suppressing my gag reflex :: worship leading with excellence… but not too much excellence

October 7, 2010

“The worship was great today! Awesome job.”

As a Worship Pastor, when I hear that, I feel two things simultaneously… a sudden urge to give someone a hug, and a sudden urge to throw up in my mouth a little bit.

I know… people are out to encourage the worship guy. And they probably did have a genuinely inspiring time connecting with God. I get it. As the encouragee, that’s the part of me that wants to embrace my encourager with an “I love you, man” back slap.

Truth is, I get a little bit uncomfortable rating worship on a scale of “horrible” to “awesome sauce.”  Truth be told, if we are “rating” our worship experience, we don’t really understand worship, right?  Now, I’m not an idiot. (Some of you may want to chime in here, but we’re moving on…) I do understand that this may be a matter of semantics to some degree.

But words matter.

Precise language matters. Sometimes you can accidentally communicate all kinds of things you never meant to say, simply with careless word choices. So, as a Worship Pastor, I’m careful about this stuff.

Worship doesn’t = music.  You probably came to that conclusion years ago.  But what is it again exactly? Worship is our response to God for who He is, for what He has said, for what He has done, and for what He is going to do.  We love God because He loved us.  Worship at it’s core is a response of love and gratitude expressed to God because of the gospel.  Music works great to help that happen, when a whole group of people are in the same space for the purpose of worshipping God.  That’s why churches use it.  Music helps focus many individual hearts on some aspect of God, so that we might respond with love… or examine our hearts and humbly confess our need for God… our brokenness. Our sin. But the response – whatever God prompts – that response is the worship.

If we keep that in mind, how strange to rate our worship experience on a quality scale, right?  But we do.

At Living Hope Church, I love it when people talk to me about the music AND their worship experience – as two separate thoughts. It shows me that they get it… The quality of their WORSHIP response to God has much more to do with their view of GOD then it does with the quality of the MUSIC we lead.

This stuff has been rattling around in my brain these last few days since a friend of mine posted a thought on Facebook about excellence in church production…

AMEN.  As a long-standing and vocal promoter of excellence in church art, music, design, programming, production, etc. I think this bears repeating often.  My ultimate standard in measuring “excellence” in ministry production is this…  Is it effective?

I don’t mean “effective” as in just “good enough for church.”  I’ll even take “inspiring.”  Good times.  But my ministry PURPOSE must help clarify my methods.  As a worship leader and service planner, my purpose is to help clearly communicate the hard truth that we are all depraved sinners, dead in our sin, needing rescue and resuscitation… and the AMAZING true love story that Jesus Christ died on a cross and rose from the dead for us, to restore us to life and meaning and joy again.  Our purpose is to provide space and opportunity for people to respond to that truth week after week.  That’s it.  The heart of it.

Therefore, if our music and lighting and production becomes SO “excellent” that it begins to draw attention to itself… then it is no longer “excellent.”  Because it is no longer effective.  Because then the production is drawing attention AWAY from the Lord.  In fact, that’s not just a little bit of a focus problem… that is the polar opposite of the ministry purpose.

So, can BAD musicianship / drama / art / lighting / production hinder worship?  Absolutely.  And can AMAZING musicianship / art / drama / lighting / production hinder worship.  Absolutely.  Non-distracting + inspiring + authentic + humble = thumbs up.  Amazing showmanship with extra flash sauce = thumbs down.

So if you’re in the habit of giving your worship leader at church a high five after a particularly rippin’ guitar solo and telling him “The worship was AWESOME today!” you might want to take a step back…  Ask yourself if you gave yourself to Jesus again today, fully surrendered, as a walking THANK YOU to God for who He is and what He’s done in your life.  If so, worship WAS awesome today.  Even if the Praise Team played with the sensitivity and musical agility of a pregnant yak.  Doesn’t matter.  What matters is what was going on in your heart, and how you responded to God’s love today.

