This is a word that is familiar to just about anybody that’s been around the “worship with music” scene for any amount of time. I’ve been in or around churches for almost 40 years and I can’t remember a time when worship leaders and music ministers didn’t use the word excellence to describe the “goal” of our worship environments.
We want to be excellent, not necessarily perfect. What does this mean? Is it even achievable?
The basic definition of excellence is superiority. So, when we approach the word excellence we need to understand exactly what it means, past just being a commonly used buzzword in our worship leading circles.
Is there a way for our “worship” to be superior to other worship?
Yes. It’s quite simple, really. Worship that is not offered from an intentional and aware posture is not excellent. Worship that is offered apart from faith is not excellent. We can see this in the very beginning of humanity’s story with the offerings of Cain and Abel. Something about Cain’s offering was not excellent. Abel’s offering of the best and first of his flocks WAS excellent.
What was the difference? Scripture records that Abel offered his sacrifice BY FAITH, and that Cain just offered his produce. What’s interesting is that they BOTH brought their offerings in worship. The writer of Genesis is intentional about the distinction though: Abel offered his in faith. Cain offered his without faith.
In Hebrews 11:4, we see the New Testament view of this story:
By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.
So, we can see that even in the New Testament there is a distinction between a worship that is excellent and one that is not. There is no doubt that BOTH came to bring their offering in worship. But one was more superior than the other.
Is Our Worship Excellent?
What made Abel’s offering more excellent than Cain’s? Well, we see that it is faith. Simply put, Abel believed and acted upon God’s instructions for worship. Cain did not (he did not exhibit faith). In essence, excellent worship is a worship that is offered from a person or a group of people who BELIEVE and act upon God’s Words, who hear and do those Words (James 1:22).
Being a hearer and a doer of The Word is really what faith is all about. In reading the story of Cain and Able, we can deduce that Cain’s offering was not excellent because it was self-centered and not God-centered. Even though it was a good offering it must not have been what was instructed by God. As a result, God rejected that offering. In his self-centered anger, Cain killed Able.
When we gather to worship, when we “lead” worship, is our offering excellent? Do we BELIEVE and act upon those beliefs? Because if we don’t, our offering is like that of Cain. It might be pretty, it might be lovely, it might even be as close to perfect as it can be, but it is NOT excellent.
John Piper says that the opposite of excellent worship is careless worship. Let that sink in a bit.
Careless worship. Worship that is offered without care. In other words, it’s thoughtless. It’s unintentional. It’s self-oriented. Looking at Cain’s good offering, we can see that it is indeed very possible to approach the “altar” of worship with a lovely offering, but one that is not acceptable to God.
What does that look like in our worship environments?
Piper gives three examples:
1) Cool professionalism
This is the type of “excellence” that focuses on technique, skill, and talent. It’s not actually excellence at all. It’s a performance-based perfectionism. Majoring on the physical sound of the offering, and not focusing at all on the greatness of God. It usually manifests in a tight band that rocks arrangements almost perfectly but doesn’t bring people to the realization of God’s worth.
2) Warm Emotionalism
This is the approach that focuses on stirring up the emotions of the congregation. Manipulating the heart-strings of people, instead of majoring on a fully Biblical expression of whole worship. It works people up and leaves them slapping each other on the backs but not fixing their eyes on God.
3) Laid Back Spirituality
This approach actually has potential to be excellent but falls short because of distractions. There is a genuine spiritual feeling for the worth of God, but there is also a lingering carelessness that hinders the intensity of a God-centered focus. This lack of intentionality leads to a focus on individual preferences and lots of distracted people.
How To Be Excellent in Worship
Psalm 78:72 says that David led with a heart of integrity and skilled hands. Excellence is not only about a spiritual expression or a heart of worship. It also not only about a technique or skill-based expression. It’s about hearing the Word and acting upon it.
And in our times of worship that means, being intentional about focusing on and leading people to the worth of God. His majesty. His greatness. His beauty. His holiness. And it also means taking the time to be intentional about how we get there.
Just showing up and mindlessly singing is not excellent. But neither is spending hours crafting the perfect worship set, without intentionally focusing on God’s worth.
Excellent worship is based in an offering that comes from the place of intentionality in BOTH the spiritual side AND the physical side. Heart and skill. Some would argue that a heart of worship is enough. But faith without works is dead. We need to be hearers AND doers of God’s instructions for worship.
Going back to Cain and Abel we can see that they both brought offerings that they spent time on and that were important to them. Abel brought the best from his flocks. Cain brought the best from his produce. But God didn’t just want the best that their hands had to offer. He wanted the best that their hands had to offer AND the best that their hearts had to offer. Cain fell short because he missed out on the belief (faith) part.
Believe and Act
Excellence in leading worship is a heart and hands thing. Integrity and Skill. Do you believe in the great worth of our God? Then you should act on it by leading in and from that belief. Here are some questions to ponder:
- Do our worship sets point people to a wholly Biblical expression of God’s worth?
- Do we spend adequate time fortifying our belief in God by spending time with Him consistently?
- Do we point our people to the goodness of God? To his greatness? To his love? To his majesty? To his holiness?
- Are we just singing great arrangements because that’s what we’ve always done?
- Are we carelessly offering our songs hoping that God is pleased with a mindless offering?
- Do we even put much thought into the way that we craft our setlists? Or do we pick based solely on key and flow?
- Do we practice our instruments and singing so that we can lead in expressing excellent worship that isn’t a distraction to people (because it’s SO perfect or because it’s SO bad)?
- Are we manipulative in our song selections and the way that we present them? Are we trying to get people to express their worship emotionally without ever stopping to actually present a good picture of the nature of God?
- Do we just pick some songs, and hope the Holy Spirit will show up?
These are just a handful of questions that could get us to look inward and to allow the Holy Spirit to work in us areas that we can grow in. Perfection is not the goal. The object of our worship is perfect. We are not. Our worship setlists will not be.
We should work toward excellence. My prayer today is that our leading in worship would help our congregations to bring excellent offerings that are pleasing to God. Lord, help us if we are leading from a place of chasing perfection!