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.
I sing very poorly, and struggle with an idol of others’ opinion. Sometimes I feel like I am the broken guitar string in the congregation. My tendency is to be standoffish in times of worship. I was encouraged by this post not to fear man, but to focus my attention on God! The quote was helpful: “The cross means it’s covered.” And I really do want to draw near and express my affection for my Savior. Thanks for writing!
Just an FYI: the link to part 6 is wrong. It points to part 6 of a different series:
It should be
I was able to guess the correct URL based on the naming pattern of the previous parts. The whole series is excellent and gives me a lot of food for thought as well as a balanced response to some of the pitfalls today’s churches all too easily fall into. One read-through will not be enough.
Thanks for the heads up on the bad link. I fixed it. Thanks for your encouraging words, as well.
I have no idea why pastors love to rail on such an idol. A much bigger problem today is the lack of effort put towards worshiping God—especially musically. I have a much harder time worshiping God not being distracted by good music, but being distracted by the generic noise put out by all the limp-wrist, bleeding-heart white boys on acoustic guitars who have nothing meaningful to share, spiritually, and who unfortunately dominate worship music today.
I have just read all of the Idolatry on Sunday Morning series.
I feel extremely humbled, rebuked, and encouraged. It has reminded me more that it’s not about anyone but the Lord Jesus Christ and the cross. Let Him be the reason I live.
An excellent series which I shall use with our own musicians. Unfortunately the links after each of the articles no longer works.
Thanks, Peter. I think all the links are fixed or deleted now.