Worship Leaders, Have We Idolized Excellence?

David Santistevan —  — 30 Comments

Excellence.

It’s a word we use a lot when it comes to our worship teams. Tight music. Slick arrangements. Synchronized lights. A thin layer of haze. Air tight programming of every service element.

But is there a limit to this creativity? Does there come a moment when it’s too much? When it becomes a distraction?

worship01

Average Worship Leaders

And what about we worship leaders who are average?

We’ll never have the voice of Israel Houghton. We’ll never develop the songwriting prowess of Matt Redman. We may never even be asked to lead worship for an event. We won’t record an album or tour or be recognized by anyone for our skills.

Our modern worship culture has taught us that a great voice, a great band, and air-tight excellence produces the best worship. But what about the average worship leaders – is there a place in the kingdom for them?

Bob Kauflin wrote about this recently, and I think it stirs up some good questions.

Corporate Worship Essentials

Simply put, when does our excellence become a distraction – a distraction to the congregation who simply watches the great band. And, a distraction to the team who is relentlessly obsessed with deeper perfection and performance detail.

Where is Jesus? Is His glory being overlooked? Are we missing the point?

I think what will frame this conversation better is to determine what are the essentials – what must our gatherings include?

1. The Word – We are to worship God in truth – to exalt Him for who He is. The Word of God can never be divorced from pure worship. It’s a response to His revelation. It’s a delighting in His goodness. The more we see of God in His Word the more reason we have to worship.

2. The Spirit – We need to worship God “in Spirit”, according to John 4. In every gathering, the Holy Spirit is the true worship leader. He reveals the character of God. He guides and directs us to know Jesus. Apart from the Spirit, we’re merely hosting a sing-a-long.

3. Affection – Affection is a by-product of Spirit and Truth worship. As we encounter Him, our hearts become alive. He awakens us to His matchless beauty, wonder, and power. Worship becomes not just a mental assent to truth, but the full engagement of all our emotions. Love, passion, and fire grows within our hearts. We develop a flame for Jesus that is nothing short of a miracle.

I’d love to hear: what are your thoughts?

Have you idolized excellence over heart?

Are you emphasizing the essentials of worship?

Are you giving space for the average worship leaders to rise up?

Let’s start some discussion in the comments. See you there.

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30 responses to Worship Leaders, Have We Idolized Excellence?

  1. Random thoughts:

    Is this a worthy statement: Tim you’re an average worship leader, I don’t think your new worship song is as good as Mark’s, so we’ll learn his?

    As soon as we value excellence over and above the heart I think we become in danger of dampening and cloaking the Holy Spirit.

    Learning to be meek and humble is a good way to maintain balance, every worship team member should serve in other areas

  2. My first though when reading this was that we (or maybe just I) fall into the trap of trying to re-create the HIllsongs and Jesus Cultures of the world. First of all, these cds that are eventually released have a budget bigger than my church. Top notch equipment, sound boards that wouldn’t fit in my living room, post-production tweaking, etc. I used to get frustrated when our team can’t replicate the massive sounds that we hear on cd. Why can’t I get the guitar tone of someone with 10k worth of gear? Why can’t the other sings reach multiple octaves? Frankly, after butchering a few songs during worship I realized that I needed to serve the people that were in front of me. I wasn’t playing to 5000 people. I’m playing to a smaller group of mostly middle to elderly aged people. Not 20somethings who showed up to a recording with the sole purpose of worshipping thru music.

    All of this was to say that our excellence should be based on the factors you mentioned and serving our local congregation.

  3. I like what Jeff has to say. I think we need to add to the list “loving the congregation”. Is my heart for the people I’m leading or is it for the music? Or, possibly worse, is my heart for some expectation I feel I have to meet in order to be pleasing. And pleasing to who? God? No, pleasing to the people or music we idolize. Pleasing to our own pride.

    I often wonder what the next wave in worship will be. I grew up hearing big choir anthems and lots of half-step key changes. In many ways, today’s worship leaders are a reaction to that.

    Will our kids think about words like “excellence” or “dotted eighth note” in the same way we think of words like “pageant” or “key change”? Will our kids think of slick video walls and skinny jeans in the same way we think of cassette-tape tracks and coats and ties? Who knows…

    With all that said, non-distracting excellence is important and “average worship leader” can’t become an excuse for “lazy worship leader”.

