A rant on Excellence and Worship…

October 30, 2009
[Originally posted Wednesday, September 12, 2007 at 1:06am]

So every once and I while a man needs to rant on something. This is one of those times. So here is my rant…

What ever happened to excellence?!? God has really convicted me recently about how I approach various things in my life, and sadly I’ve found that I tend to go for a “good-enough-to-get-by” approach to those things. There is a phrase repeated in 1 Thessalonians that has been stuck in my head a lot – it’s this: “excel still more.” Don’t just stop with what is good enough, go the next step and then some. Paul prays for the Philippians that they might “approve the things that are excellent”, and then goes on in the rest of his letter to highlight good things, and better things (like to live is Christ and to die is gain, but living is more necessary so that is the best thing for him to do – Chapter 1 verses 21-26). He later says in Chapter 4 “if there is any excellence… dwell on these things” (Verse 8) But are we excellent in all that we do? Not the “Jack of all trades” thing, but rather “Ace of all trades”, even if that’s a few.

School, athletics, worship; you name it – sometimes I just don’t see the excellence in them. I could rant on a bunch of things, but the thing that really bothers me right now is how mediocre we are in worship. There are two things that bother me about it these days: 1) The songs that are popular worship songs (i.e. the words), and 2) the actual leading of worship and playing instruments (i.e. the music).

The thing that bothers me about worship songs these days is not that they have bad words (although many do), and not that the words are shallow (although they often are), but that they are just a bunch of good Christian phrases strung together and put to music, but have no coherence at all. It’s like people say, “Hey, let’s write a worship song. What are some good Christian things to sing about? Ok, lets throw them all together in a song and get a catchy melody.” To illustrate my point, let me rant on what apparently is one of the top praise and worship song out there today: It’s called “Into Marvelous Light” and here are the words:

I once was fatherless, a stranger with no hope
Your kindness wakened me, wakened me from my sleep
Your love it beckons deeply, a call to come and die
By grace now I will come and take this life, take Your life

Ok. I think I might agree with everything he says here, but it seems to be very loosely connected together. Something about waking up and then dying and finding life (all good Christian phrases) Now enough about me… switch to talking about Christ a bit…

Sin has lost it’s power, death has lost its sting
From the grave You’ve risen victoriously

Again, I agree with what is said, but I have to really think in order to see the connection… And then the wonderful chorus:

Into marvelous light I’m running
out of darkness, out of shame, by the cross
You are the truth, You are the life, You are the way

That’s not even one coherent thought – much less coherent with the rest of the song! At first he’s talking about running into light (which I’m assuming is God?) and then an interjection about Christ being the truth and life and way is put in. It seems like that last line is just thrown in there because it is Scripture (which is great that it’s Scripture, but how does that tie in with running to light, out of darkness and shame?) Now some more generic statements about good things…

My dead heart is now beating, my deepest stains now clean
Your breath fills up my lungs, now I’m free, now I’m free

At least the last line is talking about the same thing as the chorus (well, maybe just the first part of the chorus…)

Lift my hands and spin around, see the light that I have found
O the marvelous light, marvelous light

I think the song is just poorly written. It’s incoherent, and I find it sad that it is one of the top worship songs sung today. Yeah, it has a great melody and is really catchy, but that’s even worse because now a bunch of people sing an incoherent song full of cliché Christian phrases strung together, and they don’t even think about the song as a whole. So I ask: what happened to excellence in writing worship songs? (And that’s just songs that have ok theology… don’t even get me started about songs with bad theology…)

On the other hand, I think we too often err on the side of not being excellent in our music, and here I am mainly speaking of worship leaders. Too often I hear people say that “what matters is that we are worshiping God and not that it sounds good.” – and while I would agree with the principle behind what they’re saying – that leaves no excuse for playing/leading badly! The music does matter! If God is glorified in poor sounding music, how much more will He be glorified when we take what gifts He has given us and use them to produce a beautiful sound before Him!

What makes me sick is that we will spend hours upon hours practicing for a concert where we are playing before an audience of people, but when it comes to practicing for worship we usually just “show up an hour early”. (Note here that I am as guilty of this as anyone). Is playing well only of worth before men? Should we not aim to play well when we lead our fellow believers to worship before the throne of God? It’s no wonder that there were 288 “accomplished musicians” who were appointed by David “to proclaim God’s messages to the accompaniment of harps, lyres, and cymbals.” (see 1 Chronicles chapter 25) I’m not getting on to people who are genuinely playing their best and happen to mess up when they are leading, but rather people who are “accomplished musicians” that mess up because they fail to practice enough beforehand.

It is hard to be led into worship when the people leading haven’t taken the time to play their music excellently. Having a “praise & worship band” that can play well takes time and practice – and I have found that we tend to chalk up the line “well, the point was to worship God even though we messed up” when the truth is that we just didn’t take the time to practice enough. I think that a good worship leader is a valuable asset, but too often leading worship in an excellent manner just isn’t that important to us – so we try and find someone to “jump in real quick” and “throw together a band”….that’s poor effort.

But not only is a good worship leader important – I think that we as those being led into worship can do so excellently or not. I love when I can hear someone next to me singing harmony or, better yet, singing the bass line of a hymn. When is the last time you heard a congregation sing the four parts of any given hymn as they are written in the hymnal? Do we even sing anything other than the melody line anymore? No, because we don’t take the time to learn the other parts even though the majority of the hymns in our hymnals have each line written down for us. We are content with mediocre worship and fail to strive for excellence.

Now I am not saying that singing “Into Marvelous Light” is bad, or that having a sloppy worship leader is horrible, or that singing just the melody line of hymns is atrocious – better to have poor worship than none at all. What I am saying is what Oswald Chambers put so eloquently when he said, “The good is always the enemy of the best.” – We can do so much better! And we ought to do so much better!! Paul says that he wants the gospel preached even if it is from motives of “envy and strife” (see Philippians 1), but Oh how much better it is to have it preached from “good will”! Mediocre worship is good, but how much better is excellent worship! Do we offer to God of our excess, or of our first fruits? Do we give Him our best, or just something good?

I pray that we would “excel still more” in all that we do – especially in worshiping Him.

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