A good friend of mine, who is a pastor, mentioned a phrase to me recently that really got me thinking. He said, “Excellence and humility is what we are called to in worship.”
Let’s think about that for a minute. Humility? Absolutely. Look at the meaning of the word worship from John 4 in Strong’s Concordance. That’s certainly a picture of humility before the Lord. Excellence? Hmmm…I don’t know about that. That is a potentially dangerous word when spoken to musicians. The “E” word can translate as “you must be perfect.” Musicians train from a young age striving for the perfect performance. Failure to execute perfectly translates into not being good enough. And in the church, that can mean the musician is left feeling that missing that one note has caused the Holy Spirit to flee somehow. When I began worship leading 15 years ago, I heard that word used a lot to describe what worship ministries are called to. It was common at that time to hear conference speakers or other notable leaders to say boldly, “God calls us to excellence in worship.” I must admit, I went along with the idea. I mean, it sounds good, doesn’t it?
The whole idea of striving for excellence in worship began to unravel for me a couple of years ago. I heard a well-respected clinician at the National Worship Leader Conference (NWLC) say, “Perfectionism is an idol.” That made my ears (and everyone elses in the room) perk up. At the same time, I see an ever-increasing pressure to take worship team performance to the next level. (For more on that, read my posts Down To The Next Level Part 1 and Part 2.) I have another dear, respected friend who has led many terrific, mostly volunteer music ministries for many churches. He acknowledges that the pursuit of “excellence” is causing his current church to hire an increasing number of professional musicians resulting in the removal of less talented volunteers. Oh, and did I mention the $15k for the new stage lighting system?
In the church I serve, I’ve been the worship director since its beginning as a church plant in 2003. I remember our church plant coach warning me specifically that if I sought only pro players for the worship band, I could expect that no one from the congregation would be interested in trying out for the worship team. They’re unable to see themselves as being good enough.
I see in scripture where musicians should be “skilled” and “trained” – so there’s certainly biblical underpinning. In fact, I frequently preach Psalms 33:3 and 1 Chronicles 25:6-7 to my worship teams. (I first learned those scriptures from Paul Baloche. Check out Paul’s thoughts on Performance vs. Worship Leading.) Scripture shows us that our offering of worship should cost us something (1 Chronicles 21:24) and that we should hold nothing back. (Romans 12:1)
Holding up “excellence” as THE standard for the worship musician presents an overwhelming task, particularly for anyone early in their musical and spiritual development. Shouldn’t we be meeting folks where they’re at and then equipping them for ministry? I think we would see far more spiritual growth, musical skill, and creative freedom if we, as worship leaders, sought to inspire our worship teams to make incremental steps to grow all the talents that God has given them.
God gives us talent – practice turns talent into skill – and skill is an offering to the Lord. (Psalms 33:3) I try to instill this idea into worship teams – that practice is an offering – growing in your skill is an offering – rehearsals are offerings to the Lord. Preparation and planning are offerings to the Lord. Seeing the entire process of the musician’s preparation for Sunday morning as worship takes the focus off of the Sunday morning performance and places it where it belongs – in our every day life with God!
In worship, I don’t think excellence is the goal. I think the offering of our whole selves to God in complete surrender is the goal. Don’t seek excellence, seek God. Excellence means you “excel” at something – at a high level. Should we be known as churches that excel at execution of Sunday morning worship or as churches that excel at whole-hearted surrender to God?
I continued to dialogue with my pastor friend about this. As we exchanged emails, he was able to further clarify what he was trying to say – God calls us to surrender so that He can mold us into something excellent for Him! A heart, soul, mind, and spirit in total surrender to God (Spirit and Truth Worship) is excellent! It excels! That kind of worship is our “highest” praise. That kind of excellence comes not by leading in excellence, but by leading in surrender, humility, leading a life with the forehead on the floor. Another way to say it might be…”surrender leads to excellence.” Leading in excellence is just me trying to be good enough. Leading in surrender is something that allows God to make me into something excellent for Him. God calls us to surrender, then He makes us excellent for Him.