Worship Arts: A Mandate for Excellence
Grace and Virtuosity in Worship Leadership
Rev. Steven D. Griffing, The International Worship Symposium
Christian ministry flows from grace and faith, motivated by love. The Apostle Paul writes, "We all have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith" (Rom. 12:6). In other words, we are able to serve the church only because the Holy Spirit has graciously given us unmerited gifts that are operated by faith - also a gift.
Yet, when it comes to worship most people want leaders who have augmented their gifts with some degree of discipline, such as keyboard or vocal proficiency. We also want them to maintain a rehearsal regimen so that they can conduct worship services in an orderly fashion with attention to detail. In other words, we want our worship leaders to have some level of artistic skill - that is, we want them to augment what the Holy Spirit has given them with some old-fashioned "elbow grease." As a worshiping community, we look for a balance between two seemingly contradictory elements: divine grace versus artistic virtuosity.
The Worship Arts Dichotomy
But, shouldn't the grace and gifting of the Holy Spirit enough? After all, doesn't Scripture say, "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Cor. 12:9) and "open wide your mouth and I will fill it" (Ps. 81:9)? Why should effective worship leadership require both divine inspiration and human perspiration?
The answer is this; God really does care about artistic excellence. The Bible plainly declares in Psalm 33:3, and other places, "Play skillfully …". But how skillful do we have to be to qualify for God's music department? Careful Bible study reveals that God upholds a standard that balances both inspiration and hard work, resolving our erroneous dichotomy between divine grace and human virtuosity.
Most dictionaries define "virtuosity" as "exceptional skill." Most of us here in North Texas, for example, would consider Dallas Symphony concertmaster, Emanuel Borok, to be an extraordinary violin virtuoso. But folks at the Mesquite Rodeo might prefer master fiddler, Mark O'Connor. So, determining who is considered skilled and who is not becomes a subjective matter.
However, there is one thing these two musicians have in common - a consistent, systematic, and driving pursuit of artistic excellence. That is what virtuosity is all about. It is a pilgrimage rather than a fixed destination - a lifestyle rather than a concept. Furthermore, the Bible places a priority on virtuosity while reconciling it with the principle of Christian Grace.
Here are some reasons why God cares about artistic excellence in worship leadership:
The Divine Aesthetic
Virtuosity imparts beauty to our worship. At least two psalms eulogize the beauty of Zion's holy temple (Pss. 48 and 87), and another proclaims, "From Mount Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines in glorious radiance" (Ps. 50:2). The primary reason we gather in worship is "to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord" (Ps. 27:4). Therefore, those who lead in public worship should create an environment that reflects God's divine aesthetic of beauty.
The Divine Expression
Art explores the breadth of human experience and creates sensory experiences that parallel life itself. As one of the arts, music moves us at the most profound level. In worship, it expresses not only our human sentiment, but also God's in the prophetic sense. The ability to perform worshipful music with virtuosity requires musicians to bring contrast and clarity of expression to their performances. As Paul exhorts us, we are to "sound a clear call" (1 Cor. 14:8). In order to express by finite means the person and purposes of the infinite God, worship leading teams must pursue excellence in every medium of their craft, whether sound, light, symbolic gesture, or environmental design.
The Divine Glory
The word "glory" appears frequently throughout the Bible. It is a poignant description of God's majestic splendor, but the term actually derives its meaning from a very mundane setting - the ancient market place. It means, literally, "weight" or "value" and refers to the process of weighing precious metal in payment for goods.
The Bible commands us to "ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name" (Ps. 29:2). Artistic excellence reflects the cost and value of worship because those who exhibit it "buy" it at the price of diligent study and practice. King David, the Bible's quintessential worshiper, refused to bring an offering to the Lord that cost him nothing (2 Sam. 24:24). Today, the work and preparation by choristers, worship teams, music directors, instrumentalists, altar guilds, acolytes, as well as preachers tangibly demonstrate how much they value the presence of God in worship.
The Divine Liberty
The Lord's song cannot flow from someone in bondage. (Pss. 137:1-4; 126:1-4; Jer. 33:11.) Lack of artistic skill fetters expressive fluency. Conversely, the most difficult music flows easily from the hands or voice of a polished virtuoso. Virtuosity releases worship leaders' minds from the "bondage" of technical mechanics so they can concentrate on what the Spirit is saying to the church through worship, lifting the congregation into rapturous delight in Christ's presence.
The Divine Mastery
We often use the words "command" and "mastery" to describe a fine performance. We not-so-great virtuosos can also display mastery if we do not overreach our limitations (out of pretentiousness) and stick to a repertoire that is well within our technical range. Thus, this principle of Divine Mastery requires leaders to develop exceptional skills - the best they can give - at whatever level of expertise they possess.
Scripture lauds King David, for example, as a man of God, yet it attributes his leadership to his extraordinary skill (Ps. 78:72). Kenaniah, David's choral instructor, provides another example of the same principle. While Kenaniah was qualified by grace to be a Levite, it was his mastery of vocal technique that distinguished him from his peers (1 Chron. 15:22, 27). When members of a worship team apply their best efforts to their craft, they reflect God's infinite mastery.
The Divine Nature
God requires us to add virtuosity to His gifts because, in the pursuit of excellence, we develop Christian graces such as self-control, dedication, patience, and even humility. Arrogance, for example, is usually not a sign of accomplishment, but rather a device for obscuring limited training and experience. As worship leaders pursue excellence in their craft, they can begin to reflect the beauty and personality of our Lord as they take on His character and demonstrate His infinite mastery in a finite context.
Through grace, the Holy Spirit empowers our ministry as Christian leaders, but He is not a labor-saving device. Nowhere in Scripture does the sovereign grace of God release us from the responsibility to pursue excellence as a personal pilgrimage of integrity.
Martin Luther said it well, "When natural music is sharpened and polished by art, then one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect wisdom of God."