In our never-ending quest for connectivity, media consumption, and showcasing, we now live in a world where worship leaders and pastors are able to instantly compare themselves to the very best and the very worst of church services all around the world. The potential to let our minds run wild with dreams of what might be is only a few clicks away on a screen we hold in the palm of our hand.
As we do this we need to recognize that our hearts will be drawn in several directions—not all of them Jesus-exalting. As Steven Furtick says, we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.
Young, passionate, talented leaders see the name brand churches doing incredible feats of musical wonder every Sunday and take the next logical step in their leadership, which says, “If we only had great musicians, we too could perform incredible feats of musical wonder every Sunday!” And so the journey down the road of imitation, mimicry and bigger-but-not-necessarily- better begins in the hopes that a high standard of excellence will help move things forward, forcing the ones who can’t make the grade to bow out only to be replaced with talent of a certain caliber.
There’s nothing wrong with excellence. Nothing wrong with inspiration. Nothing wrong with setting the bar high as long as we are doing those things in a way that lines up primarily with the instruction of Scripture, the call of the Church to make disciples, and the heart of Jesus that the whole world would know us by our love.
So what does the Bible actually say about excellence? Unfortunately, not a whole lot. But there are a couple of verses that are regularly presented and should give us a picture of what we’re trying to achieve:
Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy. (Psalm 33 :1-3)
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3 :23-24)
These two passages are the usual ones referred to and there is great value in them. Singing joyfully, playing skillfully, and doing everything as though we are working for the Lord are vital in a ministry that desires to grow. And yet wisdom, experience, and spiritual maturity would give us a strong caution to not drive the full thrust of our creative energy to this unattainable, mythical standard of excellence without creating a full picture of what this excellent ideal is that we are actually pursuing.
At its core, excellence is something that can never actually be attained. Think of sprinters who set their goals on breaking a world record. Once that world record is broken, the standard immediately resets and what was seen as excellent only hours before is no longer worth pursuing. The same with excellence. Once it’s achieved, the only possibility is to continue pressing and pursuing something greater. Great for world class athletes, not so great for followers of Jesus.
For me, Psalm 78 has been more than mildly instructive when it comes to this pressure for excellence and this pursuit of something that will ultimately never be satisfied. After a long storytelling journey through the history of Israel, David is presented as an excellent hero for his people and described this way:
David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them. (Psalm 78:72)
When excellence on an individual level only comes down to quality of musicianship, we create a place and a culture where only skillful hands are valued and appreciated. At the same time (and this is rarely talked about) when excellence is put forward as just a matter of character (“She’s got a great heart so we should let her sing!” #greatheartsusuallysoundterrible) we miss the opportunity to play skillfully so that people will sing joyfully so that Jesus will be celebrated.
And so how do we balance this integrity of heart and skillful hands? How do we prioritize both heart and hands so that excellence will be a genuine outcome? How do we position ourselves as leaders so that current and future members of our worship ministry understand that both heart and hands are important?
On the one hand, if you’ve got this completely figured out, I’d love to hear from you. The last 12 years of my life have been given to full-time ministry, focusing on leading worship and developing worship leaders, and in many ways I feel like I’m still trying to navigate this one.
At the same time there are some things we can strive toward that will hopefully lead us in healthy directions and encourage others to join us on the journey, all for the glory of God.
If the pursuit of integrity of heart and skillful hands doesn’t begin with you, how can you expect it to begin with anyone else? Lead the way, leader, and demonstrate to the ones you are leading that your desire to lead worship extends beyond the edge of the stage, beyond the walls of your church, and beyond the followers on your socials.
Are you perfect? Nope. Can you set the tone and lead the way? You should be.
Take time this week to intentionally encourage how people on your team are living out both heart and hands, character and skill in their worship leading. How have you seen someone grow in their faith this year? How have you seen evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives? Encourage them with that.
When we consistently thank and encourage musical ability and skill, we will consistently develop people on our team who care more about presenting their skill than their character. We want both! Encourage both.
This one is tough. Really tough. We don’t like receiving correction or giving it, but it has a place in the life of a leader. And God can use healthy correction to produce major fruit in the life of an individual follower of Jesus and in a ministry.
We may be fairly comfortable correcting someone whose skill isn’t advancing or up to par in what we expect, even to the point of removing them from a team. But how difficult would it be for you to correct someone because of a heart or character issue?
Would you be willing to ask one of your team members to sit out for a few weeks or months until they had time to work with you or another trusted leader to the point where they were restored and could stand before the congregation with integrity of heart?
Not easy. Really not easy. Trust me. I’ve had to do it. And praise God the results have been big kingdom wins every time.
Pursue excellence for the glory of God. Let’s do it in a way that honors Jesus, makes disciples of all nations, and shows the world how great our God is. When we lead and live with integrity of heart and skillful hands, I really believe those are the outcomes we will see.