What is Excellent Worship?

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praise worthy – think about such things.” Phil. 4:8

We spend considerable time in our AWEthentic Worship Experience conferences dispelling perfection but encouraging excellence.  We make the distinction because perfection implies that there is no more room for growth; excellence is always a work in progress.  It seems a fine line, but in actuality the line couldn’t be any bolder.  The pursuit of perfection is futile.  We can’t work our way to perfection.

Perfect is a gift of God, “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” (Jas. 1:17)

Perfection belongs to God, not us, “…My [God’s] power is made perfect in weakness.” II Cor. 12:9

Only God can make us perfect through Jesus, “…because by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”

Part of the issue we run into as worship musicians is that we’ve been taught, “practice makes perfect.” But practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.  Practice makes permanent.  Practice a passage, a chord change, a line of lyrics, a riff or a harmony wrong and it will be performed wrong.

“Wait a minute, Joe!” you must be protesting by now, “you’re the one who said, ‘nit pickers are good and necessary; they get rid of lice eggs.'”

Recognized.  Paying attention to details is imperative, but excellence should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of perfection.  This side of Heaven we’re going to miss some detail somewhere along the way.  How do we walk the gauntlet then?  How do we keep our sanity while pursuing excellence but acknowledging  that we’re not perfect?

Here’s a great quote by Orel Hershiser in George Will’s book, Men at Work. It’s about pitching the a perfect baseball game (the quote paraphrased, because I can’t find my copy of Men at Work by George Will…yeh, yeh I know, details):

“When I step on the mound in the first inning I’m pitching the best perfect game ever pitched.  At that point, I’ve stuck out every batter.  Should I walk a batter, then I’m pitching the best one walk game ever.  Should a batter get a single, then I’m pitching the best one hit game ever.  Should a batter hit a home run, then I’m pitching the best one home run game ever.”

What a great concept.  At Worship Concepts we’ve coined the phrase, “redefining excellence.”  More on that in a later post.  For now I want to share an answer I gave once when asked what excellent worship was.  In all honesty, the question stumped me at first and my initial answer was, “…umm…eh…well…er…hmmm…” Yep, I have a way with the English language.  After admitting that I had never crafted a concise, repeatable definition of excellent worship I promised to do so and email it to the questioner.  I dutifully set about to do so and here was my eventual response:

Excellent worship is intentional, purposeful, thoughtful, primary, not easily distracted nor distracting from God’s glory, it reflects a grateful heart that was once dead and now beats for the One who is its Savior.  It is authentic, it sets captives free, it reveals an awesome God whose creation is magnificent, is primary, reflects the extravagant love of God through the undignified passion of those worshipping, is borne of truth and spirit, has it’s beginning-middle-end in YHWH, it delivers and heals and gives life, can’t be contained when two or more worshippers come together, it is overwhelming, always occurs in the presence of the One who deserves all praise, honor and glory.

It is consideration, reflection and expression of whatever is good and excellent and true.

You Should Have Been There, It Was Epic

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” Job 38:1-5

From this point God goes on to chastise Job with pictures of creating the universe.    “Where were you when I measured the universe while a chorus of morning stars sang and angels shouted for joy?” “Where were you when I tricked-out the clouds?” “Have you seen the freakish stuff in the ocean depths?” “Have you seen my outrageous snow-machine?” “Have you seen my Van de Graaff generator for making lightning? It should be called the Van de Godd generator.”

For sure this is a rebuke from God in response to Job getting all up in His grill.  God had patiently listened to Job get all uppity about the injustice of his situation, albeit perceived injustice.  In essence God was saying, “Who are you to question me?”  It can sound like a rather caustic and abusive rebuke. “Man-up because I’m about to throw-down.”

