Sushi and the Art of Worship Leading

Over the weekend, I watched a documentary about the world’s greatest sushi chef called Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Whilst I like to stay on top of food trends, this was the first time I had ever heard of Jiro Ono.

Jiro is an 85 year old sushi master who owns a 10-seater restaurant in the Ginza subway station in Japan. Week in, week out, he repeats the same routine of sushi making. He doesn’t like to take holidays. He only takes a break to attend emergencies, such as funerals. His whole life is consumed by the obsession of making sushi and to constantly make better sushi.

Which is why his is the only sushi restaurant to ever be awarded three Michelin stars. And yet, there is no wine list, five-star table service or even a washroom inside his restaurant. Patrons may book up to 12 months in advance to sit there for half an hour to eat 20 pieces of sushi per sitting at the equivalent cost of $300. This makes Jiro’s restaurant the most expensive Michelin star restaurant in the world.

Until I watched this film, I never thought of sushi-making as an art form. But in Jiro’s mind, what he creates today needs to be continually surpassed by what he creates tomorrow.

After 50 years of relentlessly pursuing his craft, he says “I will continue to climb trying to reach the top… but no one knows where the top is… Even at my age, in my work, I haven’t reached perfection.”

What does Jiro’s sushi dream have to do with worship leading?

Having watched the documentary, I was impressed with this lesson: never think that you have arrived because there’s always more to learn. It is a posture of humility which is the foundation of great leadership.

Last year, I left a church in which I was serving for over 20 years. In that time, I was deeply involved in the leadership of the worship ministry. I have to admit that when you are in a very secure position for a long period of time, you can become quite arrogant. In a way, I thought that I had it all figured out. I thought I was one of the most competent worship leaders in church. Okay, I never said this out loud, because that would be pride. But inwardly, that was probably the attitude that I had.

In the last few weeks, I have discovered things that have shaken me from my lofty heights.

I now attend Faith Community Church. And the level of musicianship is awe-inspiring. Last night, as part of the support acts for Jayesslee’s Perth concert, some of the FCC worship team performed some songs and I had to say, I thought their performances rivalled the main act! And I thought, wow, these guys haven’t even reached their peak yet and they are going to be the next generation leaders of FCC’s worship ministry!

And then, there is Converge. I have had the privilege to work with some musicians and worship leaders from other churches and they are absolutely out of this world.

And I have been humbled. I don’t think I would even dare place myself anymore on the higher end of the bell curve. Somewhere in the middle is probably more fitting. Definitely, what I have learnt from working with other churches is that it changes your perspective. There are always going to be worship leaders better than you! If nothing else, working with other churches inspires you to look beyond your own church world, to realise there is so much more out there and so much more you need to learn!

I think that as worship leaders, we cannot ever rest on our laurels. We need to keep learning, improving, climbing the mountain as it were and understanding that we never know where the top is. If we approach our ministry heart first (not skill first!) then we will always be in relentless pursuit of excellence and improvement.

1 Cor 3:9 ff (MSG) says this:

…You are God’s house. Using the gift God gave me as a good architect, I designed blueprints; Apollos is putting up the walls. Let each carpenter who comes on the job take care to build on the foundation! Remember, there is only one foundation, the one already laid: Jesus Christ. Take particular care in picking out your building materials. Eventually there is going to be an inspection. If you use cheap or inferior materials, you’ll be found out. The inspection will be thorough and rigorous. You won’t get by with a thing. If your work passes inspection, fine; if it doesn’t, your part of the building will be torn out and started over. But you won’t be torn out; you’ll survive—but just barely.

What sort of materials are you building with? Good quality, excellent materials, or second-best materials of inferior quality? We may not ever become the best, but we definitely should be offering to God our best. His sacrifice deserves at least that much.

If I’m still leading worship when I’m 85, I hope that I’d be able to say that I’m still climbing, not knowing where the top will be.