Why? If YouTube videos and conference worship bands are any indicator, we’re unintentionally (I trust) cultivating an understanding of musical worship and its leaders that draws more from rock concerts and Entertainment Tonight than biblical principles.
We can start thinking that the “best” corporate worship context is characterized by bright stage lights, a dimly lit congregation, Intellibeams, fog, high end musical gear, multiple screens, moving graphics, and loud volumes. We can start to think the ideal leader is good-looking, sings tenor, plays a cool instrument (usually guitar), sports hip hair, and writes songs. And by the way, the band members and vocalists should be near studio quality, if not actual studio musicians, and look pretty good themselves.
To be clear, I thank God for godly, good-looking, musically gifted, well known leaders who are simply seeking to be faithful and bring glory to Jesus. I know a number of them. And God is all for skill and excellence when we bring our musical offerings to him (Psalms 33:3; 1 Chronicles 1:22). Technology isn’t evil (although it inherently affects the message we’re communicating).
Overemphasizing or consistently focusing on technology, skill, and excellence can leave most us with a nagging feeling that our musicians, our leaders, our equipment, and our songs are never quite good enough. We resign ourselves to the thought that we’ll never be as successful, used, or important as the people we see on YouTube and at conferences. Or we breathlessly pursue the trappings and externals of “modern worship,” attaching biblical authority to very cultural practices.
That’s why today I want to salute the average worship leader.
Are You an Average Leader?
By average I don’t mean mediocre or lazy. Just normal. Because that’s what most of those leading in churches today are. Normal. Maybe you can relate to some of these “average worship leader” characteristics:
- Your musical training, if any, was years ago.
- No one wants you to sing lead on an album, but you get the melody pretty much in tune.
- Your vocal range is a little over an octave, but almost always lower than the recorded key.
- You prepare and rehearse in the midst of a full time job and responsibilities at home.
- You and some of the other musicians could do better with your dieting.
- Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the chords or strum pattern on a song.
- Your sound system has been pieced together over the years and still works. Most of the time.
- Your choices for lighting are ON or OFF.
- Twice a year you lead surrounded by a set for “Phantom of the Opera” or some other school play.
- You have good folks on your team who don’t have a ton of time to practice or rehearse during the week.
- The ages of your team members range from 14 to 56.
- Some people in the church love what you do, some aren’t crazy about what you do, and some aren’t sure what you do.
- You don’t even try to keep up with the gazillion worship albums released every month.
Here’s why I want to honor you. God sees your labors. And he says they’re not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb. 6:10).
God seems to favor doing his work through the weak and the few (1 Cor. 1:26-28; Judg. 7:2-8; Dt. 20:1-8; Mt. 15:32-28). That’s why I think average worship leaders play a significant part in God’s purposes to exalt his Son throughout the world.
While there’s never anything “average” about leading people to exalt the glories of Christ through music and the Word, we can always grow. So to encourage you and spur you on, here are a few thoughts:
- It can’t be said too frequently that while God can use technology, skill, and excellence, he doesn’t require them
- What every leader has to offer people is the gospel, God’s Word, and the Holy Spirit, working through redeemed sinners, i.e., us.
- The same God who seems so present in a crowd of 10,000, is just as present in your church of 113.
- The Holy Spirit doesn’t need a dark room or dramatic lighting to reveal Christ to people. He’s been using natural light quite effectively for thousands of years.
- We’re responsible for the resources we have, not the ones we don’t have (2 Cor. 8:12).
- Being average doesn’t mean we can’t get better through practice, evaluation, and hard work.
- Being average doesn’t give us freedom to uncharitably judge or fail to learn from those who have greater gifts and opportunities than we do.
- Average musicians can be as self-sufficient as gifted ones, which should motivate us to pray consistently.
- The goal of our labors is not success or popularity, but faithfulness.
So if you fall into the category of the average worship leader, I want to thank you for your labors and encourage you to keep growing. God is using you in more ways than you can imagine to build his church and bring glory to his Son.
And because Jesus is the perfect worship leader who paid for all our sins and failings through his substitutionary death on the cross, we can look forward to the day when every faithful leader, average or not, will stand before the Father and hear him say, “Well done.”
Recently I posted on Twitter:
The fact that Psalms doesn’t include a soundtrack or notation clues us in to what God values most in our worship songs.
I find it fascinating that God gave us a “songbook” with numerous musical references, but no actual music. It’s not that music is unimportant. Badly played or written music can make great theology sound obscure or unappealing. Great music can make shallow lyrics sound profound and incredibly moving. Which is why when we’re deciding what to sing congregationally, we want to give the greatest attention to the lyrics we’re singing.
