I have noticed the development of what might be called a “culture of excellence” when it comes to our worship in the assembly. What I mean by this is that there are more—and more vocal—discussions about what it means to (in the words of a recently-published book) “do things well” in the assembly. When we talk about our singing (and the leading of it), we talk about being able to keep time and pitch a song reasonably closely, and having the ability to carry a tune, etc. If there is a prayer to be led, we want the man who is able to articulate thoughts clearly, without a lot of rambling and definitely without the dreaded “guide, guard and direct.” Our preachers need to be able to speak in such a way as to be engaging, use effective visuals (no “death by PowerPoint,” please) and preferably not go over about 30 minutes.
Let’s recognize one thing at the outset: while I wasn’t alive to confirm this one way or another, an “excellence culture” is almost certainly not a new thing. They may not have been as vocal about it as they are today (and the Internet certainly helps with that), I have to believe that there have always been people concerned with doing things well in the Lord’s worship. If one truly wants to express God’s worth, they will be concerned about doing things well.
Just maybe not in the way that we frequently articulate it today.
More and more, I struggle with the idea that we have to have leaders who are able to present what we might call the right “aesthetics” of worship. That is to say, is it A Bad Thing if the song leader isn’t the most musically gifted? Should a man whose prayers contain about 75% of the same content (almost verbatim) each time not be called upon to lead prayer in the assembly? That is what some advocate today (or very nearly).
To which I say,
And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2.1–5, NASB)
What is Paul saying here? As I understand it, his preaching didn’t contain all the latest rhetorical techniques and methods. There may have been some implicit comparison to Apollos (though not in the sense of condemning Apollos’ manner of preaching), but the bottom line is that Paul didn’t want the aesthetics of his preaching to interfere with the content of his preaching. He didn’t want his proclamation of the cross to be about him or his ability to proclaim it.
We often say that Paul wasn’t an eloquent speaker. I wonder about that. I realize that 2 Corinthians 10.10 says, “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.'” However, the fact that he was apparently quite skilled in making a convincing argument (see Acts 9.22) and that he received what was arguably the finest education a Jew could receive (Acts 22.3) suggests that his “contemptible speech” was as much a matter of choice as it was any physical limitation.
As a side point, isn’t that the very definition of gentleness? We frequently define the word as “strength under control.” Paul may have had the ability to go toe-to-toe with the best of speakers, but he didn’t so that the thing of greater importance—Jesus Christ, and Him crucified—would prevail.
Now, what does that have to do with leading the singing and praying and all of that? When we try to define who should lead the worship, maybe we’re looking at the wrong thing when we place an emphasis (read: get hung up) on technical ability.
I think this is true even of something like our singing, where people generally recognize that a different kind of skill is needed than in leading prayer or even preaching. I’ve been in several discussions where the “small church exception” has been invoked. That is, if a church is small and doesn’t have a “capable” song leader, they’re okay, but once they get to a certain point, they should be developing song leaders and having song leaders who are able to lead with a certain amount of technical skill. Really?
When I started preaching full-time five years ago, the congregation I was at had one song leader. The son of one of the members came over most Sunday mornings to lead the singing, but on Sunday night, this brother was it. Yes, I could (and did) lead singing from time to time, but that was the exception rather than the rule. From a completely aesthetic analysis, his singing was unimpressive (by his own admission), and from a song selection standpoint, we probably sang “Is It for Me” every two or three weeks, but I’m not sure what about that wasn’t worship, or wasn’t effective worship. The same is true of the brother there who, almost without fail, would mention that there were multiple accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, including the later account in 1 Corinthians 11. While we might wish for more variety, did reading from 1 Corinthians 11 every week (and when I first got there, that’s what it was since he waited on the table every week) hinder us from remembering the death of Christ?
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Whose fault is it that these things hinder us from worship? If a song leader’s lack of technical skill keeps me from praising God, that’s my fault. If a man saying the same prayer every time, going in and out of KJV English out of habit keeps me from bringing my petitions before the throne of grace, that’s my fault, too. If 1 Corinthians 11.23–26 becomes meaningless to me…
What is far more important to me about a man who leads the congregation in worship is the content. Are the songs being sung Scriptural songs? Are the prayers being said prayed with a view toward the will of God? Are the sermons being preached based on the word of God? Do our activities around the Lord’s table point us in the direction of the crucified Christ? If the answer is yes, then what’s the problem?
CODA: Something happened last Wednesday night in our assembling together that reminded me of this. A young boy, less than 10 years old, led the closing song. He was baptized a few weeks ago. Again, let’s be honest. How much was he leading the singing of “Jesus Loves Me”? Probably not so much, at least not in the way that we normally talk about song leading. Yes, he was in the front. Yes, he was waving his arm (as near as I could tell, since I couldn’t really see him, basically correctly). Yes, you could sort of hear his voice, but if we really looked at it objectively, the congregation was pretty much on autopilot. Aside from the song itself, what was perhaps most edifying was his willingness/desire to stand in front of the assembly and lead a song. Maybe the moral of that “story” is that there is as much—if not more—edification to be found in the willingness of men to serve in the assembly as there is in any technical proficiency that they may bring to that service.