By Neil Oldham
”If they want to play or sing, let ‘em. We’re a church, for crying out loud, not a communist regime!” says Jim Bob. Betsy Sue replies, “Yes we’re a church and God deserves our very best. That’s why we should only hire professionals to lead our worship.” Ahhhh yes, the battle between involvement and excellence! It’s one of a million conflicts that play out within and between churches every week.
But—as with most such tension-issues in the church—the challenge facing us is not how to “knockout” one or the other but, rather, how to strike the right balance between the two. There is no clear-cut formula or solution that fits every church. There’s not even a solution that fits every single situation bound to arise in your church.
Still, each worship ministry does need to determine which value—involvement or excellence—will win most often or carry the most weight. In churches of 500-ish or less people, where most of us reside, we tend to have a natural and inherited bent toward letting involvement win. Our smaller environments tend to naturally develop family-like cultures. That kind of culture can easily lend itself toward a more laissez faire, unrestrictive mindset. Many of our ministry settings would see uprisings if worship leaders suddenly began requiring musician applications, try-outs, and/or lengthy apprenticeship programs!
In light of this bent toward involvement, I’d like to make a case for excellence. I chose to emphasize excellence over involvement long ago and have never had cause to regret it. My church has a core value statement that reads: “Excellence honors God and draws people.” I believe that’s true. And, by the way, it seems King David did, too, when he organized Israel’s worship ministry using skilled and qualified musicians (I Chronicles 25).
Here are a few myths that commonly hold us back from valuing excellence as we should. Maybe you’ve heard them or are even thinking one or two, yourself:
Myth #1: If someone wanting to sing/play is turned down due to a lack of skill, they might be offended or even leave. This is actually true, they might. I list it as a myth because it ignores another, even more disquieting reality: If you let them participate in spite of their lack of ability, others may leave and guests may never return. Why should this person’s ill-founded ambition be prioritized above the opportunity to minister to those others?
Myth #2: We’ll seem judgmental and not very Christ-like. Only if you go about it the wrong way. For certain, valuing excellence over involvement can be a challenging undertaking! One day, a new believer in whom you’ve been investing deeply may ask you to involve their son who can’t keep a beat to save his life. Choosing excellence in situations similar to this becomes heart wrenching, as someone’s fragile faith may seemingly hang in the balance. But scripture is full of great wisdom on how to handle conflict in a godly manner. Let’s be careful to heed that guidance and lead strong because the hard calls are worth making when your values are on the line.
Myth #3: My church just doesn’t have the people or resources to do music with excellence. Technology is beginning to render this statement completely null and void. For example, check out worshipbandinhand.com (maybe you could only afford to buy one song at a time through this service but, even so, you’d be making progress). Or just seek advice from someone you trust—someone in your community or region with experience in extracting excellence from humble circumstances. You can even contact me directly through my site and I’d be glad to connect with you about your unique situation or maybe even write a post about it.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for some elitist involvement scheme or for using techy worship tools to kick your church’s musicians to the curb. But I am saying that, to the extent we emphasize involvement at the expense of excellence, we are left with ministries that are less God-honoring or people-drawing than they should be.
Do you have concerns that I didn’t address here? Have you fought this battle before? Tell us about it!
Neil has been the worship pastor at LifeQuest Church in Springfield, MO since 2007. He is also the author of BlueCollarWorship.com, a worship blog that has ministry tips, tools, and resources for leading strong in the local church. Oh, and more importantly, he’s a husband and a dad!