  4. “Simply put, when does our excellence become a distraction – a distraction to the congregation who simply watches the great band.”

    I am totally with you on the worship essentials, but I have to disagree with this point. People should not be criticized for their talent. When I am worshiping in the crowd, hearing a beautiful voice or a skillfully played instrument directs my awe to God, the creator. I am moved to worship in that moment because God is revealing his glory and beauty through his creation making music for him.

    I also am a worship leader who leads a band that falls somewhere between “average” & “famous worship leader”. The vast majority age at my church is 18-30, which includes many seekers, so there already is a natural tendency in that demographic to view a rock band on a stage as a performance. So I definitely agree that there are circumstances in which the band is being glorified. However, we cannot control how someone will perceive us; all we can do is strive to be in the right place with God, with humble hearts and a prayer to truly worship and draw others in to worship him, not presenting ourselves in a way that is attention-seeking. I fail a lot, but I feel confident that God can use me and the band in our brokenness to reach people.

    Thanks for the article!

    • Thanks for bringing up this point, Leila. I’m not saying we should reject talent or criticize people because they are skilled. Poor quality isn’t the answer. My concern is that worship teams can forget about Jesus in the midst of creating excellent music. Excellence can become the goal rather than a means to the goal – Jesus.

  5. Alice Marchesani January 3, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Wow! Thanks so much again for the truth and wisdom in this week’s email. Yes, we have idolized excellence, and in the process some have made their worship times so sanitized, so professional, so “us vs. them”. We should strive to sound our best, but corporate gatherings of worship should sound like God’s voice — “the voice of many waters”. All voices in the room, whether on the platform or on the floor, lifted up together in unity. Everyone in the room should feel like they are one with the worship team and there is no dividing point between the worship team and the congregation. Truth is, a worship leader, and everyone on the platform as well, can easily hide behind awesome music and all the trappings of a talented team. Test your team with this to see if you’re on the right track — turn it all off (music, lights, etc.) and see what happens. (Probably should do this just during a rehearsal unless your pastor knows and is on board with doing this on a Sunday). As the worship leader, just play 1 or 2 chords, start praying, worshipping, singing spontaneously and see what your team does. If there’s deer in headlight looks and something doesn’t build in a few moments, you’ve got some homework to do!

  6. I think this is where having a clearly communicated vision is so vital. What is the expectation of excellence in your church and with your team? Are we leading the amazing lead guitarist who never cracks open his bible and the female vocalist whose always just a little flat on that high note but worships like she’s before the throne, the way that they both need to be lead into excellence or are we just praying everything to come together on Sunday?

    Excellence for me using all God has given you to the best of your ability, for His glory. Like David said, its that last part we forget about sometimes. I love this idea from James MacDonald’s “Vertical Church” as leaders the really simple question we NEED to ask is “Does/did _______ glorify God?” I think if we were honest with ourselves as we prepare/review our plans we would all see improvement in our worship, regardless of where we land on the abilities scale.

    • A great point, Jay. What I’ve noticed is worship teams can be more concerned with “did we play well” over “did we glorify God”. I think that is needed question for all worship teams to ask.

  7. First, I would say that there is nothing more distracting than trying to worship alongside music that is off time or pitch continuously.

    Second, I would ask what is “heart” if you don’t have the desire to become even more skilled? Sometimes we make the mistake of allowing musicians or vocalists on stage because they seem enthusiastic, they like they know what they’re talking about, they say they’re really good, and then we come to find out that they have only been learning to play or sing for two weeks. We say they have “heart,” and say that somehow their worship is more pure, because we fail to recognize their pride and lack of wisdom.

    Worship is more than just the music segment on a Sunday morning. It’s how you’re living your relationship out. Don’t you want to give the best, perfect, and most beautiful gifts to your girlfriend/boyfriend, spouse, or family? That’s how our worship ministries should work. What could you be doing instead of watching the 5 hours of TV each day? Maybe practice a bit? Pursue learning a new technique, or master a song that you’ve had difficulty playing or singing?

    What does it take? It could be as simple as a drummer practicing to a metronome 30 minutes a day, or a lead singer signing up for a semester of vocal lessons at a local community college. Guitarists/ bassists/keyboard players have you guys heard of Google and YouTube?

    The resources at our fingertips are incredibly powerful, we just need to stop allowing ourselves to be filled with fear and self-doubt, and put forth an effort to access it.

