Wow. This one is close to home. This one has actually set up shop in my living room and is enjoying a sandwich on my couch while wearing my slippers. That close to home.
The truth is… church music is terrible. And that’s not to say that it isn’t sometimes incredibly moving, effective, and inspiring. But often… it’s kinda… bad. Thankfully the work of the spirit and the sacrifice of worship does not require great music. It requires an honest heart before God, and grateful submission to a personal Savior. These are spiritual concerns, independent to some degree of the quality of the art in our local church. Great music in church simply is not required for deeply personal worship.
But great music might help.
As a worship leader for the past 17+ years, I’ve been a part of some powerful high-level artistic experiences, and several musical expressions that should not be labeled art at all. I’ve led with far better musicians than myself as well as rookies in the field. Sometimes we have produced beautifully crafted art. Sometimes we have produced something not so beautiful. I want to keep the bar high – to either obliterate or redeem the phrase “good enough for church.” I try to lead the MUSIC as best I can, but our focus remains primarily on the heart of the lead worshipers on our team. I am far more interested in leading artists who are in an honest, growing love relationship with Jesus than in signing up the best local rock star.
And yet my ears are tired.
I remember reading a post not too long ago from a blogger who generates broad discussion amongst the worship leader community. He asked us what songs were really “connecting” right now in our churches. I read through the 100+ responses, realizing that for many of us, our playlists were almost interchangeable.
Crowder, Tomlin, Hillsong, Passion, Sovereign Grace, Maher, Brown, McMillan, Hughes, Redman, Gateway…
It was interesting. And kind of sad. I wondered what God must be experiencing as he hears our worship team singing “Mighty to Save” again. I realized that at the exact same time there are probably 400 other churches in America singing that song. I still wonder that today. And I realize when I hear other churches leaders crank up their rhythm sections… my ears are tired.
Are God’s ears tired?
This post isn’t meant to address worship style, per se. I just hunger for something fresh in church music that moves my heart and inspires greater love of God. It isn’t about needing “new” songs all the time. And it isn’t just about the technical aptitude of the players, either. Christian radio, playing studio-polished recordings of passionate and gifted artists often has the same effect on me. Unease. There may be some new things happening in me, or maybe a discontentment growing for what feels too familiar and too easy. It made me think… What is about “church music” that is so… so… uninspiring sometimes?
I found a possible answer in Psalm 33:3
“Sing to Him a new song. Play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.”
I see three important elements here. Freshness. Skill. And Fervor.
Do you know when music in church is most effective for me – when it inspires God thoughts in me that lead to worship? If you thought I was going to say, “When the music is presented with fresh language, or when it is skillfully played or led, or maybe music that is passionately honest about the truth of God…” You’d be almost right.
Replace “or” in the statement above with “AND.” Psalm 33:3 is a command. God wrote it. He did not say, “Sing a new song… or play skillfully… or at least make it passionate.”
He said (my paraphrase), “Don’t just repeat the songs you like to sing because they ‘work,’ make sure you include songs that inspire people with new and surprising poetry and beautiful melodies and harmonies that reflect my creativity and my beauty.”
But God asks for more. The whole Bible is full of exhortations to bring our BEST lamb as a sacrifice, to offer the FIRST and the BEST to God, and for artists to “play skillfully, sing skillfully, craft skillfully” when our art is in service to the King. God asks for a new song, but he doesn’t want us to bring something half-baked. He wants us to play skillfully. When a Worship Team plays instruments that are out of tune, or when singers miss entrances, or when the organist plays a wrong chord, our attention is on the Team, not on the Lord we are singing to or about. Artistic skill doesn’t need to be “showy.” In fact, the most skilled and Spirit-led musicians sweep us into the presence of God and practically disappear… our focus on the Audience of One. Humbly wielded, artistic skill in the service of the King is a powerful tool for use by the Spirit.
And yet God asks for more. YES, we must create and present NEW songs to the Church and to the Lord. YES, we are commanded to play skillfully – to bring our BEST lamb as an offering out of love for God. But we are also exhorted to shout. LOUDLY. Of course, there is a place for quiet reverence, as well. But I think this has more to do with our fervor than it does with volume. How often have we as Worship Leaders phoned it in? How often have we just moved the church through our songlist, hearts disconnected from our faith? God hates vain repetition, but looks to strongly support those whose hearts are fully devoted to him. As artists and leaders in the church, we must have a transparent, contagious, firey love relationship with God.
Freshness. Skill. Fervor.
The problem with most “church music,” in my view, is that I rarely see all three of these qualities present at the same time.
I have seen passion on display without much skill, and it can be painful. I’ve seen skillful players who seem to be more interested in their music than their Lord, and it can be distracting. And so often Worship Teams are slow to create, slow to adopt new expressions, slow to use their imaginations. Skill and passion can only go so far the 94th time your church sings “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”
Freshness, Skill, AND Fervor. Three elements that would go a long way in making our artistic leadership more effective. They are not suggestions, as if two out of three are good enough. They are commands. Remember… God wrote Psalm 33:3. Often I see one of these elements, or two at a time, but to see all three at the same time is rare. And that’s part of why “church music” often leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Can you relate?
If artists in the Kingdom of God would commit to bring fresh artistic creative juice to their art, to work hard at their craft and bring their BEST offering to the Lord and His church, AND to sing and play with passion, “church music” might have an entirely different connotation.
But there is something even more important to me, more soul-stirring in me, something that is a non-negotiable if art in the Church is going to move me to worship with freedom and gratitude. Something beyond a new song played well by a passionate artist.
It is a artist who knows the Lord intimately and reflects that love relationship in their art.
The trump card. The non-negotiable. The single greatest factor that will help artists in their local church break hearts and usher in space for the Spirit to interact with the souls of the congregation. It is the power of a life truly devoted to Jesus. And although many, many church musicians profess a personal faith in Jesus, it is rare to experience true depth of personal devotion to Jesus IN THEIR ART.
I’ll end this with a story.
One afternoon several years ago an elderly gent from our congregation asked if he could sing a song for the church. He admitted he didn’t have much musical ability, and that he’d be more comfortable without an accompanist so he didn’t need to stay in one key. Out of concern for him and for our church, I asked if I could hear him first – before we had him sing for a service.
Stan agreed, but he admitted that even just singing in front of me made his knees knock. How would he feel in front of 300 more? Yet he felt that he should to do this – to express his love for Jesus. One hurdle at a time, I told him. Stan and I wandered into the big, empty sanctuary. And I took a seat about 5 rows from the front. We prayed together. And Stan sang.
With a cracking voice he started in on the first line, eyes closed, hands trebling. “I come to the garden alone…”
My heart broke. For the next three minutes tears flowed freely down my cheeks and dripped onto my collar. It was maybe the most moving piece of church music I can remember. Stan sang an old song badly. But it was so honest, and so deeply rooted in his love for Jesus, it catapulted my heart before the throne, and I worshipped.
Stan played the trump card. Jesus meant everything. More than polish. More than art.
So, artists in churches all over the world, I exhort you with the authority if the Word of God, to bring NEW expressions of worship to your congregations. I exhort you to NEVER settle for “good enough for church” mentality, unless that means your bar is set very, very high. And I encourage you to let your music be full-throated and played with zeal.
But above all, express an honest and deeply rooted love of Jesus. Some of you may need to stop producing art for church until your heart is overflowing. Then, out of the over flow… Sing a new song to the Lord; Bring your BEST offering… and make it loud.
“church music is terrible :: how to make it better” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.