Simmer Down: The Problem of Playing Too Skillfully

Simmer Down:
The Problem of Playing Too Skillfully
Warren Anderson

This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Worship Leader. Subscribe today to read more articles like this.

I can’t remember all the details now, but I was probably at my desk, pushing papers, when the phone rang. Because I oversee the chapel ministry at a Christian university, I occasionally get calls from booking agents hoping their up-and-coming bands can lead worship in one of our chapels. This was one such call, so I knew what to expect. Except this time I didn’t.

“You’ve got to bring this band to campus,” the agent bleated. “They lead killer worship!”

Excuse me? Okay. I know what he meant, and I’m sure you do, too—but the fact that we all know what he meant is indicative of one of the real dangers of 21st-century contemporary worship music, especially where congregational singing is concerned.

What he didn’t mean was that these were young people after God’s own heart, seeking to pursue worship as a lifestyle, in the spirit of Romans 12. And he didn’t mean that they were studying the biblical foundations and historical precedents of Christian worship, engaging in rigorous academic exercise that was informing their theological convictions, which in turn were guiding their worship-leading decisions, not to mention demonstrating their desire to love God will all their mind (Mt 22:37).

No. He meant that they rocked, that this band had jaw-dropping musical talent on display across the entire stage. And he equated excellent musicianship with excellent worship-leading capability.

We should, of course, offer our first fruits to the Giver of every good and perfect gift, and this includes our musicianship. But where the display of musical talent is concerned, let’s acknowledge that the enemy wants to distract us in any way he can in the midst of our worship. For many of us, nothing distracts like awesome displays of musical prowess. Hence, we need to be aware that our excellent musicianship has the very real potential of getting in the way of the corporate worship we endeavor to lead.

It’s for this reason that Matt Redman, in the Vineyard training DVD Leading Worship, points out that while the Psalms encourage us—in one passage (33:3)—to play skillfully, in all the rest of Scripture, God time and again focuses on our hearts, not our hands or voices. “I’ve heard too much about excellence in worship,” Redman concludes.

So what’s the solution: Should we play poorly to keep our weaker musical brother from stumbling? Of course not. But how about considering some of these counterintuitive ideas if you sense that the musicianship of your band is too prominently displayed every Sunday?

  • Practice only long enough to be able to provide a solid musical foundation for the congregation, not long enough to sound as good as the band on the CD. This will look different for different bands of different talent levels, but I’d be willing to bet that it will mean shorter rehearsals for all of us. And shorter rehearsals translate into more time for God and family, a healthy dynamic to foster in our constantly-on-the-go culture.
  • Purposely allow yourself and your band to feel musically unfulfilled during rehearsal. Willow Creek worship leader Aaron Niequist recalls that early in his career as a worship leader he left a band rehearsal feeling as if it had been a horrible evening. “Something just seemed to be missing,” he remembers. Come Sunday morning, he knew what it was. The congregation hadn’t been there. If the music sounds fabulously complete in rehearsal, that might be a warning sign.
  • Consider a moratorium on all instrumental solos for a while. Go back and read the story behind Redman’s “The Heart of Worship” if you need to. If his church could pull the entire band off the stage for a season, you can probably do without that “killer” guitar solo for a short time, anyway.
  • Sing at least one chorus of one song a cappella at some point in each set.Do it on a tune that’s familiar … and be ready to stand amazed at the how the congregation responds.

As worship leaders, we have the awesome privilege of facilitating liturgy—literally, “the work of the people.” God help us let the people do their work.

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    12 comments on “Simmer Down: The Problem of Playing Too Skillfully

    1. For the most part, I absolutely agree! I think it’s so easy for musicians to fall into this trap, and we have to be on our guard to avoid it.

      I just wanted to clarify, however, on the point of leaving a rehearsal “musically unfulfilled”. While I understand the intent of that point, I try to encourage my team to actually *worship* even during our rehearsals. Worship is not an accident, and it requires practice and self-discipline on our part as much as any other spiritual discipline. I have been blessed in the past to walk out of a rehearsal feeling refreshed rather than unfulfilled, but that was because we worshiped God while we were there.

      Still, thank you for this article. It helps to be reminded sometimes of the careful line we have to walk! =)

    2. This has always been a very emotional subject. Rightfully so, but often times emotional in a distracting way. If there are any lessons to be learned from scripture and from worship leaders, it might be this: find the balance. Lean towards particapatory worship where musical excellence invites the congregation be an emotional partner. The uncomfortability of allowing distraction from either end of this spectrum has no place in worship.

