When it comes to contemporary worship services, one topic that seems to be regularly wrestled with is the issue of excellence — the apparent tension of balancing heart and skill. For example, I doubt that there would be many people in the world who would intentionally sing poorly in a church service (perhaps there are some?). I think it’s safe to say that most of us want to be good at what we do. But move on from there and you may find things can get a bit grey.
HEART vs SKILL
On one hand, I know that worship is unequivocally an act of the heart. But does that mean that I shouldn’t bother putting effort into my craft and it’s ok if I don’t sing well, because after all, it’s the heart that counts? Well, no.
Ok, so if I’m a really good singer and come Sunday morning I bring a performance that would make Celine Dion sound like a yodeller with laryngitis, then I can disregard my motives, my devotion, and my personal journey of discipleship and worship? Of course not.
WHAT ACTUALLY MATTERS?
Please don’t try to build a doctrine around the little analogy that follows, but for what it’s worth the best way to date that I’ve been able to explain this question of what actually matters is this:
At the time of writing, my wife and I are three weeks away from celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I scrimp and save and buy her a brand new, beautiful necklace for $300, one that she’s wanted for years. The day of our anniversary comes and goes and two days later I realise that I’ve forgotten all about it. Laughing it off, I find the necklace in the back of the car and, not even bothering to remove it from the plastic shopping bag which is now covered in rubbish, I toss it to her and say, “oh yeah I got you this.”
What’s the gift worth? Well, $300.
But imagine if, rather than forgetting that I bought the necklace, I also buy the finest gift wrap I can find. I meticulously wrap the box to ensure that the corners are precise. I perfectly wrap brown string around it and then finish it off with a little bow that happens to be her favourite colour. I then gracefully put pen to paper, filling a card with the most beautiful prose, meticulously expressing my undying love and affection.
What’s the gift worth? Well, $300.
The point is that the wrapping doesn’t change what the gift is worth. The value is on the inside. But what the wrapping does is communicate to her, and myself, that I understand what the gift, and the recipient of the gift, is truly worth.
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE LIGHTS
I believe the same is true in our worship services. John chapter 4 makes clear to us the kind of worship that pleases God. He is after our hearts. This means that real worship of truly reverent hearts doesn’t depend on the quality of music, lights, stage sets, smoke machines and the like. It never has and it never will.
The value of my worship is found in my sincerity of devotion.
But I believe with all my heart that my unceasing efforts of excellence in my craft, not just ticking the boxes or settling for “near enough” or “good enough” serve to demonstrate both to myself, God, and our church community, that I understand that very value of worship.
I recently realised that I’ve often said, “our worship isn’t about the lights.” While I still know that this statement is fundamentally true, I also personally know the people operating the lighting consoles in our services. I know that they love Jesus and I know that they work exceptionally hard to excel at their craft so that what they bring is the absolute it can be. Romans 12:1 talks about our proper act of worship: taking our whole selves and placing it before God as an offering. When a lighting operator has a conviction that what they do isn’t just a hobby, but that they are being faithful with what God has put in their hand, then to them lighting is an act of worship!
THE ANSWER IS IN OUR RESPONSE
Perhaps the best way of discovering this appropriate understanding of excellence is found in our response to something that’s not excellent. If something is not done well there are three potential responses.
This says that things are fine the way they are. Perhaps it doesn’t matter or improving it would require too much effort.
This says that it isn’t good enough. Product becomes more valuable than people and individuals end up discouraged or ostracised as a result of failing to deliver on expectations.
This is about bringing our best. Excellence asks questions. Were we capable of better? If yes, then what were some things that we could have done differently? What are ways we can grow? A response of excellence identifies a route from where we are now to where we’re capable of being and instills in people the courage to get there.
NOW WHAT ABOUT YOU?
Perhaps you can think of a recent time when you’ve been faced with something that wasn’t done well, or perhaps a time when you’ve made a mistake yourself. Was your response one of indifference, militance, or excellence? What have you personally done in the last month to improve your craft? Is what you’re preparing to bring this weekend the best you can do?
It’s important to note that excellence is not perfection. Excellence is an attitude or mindset that drives us to do the best we can with what we have in our hand — our ability. When it comes to worship, though the outworking may look incredibly different, a spirit of excellence can be the same in stadiums of thousands as it is in the slums of third world nations.
While misappropriated excellence creates an environment that is harsh, restraining, and ultimately discouraging. But an appropriate understanding of excellence creates an environment that is fundamentally encouraging as it calls out the full potential of every individual.
I’m so glad that when God created the universe, He took a step back and “saw that it was good”, not “saw that it was good enough”. Our pursuit of excellence is purely a reflection of an excellent God.
So, what is it that matters in our worship? Is it heart or skill?
What matters is that Jesus is honoured in our active love for Him and that through everything we do we are leading others towards the same.
Hillsong Queensland Creative Pastor