In response to my tweet someone asked:
@bkauflin Is it not possible to worship without words?
Briefly, the answer is yes, especially when we think of worship in the “all of life” sense. We can worship God, or anything for that matter, without words. We do it all the time. The sight of a sunset over the ocean, a newborn baby, or a loved one can leave us speechless in wonder. But in my tweet I was specifically referencing the songs in our gatherings. While we can certainly worship God while listening to or playing instrumental music, here are a few reasons why it’s crucial to keep the connection between congregational worship and words strong.
Words are the primary way God has revealed himself to us and relates to us.
We use words because God is a speaking God. From the garden of Eden, words have been God’s primary means of interacting with us.At Mount Sinai, God met the Israelites with thunder and lightning, thick clouds, and an ear-splitting trumpet blast. Quite the worship experience. But the most signiﬁcant aspect of that encounter was God giving them the “Ten Words” (Deuteronomy 4:2–12). God has always wanted us to know more of him than can be conveyed through impressions, images, or sounds, as powerful as they may be.
David was a skilled musician of profound emotions. But when it came to worshiping God, it was his words, not his music, that God chose to preserve for us in Scripture (the point of my tweet).
When Israel returned from the Babylonian captivity, Ezra sought to reestablish temple worship. So he and the other priests stood on a platform and read “from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8). God’s Word provided the foundation for the repentance, gratefulness, praise, and celebration that followed.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and scribes for basing their worship more on traditions of men than on God’s commands (Matthew 15:3–9). The early Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). Paul encouraged Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture and commanded him to “preach the word” (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2). We are to “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” as we sing” (Colossians 3:16).
God means for words, especially His Word, to be at the heart of our engaging with him.
Words are what we use to define God, ourselves, and our world.
Among other things, words tell us how God has acted in history and what God is actually like. Words inform us that we are sinners who deserve the wrath of God but that Jesus has come to suffer the wrath of God in our place, purchase our forgiveness, and reconcile us to God. Words also tell us that creation was once in harmony with God’s will but through our rebellion became subject to decay and futility. We are not evolving into something better but experiencing the damaging effects of the fall until the day when Jesus returns for his bride and makes all things right. Words also enable us to distinguish between experiences rooted in musical emotion or eternal truth.
Worship is more than words, but it’s not less than words.
Encounters with God are sometimes difficult to define. But wordless worship is not somehow better than worship with words. Worship without words can never communicate objective truth and God is the defining, objective reality in which we live and move. Experiences, whether audibly through music or visually through art, are in large part subjective. The ultimate goal of our worship is not to reach a state of feeling without thinking. And Revelation indicates we’ll be using words (without sin!) in the new heavens and earth.
Words enable us to worship God together.
Words enable us to think and say the same things together, rooting our unity in the gospel and not simply in a shared experience. A hundred people listening to a song being played can have a hundred different thoughts about what is happening. As my friend Jon Payne has said, “A picture is worth 1000 words. The problem is, the viewer gets to decide what those words are.” There will be some variation when we hear/proclaim words together, but there’s greater potential for unity in our understanding and expression. It’s one of the reasons God has us sing together and not simply hum or whistle.
Words complete the act of worship.
I can’t make this point better than C.S. Lewis, who wrote in Reflections on the Psalms, “But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” My love for my wife leads me to say something. Again and again and again. I want her and others to know my feelings. So it is in our relationship with God. Worship works its way out into words.
So by all means, let us thank God for music and treasure those times we’re dumbstruck as we consider the unparalleled greatness, holiness, beauty, and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. But let’s also remember that God redeemed us to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
This semester I met with a group of interns on Friday afternoons (when I was around). Along with developing some musical skills we read selected chapters from Unceasing Worship by Harold Best. If you haven’t read it and you’re a Christian involved in congregational worship or the arts, I’d strongly encourage you to get a copy.
At our last meeting someone referenced this quote from chapter 11: “Authentic worship is not perfect worship. It stands in continual need of examination, repentance, increased depth and humility as well as outpouring meekness and humility.” That led to an extended conversation on the topic of perfectionism.
Most Christian musicians, worship leaders, and artists I know battle, have battled, or will battle perfectionism. A perfectionist can have different names. Overachiever. Compulsive. OCD.