      Be excellent musicians and leaders and learn where the distractions lie, whether they are in a guitar solo or an akward pause.

    3. It seems to me this article misses the point entirely. The issue is not skillful playing. There is absolutely nothing more distracting during worship than musicians who don’t play skillfully or musicians who hold back thus making the music flat and disengaging. The issue is having musicians on your worship team that are sensitive enough to the moving of the spirit to know when to take it to another level and when to pull it back. As much as a poorly placed solo can be a total distraction, a well placed solo in a high point can push worship to a whole new level. Now, let me be clear…I’m not advocating for rock stars on the worship stage. A performance “show off” mentality has no place in worship. It is my belief that worship should be a purely vertical experience for all and that the musicians on the stage should have the goal of “disappearing”…but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t play with the utmost skill. I think it is important to remember that your musicians instruments are their voices to God and when you restrict their playing, you restrict their worship. Yes, sometimes certain people get a little overzealous during worship for the environment that they are in. But this brings me back to my original point…It’s all about the heart and sensitivity to the spirit. So, if you have a musician who you feel is overplaying, then maybe it’s time to pull them in for a one on one spiritual gut check. But, by all means, don’t restrict skill…God deserves excellence!

        • Throwing out the highest level of musical skill because of lack of worshipful hearts is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If we’re making music for the Lord, it should be the best music in the world. We should always bring our best forward, we just need to do it in a way that brings attention to him. Under-practicing? never. Be fully prepared, bring the best offering possible to the alter for EVERY worship service. Just do it with a fully worshipful heart, the rest will follow.

    4. Erich is right on.

      If we use less than God gives us, we sacrifice His gifting. If we hold back on what we are capable of doing in our worship, we are not giving Him our best and our worship fails. That being said, our best does not need to be distracting.

      God’s standard was never excellence; it is obedience. How can whatever we do be in obedience to the command and calling of God? Willow Creek’s worship is remarkable. Large band, outstanding musicians, very dynamic worship. It obviously varies dramatically from what a church of 200 can pull off. Does that mean someone capable of leading at Willow Creek shouldn’t use their talents to the fullest at a smaller venue? I certainly hope not.

      There is a significant difference between fully using our gifts and showing off. When we sing in such a way that the congregation is no longer able to worship with us, we fail. When a younger artist shows off his high notes over and over again from the stage, he fails. However, the question is never and can never be the ability. The question has to be the heart, and that is an answer only the Spirit can reveal in each of us. Leading in worship is serving the Lord and His church. So long as we approach it from that angle and place ourselves under His authority, our odds of success increase exponentially.

    5. Thank you for encouraging occasional acapella singing. I don’t think worship is normally just vertical, whether it is at a larger Sunday morning meeting, or a smaller prayer meeting, bible study, or in our families. We are the Body of Christ and we encourage one another and participate with one another in our worship meetings. We don’t worship one another, we worship God, but our worship spills over and effects those around us every where we are. So it is important that we are sensitive and aware of not distracting, and not overdoing, while we are skillfully playing. Our worship vertically is to and of God, but horizontally it is who we are, the body, worshipping Him in accord. When we “pause” for even a chorus or an ending of a song, and allow our voices to sing out and be heard by one another, it is beautiful, and a strong reminder that we are not alone in this pilgrimage. Hearing is powerful. Hearing one another worshipping God is a comforting reminder that we are not just individuals worshipping God, we are a body, His Body, worshipping Him together with our lives.

    6. I think when the author of the article asks musicians or leaders to hold back musically there’s nothing wrong with that – it seems to me that the author is calling for what several reply writers are calling for: a heart check. The author of the article was careful to cite what Matt Redman did with his pastor for their congregation prior to writing “The Heart of Worship”. They made a deliberate decision to remove the band and the music from the equation because (here’s the important part) they felt God was challenging them worship without the music and the other stuff they thought they needed to worship. Its ok to sacrifice your skill, your instrument, etc… for the honor of the King. God is pleased when we’re willing to lay down something so important to us for His glory. Besides, imagine you were to take choice out of the equation – If you’re a guitarist whose fingers have been injured or a singer with damaged vocal chords how would you worship? We don’t NEED anything to worship except the OBJECT of our worship. Sometimes it does us well to step back and examine how our hearts would praise Him without all the music and other amenities we are accustomed to… But (again, the most important part) its not worth stepping back just because; it should be done obediently if and when the Holy Spirit prompts.

      I also totally agree that there’s a reason playing excellently is mentioned only once in scripture whereas the condition of the heart is given so much attention. As worshipers I think we will do very well to keep that in mind!