    Third, I do believe that there should always be balance. You can pursue getting better at music AND still enter in on a Sunday morning with a heart full of worship, and the desire to give all the glory to God. I know for a fact. I’m blessed to be able to play bass professionally with the team that I do. If we can do it, then so can you!:)

    MOST IMPORTANTLY, guard the anointing! As a Worship leader/Pastor it is your job to protect what flows off that platform musically, and lyrically. Yes, that means having to say no to someone who has auditioned for your team. If their secure individuals they won’t be too hurt, and you can present it in a respectable way. Just because your worship team says no to people who would like to be on the stage each week that doesn’t make them stuck up, or arrogant, it makes them strong and secure individuals in what they are good at. Maybe they even prayed about? What!? They might be Spirit-filled people that feel you don’t fit on the team. Maybe that isn’t part of God’s plan for your life.

    Sorry for the essay! Be blessed, friends!

    I think I’ll have to make that into a blog post now. Haha.

    Jonathan

  8. After reading some of the comments, we have been here before. How good is good enough without being too good ? What? If excellence is distracting, then we are promoting mediocrity. It is NOT a sin to be good at what you do. I believe we are commanded by scripture to be the best we can be at whatever it is we do. If God calls you to do something, He will equip you and allow you to grow, and give confirmation to others around you. That is two fold, technically and spiritually. God can and will use all of us if we are right with Him.
    Let us not promote mediocrity, or false humility. Be the best you can be, and then pray urgently for God to fill what you do with His Spirit. If we are filled with ourselves, we are sure to fail. Do we want a mediocre doctor, or engineer, or pilot, or pastor? But, if a musician is too good, surely that is his own ego and not of God. A professional musician,,,,, the horror! A church musician should know music and their instrument like the pastor knows chapter and verse in the Bible. You must also have a hunger for The Word to lead in worship. I honestly do not see trouble from excellent musicians in church as much as I see mediocre or worse musicians who think they are spiritual, but week after week, year after year, do not improve musically. Most professional musicians I know are either NOT in church by choice, or IN church by CHOICE. If they are there, they are probably there for the right reasons and want to be used of God like everyone else. Yet somehow they are frequently misjudged and accused of being there out of ego. They are going to taint our worship! If God gives you a “passion” for something, that is the beginning not the end. You must put yourself in places to grow and learn. You must improve. You must acquire some standards and points of reference. You must know what you don’t know to be useable and teachable. You must come prepared and give it to God. Not, come unprepared and hope God bails you out. Music is a tool for worship, but not the reason. But, you can’t do a job right without the right tool. Please excuse the sarcasm. It is intended jokingly to make a point. Whatever your level of achievement , it is the grandest of honors to sing praise to the LIVING GOD. Treat the opportunity with respect and humility. God will fill it with Himself.

    • Thanks for the insight, Don. So are you saying that the act of excellence is glorifying to God? Or does there need to be something deeper?

      • There can be empty excellence. But, is an act of mediocrity glorifying to God? Especially if you are capable of better? I think it might be a slight stretch, but James 2:18 has some relevance here. Psalms 33:3 commands us to play skillfully. I think what I am trying to say is, “mediocrity is an attitude”, not a judgement of one performance in time. I think Chris’s closing line is great. I think I agree with everything Jonathon said in his first post. His follow up response seems to be an inside look at a team that is doing a lot of wonderful things with a true and right heart toward worshiping God. I do not idolize excellence, but I respect it, I expect it.Our best is little compared to God’s Glory and Righteousness, but is there a verse in the Bible that proves we are allowed to bring anything less than our best before God? (Best includes technical and spiritual). That being said, your best and my best are not the same. That is something each of us has stewardship of before God.

  9. For one, our team started playing with a click about 7-8 months ago. Wow. I can’t even tell you how much that has helped all of us as a core unit. My worship leaders keeps it at her keyboard and usually turns it off if we go into any prophetic, or spontaneous, worship. Although, it’s not a distraction to play with.

    A majority of us on the team either have the desire to, or already are, playing music for a living. I know, without any doubt that we all spend time throughout the week to fill ourselves with the Word, pray, practice, and play outside of church.

    My leader has had some of us share a devotional before practice, or just something that was on our heart. That has benefited all of us, the one sharing and those listening, in so many ways. Also, we’ve had one person share with us a little about themselves each week. Things that none of us probably knew before. And then we make it a point to pray blessings over them afterwards. I can’t even describe how that has impacted us. It’s essential that we allow ourselves to be known by others.

