If you’re a church musician, I’m sure you’ve heard, said or been a victim of one of the following statements:
- “Worship is not a performance, so stop showing off every Sunday.”
- “God is more concerned about our hearts in worship, so you don’t need to practice as much for worship as you might for another gig.”
- “I don’t believe we should practice for worship. We need to let the Holy Spirit lead us.”
I’m reminded of the pastor who told his parishioners that he only wrote the first half of his sermon and he prayed for the Holy Spirit to finish his sermon while he preached. After one of these sermonic experiences, an elderly lady approached him and said, “Sonny, I think I like your sermon writing better than the Holy Spirit’s.” I hope he got the point! 🙂
Before you write this off as ludicrous, please know that I have heard variations on all the above statements. In fact, my wife was even recently approached by a well-intentioned homeschool mom who said, “I know you and Phil care about bringing excellence to this performance, but we just want our kids to have a positive experience. Don’t stress them out.” Our hearts sank.
Last year I was looking for a worship job and I was told by several churches that I was “too good” or they couldn’t afford someone as good as me. Really? I thought I was leading worship for Almighty God, the King of the Universe, who is accustomed to holiness and accepts our best as a sacrifice of praise. I honestly don’t understand the movement I see in many churches to hire untrained musicians to lead worship. I wonder if it’s a reaction against this performance debate?
The Way of Escape
Ultimately I do agree that the way through this issue comes from the heart. For the artist, worship can become idolatry when we pursue excellence for its own sake. For the worshiper, excellence becomes idolatry when we start evaluating the artistry instead of allowing excellent music to lead us to ponder the excellencies of God’s greatness.
The story of Matt Redman’s song The Heart of Worship comes to mind in this context. His fellowship had become guilty of becoming worship connoisseurs. The pastor saw the trend and decided to cancel planned worship services so the Lord could teach them the meaning of true worship. Redman’s song came out of this season and illustrates the importance of our heart in worship. I believe this season profoundly shaped Matt’s worship writing in content and skill. He didn’t stop growing in excellence, but instead kept his heart focused on Jesus.
He and the pastor discuss the story here:
7 Ways to Overcome the Tension Between Excellence and Performance
1. Remember God is thrice holy – The angels continually sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” If God is absolutely perfect in his character and actions and has said “be holy as I am holy,” then wouldn’t it make sense that he would want us to bring our best?
2. Obey God’s call to be skillful in our worship. Psalm 33:3 says, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” Proverbs 22:29 says, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” While these verses don’t provide the last word on excellence, it’s obvious that God wants us to pursue excellence–especially in our worship.
3. Don’t assume excellence has a universal measure. The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30, Luke 19:12-28) demonstrates that Jesus doesn’t see all Christians as equally gifted. We can all handle differing amounts of responsibility and treasure. What is universally true, is that we will all be held to account for what we’ve done with our talents. I played last night with a flautist in our fellowship who has been hiding her talent from me (and the congregation) for 15 months. I’m glad she brought it out for all of our sake, even if she’s not ready to go play with symphony any time soon.
4. Talent is overrated. This may sound like a refutation of the last point, but I offer an entirely different perspective. Geoff Colvin, in his book Talent is Overrated, studied many of the highly skilled and highly successful people in our world (modern and historical). He found that a vast majority of these shared a common attribute–and it wasn’t talent, but hard work. But not just mindless hard work; it’s what he calls Deliberate Practice, which shares these 5 features:
- Designed specifically to improve performance – in other words, it focuses on key elements of excellent performance.
- Repeated a lot – repeat it until it becomes second nature (a.k.a. muscle memory).
- Feedback is continuously available (through mentors, teachers, peers)–and I might add that feedback is intentionally sought.
- Highly demanding mentally – If you’re not challenging your mind, you will become bored and give up or slack off.
- Not much fun – this hard work is necessary and rarely brings great joy–except in the results.
Wayman Tisdale’s story provides an inspiring case study. After a successful NBA career, for which I’m sure he’ll enter the NBA Hall of Fame, he decided to become a professional jazz bassist. With the same focused determination that caused him to stand out as a basketball player, he attacked learning the bass. He quickly distinguished himself as a legitimate bass player, earning the attention of his jazz heroes. Wayman wasn’t necessarily more talented than other bassists. He just knew how to focus his desire through a deliberate practice regimen.
You may know that Wayman Tisdale died at the age of 44 in 2009. This tribute from his funeral talks of the legacy he left. I was particularly impressed with the comment that Tisdale accomplished more in 44 years than most people do in 80 plus years. That can be attributed to his ability to deliberately develop a skill and use it for the glory of God:
5. Avoid the temptation to find short cuts. A friend of mine recently posted this picture on Facebook. While I’m not sure about the math (I’m more accustomed to the 80/20 rule), the point deserves attention. I’ve asked my college music professor friends about this, and they all agree. They can predict with a high degree of accuracy which students will succeed as musicians based on how well they practice.