      Anyways, thanks to anyone who reads my post – its just my humble opinion – even though my prideful flesh tends to try to tell me I’ve got it all figured out. Thanks to the author of the article and to everyone who replied! I appreciate all the thought provoking reading :)



    7. It’s conversations like this that make me seriously question where the church is with worship. This is no slam on the writer, this is a question I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. I’ve been a worship leader for about ten years, played in worship bands for nearly twenty, and I’ve never felt so torn as to what my thinking should be. My life, and the lives of many I know, were permanently impacted by experiencing God in a “worship music” setting. But now I see as much hurt in the church and it’s leaders from worship music as good from it’s true ministry. What I long for is to simply serve and love God and His people with fullness and purity of heart. When I’m alone in my room I play fast and furious, or sometimes, just a simple melody or progression and just pour out whatever the Lord is doing in my heart. That’s what I want to do with the congregation… but I’ve been in too many churches and have seen the good and bad of both perspectives of this argument, and often just feel like throwing up my hands and saying,” I give up, take your worship service and do what ever you want, but I’ve had enough ’cause it’s not worship”. Time and time again the question is, “how do we do this right?” and it is never answered because we focus on the wrong thing, we focus on the means rather than on the One to whom worship is being poured out. As the writer of this article and every comment has pointed out, worship is a matter of the heart. David danced with all of his might. I want to dance with all my might. Is it wrong that I’m good at my instrument? How much of a distraction am I? Why do I pour out my heart with my instruments, with music, the language I know best, and then feel guilty because what I did distracted someone as I let my fingers move too fast? What is skillful? What a gifted musician considers simple will still sound good and anything that sounds good could be distracting….so can anything that sounds bad. If I hold back am I still worshiping? These questions and so many others make me wonder if there needs to be some kind of total overhaul of our concept of worship…even of the role of music in the church. When I go to undeveloped countries and worship with people there, it’s whole hearted, pure, and done with all their might and ability no matter the musical quality. When I worship with new believers it’s whole hearted and pure and done with all their might and ability no matter the musical quality. Maybe here is a clue? The western church, which was so revitalized by the modern “worship movement” has boxed and packaged it so much that we’ve forgotten what the reality of worship is. This doesn’t answer the question of how skillfully we can or should play. I honestly think it’s a tired and unanswerable question. What each believer, each leader, each church, and the church as a whole need to do is answer the question; who is God, who am I in relation to Him….and then be in awe…awed enough to quit trying to be something and simply be us worshiping Him. This is an answer that is no answer but it’s where I’m at and all I’ve got to hold on to for worship in the church is to do what I believe God leads me to on a moment by moment basis.

      • Eric,

        Thanks for your thoughts. It sounds like you’ve had a lot of frustration trying to figure all this out. The good side of that is you’re really considering the importance of worshiping God skillfully, and you want to serve well. The flip side is you seem to have gotten frustrated with questions like, “how good is too good?” I think we’ve all been there in some degree. While many of us have our own answers I think they’re always provisional answers until the next situation comes up, where we re-evaluate; I think that’s what you mean by letting the Spirit lead you on a “moment by moment basis”?

        My real hope is that you keep leading, keep seeking, and keep pushing. Keep asking the hard questions. Keep pushing others’ perspectives, and shaping your own. And, of course, stay connected to the Source. :)

    8. Hi

      Sorry – but no way! God demands the very best we are capable of in worship and in life. Just read, for example, the Biblical descriptions of the Tabernacle & the Temple. There is no such thing as being too skilful! However, there is – and it appears all too frequently – the danger of using that skill inappropriately in worship. Something played or sung simply can often be more effective than a complex arrangement, and anything that shouts “listen to how well I can play” is out of order. Let’s get this terminology right.

    9. I believe that truly skilled musicians will understand and applaud the sentiments of the author.
      The truly skilled will have seen the recovering musicians who, after finding Christ, have re-discovered their talents, once pitted and corroded, and are excited to ROCK OUT FOR JESUS!
      The truly skilled know that you have to “play for the song” and not for vainglory. The idea of an “unpolished” presentation seems to me to be closer to the “joyful noise” we are urged to make unto the LORD. Imagine a successful act doing an “unplugged” version of their big hit! And the a cappella suggestion [we usually use this during equipment failures] is marvelous, in a smaller room.
      Of course, if you have a super-mega-Church with a coffee bar and $15,000/month mortgage, you may need “Holy Aerosmith” to fill the pews.

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