    On a writing retreat, the first night we didn’t even write. Haha. Instead, we went around in a circle each of us praying for everyone one by one. It’s amazing what we can do once we allow ourselves to feel compassion for someone, and overcome our fear of speaking out.

    I’m not sure if I have answered your question satisfactorily, but I can tell you that I get to play with incredibly skilled musicians that love God and desire to use their craft to glorify God alone. It’s an environment that I’m blessed to take part in, but it takes intentionally cultivating a vision to get it to that point. I’ve noticed more joy, and excitement in each of us. We go on stage each service with our hearts expecting greater things for our congregation and ourselves.

    Sow the seeds, and you will most definitely see the fruit!

    • Alice Marchesani January 4, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      There’s so much truth and experience in everyone’s responses and I’d love like to read more about the feedback from your congregation and your pastors about your worship time. Great comments about excellence and working both the spiritual and practical aspects among the team. Yes and amen! But what is your church, the flock, and the leader of the flock saying about your corporate music portion of your worship?

      • Thanks Alice! By the way, I love what you said about just playing a couple of chords, and having the rest of the team join in. It’s vital to practice prophetic worship, and just allowing yourselves the opportunity to listen, or feel, for what the Holy Spirit would have you do. I had a mentor that really helped some of us younger guys(at the time) understand what that was, and how to flow with it.

        I guess the simplest way to describe to you how a Sunday morning–or any other service, or conference–looks like at my church, would be to tell you that there’s no coincidence in our name. We’re called Life Church. It’s 8-9 years old, and I’ve been a part of it for about 5. I still remember the first time I walked into service. I described it to others as feeling like the place was full of so much life!

        I had never been to a church before that taught the Love, and grace, of God through their worship and teaching the way that they have. I have also never been to a church, before this, where the congregation did more than just stand there with blank faces. It was an incredible, and life-changing experience for me that truly advanced my relationship with God beyond what I had limited it to. Each week I’m approached by multiple people after each service that compliment us because they “didn’t have to TRY to worship, [they] just did,” and asking if we have an album out and why not. One of the best things that I love about being on stage every weekend is the ability to see His people worship Him without any restraints!

        The best thing to do would be to just show you: http://tinyurl.com/lifechurchlive

        David! Sorry, for all of the links. I’m sure it’s not exactly proper etiquette.

      • This is great. I’d be interested to know the answer to that question as well.

  10. Some time ago I read a biography of Martin Luther and there were many times where he wrote of self doubt and questioned his worhiness to do anything on behalf of helping himself or anybody else come closer to God. No matter how polished or shiny corporate worship becomes it is probably still only possible for God to see it in a kindness or acceptance view. I don’t believe that God has ever said to the Archangel Gabriel “Man did you hear the guitar work and harmonies at Hillsong on Sunday? At best what we do might be put up on the refrigerator door with magnets for all to Oooh and Aaaah. I think we are to do the best that we can do and support others as much as we can while keeping our hearts in check.

  11. Honestly, what is an “average” worship leader? And who defines that? It makes me cringe. And who is the judge of “good worship”. It is so subjective. One person may think a service is anointed and another person won’t feel a thing. Truthfully, you can feel the same emotional high at a secular concert. Just because you are caught up in the moment, the music and togetherness does not equate “anointing” or “worship”. Only Jesus knows the hearts of the worshippers. Not us. Being a worship leader myself, I have been the one who strove for excellence but found that when I thought things were sub par is when someone in the congregation would be weeping before the Lord. And times when I thought it was all “perfect”, it fell flat for the congregation. Worship is between each individual and God. What I’ve realized is he can work through anyone. He is not dependent on our presentation, slick transitions and perfect song lists.

    I’ve been in a church where the worship was analyzed every Monday morning at staff meetings. It became a performance instead of true worship. I honestly believe the worship industry has become an idol within the church. Often the leader is the one being worshipped, not Christ. And would our slick presentation be one of the “tables” Jesus knocked over in the temple? Lots of money is being made off of worship…off of Christianity in general.

    Now, I love worship. I love good sound…excellent musicianship…And I believe we should always offer our very best to the Lord.
    But, who and what are we doing it for? A question not asked often enough, in my opinion.