But attributing such vindictiveness doesn’t reconcile completely with God’s character. It doesn’t align with God’s loving character in general or the character of God specifically toward Job revealed in the opening chapter of the book, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Sure, God may have finally had His fill of Job’s whining and accusations, but that doesn’t jive with God’s character, either.  God is infinite.  To think that man could test the limit of God’s patience is to think that man could also test the limit of God’s love.  That’s a non sequitur with The Infinite, The Beginning and The End.  I think that there’s another way to hear God’s words to Job.  I think that they can be heard with awe and wonder; one friend regaling another with tales of exploits past, a chum recounting adventures to the delight of his besty…

“Man-up, ’cause you’re not going to believe how it really went down!”

“Dude, you should have been there.  It was epic!”

“It was tricked out!”

“Absolute pownage!”

“I was en fuego; call me The Busdriver ’cause I took everyone to school!”

“The angels rocked out and even the morning stars threw down!”

“The whole time I kept thinking, ‘I wish Job was here. He would so dig this.'”

OK, it’s a paraphrase…maybe more than a paraphrase. But really, don’t you think God wants us to see amazing things?  Doesn’t He want us to experience the grandeur of His creation?  Don’t we rejoice when we experience the wonder of God?

And God didn’t stop His wonders after creating the universe.  He’s still driving the bus…He’s still en fuego…you know that He’s still buttah ’cause He’s still on a roll.  God is still all about The Epic!  And He wants you to be there for it.  What is He going to do today that He wants you to witness?  And then who does He want you to tell about it?  Who does God want you to regale with wondrous tales of yore and exploits to come?

As for my paraphrase, it’s not quite as far-fetched as we might think.  Jump ahead to the epilogue…

“After the Lord had said these things to Job, He said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has…my servant Job will pray for you and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.'” (Job 42:7-8) It seems that the one who got it right was Job who was willing to reveal himself to God so that God could in turn reveal Himself to Job.  The ones who truly suffered were the pious “friends” with the religious platitudes.  Job got to witness the wonders of God because He sought the wonders of God.

It must have been epic.

That’s why worship.

Traditions vs. Traditionalisms

“How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!” Galatians 4:9-10

Everything was once new and fresh, but when we start serving the “fresh and new” instead of God it loses its life and vitality. Hymns and liturgies that once brought light can become dark and heavy because people start serving them instead of serving God.

Seasons and holiday that were never ordained by God have become sacred cows that are served for their own sake. They are benign in their own right, but when they become non-negotiable gods on their own they drain the spiritual life from us.

And what will become of that which is fresh and new now; praise and worship choruses, video graphics, multi-sensory worship, seeker-sensitive services? It amazes how Christians who are obsessed with escaping one particular liturgy end up substituting it with one of their own making. We all know of contemporary (whatever that means) churches that rail against traditions and then establish a formula that they obsess over. The first song must have a particular groove and the second has to have a certain cultural flavor leading into a worship song and etc.

Having said that, here’s my caveat: don’t misunderstand and think that I’m against form and structure in worship. In my opinion, very few things dishonor God more than worship that meanders aimlessly, even if it finds God’s throne by accident.  Worship should be intentional.  Frankly, unintentional worship isn’t worship at all. It’s just a bunch of people hoping they find God rather than boldly gaining access to Him through Jesus His Son.

Worship starts to smell like death when we allow that formula of our own design to tighten its chains around us. God may have given us a template of worship for a season, but it was only for a season and a day, or even a season, is as one thousand years to God. Whether it’s the great hymns of generations past or the greatest new Passion or HillSongs tune, they only bring life while we continue to draw the breath of life throughthem not from them.

Solomon was right, “…there’s nothing new under the sun.” But, all things are new under the Son! Let’s keep them under the Son.  Let’s stay there ourselves.

We need to guard our hearts from traditionalisms that are the dead faith of the living and hold to God’s traditions that are the living faith of the dead and resurrected.

Lord, don’t ever let me become so attached to a thing, style, song, presentation, idea or vision that I substitute it for You.

