Dirty Worshippers, Holy Worship – Part 2

In my previous post, I talked about how a holy God still uses, indeed privileges, messed-up people to serve Him. In this second and last part of the series, I explore the theological foundations of such a paradox.

So, why do I say that in the context of worship ministry, our qualifications for those who serve should be musical skill and good attitude, rather than personal holiness? (I am not saying of course that people shouldn’t grow in holiness. We should! – because it is a sign of an ever-growing relationship with God).

The first thing we need to understand is the role of a priest. In the Bible, a prophet is someone who is God’s mouthpiece. He represents God to His people, to give direction, comfort or correction. A priest, on the other hand, represents the people before God.

Hebrews 5:1 says:

Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.

This is why in Old Testament times, how Israel fared as a nation was dependent on the quality of her high priest. If the high priest was good, then the nation was blessed. If the high priest was bad, then Israel suffered the consequences.

Obviously, no high priest was ever perfect. The writer of Hebrews goes on to say that the high priest himself was subject to weakness and so had to offer sacrifices for his own sin as well as the sin of the people (verse 3).

Thankfully, we now have a High Priest who is incorruptible, who lived a perfect life and now sits at the right hand of God. He is a High Priest, not of the order of Aaron, but of the order of Melchizedek; who did not inherit the lifeblood of Adam’s line but who was beyond and before Adam. This priest, the writer says is (in Chapter 7, verse 16):

one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.

So, as Jesus is, so are we in this world (1 Jn 4:17). In other words, just as Jesus is perfectly righteous, so are we seen as righteous by God in this world. What a reassuring thought!

This was actually foreshadowed when the law was instituted in the book of Exodus. There is much to be said about the significance of God’s design of the high priest’s garments (which we won’t have space to cover). But in relation to the headpiece, God gave these directions (Exodus 28:36-38):

Make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it as on a seal: HOLY TO THE LORD. Fasten a blue cord to it to attach it to the turban; it is to be on the front of the turban. It will be on Aaron’s forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron’s forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the Lord.

Notice this: the gold plate on Aaron’s forehead has the words “Holy to the Lord” engraved, not written, on it. Engraving speaks of permanence. It cannot be erased or be taken to with liquid paper. This means that God’s standard of holiness is eternal and uncompromising. But, as Aaron brings the gifts of the people before God, God sees the mark of holiness on Aaron (it is “on Aaron’s forehead continually”). As a result, the priest absorbs the guilt of the people and the gifts are acceptable to the Lord.

At the end of the day, the gifts of the people aren’t holy and acceptable because the people were holy, it was because God saw the gifts through the high priest.

So today, as a musician, preacher, usher, connect group leader, event organiser, church barista, finance guru, rubbish-picker – the efficacy of your offering has nothing to do with how good you are. They are acceptable to God, and efficacious, because they go through our High Priest, Jesus, the only high priest who is forever perfect and righteous! This should give you the confidence to serve God no matter how you might feel about yourself, or what others might say about you. See yourself as God sees you; put your gifts (whatever they may be) in His hands; and let Him use them for His glory!

Dirty Worshippers, Holy Worship – Part 1

In this two-part series, I explore the wonderfully reassuring paradox that imperfect, messed-up people get to use their gifts to serve a holy God; yes, even to serve on something as hallowed as the worship team. In this Part 1, I reflect on the question: who is qualified to serve? In the forthcoming Part 2, I will look at this issue from the theological perspective of how Jesus as our High Priest has made our offerings holy to God.

I believe that an apprehension and understanding of the grace of God will transform the way we approach Him in worship.

In this context, I want to pose the question: who is qualified to serve on the worship team?

In the olden days, we used to impose a high requirement of “holiness” (I’ll explain later why I’ve put this in quotation marks). Generally, a person wanting to join the worship team had to show some proficiency in music, although ultimately, it was mostly about character, faithfulness and a proven “track record”. One of the things we used to do to test a new recruit’s suitability was to put them on a so-called “lesser” duty (it should be apparent why I’ve used quotation marks here) such as operating the AV and see if they stick it out. This is even if the person was a complete tech-noob.

This created a couple of unexpected problems. Usually, the people on the worship team were seen as “a cut above” every one else, creating a culture of exclusivity, thereby breeding resentment amongst the rest of the congregation who were obviously second-rate in holiness stakes. The second problem was that some people on the worship team, whilst exhibiting loads of character, had very little musical or vocal skill. The lesser-skilled people invariable dragged down the musical quality as the team played to the lowest common denominator.