    • Marie, there is a book that says the same thing as your next to last paragraph. Pete Ward, in his book, “Selling Worship” says that we are worshiping worship. He also insists that Christian music has become an industry . To keep it growing and making money it must constantly be fed new songs. I don’t totally agree or disagree with his assertions, but it definitely is a warning to be cautious with our motives and planning.

  12. I’d prefer to use the word quality. And in this case we’re mainly talking about production quality.

    Quality should simply be a means to an end. The end is either our fame or God’s fame. That’s where the issue lies. Not in the means, but in the end.

    Excellence, broadly speaking, is actually what God has called us to lift up. Namely: God’s excellencies.

    Our job as worship leaders is to proclaim God’s excellencies however He’s gifted us to (1 Peter). We’re called to put Him on display. That is the standard by which we must measure everything we do in our gatherings: Was God seen? What is our role in making that happen? What are the distractions that keep us from that goal? Was God’s excellence magnified and lifted high?

    It can be done very well with just the one dude who’s only been playing guitar for a year; and it can be done poorly in a stadium with thousands of people and all the hype.

    But the opposite is also true. It can be done terribly with just the one guitar; and amazingly with a highly skilled band.

    David I think you nailed it on the head when you listed the three “must haves”. Word, Spirit, affections…

    I think we should do whatever we can to make those three realities more visible. That’s the issue at stake.

    So that means we tune our guitars, we make it easier for people to sing the songs, we learn how to make smooth transitions… etc. We should use all the tools and skills the best we can, leveraging our lives to be proclaimers of who God is to all who will listen – to the end that God is glorified.

    Right doctrine of who God (word) leads to…
    God’s manifest presence changing lives (Spirit) which leads to…
    Our response and surrender to Christ with love and passion for God’s excellencies (affections) –

    Sorry if I was a little preachy! Thanks for the great post David!

  13. Hi. Great choice of topic. I do believe that sometimes what passes for a great time of worship has been nothing more than a great performance – a showing off of one’s abilities, skills and showmanship. This is where we have to be very careful. One’s heart has to be deeply consecrated to God so that our worship is truly devoted to Him and Him alone.
    unfortunately, we are surrounded by a culture that praises excellence over consecration hence the multiple awards ceremonies etc. We all have to guard our hearts against this creeping into our lives for it will contaminate our worship and make it to be nothing more than the “christian” equivalent of a pop concert.

  14. Hey David and all,

    I think so many of us get caught up in making a “sacrifice” of praise that we think God would like vs. actually knowing and doing what he does like and find acceptable.

    As a drummer of about 19 years, growing up in worship services, you get a feel for how much excellence crushes the flow of the holy spirit. The only place that I’ve found where we really hear anything about the heart of true worship is David’s outpouring in psalm 51:15-19, and it speaks nothing of sour notes or misplayed rhythms. I’m in no way justifying that we get up on stage and just play all wrong notes on purpose, but we forget to approach those people with love and worship according to their heart and not their ability as a singer.

    I hate to break it to some of you, but God made us and our abilities “imperfect”. He did that to leave room for us to still need Him even in those abilities. Back to my point. David recognized in that passage of scripture that it wasn’t about the external packaging of the sacrifice he brought to the Lord, but it was the openness and sensitivity and content of his heart! In philippians 3:8 paul says that all things are loss except for knowing Christ and describes excellence as knowing Christ in relationship. In essence, your musicianship will get better the deeper you allow yourself to know Christ and for Christ to be more the center. The more central to worship you make Him and the leading of the Holy Spirit, He makes the worship better and more perfect in ways we could never have imagined in our own carnal thinking. That being said that is also why we should practice our craft to be ready and more flexible for any direction the Holy Spirit wants to go, but God will take you and your abilities as you are and accept your worship if you have the right heart. My last thought for you, I’ve see God anoint special music where the person singing has no special ability and can’t really sing or stay in tune. However, it ministered so deeply to the congregation because that person was REAL and not a musician; they were everyday non-worship team people. It was a normal person expressing their love for God in the best way they knew how. In closing, I believe God brings those experiences to us and gives us a choice: are you going to get distracted by the sour notes and thus cease worshipping me with a judgmental/critical spirit? or are you going to look at their heart as I do and love and be blessed by such genuine worship?
    God allows those people to sing in His Church building over his congregation. He appoints them as well as us in our positions of service and we dare not argue or criticise what he has allowed. Be blessed and thanks again for bringing this message up David.

    Mark

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