In his book, This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin provides scientific evidence for the rule of 10,000. He contends that it takes 10,000 hours to master a musical instrument. If that is true, at 15 minutes a day, it would take you nearly 100 years to master an instrument. Even at an hour a day, it would take 27 years. At four hours a day, it would take 6 years. This fits with what I heard Bob Kauflin tell a young worship leader. The student had asked him how he could learn to play piano like him. Bob replied simply, “It’s easy. Just go to college, become a piano major and practice 5 hours a day.” I doubt Bob knew the rule of 10,000, but a four year degree at 5 hours a day would start to approach 10,000 hours, especially when added to the assumed number of hours put in prior to music school.
6. Pay attention to your heart. After all this focus on your skill, I would remiss if I didn’t address the heart issues. I constantly have to repent when I play saxophone in worship. While I would say that sax is my voice in worship, I also know the strong temptation to draw attention to myself through my playing. As a jazz musician, I’ve been trained to play for applause after my solos. In worship I constantly have to make sure I’m playing for the Lord and not the applause of man. This is a battle that can only be fought on my knees and in community.
7. Define excellence in your community. Finally, your church needs to spend time thinking through what it means to “bring your best” to God. What looks like authentic worship in one community may smack of “performance” in another. Some of that is purely cultural.
I found that the high level of virtuosity expected in New York City or Chicago isn’t necessarily what people are looking for as I lead in Wichita or rural Georgia. That doesn’t excuse laziness or sloppiness, but it does show a different value system for our current community. Make sure to spend time prayerfully understanding this for your community.
It’s your turn. How have you wrestled with this tension?
I’ve run into the “it’s Christian so it doesn’t have to be as good” mentality – especially when I was involved in the Christian rock music scene in college. Whether in that realm or in the worship leader position, I agree with you, it needs to be professional. Do churches choose not to hire pastors who have a degree from seminary or who have been ordained because they “might be too good”? No. So why would churches not want to hire professionally-trained musicians to be in the equally important role of worship pastor?
Thanks Matthew. Good question!
John Piper has a great book called, “Brothers, We’re Not Professionals” where he reminds us that we are equals at the foot of the cross. I hesitate to use the word professional because that conjures payment and elitist orientations. Too many churches allow the “professionals” to do all the work, which leaves little room for volunteerism. Instead, I think we want excellence, whether we’re paid or not.
Great thoughts. I find that our most “excellent” times of worship – corporately speaking – come when the band has had an excellent midweek rehearsal. By that I mean when I leave rehearsal I am pumped to see how what we just did translates to Sunday morning. Many times this happens when we spend time talking about the sermon topic, scriptures and elements being planned for the upcoming service, and as we play we begin to contextualize moments in the music set as they will happen on Sunday – how they will relate to the other elements in the liturgy, scriptures and prayers. When this happens, a dramatic shift takes place in our rehearsal. We begin to think less about our “parts,” and begin to rehearse how we are presenting the message in the songs… how the arrangements, dynamics, and tempo will work together within the service to create authentic moments of worshipful experience. We begin to think creatively about how to present beautiful moments that will compliment what we anticipate the Lord will be doing throughout the storyline of the morning. The times I’m most intentional about leading rehearsals this way are far more fruitful than the times we spend tweaking transitions or trying to nail a big section of a song. I think when our band prepares like this corporately, we are not merely focusing on bringing our “best” as individual musicians, but we are working together to present the gospel in a powerful way… in these moments our rehearsal (and/or working toward excellence) becomes a little transcendant. I think where our individual work on our musicianship comes into play in this context is that the more competent you are technically, the more freed up you will be to express yourself creatively in these moments without limitation or distraction.
Those are great thoughts. I do that preparation for myself, but I must confess that I often fail to bring the team fully up to speed on that. However, when I do so, I sense they are far more engaged–instead of just doing their part.
Thanks for commenting!
Claudia Curtis says
I fully agree with Russ. As a worship singer, I have found that it is definitely better to rehearse and work diligently on what needs to be tightened up. When the moment comes to step out onto the platform, an anointing comes upon us and all things go smoothly, that is, when you receive that. God created us to be moved by excellent music. It is that movement that frees up the heart to go deeper into our worship. Sour notes can be a huge distraction and can pull both the musicians and the worshipers right out of the Spirit. All servants of the Lord are to do their absolute best, just as God wanted the first fruits, the fattest calf, the most excellent Lamb. He gave us our gifts and we are to turn those gifts back to Him with excellence. As Russ said, practice, practice, so that you yourself can worship through your music with only the brief distraction of your cues, not wondering if you’re going to remember what you’re doing. Anyone who says you should bury your talent in the ground for the sake of pure worship, doesn’t know God and the desires of His heart!
It’s all about giving Him glory, and also allowing enough time to linger in the song, so that the worshipers can feel the words. But it is difficult to be truly inspired if you are obviously not giving your all.
I agree, Claudia. I have led worship and played gigs where I wasn’t fully prepared and I became too distracted by the technical aspects of worship where I couldn’t focused on God, His glory and His people. Adequate preparation is critical. There is such a thing, I believe, as over preparation, but few of us reach that point. The real danger is pursuing perfection and missing the Spirit. This is a daily, weekly and life long art, and it must happen in community.
Thanks for your comment.
Thanks for the referral!