A message to church musicians

I don’t know everything. It’s by God’s grace that I know anything at all. But when it comes to worship, I think I’ve got a perspective worth hearing out. I think some younger worship artists could learn from my experience. I’ve been a worship leader for 15 years, with 2 years’ experience touring as the electric guitarist in a paid, professional worship band, and 2 years’ experience on staff at a very large local church. I attended seminary and after leaving seminary I became a certified sound engineer and helped plant a church. In the church I’ve worn every hat from worship leader to web developer to creative director to making cable TV commercials and podcasts to preacher to teacher to toilet cleaner.

And as a guitarist who has been blessed beyond measure, I’ve had the opportunity to own or try nearly every piece of great guitar gear out there. I’m not exaggerating at all—there are very few things I haven’t been blessed to be able to own at one point. The vintage Fender holy grails, the Elliott Guitars, the custom shop this and that, Matchless, Kemper, every pedal. EVERY pedal. But I’m living proof that having a $20,000+ professional ‘rig’ alone is no substitute for genuine devotion to Christ, genuine worship. After years of tone-searching and taking on debt to have it all I ended up going right back to the few pieces of gear I started out with. I grew so tired of the cycle of more more more. Buy, sell, buy, sell. Save for the $4,000 amp. Order the custom made guitar. Hunt down the rare circuit chip in that one old effects pedal. Pay the premium. Email dealers. Make the Reverb.com watchlists. Buy it all. More debt, more dissatisfaction, more staring at my feet onstage, less real unhindered worship. "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”—I had everything but I was dead inside. Lost.

And reading Facebook’s “Geartalk Praise & Worship” forum, or the Gear Page, or the comments below your favorite worship guitarists’ Instagram post, I can tell I’m not alone. It seems to me that this generation has become so focused on material possessions in the pursuit of worship that we’re at risk of forgetting what worship even is. We’ve elevated the tools to a greater position than they ought to occupy in our spiritual development. Worship guitarists are not the only ones doing this, either. It's the church member who can’t worship on acoustic Sunday because the music "just isn't their style," the pastor who’s primary goal for the next quarter is raise funds for that cinema projector, the young leader who fears she won’t look the part without the right raw denim and Boosts.

Now more than ever, I feel emboldened to write this brief little...testimony, I guess you might call it. A guide based on the lessons I've learned as a 'professional' worshiper. My goal is for this to be just that: A brief and basic guide to worship for the working musician. To the guy or girl earning $400 each weekend on the megachurch circuit, who maybe feels a bit hollow inside. To the guy or girl who’s got it all: The guitar, the amp, the ears, the kit, the clothes, the cut, but feels that genuine worship is still missing. To the one who’s just going through the motions: I’m writing this to you.

And I’m writing this to myself. I confess I’ve lost the plot. Years have gone by—Sunday in and Sunday out—and I don’t really remember what I’m doing this for. I want you to know too that I’m writing out of urgency. I sense the same morose in our greater American worship culture that I’ve felt in my own heart. The lack of passion. I read the forums, I read the comments, I see how formulaic and repeatable worship is becoming. With the advent of the internet we’re sharing more information than ever before, we’re one Church united in a greater way than ever before, but—I wonder—are we sharing the right information? are we united under the right banner? Buy this, read that, another new release, the latest study every small group needs—but are we really checking our souls? Are we safeguarding our intentions? Or are we just packing on more and more things?

There’s got to be more to worship than what I see today. This guide is a short read. This guide seeks to answer the questions: What is worship? Where do I fit in? and How should I think about the stuff of worship—the gear? in just a few quick points. Things I've learned the hard way.

 

Worship is a lifestyle

I won’t linger long on this point because you’ve heard it many times before. Paul said that true worship is the offering of our bodies as living sacrifices, that without conforming to the world we allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). I have to lead off with this point to establish two things you already know: 1) Worship is not a setlist of songs; and 2) The sacrifice God desires is all of us, 100%, our living bodies and our minds in total. No other sacrifice is worthy. Worship is the daily the shedding of self in the desire to be like Christ. Not a song, but a self, wholly devoted to the Jesus way of doing things. With that in mind, much of this guide will speak to worship in the form of music 'cause that's kind of my thing.

