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Author: Warren Anderson
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Posted September 30, 2014 by

The Problem of Playing Too Skillfully

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.


One Comment


    I would disagree. The musician’s craft is a gift. The lyric a gift. The ability to stand in front of a congregation and lead them to the Father’s heart is a gift. I love much of the modern expressions put forth in bands such as Jesus Culture and Passion. There is a conspicuous lack of lead playing (an individual instrument arpeggiating a melody line or other complimentary line) on most songs.

    I understand the reason for structuring music this way. However, I have found that the personality of the team (even individual members) comes out anyway. Vocals become more pronounced and more difficult to sing along with. Rhythm takes a greater place in the arrangements, and even sonic layers become more complex. These are all wonderful maturations of praise and worship music, but it is no different than a individual laying down a lead line.

    The trick is to use our art and our heart. A great solo of any sort added at the right time enhances the experience of the music. People love to hear great musicianship and to shy away from a skilled performance because of some imagined shame seems to mock the giftings God has imparted to his people.

    Sure, any of us can distract in worship. Even innocent movement could rob someone’s worship experience. Our goal is to reach to the Father with a pure heart on pure mission: worship of the Father, through Jesus, in the Spirit. The dance is to allow the musician to experience the fullness of glory through instrumentation as well as to allow the congregants to experience the presence of the flow created by music and lyric and presence of the worship leaders.

    There is no need to create a false dichotomy in worship between musical skill and the worship flow.

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