I have had moments that I walked in a church service and felt the worship to be beautiful. Perfect ambiance for lifting up worth to God Most High. The sound work is excellent, each speaker carefully raised and pointed to the right direction so the music reaches to every corner of the room in required measure. No equipment outdoes the other, there’s just the right amount of everything. Skillful players know what buttons to touch, how hard to press and where in the musical tapestry to infuse their beat strands. The vocalists are almost all at their zenith. They sound so good they make you feel their rendition of a song should have been the original.
Then I’ve been to churches where you struggled to worship in song. Places where musical beauty was interpreted for loudness. You couldn’t pick the sound of a single instrument because in a bid to out-duel each other mediocrity outshone them all. The singers sounded so bad they sucked the life out of you. You would bet anything they did not put any practice into their craft, if their singing deserves even to be referred to like that. No flow from any song to the next, people miss cues if there are any, and the whole thing just sounds preposterously awful you wish NEMA would come to your rescue.
The Bible talks about singing to the Lord a new song (Psalm 96:1), and in several other verses shows the need for skill in praising Him especially at a congregational level. In the times we are living in, we have at our disposal almost everything we would need to offer up skillful worship to God. It is commendable that most churches, especially in cities have taken advantage of these and made Sundays days to look forward to; especially for musical maniacs like myself. What I find upsetting is the obsession with professionalism that has quickly taken over these churches. What do I mean by that? I have been to several churches in this city, and among the many characteristics uniform to them that I have observed, the attention given to the worship team glaringly stands out.
That’s one ministry treated with such seriousness you would need to go through a probation period to join, in some cases a year. That’s not a bad thing, and we sure would do good with a test of commitment. How about when worship leaders are paid for their singing? Maybe not a bad one when it is done strictly in appreciation for their contribution to the church. It gets worse worrying when you learn that now they are even poached from church to church. A friend once told me how he was at one point offered seventy thousand shillings to leave his church and join another.
I have no problem with appreciating individuals who give outstanding contributions to our churches. We appreciate our leaders/ pastors anyway, so why wouldn’t we extend the same to others? My concern is how we determine whom to appreciate. I have no knowledge of Church history in this regard, but I believe we arrived at appreciating leaders or pastors primarily because this was everything they would dedicate themselves to. Pastoring is everyday life and not just a Sunday affair. If it demands from someone their entire time, then we have a responsibility to be preoccupied with meeting almost their every need. Note I haven’t said want.
Even so, this gives no room for them to be exalted above all other people as we’ve often done. They are human, filled with the same Holy Spirit and prone to wander just as we are. It’s only by virtue of their calling that they are above us. Actually, authority over the rest of the congregation doesn’t grant them a higher human status. What it does is grant them a greater responsibility. However, we treat them with undue reverence, and it’s only natural that they respond by acting it out. The same is what we are bound to get from our worship leaders. Ascribing to them unnecessary importance soon turns them to behaving likewise; like they are on some kind of pedestal.
Even if we referred to what they are paid as appreciation, does their ministry fairly take their entire time so that they would give themselves to it alone? Most work in the corporate on all other days of the week, show up for practice on Saturday and on Sunday give us a few hours’ worth of their gifting. How about the usher or the Sunday School teacher? Don’t they give service to the church too? They may not be as celebrated as the ‘praise and worshiper’, but heaven celebrates them just as much. If it’s a matter of the worker being worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7, Deut 25:4), in most cases these other guys might deserve even much more. But it seems we have turned it into a thing of the persona being what determines the wage and not really the work.
The danger with attaching financial incentives to the service anyone could offer in church is that it soon turns into a job and no more a ministry. Ministry to God and His people is what we each should give, and the rewards for this are far from financial. The focus of this should not be what we could get in return, what we offer should remain core. It ceases to be service when the emphasis is what we receive and not what we give. There is no harm in appreciating ministers reasonably financially, but there is every harm when care is not taken to ensure it isn’t interpreted for pay.
It is okay to seek excellence of our ministries. Nevertheless, this very excellence we seek should have an inward God centered attitude as its drive as opposed to an outward material incentive. Furthermore, I would be alarmed if the excellence is what took top place on our priority list. Skill is good and needed, but there is something that is more basic to that; our communion with God through His Holy Spirit. Any skill not having that as its bedrock is in vain. It may be sad to note that many worship leaders know just what right songs to do, where during worship to let people pray, when to speak in tongues and when to bow; but they unfortunately are without a right standing with the Holy Spirit.
I wouldn’t be carried away to think that someone was spiritual because of how unreservedly they raise hands, bow and cry a river on the pulpit. What would sway me is to see a consistent display of the fruit of the Holy Spirit every single day of their lives. It is astoundingly possible to have all the wonderful singing and right emotions but miss out on God’s presence. He loves the music yes, but He only draws near to hearts that draw near to Him (Jer 29:13). Hearts which care for the poor as Christ would, hearts without malice, hearts which know His commands not just out of reading and quoting, but out of doing them. He doesn’t come to meet us during that two or three-hour service on Sunday. He takes us there to meet others in Him instead.