 

Simplicity is worship

“'The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?’ says the LORD. 'I have more than enough…'” (Isaiah 1:11). God has everything God needs in order to be fully satisfied in himself. God is lacking in nothing. God has no checklist of things he’s looking to see from us each Sunday. Theater seating? he’s got a heavenly throne with Christ at his right hand. Projector screens? he’s got a heaven-side view of history unfolding from inside and outside of time itself. Fully stocked coffee bar by the Welcome Center? I’m sure he’s got coffee somewhere near the pearly gates—who knows, maybe Peter’s making latte art now. The material things we value in our churches, you have to understand—God doesn’t value those things. That’s a hard truth to swallow when we realize we budgeted $17 million in the building fund for things God's just kind of alright with. God doesn’t value material things like we do. Does that mean it’s wrong to have a nice bright 4K monitor proudly displaying the lyrics to Bethel’s latest banger? Absolutely not—in fact, a nice clear screen for the audience to see might be instrumental in clarifying the gospel to some lost soul. But is it necessary? Nah. Can some of the material things be stripped away? Absolutely. Might we find a new way of worship with all of the distractions gone? I think so. If it’s the renewal of our minds that constitutes our “true and proper worship” as Paul said, then we’ve got to simplify. Renewal is not change for the sake of change. Renewal is the reaffirmation of core truths. Renewal is the denial of old complications and caveats. Renewal is a phoenix rising from the ashes. We burnt the old bird, this phoenix bears no feathers of its former self. Simplicity and renewal are synonyms.

 

Effort alone is not acceptable

Three references: “Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). “...to love Him with all your heart and with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, [that] is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33).

Work is not worship. Worship is work, sometimes. But work for the sake of work—effort only to effort’s end—is meaningless to an all-powerful God. If God needed more effort being put forth he wouldn’t be an omnipotent God. “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). Whenever we think we’re fulfilling his will, he's doing the work in us. Each of God’s divine and wonderful attributes inspires us, motivates us to work. For example, Paul said it's God's kindness leads us to repent of our sins (Romans 2:4).

So you’re the hardest worker at church, you show up early, you open up the doors, you set the air conditioning just right, you fire up the amps and the PA system, soundcheck—I did that for a churchplant for years expecting some reward or recognition. Was the expectation of a reward all that motivated me to work? What was I working for? and when the glory didn’t fall on me I resented God. “God I’m busting my tail down here, can’t anyone see how hard I’ve worked? Do something, God!” Everything went south when our church got a new worship pastor and he had no idea how hard I had been slaving away. The old guy left and the new guy expected me to prove myself all over again. I felt I’d never get the recognition I deserved. In pride I folded. Guess who was wrong-headed in that situation! Guess who got humbled.

 

Don’t seek to please others

The next several points will be about worship the artform, specifically, the act of worshiping in song. I’m speaking to artists and creators here. It’s one thing to want to do a great job, it’s another thing altogether to check your creative spark at the door and simply exist to please others. Sure, guitarists, buying that Strymon Timeline and Big Sky might make you look cool and sound amazing, but I admonish you to develop your own voice; Don’t try to speak with the voice of another guitarist. “But I’ve got to nail those parts Michael Pope played on ‘Ever Be!’” you say. Try transforming the song, make it your own, make it something genuine from your heart to your God. The same can be said to pastors: How many of you out there are doing your best John Piper imitation each Sunday?

 

Art is subtraction

Less is more. You’ve all heard the old anecdote about Michelangelo, who, when asked how he was able to create his masterpiece the Statue of David, said, “I just chipped away all that was not David.” Strip away the excess, the superfluous, the extra. True art is the delivery of an idea in the fewest words possible—or perhaps no words at all. True art conveys truth in 140 characters or less. Broad brush strokes. Monochromatic. Simple.

As a guitarist, there’s a benefit I discovered early on to playing simply. That is, the fewer notes I play the less likely it’ll be that I hit a wrong one! In worship, as we’ve already seen, it’s the attitude not the effort that counts. You don’t have to be Mateus Asato to bring a genuine sacrifice of praise. Embrace simplicity in your musicianship. At the very least, simplicity and modesty in worship musicianship will eliminate distraction and free you to really worship. No longer worried about the drum fill coming up, you’ll be lost in worship, coincidentally having sticks in your hands.

 

Beauty has flaws

Striving for perfection in your worship, in your art, will drive you mad. Nothing is perfect. Even the greatest works of art in existence have flaws. And those works of art are greater for the flaws that they possess. The Sistine Madonna, the Birth of Venus, the aforementioned Statue of David, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Rembrandt’s Night Watch—all flawed master works of art. The way that Jimi Hendrix struggles to get his amp to feed back just right in ‘Purple Haze’ on the Are You Experienced album, the coughs and sneezes you hear on Mingus Ah Um, the many little continuity errors in Star Wars Episode 4… it’s the cracks that give it character, the inadequacies that endear a work of art to us. Imperfections are the human element in our work, the signs that show all who enjoy our art that this was made by man. It’s those flaws that allow us to connect with a piece of art, and to connect with one another through art. And all our chips, nicks, scratches, spots, marks, and dents display ever more the divine defectlessness of all God’s works in contrast. I’ll remind you too that it’s in our weakness he is made strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-11). So don’t think you’ve got to be so polished and so perfect on stage. Sure, we want to “play skillfully” (Psalm 33:3) but to worship the product over the person of Christ is idolatry. There will be some rough Sunday mornings. You’ll hit a sour note. Let that sour note be a reminder that God is so very sweet.