Whatever they’re called, they share common attributes. They tend to fix every flaw, exhaust every possible resource, edit and edit and edit again, occasionally get by on little or no sleep, 0ver-rehearse, anticipate every problem or weakness that might arise, and rarely be satisfied with what they’ve done. Perfectionists can also be highly organized, extremely punctual, over-attentive to detail, and potentially irritating if you have to work with them.
But perfectionists don’t always succeed. So they can beat themselves up when something doesn’t sound, look, or work out the way they planned. They procrastinate because they know what they’re doing won’t be as good as they’d like. They envy others who seem to have it all together. They can find it difficult to celebrate the successes of others, either because they think they could have done better or because they wish they had done as well. We can be frustrated perfectionists.
While musicians don’t always view it as a problem, my guess is that secretly we think if you’re going to have a problem, perfectionism is a good one to have. It’s almost noble. We’re so committed to doing the best we can that we’ll practically harm ourselves to attain our goal. We’re not sluggards or slackards. We care about what we do and we just happen to have the problem of caring too much. Is that even a problem?
Yes, perfectionism is a problem. More of a problem than we’d like to admit.
Perfectionism is a delusion.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23)
Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. (Eccles. 7:20)
When someone says they’re a perfectionist I want to ask (and sometimes do), “When was the last time you did something perfect?” Last time I checked, there’s only One worthy of the name “perfect” and we’re not Him. No matter how much energy, thought, and time we put into an activity we’ll never actually do something perfect. To think we will is a delusion. At the very best “perfectionism” is a misnomer that implies a degree of pretense. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work hard at what we do. Paul said, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). But when we describe working hard as “perfectionism,” it’s very possible we’re disguising the true nature of what’s going on in our hearts.
Perfectionism is idolatrous.
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:36)
So that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:31)
Striving to do things thoroughly, on time, and with excellence are great goals. But in the heart of a “perfectionist,” other things are going on. We notice when others don’t keep the same standards. We can be irritated, even angry, when we have to work with musicians who slow us down or make us sound bad. We can’t remember the last time we were really peaceful, contented, or satisfied. We struggle if our life isn’t in order or if our plans unexpectedly go awry. We say we aren’t seeking to please others, that we’re our worst critic. But why? It could be we want the satisfaction of knowing our standards are higher than anyone else’s. We could be wanting to impress more than serve. That’s called serving the idol of man’s praise. We inwardly enjoy the awe that others express for how well we do the things we do, how efficient we are, how intentional. John’s words are ever so relevant: Little children, keep yourself from idols. (1 John 5:21)
Perfectionism is destructive.
Good sense wins favor, but the way of the treacherous is their ruin. (Prov. 13:15)
All worshipers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols. (Ps. 97:7)
In my book, Worship Matters, I wrote about a time in the mid-90s when my inner cravings for credit and control drove me crazy. I wanted a perfect world in which things went my way and I received glory for it. My failure to attain my goals led to panic attacks, confusion, thoughts of dying, and a constant battle against hopelessness. Because only God is perfect, our deceived attempts to reach perfection are destined to fail. We’ll end up arrogant because we think we’ve come close or despairing because we fail to achieve our goals. In either case, treading the path of perfectionism will destroy us.
The answer to perfectionism is the answer to every sin: the freedom Jesus Christ has purchased for us in the gospel.
The gospel tells us that the sum of all our best achievements and accomplishments led to the Son of God being brutally crucified in our place. (Is. 64:6; Rom. 3:23)
The gospel tells us that while God knows our deepest sins, faults, weaknesses, and inadequacies he loves us with an everlasting, unchanging love. (Rom. 8:35-39)
The gospel tells us that the power of sin has been broken and we can pursue good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:8-10)
The gospel tells us that God is infinitely more worth of glory than we are. (Rom. 1 Cor. 1:31)
The gospel tells me that whatever fruit does come from my life is ultimately the result of his Spirit’s work in me and for his glory, not mine. (Rom. 11:36)
The only people God has to work through are imperfect, but fully redeemed, sinners. What a joy to give up our pursuit of perfectionism, draw upon the immeasurable riches of grace we’ve received in Christ, and find our satisfaction in knowing the perfect Savior has purified all our imperfect offerings and efforts.
To God alone be the glory.
Bob Kauflin traveled with the Christian group GLAD for eight years as a songwriter and arranger before becoming a pastor with Sovereign Grace Ministries in 1985. He is now the director of Sovereign Grace Music, overseeing its music projects and teaching on congregational worship. He also is a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville. He blogs at WorshipMatters.com and hosts the biennial WorshipGod Conference. He and his wife, Julie, have six children and an ever-growing number of grandchildren.
