Musical excellence ultimately centers on the topic of performance. So before we go any further, let’s talk about the “p” word for a moment. First of all, “performance” is often a shunned discussion by Christians as it relates to worship and the church. Why? Because the word “performance” is often translated into something that is inauthentic or lacking integrity. We think of performance as something that is made up or acted out in public, but does not necessarily relate to our private lives. But this way of thinking when applied to a performance art like music is problematic. To make music or to deliver a speech, for that matter, requires some kind of grade-able performance.
The amount of professional jobs available for musicians underscores the common phrase of “starving musician.” The American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the largest musician union group in America, claim that only 15% of their 45,000 members have steady employment. Of the 35,000 records produced professionally in the United States, less than 200 will sell more than 50,000 units. In other words, there are a very few very rich musicians.
We are a country of people that create our social identities around musical style; we will pay $400 for a U2 ticket and 36.4 million people watched Taylor Hicks become the 5th American idol. Only the Superbowl and the Academy Awards garner bigger viewing audiences. America loves excellence in music and performance.
Now admittedly what is “excellent” is very subjective; the criteria is based on the personal taste of the participant or observer. Those who watch American Idol (and many of us do) have your own favorite judge. The discourse they create among each other helps give us the language to express what we feel about the performance, as well. Our need is to generate some kind of rational truth about the phenomena that we just experienced, and in order to do that, we need language. In other words, the work of the judges is just as much a performance as that of the talent.
Fortunately, this is not a public process that those responsible for music in worship have to endure. Why? Because our use of music, or any media art for that matter, in worship goes far beyond “mere performance.” There is a major difference between an idol and an icon. An idol brings attention to itself. The icon points to God. The goal of our music is to relate people to God. If it does that, it is excellent, if not, it’s not.
There is a wide and diverse readership at Worship Leader magazine, and, therefore, a very diverse number of Christian communities with an amazing variety of faith histories shaped by different styles of music and forms of making music. But all have one thing in common. The common thread is a love for music and passion for God. It is our focus on God that generates more than, merely, an excellent performance. It is true worship as we consider God’s grace and find, as the Psalmist wrote, “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever” Psalm 30:11-31:1 (NIV).
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