One leader who wrote me lives near a large internationally known church. Many of the musicians on the team want to imitate that church’s sound and music style.
“How do I teach the music team to seek and recognize God’s heart for us? How do I encourage them to pursue God’s specific plan for us and help them see that this may not look like what we expect?”
Here’s what I’d want to say to this leader’s group of musicians:
God’s specific plan for every church is that we proclaim with our lives and our lips the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Pet. 2:9) At times that means we’ll imitate others.
Imitation in itself isn’t a bad thing. The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to imitate the faith of our leaders (Heb. 13:7). Paul encouraged the Philippians to put into practice “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” (Phil. 4:9) To others, he simply said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1) He encouraged the Thessalonians for imitating the churches of God in Judea. However, he wasn’t speaking about a musical style. They were following the example of the Judean Christians in enduring suffering for the sake of the Gospel! (1 Thess. 2:13-14)
If imitation is to bear good fruit, we need to be imitating the right things about the right people for the right reasons.
In the case of leading congregational worship, there are definitely things we should imitate. It’s right to imitate faithful preparation, humble leadership and wise planning. We should imitate a passion for God’s Word, a commitment to the Gospel, and a love for God’s church. We might also imitate the way someone listens for and responds to God’s Spirit during the course of a meeting. Each time I see Matt Redman lead a group in praising God, I’m affected by the way he uses the space between songs. He repeats lines, sings new ones, or simply waits, all to make us more aware of what we’re singing and the One we’re singing to.
However, it’s possible for us to imitate more external or shallow characteristics and think they’ll have a profound impact on the way we lead. Vocal inflections, physical movements, clothing style, technical equipment, or musical sound all contribute to the quality of our leadership, but none of them constitutes substantive change. We can get all these areas right, and miss the more important issues of exalting the worth of God and the redemptive work of Christ.
We also need to imitate the right people. Are those we seek to emulate living lives worthy of the Gospel? Are they mature Christians? Is the effect of their leadership a greater passion for Jesus Christ and His Word, or simply more excitement about a style, a form, or an event? What impresses us more – their exuberant personality or their quiet faithfulness?
That leads to the third question – Why do I want to imitate another church? Am I affected by the way I can see Christ so clearly in them? Do I want to imitate their humble submission and devotion to God’s Word? Am I impressed by the fruit of their ministry – people trusting in God, following Christ, and serving Him with gladness? Or do I simply want to be as successful, popular, and well-known as they are? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference. But if we want to honor God, we’d need to know how to discern what’s behind our desire to be like someone else.
I’m pretty certain God isn’t that concerned whether or not we sound like the church across the street or the latest worship CD. What does concern Him is whether or not our meetings cause us to grow in loving Him, prizing the Gospel, obeying His word, and depending on His Spirit.
Our goal in gathering is to proclaim, exalt, and cherish all God is for us in Jesus Christ. Once we see that, we’re free to imitate any number of music styles, liturgical forms, and technological tools to help us accomplish that goal. That’s the right kind of imitation, and one that pleases God.