More than once I’ve heard Christians insist that worship should be fun, or act like they had a responsibility to prove that Christians knew how to “party” in church. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that connection, so I started thinking about the place of “fun” in worship, if one even exists. I’m going to address this question by answering it as I posed it, and then considering two other ways it might be phrased.
Should worship be fun? If we take the exhaustive testimony of Scripture, the answer would have to be a resounding NO. “Fun” wouldn’t characterize any of the scenes in the Bible where people encounter God together, at least not the zany, slap-happy, crazy, mindless kind of fun. We’re told to worship God with reverence and awe, for he is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29). To have “fun” one of our primary motives as we gather. Among other things our goals include remembering, rehearsing, and reveling in the gospel, magnifying God’s glory in Christ, spurring one another on to love and good deeds, presenting our petitions before God, and being strengthened by his Word and the communion of the saints. Celebration will certainly be included in that, but there are also times when worshipping God will produce awe, tears of repentance, or a profound silence.
But let me rephrase the question. Can worship be fun? It depends on how we define “fun.”
If “fun” is defined as a lighthearted activity with no purpose or meaning, strictly meant to amuse, then the answer to the question, “Can worship be fun?” must surely be no. When we worship God together, we are not looking to be merely entertained or momentarily distracted from the cares of this world. We’re not seeking to promote a Christian alternative to Saturday Night Live (Sunday Morning Live?). Diversion is not the same as worship. Our joy and gladness are meant to be grounded in and informed by God’s character, nature, and acts.
But when I looked up “fun” on my desktop dictionary, the first meaning was “enjoyable.” If we’re asking, “Can worshipping God be enjoyable?” then surely the answer must be yes. That doesn’t mean Isaiah 6 has no relevance to our meeting together to engage with God. But Isaiah 6 isn’t the only chapter in Scripture that describes how we are to relate to God. There have been countless times that I’ve been leading or singing as part of the congregation and thought, “I love doing this!” Joy floods my soul, and I could legitimately say I’m having “fun!”
It may be similar to what the Israelites experienced in 2 Chronicles 30. They so enjoyed celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days that Hezekiah and the people spontaneously decided to keep the feast for another seven days (2 Chron. 30:22-23)! That must have been some celebration! On another occasion, Ezra and the priests told the people not to mourn or weep because that day was “holy to the Lord” and that the joy of the Lord was their strength (Neh. 8:9-10). Holiness and joy aren’t necessarily exclusive.
When my children were growing up, I wanted them to look forward to singing worship songs, and not see a relationship with God as something that was only serious, sober, and solemn. After all, singing to God is meant to be pleasant (Ps. 135:3; Ps. 147:1). David danced before the Lord with all his might as he brought the ark back to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:12-15). The Psalmist was glad when they said to him, “Let us go up to the house of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1). So yes, when defined as enjoyment and not seen as the only aspect of our time together on Sunday morning, worshipping God can be very“fun.” People shouldn’t find our meetings dull or dour. Smiles and even laughter should abound as we consider how kind, merciful, and gracious God has been to us (Ps. 126:2)!
But let me rephrase the question one more time, to broaden the application.
“Should our fun be worship?” Well now the answer must surely be “yes.” We’re told in 1 Cor. 10:31 that whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, we’re to do it all for the glory of God. Rather than focusing on making our corporate worship fun, maybe we should spend more time making sure our “fun” is worship.
Here are some questions that can lead us in that direction.
- Do I choose a fun activity because there’s nothing else to do, or because I believe it will in some way cause me to grow in my love for God?
- When I play games, participate in sports, or pursue a hobby, does my attitude demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit?
- When I go out with a group of friends, am I seeking just to have fun, or to glorify God through encouraging them, challenging sin, and serving them?
- Do the activities I consider “fun” increase my affections for God or dilute them?
- Do I view my free time as belonging to me or to God?
The fun this world offers is unsatisfying, deceptive, and temporary. Let’s not idolize it or imagine it’s God offers nothing better. As Christians, we can enjoy fun activities without believing they’re the root of our happiness. The joy we experience when in worshiping God together is greater than the world will ever know, because the root is knowing our sins have been paid for through the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ and we worship a risen and reigning Savior.
Our joy is ultimately in God himself. We’d be fools to look for it anywhere else.
For more on this topic, download the following messages from the Sovereign Grace Ministries website:
Worshiping God as the Source of All Secondary Joys by Randy Alcorn
A Biblical Understanding of Leisure by Jeff Purswell