Yet, there is a third problem. And that is that those who were on the worship team felt a keen pressure to keep up appearances of holiness, making it difficult for them to live transparently and authentically.

An understanding of transforming grace changes the way we look at who is qualified to serve.

My former pastor used to say this: “No one is good enough to serve”. What he means is that, of ourselves, we are not worthy but we are made worthy through Christ. I prefer to look at it from the opposite angle and say “everyone is qualified to serve by the grace of God!”

If we look at it this way, standards of holiness should no longer be a measure of whether a person is good enough to be on the worship team. Rather, musical skill and ability become the main qualifying criteria.

You might ask: “doesn’t that create its own exclusivity problem?” And the answer is “yes”, but no different a problem to any other ministry. An usher in the welcome ministry should have a personality that draws people in and have a winning smile. That’s the usher’s gift. A preacher should be good at preaching. A teacher should be good at teaching. And a worship musician should be good at playing music.

Rather than elevate worship ministry above other more “menial” ministries (and in fact, in my view, no ministry is “menial”, it’s just that we have to change our perceptions a bit), we should elevate all ministry to its rightful place of worth. In that sense, I think that we should want worthy and holy people serving in all our ministries at church.

That leads me to the question of what it means to be “holy”.

Some people argue that the worship ministry, following the Old Testament model, requires a particular level of holiness. They point to the fact that the presence of God is so holy that the High Priest who has even a trace of sin will be struck dead in the Holy of Holies. They point to the story of Uzzah, who was struck down when he touched the Ark in 1 Sam 16 and the fact that David was only able to bring back the Ark when it was lifted on the shoulders of the Levites.

The way I see it, the new covenant of grace changes the system. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that where there is a change of the law, a change in covenant, there is also a change in the priesthood.

First Peter 2:9 tells us that all of us are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation”. This means that all of us are now holy. All of us are priests and ministers before God.

This brings me to the question of what it means to be holy. “Holy”, as I understand it, means “set apart” (hagios in the Greek). It is a particular posture and status, not a set of behaviours and actions.

That means we are all holy, no matter what we’ve done.

Think about it this way: if holiness consists of actions, then we had better make sure that all who serve on the worship team are 100% pure and without sin. We all know this is impossible. If this is in fact the requirement, no one would achieve it. This means that God will not inhabit the praises of His people; the unholiness will hinder the flow of the Spirit; worse still, those who purport to touch the Ark (the presence of God) will risk a sudden and untimely demise!

Holiness as a status is a different concept. We have done nothing of ourselves to attain that state. Rather, Jesus the Lamb without blemish took our place and his righteousness was imputed to us. So irrespective of anything we do, we are holy not by our own works but because of what Jesus has done.

What about the verse that says “Be ye holy, as I am holy”? Well, I think that is saying that as God is set apart, and as we are set apart, let us live up to the standard of being set apart. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are already holy. We just need to act it out.

There’s a verse in Exodus where God struck down the Egyptians with a plague. But the Bible says that the Israelites were spared and it says that God distinguished between his people and the unholy. Did Israel do anything to receive that protection or was it simply by virtue of their being God’s chosen people?

In the same way then, I want to suggest that all those who serve on the worship ministry are already holy. This is so even if they are still struggling with some very overt sins. (My only qualification to this is the verse where Paul warns us not to stumble others; so for that reason, I might not let everyone join the team. Even then, there are those who sing or play badly and they can stumble in a different way!)

Going to even greater extremes, the modern worship movement has several stories of now prominent worship leaders who began serving in worship ministry even before they had formally crossed the line of becoming a Christ-follower (that concept of when a person crosses the line is of itself worthy of exploration. I believe however that these people, by becoming part of the worship ministry, were already “on the way”). Lincoln Brewster and Henry Seeley come to mind.

I have heard Henry Seeley share on a number of occasions how he used to sit in the back of youth group utterly disinterested until Russell Evans got him to start playing the keyboard.

In one church I visited in Japan, they used to get the unchurched in to perform the music as a means of outreach!

I couldn’t say that in any of those cases, God’s presence was diminished because of the make-up of the worship team!

So then, what qualifications should we set? A good attitude is important because you want people who can work well in a team. But I think the main distinction remains one of musical ability. Let’s face it. The worship team is not more special than the rest of the congregation. Everyone should be worshipping anyway. The only difference is that they can play music, sing well or dance beautifully. When that becomes the defining qualification, then the quality, the excellence of the musicianship will begin to improve dramatically. Excellence will be the hallmark of the music team, coupled with the powerful sense of God’s sovereign presence responding to the praises of a group of holy people gathered to worship.

Originally published as Holy Worship Team, Batman.