Why should we strive for musical excellence in our worship leading? In my tenure as a worship leader, I have found this question to be somewhat controversial as people tend to land on one of two sides when approaching this question. Some think pursuing musical excellence is simply unnecessary or even unholy, believing that our primary goal in worship is cultivating the heart, so as long as our hearts are engaged, it doesn’t matter how good the music sounds. On the other hand, some believe the act of pursuing musical excellence in order to present their very best to the Lord, in itself, is an act of worship, and therefore is very important. They feel that bringing less than their best is an unworthy offering. I believe there is a lot of truth in both of these opinions, and my desire to strive for musical excellence stems from both viewpoints.
I have chosen to strive for musical excellence in my worship leading, and the principal reason for this decision boils down to my primary goal as a worship leader—to lovingly lead the people God has placed in my care into genuine, wholehearted worship of the Lord. I believe that, in order to lead others to sincerely worship God, we must engage and lead their hearts. So, like those that believe we must solely strive for heart-engagement, I too believe the heart must be at the center of our worship. However, because I want those I’m leading to feel comfortable to sing with all their hearts. I must prayerfully, and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, create a worshipful atmosphere in which we, the worship team, minimize distractions as much as we possibly can. And, unfortunately, bad music is distracting; a poorly timed transition, an awkward key-change between songs, or an out-of-tune guitar draw attention away from our goal of helping our congregation connect with God.
As a worship leader, pursuing musical excellence has more to do with encouragement and edification than musical standards; we want to be the very best musicians we can in order to more effectively serve others for God’s glory. The better we play or sing, the easier it is for the congregation to join us. Allow me dig a little deeper into the idea of removing distractions from our music. Think of the music we create like a road, and we are its builders. Imagine trying to drive a car on a little, dirt road. This road is not only narrow, but it is crooked and has potholes all over that force you to either swerve sharply or risk doing damage to your car and its inhabitants. And, once you finally get off this road, you and your car are dirty and battered. Personally, I avoid roads like that, for obvious reasons. Now image a two-lane highway. It has been carefully and skillfully constructed by trained engineers out of solid concrete. The surface is smooth and sturdy. While it does take turns here and there, the turns are designed to be gentle, not too sharp or jarring. Navigating this road is simple. The more excellent the road (music), the easier it is for others to join us.
Now, the opinion of many is that the underlying reason for pursuing musical excellence is so the musicians can draw attention to themselves and their talents instead of God. This is certainly a valid concern, but while I can’t speak to the motivations of each musician’s heart, I would counter by saying the higher the skill level of the musician, in a worship setting, the less attention they draw to themselves. In the analogy of the two roads, which of the two roads requires more of the driver’s attention to properly traverse? The answer is obvious—the little, dirt road requires more attention. Therefore, one could reasonably conclude that a more highly skilled musician, who plays his/her parts very well (like a carefully and skillfully crafted highway) draws less attention than a musician that consistently plays incorrect notes, misses cues, or sings off pitch. So, the motivation for developing skill in order to play music well is so we can disappear. Another thing I would like to add to this thought is this: “musical excellence” does not necessarily mean “musical extravagance.” For example, a well-placed guitar solo serves to enhance the previous section of a song and point people’s attention toward the power of the following phrase, but a guitar player that consistently plays solo-like parts throughout an entire song is another sort of distraction altogether.
The personal growth of the musician is another reason I believe the pursuit of musical excellence is a worthy endeavor. Every good thing we have, including our talents, is a gift from God. Much like Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 of the three servants who received bags of gold from their master, the two servants who took what their master gave them and increased their value were praised, while the servant who buried his bag of gold, choosing to do nothing with it, was reprimanded for his laziness. God is pleased when we pour our heart and energy into growing in the talents He has given us. Our best skill and service today should not be the same as it was yesterday. As we mature as followers of Jesus, we should also mature in the areas He has called us. However, it is important to point out that this pursuit of growth must be rightly pursued; meaning, we must strive to grow our talents for God’s glory, not our own.
So, worship leaders, be grateful for the gifts and talents God has given you, but don’t stop growing. Pursue excellence in your musicianship and your leadership, and do it all for the glory of God, so you can serve those God has placed in your care better today than yesterday.