 

Children are the best worshipers

Jesus said that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). From birth, a child knows how to worship. They raise their voices without worrying who might hear them. They raise their arms without saying a word, knowing their fathers or mothers will lift them without pause. A child isn’t conservative. A child doesn’t censor himself. A child discovers as she plays. As you worship, as you play before God your Father, make each note a discovery. Don’t filter the utterances of a heart that’s overjoyed in the presence of God—shout! Don’t hold back.

 

Kill your masters, bash your idols

In Buddhism there’s this idea of killing your masters. I don’t presume to understand zen Buddhism but I think what they mean is that you’ve got to innovate on what you’ve been taught, and I believe that that’s more true of praise & worship than any other artform. It’s not enough to play the song just exactly like James Duke played it. That’s not pushing worship forward. That’s not singing “a new song” (Psalm 33). Take what you’ve learned and inject a bit of yourself, apply it to the context of your local church and adapt it to the needs of your people. And while you’re killing your masters, go ahead and smash your idols as well. For too long, I made an idol of Nigel Hendroff and of Daniel Carson and these other guys that just play so well and come up with the coolest guitar parts. I had to learn to appreciate those guys without submitting myself to their way of doing things above God’s call. Everyone in the church has been guilty of this at some point. They say, "We can’t change the invitation because Brother Clayton would have never done it that way.” Or you say, “We’ve got to try out this new song because Elevation wrote it” without first considering how that song might play to your people, your context, your area. There are some Hillsong and Bethel songs that don’t play in East Tennessee, as you might imagine! And some Sovereign Grace tunes that are theologically meaty when my people haven’t graduated to solid foods (1 Corinthians 3:2).

 

Creativity needs constraints

I’m all about some spiritual freedom. I’m all about liberty and license in Christ—the joyous freedoms we find in him. I’m a Baptist’s Baptist, and the Baptist faith was established on personal and spiritual freedoms. Listen to the original Baptist Confession of 1689: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are [either] contrary to his word or not contained in it.” When Paul was dealing with matters of the conscience with regard to the keeping of food laws, he said, “Food will never commend us to God” (1 Corinthians 8:8). Ultimately, he left what we eat and what we drink up to our own consciences and exhorted us not to follow our consciences to the detriment of our fellow believer. In other words, eat what you want but don’t flaunt your freedom around someone who might feel differently about food! I think this is a wonderful principle for art. We have limitless, unbridled freedom to create. But there are boundaries without which an unbridled artist might hurt his brother or sister in Christ, might carelessly test the faith of his or her fellow church members, might speak where Scripture is silent or put words in God’s mouth. This is not ‘Nam, Dude, there are rules.

 

Mute distractions

Great art requires concentration and thought. Guitarists, if that MIDI-programmable multi-effects board is distracting you from genuine worship, return it to Sweetwater and get yourself a Boss DD-5. Give God your undivided attention even if it means having to pass on that Eventide H9.

 

There is no “good” or “bad” worship, only acceptable and unacceptable

“Passion was so good this year,” “Oh my God, the youth band is so horrible,” “His testimony was incredible,” “That song was just so poorly written and repetitive.” These are judgments that the Lord does not make. Cain and Abel brought their sacrifices of praise. One was accepted, the other was rejected.

"Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything--all she had to live on.”

 

Your ego deserves no worship, check it at the door

I’m sorry, did you create the universe with a single word? You might be the greatest guitarist in Clinton, Tennessee but did you leave your throne to come and die for the sins of humanity? I’m being a bit snarky I know but this, again, is a message to myself more than anyone else. God gets worship. God gets worship, I give worship, never the other way around. I might receive praise and do so (hopefully) with some humility. But my life has been way better off since I learned to take men’s praise and hot potato it back to Jesus.

 

Outward worship through the liberation of others

Last point. THANK YOU for sticking with me through this—thank you for hearing what I’ve learned. Last point is this: The greatest thing we can do with our time here is liberate others. Free others. Free the dead in their sins to life in Christ. Point the lost to Jesus, our True North. And free believers who don’t know how to worship, teach them to worship. Show them that it’s ok to let loose, to speak up, to raise a hand, to dance for joy. The liberation of others was Christ’s mission: “...to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke…” (Isaiah 58:6).

 

What about gear?

Gear is the absolute least necessary thing to worship. But to worship as a professional electric guitarist, from my experience you need: A guitar that stays in tune for longer than half a song, an amp that gives you a touch of rock n’ roll without offending the church ladies, a couple of cables to hook everything together, and a heart for giving God your all in worship. Abel’s gift was his first, his fattest, and his best. If you can’t give your first and fattest, at least give the sacrifices of a kind heart (Hosea 6:6).