Excellence is Attractive

At Worship Concepts we have a simple premise, “Excellence is Attractive.” Pardon the redundancy, but here is an excellent example. One of the most excellent pieces of music performed with excellence on what can be best described as an unusual instrument.  Excellence appears effortless, but anyone who has pursued it knows that it is anything but.  Once achieved, however, it’s captivating.  You can’t help but be attracted to it.  I have no idea of this gentleman’s spiritual condition, but I believe God smiles even at what He has created here because “…whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Salt Trumps Bitter

“You are the salt of the earth…” Matt. 5:13

Ask any hardcore coffee addict how to reduce the afternoon bitterness of this morning’s reheated coffee and they’ll tell you to add a pinch of salt.  Go ahead, ask them.  Now I’m not talking about those precious persons who just crave the Koolaid coffee whipped up at Fourbucks.  You’ve gotta ask one of us who think that stale, two day old “cup o’ joe” that has an oil slick on top is better than no coffee at all.  Ask the guy three cubicles down who doesn’t trust java that isn’t chewy.  (Hey, my name’s Joe and I wrote “cup o’ joe”!  That’s gotta be some literary something or other.)

Coffee neophytes try to cut the bitterness with sugar.  They add a teaspoon, they take a sip, they pucker up, they snap their head like a wet Jack Russell Terrier, then vainly add another teaspoon of sugar.  It’s hopeless.  Sugar doesn’t remove bitterness.  The best it can do is cover it up but more often than not it you just end up with bitter tasting, muddy water with “sandy” sugar crystals at the bottom of the cup.

Most people are surprised to learn that desert recipes call for some sugar and salt.  It sounds counterintuitive to add salty to a sweet, but it’s true.

Still not convinced.  Here’s an experiment that I found in the New York Times that you can try yourself:

Get a bottle of tonic water. Take a taste. The bitterness is quinine, a compound derived from bark of the cinchona tree. There’s also a bit of sweetness from sugar or corn syrup added to offset the bitterness.

Add a bit of salt to the bottle. Take another taste. “It’s almost like sugar water,” Ms. Corriher said. “You taste a little quinine, but it’s just the change is amazing, how the salt suppresses bitterness.”

Surprisingly, salt suppresses bitterness better than sugar.  That is why some people sprinkle salt on grapefruit, cantaloupe and other fruit. 

Often we try, with no effect, to take away the bitterness of life with sweetness.   By “sweetness” I mean covering up the bitterness or going out of our way to avoid the bitterness.  Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth…”  Have you ever tried to comfort someone by piling platitudes and trite cliche’s on life’s tragedies just to be rebuffed or at best ignored?  We’re not the “sugar of the earth,” we’re “salt”.

Only a few sentences earlier in the Beatitudes Jesus says, “Blessed are they that mourn for they will be comforted.”  Echoing this point, Paul speaks of mourning in Romans 12:15 “…mourn with those that mourn.”  Who will be comforted?  Those that mourn, not those that try to cover it up or ignore it.  How should we respond to those that mourn, those that hurt?  Mourn with them.  Not in the way that the world mourns, but with a hope.

But salt shouldn’t be “salty.”  It takes just a pinch of salt, just a little bit.  We often fail in comforting, taking the bitter away, because we use either too much salt or sweetness.  Being the “salt of the earth” doesn’t mean being an abrasive, cantankerous “ol’ salt.”  Just as Jesus doesn’t say, “you are the sugar of the earth;” He also doesn’t say, “be salty.”  Being “salty” just breeds legalism and, conversely,  coating life with sugary syrup doesn’t allow the real issues of hurt to be addressed.

As those who are set apart for the glory of God, those who practice insurgent love behind enemy lines, we must set our strategy for each day; a strategy that asks, “who will I not leave with a bitter taste in their mouth?  Who will I be salt for today?  Who’s life will I  make less bitter by being the ‘salt of the earth?'”