As I laughed at the bad performances, I began to feel uneasy. Was my laughter harmless and innocent? Why are there so many videos like this? Why do so many people watch them and think they are funny? Is there anything wrong with watching them? What does it say about the people who post these videos and about the people who watch and share them?
People from all over the world love to watch televised talent shows, such as the Idol series, The Voice, and (Country) Got Talent. At the risk of aging myself, I grew up watching The Gong Show, where the host would bang a gong if the talent was, well, untalented. When I moved from my childhood home in Florida to New York City, I began attending live talent shows, such the famous Showtime at the Apollo, where participants would get booed off the stage or cheered into a win by the audience. Thanks to the internet, we now have an endless supply of video clips of vocalists or instrumental performers who can delight us with their talent—or lack thereof. A steady diet of such offerings makes viewers feel perfectly entitled to judge a performer's talent, regardless of their own training or experience.
We may think that watching bad worship videos is a harmless activity or a slightly guilty pleasure. Or maybe we convince ourselves that we are "laughing with" a performer who surely knows they don't meet up to professional standards.
But is it so harmless?
Matthew 7 makes things clear: "Do not judge or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
Sharing less-than-stellar worship performances can also lead to mockery, which is another issue the Bible takes seriously. Psalm 1:1 says, "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers," while Ephesians 5:4 states, "Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving."
Denying dignity to someone for a poor performance—particularly someone who is making an effort to worship God—is not just unkind, it erodes our humanity and respect for each other. Frequently dipping into bad worship videos could produce a harvest of hard-heartedness, unkindness, and a less-tender consideration for other image bearers.
Just because a performance is not stage-worthy doesn't mean the performance isn't heartfelt. When people are earnestly trying to do their best and pouring their songs and performances out to God, it is the posture of their hearts that is most important. The musical performances we call excellent may have no more value in God's eyes than the worst bad worship video on YouTube because God looks at hearts first.
Says my friend Connie, "I have many drawings from my children on the walls, including two portraits my son and daughter made of me. My daughter was actually a good little artist at age four, but my son was not. In his drawing, two stick legs protrude from my head. But I love each drawing equally, because they were made with love. I don't love my daughter's better because it's physically a better picture."
I love the hymnal that is provided at my United Methodist church. It features a sage preface called "Directions for Singing", which is culled from John Wesley's 1761 Sacred Melody. It reads, "Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature."
Several years ago I volunteered to teach a lesson at our Sunday school. My husband and I have no children, I never babysat growing up, and in general I'm very awkward around children younger than about 10 years old. I mistakenly thought that when I stood up in front of these children, they would be silent as mice and listen with rapt attention to every word I had prepared. I realized I was out of my league when the kids ran wild and had to be corralled by their teachers to get them back in their chairs. I think about that vulnerable moment whenever someone gleefully shares a cringeworthy worship video and am glad no one has ever posted a video of my inept attempts to glorify God in areas where I have no expertise or gifting.
It's hard to ignore our human standards when we watch others perform because we can't see hearts the way that God can. But the Christmas season reminds us that God chooses the weak of the world to shame the mighty. I'm personally so very grateful that God looks at my heart and not solely at my output, and I am convinced that imperfect worship is as endearing to God as a beloved child's portrait of a mother with legs protruding from her head.
I pray that my motive for worship will be to glorify God, rather than impress others, and that I will not be tempted to judge or joke about the efforts of others but to view them all with thanksgiving as heartfelt offerings of praise.
Christina Stanton is the author of Out of the Shadow of 9-11: An Inspiring Tale of Escape and Transformation and Faith in the Face of COVID-19: A Survivor's Tale. She is also founder of nonprofit Loving All Nations.