We Need to Redefine Excellence in Worship

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With the winter Olympics just behind us, the word "excellence" easily comes to mind. The athletes displayed brilliant excellence on the short track, the half pipe, the slope, and many other venues. After years of intense training with the world's greatest coaches these young men and women dazzled us with a feats of athleticism so that shockingly difficult maneuvers looked easy.

However, we don't see on television the men and women who tried but didn't quite make it to the Olympics. In athletic competitions, the really good athletes are weeded out from the best, and only the best, the most excellent, are allowed to compete against each other. That's the way it should be. That's the purpose of the Olympics.

But sometimes it seems that churches take that same idea of excellence and bring it into worship. Boys and girls, men and woman are allowed to participate in worship leadership only if they can achieve some level of technical excellence in reading or playing an instrument or singing. Too bad. I pity churches that define excellence as achievement of a certain standard, because they miss out on so much by keeping many people away from worship leadership. 

I'm not arguing for sloppiness in our worship. But I am suggesting that we need to redefine excellence so that it is not achievement of a standard, but a quality of the heart.

Pastor Bill Van Den Bosch has devoted the last 30 years to making Oakdale Park CRC an inclusive community. He said to me recently that excellent worship is worship of the heart. "The best worship comes from the heart, reaches the heart of God, and the hearts of all the worshipers touch each other." 

When excellence in worship is defined as technical excellence, many people are excluded from worship leadership, not because they cannot, nor because they are not willing, nor because their hearts are not devoted to God, but because they cannot achieve a certain standard required by worship leaders. 

"True worshipers," says the apostle John, " . . . worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks."

Excellent worship, excellent choirs, excellent praise team, excellent readers and speakers include people who have the heart of God beating in their chest. That's true excellence in worship. 

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I appreciate your article here, Mark, but I think perhaps I disagree a little.

Excellence is really a funny term because it means different things to different people in different situations. I think one thing you're failing to point out here is that growth is an important part of excellence. If someone sings or reads poorly and no one says anything to them or doesn't help them improve, you're doing that person a disservice just as we would if they were having trouble in any other aspect of their spiritual life and we didn't come alongside.

Additionally, worship leadership falls under the broader category of teaching/leadership in general - which James mentions calls us to submit to a higher standard. I think throwing just anyone up on stage in worship is a disservice to them and the worshipping body. What's more - worship is a firstfruits offering and giving less than our best is a real issue.

I've met a lot of people in my time leading worship who really cared deeply about God and loved him and maybe even loved worship, but who didn't have the gifts to lead it. In a sense, it would be like throwing a cello at you and asking you to play cello in front of church, even though you probably never have.

I guess I'm really not sure what you're arguing for?

Guide

Mark,
Thanks for your comments. Maybe an illustration would help most to make my point more clear.

Our family has attended an annual diversity service the past several years which has been sponsored by our classis diversity team. Those services are rich with participation by Latino, Lao, Vietnamese, African- and European-American people as well as people with disabilities. One of the women who usually participates in leadership has cerebral palsy which makes her speech somewhat difficult to understand. That fact alone would be enough for many worship committees to exclude her from participation even though she has important things to say and pray. They would leave her out because she does not reach a standard of spoken excellence that they are looking for. She has spoken and lead in prayer in the past to the great appreciation of those present and to the greater glory of God.

It seems to me that many people view worship as a performance which must attain some standard rather than as a dialogue with God (which I believe is the higher standard to which James calls leaders of God's people). As a result, many people with disabilities are written off by worship committees for worship leadership with the reason given that the worship service must be excellent (using the achievement of a certain human standard as the definition of excellence).

I can easily imagine a person who is a polished speaker by human standards who detracts from dialogue with God in a public worship service, and a person who is not a polished speaker (like the woman I refer to above) who in leading worship draws the entire congregation into deeper dialogue with God.

Is my point more clear now?

Guide

As an added comment to this discussion, Pastor Bill Van Den Bosch sent me the following note on March 4 which is copied here by his permission, "We had a retreat today with some folks from Oakdale that are part of a sermon training team and we discussed this very matter. We settled on an an understanding that whatever definition of excellence we want to settle on (technical excellence, presentation excellence, etc) it should create an inclusive worship that recognizes the presence and gifts of all and not an exclusionary worship in which the presence and gifts of worshipers - including those with disabilities - are not seen as "good enough" or bringing less than the best to God. The challenge that we have is that it is easier to measure the excellence of musical or verbal presentations than it is to measure excellence of the heart."

Mark, I am currently the leader of our church's Friendship Group which is made up of approximately 12 intellectually disabled adults from 6 group homes in the neighborhood. Our class time includes singing (acapella), Bible lesson and prayer requests. During the last 2 years our class has participated in the morning worship service on at least 3 occasions by singing songs and reading scripture. Members of the class also enjoy being on the ushering and greeting schedule. My point is, when you say that growth is an important part of excellence, we need to realize that, no matter how poor it may sound to our ears, their active participation is a time of growth, both for them and for the rest of the congregation. I belive it is definitely a time of joy for God who receives their praise. When my class of disabled adults, or the young people of the church participate in the leading of worship they aren't just being thrown up on stage. They are being encouraged to develop their gifts to the glory of God. Most importantly, when you say that the participation of these people in the worship leadership is less than the giving of our first fruits, I feel this is a very hurtful statement. Worship, whether private or corporate is not about us and our abilities. It is about giving praise and honor to our Heavenly Father.
Steve Nyenhuis

Community Builder

Isn't this a vexing question?  I've felt torn about this SO many sundays.  I LOVE the value of full participation, AND I grieve when people who cannot read well are doing the scripture reading.  Sometimes I'm ashamed to say I'm totally distracted by inept liturgical dancers or singers or whatever.  

But yet.....  seems to me that making sure people are being nurtured to grow in their abilities is an important dimension of this discussion, and then expecting that people will do their best and challenging them to do so .....   that's another important dimension.  I'm thinking that worship planning committees should be obligated to coach worship leaders so that they feel supported and encouraged and enabled. 

I'd like to think that congregations could see to it that people get coached and trained and helped to do their best.   And once that is in place, then encouraging broad participation is the value that trumps excellence in performance.  The kind of excellence I most want to see is excellence in being a community of inclusion, participation, grace, and diversity.

What I would like to see is people who love the Lord being actively included in the worship service.
Not simply the best musicians or speakers or readers but the ones whose love for God shines through.
We have all seen this and been taught, moved, blessed by people who worship Him from their heart.
Like the writer before me, I grieve when someone reads the scripture and they have not practised and don't really know what they are reading.... but i love it when anyone reads who obviously cares about what it says, no matter how they read it.
I appreciate the skills of an accomplished reader but it grieves my heart just as much if they don't mean it.