If you’re a worship leader who is in the habit of rating your church’s worship experience based on the quality of the music you produce, you are giving yourself too much credit.  Worship isn’t “better” if you sing like Tomlin, play like Brewster, and your light system looks like a Pink Floyd retrospective.  Remember that the music, the art, the production is the TOOL.

Worship is the goal.



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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

13 responses to suppressing my gag reflex :: worship leading with excellence… but not too much excellence

  1. It never fails… when my voice cracks the most, or I forget the most words, or I was completely distracted while leading the songs… I get someone to come up to me and tell me they were blessed by the [musical] worship time.

    It’s perfect! Sometimes I feel like we should chant: “It has nothing to do with me, It has nothing to do with me…” over and over again before the service starts.

    • I think we might just do that to open the worship gathering this Sunday. 🙂

      Last Sunday was a perfect case in point on this topic. Our Bass playa (yes… with an “a”) Courtney got sick Saturday night. So I scrambled a bit and replanned the service for more piano-friendly pieces. Sunday I felt like I made SO MANY mistakes that I didn’t even want to talk to anyone after our worship set. I felt like I had been such a distraction.

      Par for the course… wouldn’t you know that I had three different people come up to tell me that the service was really powerful for them. Every time, N8. I’m with you. Say it with me…

      “It’s not about me… It’s not about me… It’s not about me…” 🙂 God bless, man. I love worshipping with you.

  2. EXCELLENT article, Josh. I’m seeing a big push for creativity lately, and sometimes it seems it’s at the cost of truth. This was a great perspective.

    • Thanks Ryan. The pendulum will always swing, and I think there is almost always a healthy tension in things done well. In this case, there certainly is tension between, I believe, a God-given call to creatively and passionately inspire worship… and the truth that all our best efforts are filthy rags. Sometimes for me, a lot less production and simple, authentic adoration of God on display is the most effective worship leading. Thanks Ryan.

  3. This post was great today, Josh! Awesome job!

    Ok – I guess this is different. You have an excellent point though, and one that will hopefully register with people in the next few decades. (Just trying to be realistic. Sigh.)

    • Thanks Scott. As a worship leader I realized early on that one of my primary roles was to be a teacher for our congregation. Not in the sense that I am in the pulpit all the time… but, occasionally, that, too. In our church, I carry the torch of what it means to worship. AND, to clarify what worship is NOT (i.e. an emotional experience, a musical experience, etc.). It does seem like the job is never done (because it never will be), and yes – over a LONG time, ideas like this do sink in. Patience, prayer, and consistency change people – change churches – over time.

      Thanks for your input and steady encouragement dude. I hope some day to sit across a table from you and enjoy a sandwich together. Or actually, you could have one and I could have one of my own. That would be awesome. God bless.

  4. Paul Johnston Sr October 8, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Very insightful perspective. I say amen to your viewpoint. There are times when I go to church when it feels like we were all already sitting in Heaven. Your heart is so full of gratitude and you just feel the Lord’s presence. It is a feeling that goes beyond emotions and seems to come when everything sermon, song, and prayer were all presented with a genuine humble heart and desire to give the Lord the best. This is not manufactured by man but a gift from God, a little piece of heaven on earth. I’m sure you know the feeling.

    • 🙂 Yep. I do know the feeling. I imagine this is what David wrote about in Psalm 27:4… “One thing I ask of the Lord,this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

      That’s MY ‘one thing,” too, and sometimes in the corporate worship setting, I’m more inspired and more likely to really connect with God with a little less production sauce and a little more authentic, humble, faith-on-display from the church leaders.

      Thanks Paul. Bless you brother.

  5. Love this … “Worship is our response to God for who He is, for what He has said, for what He has done, and for what He is going to do.” So hard to define what worship looks like, because it’s so personal.

    • I agree. It’s something I think about a lot, because how can I lead people if I don’t know where I’m going? Anyway, thanks for checking in. God bless tyou tomorrow at the Harvest deal. 🙂 I can’t be there with you, but I’m praying for you.

  6. I love your blog, Josh. Keep posting things like this.

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