Why “excellence” in worship?

Should excellence be a core value in our churches?

Yes. And I’ll tell you why.

In the book of Malachi, God is not happy. Why? He is not happy with the way the Jewish leaders (priests) were handling their sacrifices to Him. Read with me some of the first few verses of chapter 1.

6 The Lord of Heaven’s Armies says to the priests: “A son honors his father, and a servant respects his master. If I am your father and master, where are the honor and respect I deserve? You have shown contempt for my name! “But you ask, ‘How have we ever shown contempt for your name?’  7 “You have shown contempt by offering defiled sacrifices on my altar.   “Then you ask, ‘How have we defiled the sacrifices?  “You defile them by saying the altar of the Lord deserves no respect. 8 When you give blind animals as sacrifices, isn’t that wrong? And isn’t it wrong to offer animals that are crippled and diseased? Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.         Malachi 1:6-8 (NLT)

Now, if you know anything about the book of Leviticus, you know that what the priests were supposed to do with sacrifices was very clear. Put your finger down at any point in the book and you will see something like, “bring to me a perfect, spotless, lamb that has no defect.” Basically, bring the best of your flock. Why? Because God says, “I am your king, and I deserve that kind of sacrifice.” But what happened? The priests failed to carry this out. How could this have happened? Maybe the priests forgot. Maybe they were ignorant. Or, maybe, they were what John Piper calls “careless.”

 “So the origin of careless worship is a failure to see and feel the greatness of God. But how does this cause careless worship? Malachi’s answer: It makes a person bored with God and excited about the world. If you don’t see the greatness of God then all the things that money can buy become very exciting. If you can’t see the sun you will be impressed with a street light. If you’ve never felt thunder and lightning you’ll be impressed with fire works. And if you turn your back on the greatness and majesty of God you’ll fall in love with a world of shadows and short-lived pleasures. I get this from verse 13: “What a weariness this is, you say, and you sniff at it, says the Lord of Hosts.” They are bored with God. Their basic attitude toward worship: “What a weariness this is!” And when you become so blind that the maker of galaxies and ruler of nations and knower of all mysteries and lover of our souls becomes boring, then only one thing is left—the love of the world. For the heart is always restless. It must have its treasure: if not in heaven, then on the earth.” John Piper, The Curse of Careless Worship 

The point is this. The priests failed to see and feel the greatness of God, so they brought sacrifices that matched their perspective of God.

Unfortunately, we see this trend in our church culture today, especially in the area of the arts. Franky Schaeffer (son of famous theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer), wrote a very poignant and indicting book entitled “Addicted to Mediocrity,” where he states:

“… One could sum up by saying that the modern Christian world and what is known as evangelicalism is marked, in the area of the arts and cultural endeavor, by one outstanding feature, … its addiction to mediocrity.” Franky Schaeffer, Addicted To Mediocrity: Contemporary Christians and the Arts

When we fail to see the glory of the King of the Universe, we bring him the leftovers, “the lame and spotted lambs.”

At Cornerstone, we base our philosophy of excellence on this idea: that God deserves the very best that we have to offer him.

But often this idea of excellence comes with a stigma – that to value excellence means you value the “show,” not the heart of worship. It’s a valid concern. I’ve spent much time thinking about this issue, and how to rightly communicate our philosophy and conviction. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

God deserves excellence in our “heart” and in our “performance”, and these 2 components must be held in tension.. in balance.

Here’s what I mean by “performance”: How well did you do what you were asked to do?

This philosophy can be seen in the illustration below.

Here’s the thought process:

If we spend too much time in the music ministry working on performance, the result is obvious. It comes off as a show. It may be good, fun and engaging, but something will be missing. Unfortunately, there are plenty of music leaders that fall into this ditch, all in the name of excellence for God. I would say of this person, you are most likely a great leader, but a poor worshipper. (see illustration, bottom right)

On the other hand, we as Christians tend to be okay with someone who spends too much time working on the idea of excellence in “heart.” We say things like, “Oh, you know, Aunt Bertha has a great heart!” as she single-handedly destroys all original beauty and joy in her vocal rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” I would say of Aunt Bertha, you are probably a wonderful worshipper, but you are not a great leader. (see illustration, bottom left)

At Cornerstone, we believe that God wants us to be excellent worshipers and excellent leaders. This will require that we value both heart and performance, and keep them in tension.

At the end of my life, I do not want the words of Malachi to be true of me, “’Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will accept no offering from your hands.’” (Malachi 1:10)

May God help us to rightly behold his glory, and may we always bring our best for the greatest Being in the Universe.

Todd Wallace

Worship Pastor, Cornerstone Church of Ames