We can’t help but notice the number of times God addresses idolatry in his Word. He hates it when we pursue, serve, or are emotionally drawn to other gods, which are not really gods at all. Idols enslave us (Ps. 106:36), put us to shame (Is. 45:16), and ultimately conform us to their image (Ps. 115:8).
But God’s intention is that we be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). Like the Psalmist, we should hate them and those who pay regard to them. (Ps. 31:6). Too often, though, we find ourselves to be the idolaters. Today, I want to share another idol that looms large when we worship God corporately. It particularly applies to musicians.
The Idol of Musical Excellence
Offering God our best has biblical precedent. (Ex. 23:19; Num 18:29-30) In today’s culture, that “best” is often defined as music marked by skill, complexity, or even sophistication. So four-part harmonies edge out unison melodies, orchestras trump upright pianos, and full bands with choirs replace solo guitarists. We become more concerned with making corporate worship bigger, better, and more involved. We balk at the thought of someone without extensive musical training and study leading congregational worship. In the process, we lose sight of what makes our offering acceptable in the first place.
Reggie Kidd, in his book With One Voice, pinpoints the problem: “In some churches the quest for ‘excellence’ is an idol, regardless of whether ‘excellence’ is defined by standards of so-called ‘classical’ culture or of ‘pop’ culture. Such ‘excellentism’ needs to be replaced with the quest to pursue the likeness of Christ crucified and him alone. As good as it gets this side of Christ’s return, we’re never going to get it completely right. There will always be a flat tenor, a broken guitar string, an overly loud organ, or a poorly placed hymn. But it’s okay. The cross means it’s covered.” (p. 101-102)
Does that mean we don’t need to be concerned about how we play, whether we’re in tune, or what songs we use? Of course not. God commends musical excellence (Ps. 33:3; 1 Chron. 15:22; 2 Chron. 30:21-22). Years ago, my degree in piano performance taught me (painfully) something about the value of musical skill and excellence. But in congregational worship, excellence has a purpose – to focus people’s attention on God’s wondrous acts and attributes.
In corporate worship then, excellence has more to do with issues of edification and encouragement than simple musical standards. Pursuing excellence wisely means continuing to grow in my skill so that I won’t distract those I’m seeking to serve. It means I might play fewer notes to allow more space for people to hear the words. It means I may have to sacrifice my ideas of musical “excellence” to make the truth more musically accessible to my congregation. It means I might not play at all sometimes so that the congregation can hear their own voices clearly ringing out in praise to God. Musical excellence, defined rightly, is a worthy pursuit. But like all idols, it makes a terrible god.