Excellence or Authenticity in Worship? The Answer is always YES.
"...rather than choosing one over the other, we begin to see that both need to coexist as an expression of Biblical worship..."
If you spend any time at all sitting around with worship musicians, you are likely to encounter an ever-raging debate regarding two priorities. On one hand, there are those who champion the fact that worship in church should be excellent. Yet, across the table someone is bound to passionately argue back that the quality of music pales compared to what they will refer to as authenticity. The latter is a bit of a buzzword in church music circles generally, stemming from the late 90's and the pushback from young millennials against the mega-church production services in so-called "seeker" churches.
At a gut level, many of us would resonate with the latter group. In our minds we may hear Jesus quoting Isaiah to the Pharisees saying, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me," (Matt. 15:8, NIV). We can have all of the show of religion we want, but are we only drawing attention to ourselves and our show of piety?
Authenticity … An Excuse for Mediocrity??
Yet, there's a difficulty with choosing authenticity over excellence. For one, do we really want half of an effort from church musicians in their preparation for worship (or preachers or scripture readers, for that matter)? Doesn't God deserve the first fruits of our worship, like when God approved of Abel's offering over Cain's? Moreover, do we think that if we play or sing well it will only draw attention to ourselves? We are exhorted to make a joyful noise to the Lord, not just noise (Ps. 100:1). Most people I've engaged with would rather be led by capable and prepared musicians, removing the distracting cringe-factor of shoddiness.
I want to argue the case that rather than choosing one over the other, we begin to see that both need to coexist as an expression of Biblical worship. To do that, we must look at how Scripture defines both of these terms.
Let’s Get Real…
So, what does the phrase ‘authentic worship’ really mean? Much is made of Jesus’ words in John 4 when he informs the Samaritan woman that “worshippers must worship in Spirit and in truth,” (v.24). Many would focus on our attitude of heart – our sincerity as a guide to authentic worship. Of course, this matches Jesus’ words to the Pharisees above, but in this context, Jesus is having a greater discussion about worship. While the woman is worried about the geographic place we should worship, Jesus is reminding her that worship is about the correct object of our worship – found in Jesus himself. John, the author of the gospel that describes the story, takes pains throughout his book that true worship is fulfilled in Christ – the person who embodies truth. He goes on to tell us in 14:26 that it is the Holy Spirit who will lead us into that truth. So, authentic worship that is Spirit-led is more than being sincere, since we can easily be sincerely wrong without the Spirit’s guidance.
It is also about living our lives as worship (Romans 12:1). That means that our actions must match our confession. Consider how the Old Testament prophets looked at life-worship. They railed against the people who made a show of piety yet forgot about the plight of their suffering neighbour. Justice, according to Micah, is as much about worship as singing hallelujahs (Micah 6:8).
So, Be Excellent…
As for excellence, we see that God approves of doing things 'excellently' in the ways of our worship. God told Moses to choose highly skilled artisans to create the artifacts for the Tabernacle. David was chosen for Saul's court because of his musical skill. He then chose skilled singers and musicians to be part of the temple worship team, even before it was built. Moreover, Psalm 33:3 exhorts us to "play skillfully and shout for joy," (NIV). God does indeed care about worship done with excellence.
So, where does that leave us? I propose we choose excellence AND authenticity - an excellence that seeks to bring all we have to bear with our artistic ability for God's glory, not our own. It requires excellence of heart as well as excellence of performance. That is true authenticity. It desires to seek the glory of God first, the edification of the people second, and my preferences last. Doesn’t that sound like the kind of attitude Christ would have? Excellence looks like Jesus, for as Paul wrote:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus
… he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
(Phil. 2:3-8, NIV)
Photo by Ben Collins courtesy Unsplash.