When I first heard this story, I thought that the choir director was so mean, telling someone not to sing. Why bother having them up there in the first place? How embarrassing for that person to know that they weren’t good enough to be heard!
However, early in my worship leading career, I found that I may not have understood all the details necessary to make a judgment call on that approach, and there was something else at work that made sense in the big picture.
You see, my dad had an incredibly joyful presence. His smile could light up a room, and he had a penchant for bringing out the best in others around him. I can see why a choir director would want that sort of encouraging influence among the other members of the ensemble, even if his vocal talents didn’t merit inclusion.
The other factor at work is that it is not only about what is heard, but what is seen, when a musical group performs in front of others, especially in the context of when they are modeling worship – being role models, examples, setting the bar of permission for expressiveness within the church. The visual expression of worship is absolutely as important as the audible expression of worship, for any group of lead worshipers charged with being the ones responsible to usher the people of God into the presence of God for the praise of God.
Sometimes there’s a huge disconnect between what the people in the band are singing and how they look on the stage. If they’re singing, “the joy of the Lord is our strength,” with the most pained, sad expression on their faces, that’s not really matching what is being sung with what is being seen, and that’s not really serving the people they’re meaning to lead, because it’s disjointed and confusing at a root emotional level. As the leadership goes, the church goes. If the band is reserved, the church will be as well. If the music is excellent, upbeat and passionate, but the band looks frozen in place, guess what? The church is going to be frozen in place as well. Unemotional. Hindered. Exactly what the Lord does NOT want in his worship.
He says he doesn’t desire burnt offerings or sacrifice, but the sacrifice of a heart broken and contrite before Him. (Psalm 51:15-17) If you look at the offering of music in our services as the modern day equivalent of sacrifice or burnt offering, then it follows that it doesn’t matter how excellent the music is, if the heart is not there to accompany it! Elsewhere in Scripture (Amos 5:23, Isaiah 29:13), the Lord exclaims how he is repulsed by the people who honor Him with their lips but their hearts are far from Him, and how He will not even listen to the sound of their songs and praises. “Away with your noisy hymns of praise!” He says!!
Pretty strong indictment.
So it’s not just about the quality of the music, and it is absolutely about the heart that accompanies it.
Which brings me to Bongo Man.
Bongo Man was a good friend of mine in college who had an unrestrained passion for the Lord, especially vibrant in worship. He loved to play percussion instruments and had quite a collection of congas, djembes, cymbals, maracas, tambourines, and of course bongos. It was quite an impressive setup when he’d put it all together, making his own drum circle around him! The only problem was he had really bad meter. I mean, atrocious. Some would say he had no sense of rhythm. But man, he loved to play those percussion instruments and make a joyful noise to the Lord!
Whether he was in front of people or in the congregation, he worshiped his heart out to the Lord. He totally reminded me of David saying, “I’ll become even more undignified than this!” in his focus to respond to the Lord in song, pouring out his heart regardless of who was watching. In that, he was extremely consistent and authentic – not putting on a show for anyone but the Lord. Which made him a wonderful example of a worshiper after the heart of God.
Even though he had a really rough time keeping a beat, I often included him on my worship team for big events. In a small room, his off-beat cadence would be distracting, but in a large setting, where he really couldn’t be heard about the volume of the sound system, what he brought to the plate visually was worth every wrong beat he played.
To be clear: I had to let him know, for the sake of integrity, exactly why I wanted him on the team, and that he was not likely to be heard but only seen by others. He was okay with this. Once we were leading worship for a large conference, and he set up his incredibly elaborate percussion station, and the live sound engineers came to me asking how many channels we wanted dedicated to him. How many mics were needed, for all those bongos? When I told them, “none – but make sure he has a nice loud wedge monitor so he can hear the band clearly,” they were a bit taken aback. “But if we don’t mic him, no one will be able to hear him in this place!” they said to me. I told them that we were counting on that, and then asked them to listen to him during the rehearsal and they’d understand.
Sure enough, with a loud monitor, Bongo Man played his heart out to the Lord alongside the band, passionate even in sound check & rehearsal. The sound team came to me afterward and said, “okay, we get why you don’t want him miked… but why bother having him up there if no one can hear him? And especially if you don’t want anyone to hear him?”
I responded, “But did you SEE the way he worshiped the Lord? Did you see how exuberant he was in offering his heart to God? Did you see the joy of the Lord on his face, not only on his face but in his whole countenance? His entire being praising Jesus!! That’s why.”
Bongo Man was a joy to have on our team, and his passion is still the bar that I look for in that visual expression component in those I gather for the ministry of leading others in worship.
It really doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. But in your team, where do you draw the line at what sort of presence you have on stage? Who is a better fit for modeling worship? A person who can sing like the angels but always has a look on their face like they were baptized in lemon juice? Or a person who cannot carry a note but shows the passionate love and joy of God in their whole being?
Blessings to you as you serve our Lord and His people.
Brendan Prout is a pastor in San Diego, CA, active in developing worship leaders locally and nationally. He has served in ministry leadership for over 25 years, and has a passion for training and inspiring others to grow in their gifts for the work of ministry they are called to.