Excellence versus Relevance
In an article from a well-known American worship leader, dealing with special characteristics of a worship song, the author (who will remain nameless) attempts to define what a great worship song is, based upon the popularity of CCLI’s top 25 songs. In the article, he draws some conclusions that I would like to discuss.
He categorizes all praise and worship songs into three genres: 1) Songs sung directly to the Lord, 2) Songs about the Lord, and 3) Exhortations to Praise or Worship the Lord. I believe this list is too narrowly defined. Paul, in the book of Colossians (and a similar passage in the book of Ephesians) teaches the churches to “Let the Word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Col. 3:16) Paul’s emphasis is on instruction through song. He seems to encourage mental alertness. Surely there are other categories of songs that could be acknowledged than those the author mentioned in his article. Here might be a few more: 4) Faith declarations, 5) Songs that give insight into man’s relationship with God, 6) Meditative, thought-provoking and even introspective songs, 7) Prayer-based songs, 8) Scripture stories told by song, and 9) Prophetically written songs of God speaking to us. The book of Psalms is filled with such examples as these, but we in the ‘Praise and Worship Movement’ in America have now begun to define successful worship using a standard of popularity. It seems that, in our modern era, two things define success: 1) Popularity and 2) Money.
As a parable, let’s take the Hamburger. According to Wikipedia, in an article on “The Cuisine of the United States”, they cite, “The hamburger may be the most famous United States food.” We are all familiar with McDonald’s and Burger King, not to mention the best burger joint in town on the corner. In the June 2007 issue of the Berkeley Wellness Letter, however, “Ground beef is one of the most damaging foods in the American diet. We eat, on average, nearly 30 pounds of it a year…It is the second biggest source of saturated fat for the average American adult…is more likely to contain dangerous E. coli bacteria than any other meat.” Clearly, popularity, in this example, has led us down a path of destruction. Are we doing the same with our analysis of worship in the Church, by subjecting it to the grid of popularity?
In great churches we hear two words, Excellence and Relevance. If they are not spoken verbally, they are manifested throughout the ministry in some form. These two ideas, however, are on opposite ends of the ministry spectrum. Excellence seeks to honor God, with or without the approval of man. The Apostle Paul states, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” (Gal. 1:10) Relevance, however, seeks to make God known to all of mankind. “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (Eph. 2:5-6) Jesus, the man, was Relevant to all of humanity while Jesus, as God, was Excellent.
There came a time, however, when Jesus could not deny His own deity, even though the religious leaders wanted Him to. The masses saw Jesus’ Relevance, but most did not know of His Excellence. The religious leaders attacked his Excellence and tried to get Him to compromise, but Jesus’ response, “It is My Father Who glorifies Me, of Whom you say, ‘He is our God’; and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I shall be a liar like you, but I do know Him, and keep His word.” (Jn. 8:54-55) Jesus, although walking in both Excellence and Relevance simultaneously in His ministry upon the earth, came to a ‘fork in the road’, in which He could not deny His Excellence, at the expense of Relevance. To do so, would be to classify Himself as a liar. It was at this point in His ministry that He had to endure a dramatically decreased Relevance, in which all who had followed Him fled. The multitudes quickly fell off into criticism and hatred. The disciples ran away. His closest human relationships couldn’t understand. He was, ultimately, completely cut off from all Relevance.
As a Christian, you might be thinking, “That was just for Christ, the Messiah…that was God’s holy plan for Him, the Savior of the world. Surely God doesn’t need me to go through this process, as well.”
Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let Him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mtt. 16:24) Am I suggesting that our cross as believers and followers of Christ is comparable to Jesus’? No. But it is still a choice, and it is of great value to God. It is an assignment that may not at all times be pleasant, and it is certainly, at some point, going to come to a ‘fork in the road’ in which all Relevance is cut off. But the Good News is: there is a resurrection! Any death in Christ will have a resurrection in Christ. If there is no death in Christ, however, there can be no resurrection in Christ. Why do we, in the praise and worship movement seek to measure our work with popularity or Relevance, when we should strive for Excellence, even to the point of giving up all social acceptance. It is only at this point that God can give us a Relevance that reaches far beyond what we could have ever hoped to see by searching after it with our own human endeavors.
History is filled with stories of sacrifice that ended in resurrection. Here are some examples from music history:
In the eighteenth century, J.S. Bach, perhaps the best historical picture of a minister of music, after writing more material than any other known composer in a span of seven years, was told by his employers that He hadn’t accomplished anything at all. His own sons, whom He had musically trained, ridiculed his work as ‘old-fashioned’. He died in obscurity, having made a modest income. His resurrection, however, came within the next several decades, when a young Messianic Jew by the name of Felix Mendelssohn discovered Bach’s music, put on a complete concert of his material, having invited all the well-known musicians of the day. From that day until now, J.S. Bach (not any of his associates or his sons) is regarded world-wide, from Europe to Asia, as being one of the finest examples of artistic greatness. From obscurity, He was raised to influence more people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through text embedded in his music, than any contemporary musical example of our day.
In the nineteenth century, a completely deaf Beethoven, after having performed his Ninth Symphony, was given a scathing review by a local critic. Churches around the world now know the famous melody, which came from the final movement, as the ‘Ode to Joy’.
These principles also transcend boundaries of ideology. As a secular example, in the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky had to crawl out of a window in the dance theater, in which they performed his newly created work, “The Rite of Spring”, to save his life from the angry crowds. His work is now a landmark of 20th Century classical composition.
The list of stories such as these is well established throughout history, in a variety of disciplines.
Nearly every great example of risk and sacrifice has been met with persecution and a time of non-Relevance.
Am I saying that getting the message out through publishers, marketing, media, Internet, etc. is wrong? No, but for Christian worship leaders and musicians to seek Relevance at the expense of Excellence will ultimately end in obscurity and demise. How many artists, sacred or secular, have risen to ‘stardom’ only to end up in the manure pile of life, leaving no other legacy than a brief popularity and a trail of divorce(s), wayward children, financial collapse, and worse?
Our mindless, emotional, pleasure-seeking society desperately needs leaders who will not compromise Excellence for Relevance, who are willing to risk misunderstanding at the expense of popularity. Unfortunately, leaders in the praise and worship movement have effectively ‘pigeon-holed’ what worship in the Church ‘should be’, now they are attempting to force everyone into this mediocre vision, using popularity as the measure for greatness.
The hamburger is popular, but a diet filled with hamburgers will ultimately kill you.