By Greg Jones
What if I were to tell you that worship IS a performance? What if the real question is WHO is the audience?
In Genesis 4, we read about Cain and Abel’s offering of worship to God. Cain gave God the left-overs, giving God nothing more than his mediocrity. Abel on the other hand, gave God his best in the first fruits of his labor. This made Cain jealous.
When people say that worship music is not about performance, they are probably trying to guard against pride. I couldn’t agree more. One of the greatest dangers I see with culturally-relevant churches is that they risk losing humility. Humility is having the boldness to stare your weaknesses in the eye without flinching. You show me a church that is culturally relevant without humility and I’ll show you a bunch of hipsters, posing in their skinny jeans, drinking their lattes, sporting piercings and tattoos to lure you into a conformity that they have mistaken for coolness.
But does humility require the church’s virtuosos to hide their light under a lamp? Can a church be humble without lowering the bar to a mediocrity of skill and creativity? What if your church’s worship team has a singer with the lungs of Steve Perry or a guitarist with the skills of Lincoln Brewster? Should that church tell them to leave the high note descants and shred solos at home? Should we tell our most skilled worship team members that God doesn’t want their greatest skills used within the church? Should they be forced to only use such skill in secular contexts because we can’t possibly imagine them being used in humility? Why do we find that the Old Testament temple worship model incorporated a system of teachers and apprentices if skill is to be so restrained? And what about Psalm 33:3?
Now please understand, if you only have the skill of the average hobbyist, this is not an indictment. Attitude determines altitude. The real issue is not your skill but your heart. Are you willing to give God all that you have, whether that is a lot or a little? Are you motivated to do it better tomorrow than today because you are not doing it for yourself but doing it for the King of glory? If you can answer yes, then that is the attitude of a humble, perpetual learner. That passion is what God wants and it is what I celebrate as a worship leader when I see it in any worship team member, from the beginner to the most experienced and advanced.
In the movie “Chariots of Fire”, Eric Liddell is both an Olympic runner and a missionary. He is admonished by his family for putting so much time into his training at the expense of his missionary work. He tells his family that yes God has called him to be a missionary but God has also made him fast and when he runs he feels God’s pleasure.
Is it not possible for a Celine Dion, Mike Portnoy or Phil Keaggy to be on our praise teams, itching not to impress people but just to give God the fruits of all of their practice time and dedication as an act of worship? Within the context of a tasteful fit for a song’s style, while preserving congregational singability, couldn’t moderate bursts of such skill be a witness to the people within our congregations? What could such displays, within the context of humility say about God and our worship to Him?
If we can’t imagine such a thing happening without pride, could it be possible that WE have the problem instead of the virtuoso? Did God admonish Abel for his gift because it risked being mistaken by Cain as ‘showing off’?
Light is best appreciated when contrasted with darkness. Humility is best demonstrated when contrasted with skill. Whose humility is clearer, the humility of a musician with the skills of a beginner or that of the virtuoso? Isn’t the power of Christ’s humility found in that He is the rightful King who gave His life? Or would this humility have been better displayed if He were just an ordinary man who died?
To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist. – Cardinal Suhard
What if people within our congregations were presented with a mystery? What if that mystery were of a church that is known for presenting worship with excellence and skill not to solicit praise from men but to give praise to someone otherwise invisible, but made real by their humility?
Romans 12:1-2 defines worship as giving our life to God through the process of sanctification. The sanctification process starts with how we think:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
This definition clearly transcends music, however