The Best We Have to Offer: Developing Excellence
How should a worship leader respond to the individual who wants to offer a gift of music or some other performing art in a worship service? What standard do we use to determine if a believer is gifted in the area of interest? How should a worship leader decide if, in fact, including particular individuals in certain roles is appropriate in corporate worship? Are there biblical principles that can help worship leaders make such decisions?
I have struggled with these questions, both as a worshiper and as a worship and music director in a number of different churches. Everyone can tell stories of times when it is difficult to “get past” a given presenter—perhaps an off-key soloist—to worship the living God. Sometimes music leaders (and worshipers) must turn from being a critic to being a worshiper of the living God by identifying with the sincerity of devotion of the person who is leading worship.
So, should worship leaders include anyone who expresses interest in the presentational aspects of corporate worship, especially singers and instrumentalists? Not at all. To do so would be to abdicate our responsibility. We are called to faithfully discern what is appropriate in worship and what is not. We are called to offer to God the very best we have—nothing less.
Called to Excellence
Many believe that excellence means being “the best” or at least trying to be the best or to have the highest quality. This invariably leads to comparisons and expressions of personal preference that distract and divide. Excellence is about high quality, but it is about much more.
Within the context of corporate worship, excellence is at every moment offering to God one’s very best, and always trying to be better. It is taking that which we have been given and, with hearts focused on the Giver, returning the gift to God as an act of worship. It is about pleasing God. It is not about being the best. It is about offering our best.
We should not offer to God our blemished lambs in sacrifice when we have unblemished ones in our possession. We should not offer to God in our worship that which we know is not our best.
I have often been tempted to acquiesce to a parishioner’s request to include his or her favorite song in worship. Sometimes I struggle with the critical aesthetic judgment that I bring to the text or the music of the song. One means that I have found useful in determining the musical appropriateness of such a piece is to ask myself this question: If Jesus were to walk into my church and hear this, would I be embarrassed by its lack of intrinsic quality? Would I be embarrassed by the effort I have invested in my role? Would I feel I had not given my best?
The pursuit of excellence will impact decisions that I make on a weekly basis about who and what to include in the performing arts aspects of my church’s corporate worship.
Following are some considerations for worship leaders to keep in mind as they seek to bring their congregation’s best to God.
•Honor the cultural context.
Worship in a Minnesota congregation will be very different from a congregation in Jamaica or in Korea. We would not expect the same music to be used or, perhaps, even the same liturgy. The cultural context establishes that which is understood to be normative and appropriate. In each context the possibility of excellence exists. What is done and how it is done may be different. But the focus can be the same: offering to God one’s best.
•Know your congregation.
A worship leader must truly know the congregation for which such decisions are being made. Things that may be appropriate in one context may be highly distracting in another. And the context changes over time even in the most stable churches. Such awareness and accumulated knowledge requires a sensitivity to the members of the congregation and a willingness to ask questions and accept criticism.
Worship leaders should generally avoid elements in corporate worship that distract from a focus on God. Aspects of liturgy or personality that draw worshipers’ attention away from God and toward individuals or culturally inappropriate associations should be limited or eliminated where possible.
Those who lead in worship should be transparent channels, focusing worshipers’ attention toward God and God’s Word. Their attire should not draw attention to itself. Readers should read in a manner that draws attention to the text and not the reader. Singers should sing in a manner that communicates the message, not the medium. Prayer leaders should prepare well to pray without trying to impress with their speaking skills. Dramatists should play their parts so that their characters communicate well. Preachers should preach for the parishioners, not for the camera.
In each cultural context, these principles may result in different choices, but in the final result, it is God who is worshiped—not the singer, the reader, the dramatist, or the one who bears the message.
•Avoid inappropriate associations.
I clearly recall a wonderful anthem written by a gifted Christian musician that was recommended to me by a valued colleague. It had a lovely melody that was singable and appropriate for its strong biblical text. But I could not use it in my congregation. The reason was simple. It sounded so similar to a popular soap opera theme song that its associations would distract from the purpose of the song itself. Associations are powerful, and we have to be careful to avoid those that distract from the corporate worship of God.
The Fundamental Question
With regard to how we make decisions about the involvement of musicians or other performing artists in worship, the fundamental question is this: Will their participation contribute to leading the congregation to worship God? Will having a child play the violin be seen more as a distraction or an offering? Will a singer with artistic limitations draw people’s attention to his or her inadequacies, or will worshipers be able to receive the singer’s offering as a gift and worship God? Will including a liturgical dance lift the congregation to adore the Lord Almighty, or will they focus on what the dancer is wearing and wonder what the point is, not understanding the art?
In each of the foregoing examples, worship leaders may assist the congregation to receive the offering as an act of worship. A carefully worded brief introduction may provide such context. Or perhaps the congregation’s knowledge of the individual who is participating may contribute what is needed. Worship leaders, however, must recognize that it is their responsibility to make every effort to shape the presentation of potentially distracting or confusing aspects of the performing arts so that God is honored through them.
There is often a fine line between the expression of disgruntled criticism (“I didn’t like that; it didn’t please me”) and insightful criticism (“It was difficult for me to worship when that happened”). Worship leaders must be able to listen to both (they certainly won’t be able to avoid the former) and discern that which is useful for building up the body of Christ.
This is sometimes the most difficult role of pastors and of worship and music leaders. We must listen to criticism and be willing to place our egos and personal preferences aside, accepting the possibility that we may have missed something or included something inappropriate in worship. Listening to criticism is one of the few ways we have to understand the cultural context of the congregation. We should make it our business to solicit such feedback and allow it to help mold our understanding of what is culturally appropriate in our local worship practices.
Worship leaders, of all people, have the responsibility to lead the people of our congregations before God with the very best we have to offer. We should seek excellence in all that we do. In the words of the Teacher, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Eccl. 9:10).
Questions for Worship Leaders
- Is it the best we have to offer?
- Are we constantly seeking to be even better?
- Is it consistent with the cultural context of the congregation?
- Will it be distracting from the worship of God, drawing attention to the one making the presentation or to aspects of the presentation?
- Will it elicit cultural associations that are inappropriate for worship?
- Can we assist congregational reception by providing context or introduction?
Excellence . . . is taking that which we have been given and, with hearts focused on the Giver, returning the gift to God as an act of worship. It is about pleasing God. It is not about being the best. It is about offering our best.