He takes us there so we can receive ministry from each other in Him. The pastor is privileged to lead at that, especially when it comes to dividing God’s word to the people. We couldn’t all be equally gifted in understanding, yet that we all may receive God’s timely word He has set apart our pastors for that. O what a pity it makes me feel though, when I see how they too have been swept over by the whole performance tide! If I asked us if we remember to the detail a sermon from three weeks ago, believe me few would respond affirmatively. Most might only scrappily come up with the title and some two points out of the seven they were given. To stretch it further, can you remember any of your pastor’s sermon from one year ago? I won’t be shocked that someone already feels am being too hard and I could be having something against our pastors.
Here is the truth, you only walked away from that sermon with as much of it as you can remember now! Anything transforming and of worth is hardly ever forgotten. You very likely don’t remember any of it because guess what, it never helped you. It’s interesting to think of the preaching that excites us today. We prefer the ones where the pastor throws these awesome punch lines at us. Where they call us Davids and prophesy how “some Goliaths are going to die in our lives today!” Where they continually pause for us to shout amen as if Janette….ikz Watson had just dropped some line worth tapping fingers to. Sermons where you feel like you want to remain standing all the way through coz the excitement almost matches that of a Superbowl match. Sermons where when the preacher gets done, you soon realize you can remember so much of the preaching and too little about what was preached. Asked how it was, you’ll quickly offer how blessed you were but find difficulty explaining what about the sermon blessed you. Child of God, that right there is a sermon that served food to your flesh and left your spirit searching. No surprise its memory as brief as the fleeting meal it served you.
In most, not all, human qualities supersede spiritual attributes. The very thing Paul avoids when he goes to reach out to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:1-8). Allow me to list for you the things Paul distanced himself from in his preaching; eloquence, superior wisdom, wise and persuasive words, men’s wisdom. How about what he adopted? Knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified, weakness and fear, much trembling, a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, God’s secret wisdom. These, brother and sister, if you encountered you wouldn’t forget. Paul simply avoided everything that is human and went for all that is God’s. Not that he considered whatever was human such as eloquence to be useless, no. He simply focused on that which was of God and this would naturally flow into his human abilities.
Verse 5 is especially important, “so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power”. He offers his reason for his gentleness, humility and letting Christ alone be the one men see. He cared that the faith of his hearers would be solely founded on God and not on any other thing. The reality brethren, is that whatever one gets to interact with during any moment of spiritual yielding/ vulnerability, on that they are likely to place their faith. Whether consciously or not. So many saints today walk into church in the hope that they would meet God, but more often than not they walk out having met only the preacher. How so? When he preached, everything else apart from the Word, stood out.
The quotes captivated more than the verses. The Bible was read, but man rather than God spoke. There wasn’t any faithfulness to the text and strict observance of the Biblical context; so that you heard that which was from God (whether it broke your heart to repentance or excited you to more faithfulness). Your pastor’s humor and charisma were present, but not the gentle Holy Spirit awaiting to be revealed through the Bible he held in his hands. It is your pastor you met saint and walked away happy, not God. If you had met God, you would remember Him from that sermon a year ago. Just like you can remember Him from that prayer in your little quiet room a year ago, or even six. You remember the words He said. Maybe not so clearly, but you can at least recall most. Then we would say of the preacher that he served justice to his call. The ball would rightly be in your court now, to act on the Word and be transformed. I have this conviction; that if a sermon is life changing, then with the diligent hearers it will last a lifetime. Several years in their lives their minds might give way to forgetfulness, but their hearts and acts will still reveal aspects of that sermon. An encounter with an eternal God just isn’t easily forgotten, and so it is with His words.
So, in as much as I have loved the singing in most of these churches in Nairobi, and struggled through the sermons just like I occasionally do at home, I still haven’t felt home. I have missed home where the music might not have been as organized but I still felt I worshiped. Home where the singers may not have sung as good but I still heard God speak through them anyway. And when I have been home, part of me has missed Nairobi on Sunday. Because truth be told, sometimes they’ve been mediocre and let it pass behind the excuse that ‘God isn’t concerned with the act as much.’ I think it concerns Him that we do well on the outward expressions of worship too. He wouldn’t mind if my church bought better equipment, or if the worship team took a bit more seriously their ministry and practiced more often. He wouldn’t mind if we did a little more Israel Houghton, Jaye Thomas, Kari Jobe, Hillsong, Marvin Sapp, Tasha Cobbs or William McDowell, at least for the sake of the younger guys. He desires excellence, but first and foremost He desires spiritual excellence(complete death to self). Even though He requires of us a new song, maybe even a better physical expression of worship, He still desires that it comes out of the same old truth that is unchanging. So I pray that the truth of God’s Spirit and Word will remain in us for all days. Now here is the right place for that AMEN!