My Debt to Harold Best

Harold Best turned 88 this past Monday. I called him to wish him a happy birthday, but couldn’t get through. So I sent him an email thanking him once again for the ways God has used him to affect my thinking about music and worship.

If you’re not familiar with Harold, let me introduce you. He was the dean of the Conservatory of Music at Wheaton College for 25 years and also served as president of the National Association of Schools of Music. He’s an organist, a composer, a mentor, a writer, and most of all, a friend. He is now retired and lives in Couer d’Alene, Idaho with his wife.

Last year someone asked me how Harold Best had influenced my thoughts on leading music in the church. As I reviewed his books Music Through the Eyes of Faith (MMTEOF) and Unceasing Worship (UW) I realized how much of my thinking has Harold’s fingerprints on it. I’ve quoted him in blogs, conferences, intensives, sermons, articles, and countless conversations. Few people have helped me understand more clearly and biblically how music is supposed to “work” in the church.

So in honor of Harold, I’ve collected some of his quotes to encourage anyone who leads, plans, or simply sings music in their local congregation.

Everyone Worships, All the Time

Worship is the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do and all that I can ever become in the light of a chosen or choosing god. (UW, p. 18)

…at this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone – an artifact, a person, an institution, an idea, a spirit, or God through Christ. (UW, p. 17)

There can only be one call to worship, and this comes at conversion, when in complete repentance we admit to worshiping falsely, trapped by the inversion and enslaved to false gods before whom we have been dying sacrifices. This call to true worship comes but once, not every Sunday, in spite of the repeated calls to worship that begin most liturgies and orders of worship. (MTTEOF, p 147)

Skill and Beauty are Important, but God Doesn’t Need Either to Work

Because God does all things well, we should likewise do well. While we strive to be truthful, we will strive to state truth beautifully. And in proceeding this way, I honor God by trying to work as God does. In the meantime, God is free to work any time, in any place, and in any way at all. (MMTEOF, p 44)

Any concept of ministry that knowingly excludes quality runs contrary the Scriptures…There is no hint anywhere in the Scriptures that mediocrity is excused in the name of service and ministry. (MTTEOF, p. 170)

The church is not, at base, an artistic enterprise. It is not a professional arts organization. (MTTEOF. p 186)

High intent in no way guarantees better content. And only God can work through the seeming contradiction by seeing all faithfully offered work as perfect in Christ. (UW, p. 116)

He may use the work, but only if he wishes, to accomplish the same things that he could accomplish without it. (UW, p. 118)

Jesus Must Perfect All Our Offerings of Worship

The only solution to fallen worship is Jesus Christ, who takes out twisted and inverted worship and sets it right. The call to salvation is a call to redeemed worship. (UW, p. 212)

God sees and hears all of our offerings, perfected. God sees and hears as no human being can, all because our offerings have been perfected by the giver. The out-of-tune singing of an ordinary believer, the hymnic chant of the aborigine,…the open frankness of a primitive art piece, the nearly transcendent “Kyrie” of Bach’s B Minor Mass, the praise choruses of the charismatic, the drum praise of the Cameroonian – everything from the widow’s mite to the poured-out ointment of artistic action – are at once humbled and exalted by the strong saving work of Christ. While the believer offers, Christ perfects. It is all of Christ and it is all of faith. (MTTEOF, p. 155-6)

While it is not very ecumenical to say it this way, all worship outside the worship of God through Christ Jesus is idolatrous,. Likewise, idolatry is the chief enemy of the most fervently worshiping Christians, even to the extent that some of us may end up worshiping worship. (UW, p. 163)

God’s Glory and Our Responses Require Diverse Musical Styles

There is no single chosen language or artistic or musical style that, better than all others, can capture and repeat back the fullness of the glory of God. (MTTEOF, p 67)

The Scriptures include or allude to just about every approach to worship there is: organized, spontaneous, public, private, simple, complex, ornate, or plain. Yet there is no comment anywhere about any one way being preferred over another. Rather, it is the spiritual condition of the worshiper that determines whether or not God is at work. (MTTEOF, p 146)

Excellence is a Journey, not a State, and Includes the Heart

Excellence is the process – note that word process – of becoming better than I once was. (MTTEOF, p 108)

Excellence is authenticity. Excellence is temperance in all things. It is servanthood. It is loving-kindness. It is sojourn. (MTTEOF, p 113)

Personal excelling, competing, and succeeding are intensely personal and, in the most fundamental sense, disconnected from what has happened to someone else or what the culture’s definitions, standards, behaviors, and expectations might be. (MTTEOF, p 116)

Instead of wondering why God works through mediocrity at all, we should assume that God would prefer excellence, but not at the expense of the spiritual integrity. And spiritual integrity has primarily to do with why we make music, not what music we make. (MTTEOF, p 118)

Music Cannot Create or Bring God’s Presence

Christian musicians must be particularly cautious. They can create the impression that God is more present when music is being made than when it is not; that worship is more possible with music than without it; and that God might possibly depend on its presence before appearing. (MTTEOF, p. 153)

Discerning worship leaders must sense that when familiarity begins to turn into conditioned reflex or the right worship atmosphere cannot be achieved unless certain music is used, they are responsible to correct the worshipers and lead them back into the way of faith. (MTTEOF, p. 194)

The Most Important Musical Sound on Sundays is the Congregation

Untrained singers of all kinds and qualities can join together and produce thrilling music, unique in its unschooled color and moving in its intensity. This alone can verify the importance, if not preeminence, of song in the body of Christ. In fact, the center of all church music – whatever the style, the size of the assembly or the training of any leaders, choirs, ensembles or instrumental groups – is congregational song. (UW, p. 144)

Because congregational song is the central musical action of the church, the main function of instruments in congregational song is to introduce and support the singing. (MTTEOF, p. 196,)

It is the congregation that is to be heard above all. If it is not, then one of two things is wrong: either the congregation is not singing to the Lord with all its might or some other musical body or activity is keeping this from happening. (UW, p. 144)

In the Church, Words Matter

We have become linguistically lazy and experientially overworked. (UW, p. 193)

While we should never say that popular music is out of place in Christian expression, we must protest when shallowness is the chief preference. The gospel is heavy and it is deep. The question is: How can CCM point beyond shallowness toward deeper engagement with deepening content? (MTTEOF, p. 175)

I cannot insist enough on the strategic importance of a speech-rich church to a speech-degraded culture. The church is, after all, a rich cross section of civilization: mothers, fathers, farmers, technicians, scientists, teachers, lawyers and artisans. No one is excused from the responsibility to speak carefully, temperately, accurately, even poetically. For the authentic worshiper, nothing but God is awesome. (UW, p. 194)

These quotes are just a sampling of the wisdom found in Best’s books. If you haven’t read them, I’d put them on my list. And if you’ve already read them, you might consider reading them again. They’re worth it.

Happy birthday, Harold. I thank God for you.

4 Responses to My Debt to Harold Best

  1. John Martin October 3, 2019 at 2:46 PM #

    A gift of God’s grace to the church. Happy Birthday Harold!

  2. Mickey Ballard October 3, 2019 at 2:57 PM #

    And my all-time favorite, though not original to him, “Holy shoddy is still shoddy” (MTTEOF, p. 119)

  3. Martha Tryon Slager October 23, 2019 at 5:43 PM #

    Thank you, Dr. Best; your kindness showed me God’s good grace!

  4. David Edward Froman December 3, 2019 at 4:23 PM #

    Happy Birthday Harold! Your book “through the eyes of the faith” has caused me to read it once again, as I have been in my first full time worship position the past 11 months. Thankful for what you have shared and what God has taught you.

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