“Our worship should be excellent!” “Our worship should be authentic!” These seem to be the battle cries of two different groups of people who are at war in some sort of battle over what it means to be creative.
Those who fly the flag of authentic worship will ask, “Can something that is excellent – rehearsed, polished, prepared – really show enough of our humanity, our imperfection and our weakness to be used to honour God and encourage people to engage in worship?”
And on the other side of the battle lines, those who fly the flag of excellent worship will ask, “Can something that is authentic – spontaneous, personal, intimate – really display enough intentionality, enough purpose, enough clarity to be used to honour God and encourage people to engage in worship?”
It really is a classic debate that seems to paint big groups of people and wide ranges of artistic expression with very broad brushes and if we dig a little deeper we’d probably find the heart behind the two different questions is pretty much the same and there is the opportunity to see each other much more as allies than as enemies.
For example, nobody I know who would place a high value on excellence in worship (and even by saying that I do so knowing there is a broad range of meaning in that word) would say that there is no place for authenticity or for humanity or that anything less than perfection is a failure.
Can we expect perfection in our churches from our worship teams?
Of course not.
Worship teams are made up of people and we are, by nature, imperfect. Worship musicians are not robots so not only is there no place for perfection we should be very wary of any leader who places an expectation of perfection on the people they lead. It’s just not possible.
Excellence and perfection are not the same thing and those in the authentic camp shouldn’t portray those in the excellent camp as believing that they are.
So what then is excellent and how can we – even those who would place themselves in the authentic camp – agree in the purpose and the intent behind the value of pursuing excellence?
There are several examples in scripture of what would describe excellent worship and help us to develop a theology of worship that points toward excellence as a value:
Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.
But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.
2 Corinthians 8:7
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
1 Peter 2:9
Each of these verses talk about excellent worship in a different context. Psalm 33 in the context of corporate gathered worship, 2 Corinthians 8 is a passage on giving but the description from Paul is that you should “excel in everything” – including our worship. 1 Peter 2 highlights that our excellence comes out of our royal identity and our chosenness by a God who is excellent and is honoured through our excellent worship.
Would those in the authentic camp disagree with the description in these verses? I don’t think so. I think there are many who would say that the way our worship is then expressed – rooted in the truth of these same verses and others – would be different than how it would be expressed from the excellent camp.
(I should also say at this point, because I can hear through your computer screens that some of you are saying it, that not everyone would say that excellent can’t be expressed as authentic and vice versa. I would certainly agree. All I’m trying to do here is show that there may be some common ground for these two camps who at this point would see themselves as having no overlap.
Back to our regularly scheduled programming.)
But what about this idea of authentic worship and how it can help to display the goodness, mercy and grace of God in a way that has no burden of excellence or expectations of perfection? Where could we look in scripture and see what this might look like? Here are a couple of examples:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
2 Corinthians 2:1-5
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Both of these passages and their contexts point to something beyond the excellent expression of our worship as the way to honour God but that there is meaning and depth and significance to the lives that we live as an authentic expression of our worship which actually does more to point people to the greatness and wonder of our God than anything excellent we could ever produce with our own hands.
And in the same way that those in the excellent camp shouldn’t be portrayed as perfectionists, those in the authentic camp shouldn’t be portrayed as lazy, uncaring or sloppy. None of those I know who would say authenticity is a real goal in their worship gatherings are people who I would describe in any of those ways.
Authenticity and meaningless are not the same thing and those in the excellent camp shouldn’t portray those in the authentic camp as believing they are.
So where do we go from here?
Hopefully I can propose a third way that I’ve seen bring real clarity in my ministry and the teams I lead.
Do I want excellence? Of course I do. I believe God is honoured when we display our talents for Him to the best of our abilities.
Do I want authenticity? Of course I do. I believe God is honoured when our worship comes from a place of sincerity and genuine love for Jesus and for his people.
Psalm 78:72 has been so vital for me in my leadership as I try to bridge these two values which seem to be opposing but can actually be very powerful when brought together. To lead in a church that values excellence and authenticity means we need to believe first that this is at all possible and then second that there is a way to get there.
And I do!
He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
to shepherd Jacob his people,
Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skillful hand.
The last verse of Psalm 78 which is this beautiful description of the authentic heart of David (“With upright heart he shepherded them”) and the excellent skill of David (“and guided them with his skillful hand”) tells me that not only is this kind of leadership possible but since we see it in the life of God’s anointed king we have to say that there is a value God places on a life lived this way and a way to get there.
Upright heart, skillful hand. Authenticity and excellence. Neither one held higher than the other, neither one neglected for the sake of the other, neither one attacked as the enemy of the other. Both held as allies in the life of the worship leader, in the lives of people on our worship teams and in what we are trying to cultivate in the lives of the people we are leading.
Let me give you three ways I think this plays out in practical terms:
Audition for character and skill
I’ve written about this before and the response was so big that I put together an ebook for you and your team. Essentially I believe that you can expect both great character and great skill from those on your worship team and as a leader you have a responsibility to set a clear path for people.
Think about it this way. How do baseball teams get better? Generally through free agency, trades and the draft. The draft takes the longest but it’s the best way to ensure that you are developing the kind of organization you envision. Auditions are the same. As you are bringing people into your worship ministry you are helping them engage from the very start in this dual priority of character and skill, authenticity and excellence.Thanks for your interest in the Audition for Change ebook. Click here to download your free copy.
Don’t let the jerk play
I am so grateful that I have never in all my years of worship ministry leadership had to remove anyone from our teams on a permanent basis because of a character issue. Would I? 100%. The priority of upright heart and authentic worship before the Lord is so significant to me that despite any excellence or skill qualifications I would remove someone from our teams or ask them to step back for a time until those character issues can be solved.
Don’t let the jerk play. Just because someone is a killer guitar player or drummer or singer or keyboard player doesn’t earn them the right to be a jerk. Character matters. Lead the way and set high expectations for upright heart and character.
Great hearts don’t always sound great
As a leader I guarantee you will one day find yourself in a situation where you are presented with someone from your church who should get a chance to sing on the worship team because they’ve got a “great heart”… whatever that means.
I’m sure they have a great heart and they’re a lovely person and I’d enjoy sitting across a table from them drinking tea but that’s not enough of a qualification, in my opinion, to be on a worship team. Great hearts don’t always sound great.
Make no apologies for expecting a certain skill level on your teams. People are not led in worship by great hearts, people are led in worship by skillful musicians who have invested time, energy and resources into developing an excellent ability.
At the end of the day we are dealing with two fictional groups of people. We all know there aren’t really any churches out there saying they are 100% in the authentic camp and 0% in the excellent camp and vice versa.
Hopefully I’ve laid out a way for churches and leaders to perhaps reexamine some of your own biases and to see a way forward that wouldn’t cast negative light on worship teams or churches who place priority on these areas of authentic worship or excellent worship in ways that are different than we might choose to do it.
There is a third way. Upright heart, skillful hands. We can bring together authenticity and excellence in a way that honours God, celebrates Jesus and lifts people’s eyes when we gather to worship Him.