Last month, our choir shared “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” from Handel’s Messiah. We had the privilege of Vera Parkin, who plays piano for the St Louis Symphony Orchestra being our accompanist. Vera also share a few pointers about proper phrasing, timing, and other tips about how step up the quality of our performance. I could sense that there were several new singers in the choir who were not accustomed to the process of rehearsal and the process of pursuing excellence in performance art. As Vera began to share about how you should sing “fo” instead of “for” or that we should sing the phrases with a light touch like an oboe, I could tell that some folks felt uncomfortable with injecting excellence into “worship” which should be more free and grace oriented. “Performance” and “excellence” become a bad word in the context of grace. If drawing near to God in worship was contingent on the excellence of our performance, then no one would ever be able to bridge the gap of God’s holiness.
I decided to admonish the choir that mediocrity is not a value of the kingdom. God’s new creation is not characterized by a bland equalization of skill and a white-wash of all craft, talent and skill. Instead, just like the exiled Jews in Babylon, mediocrity is the effect of hanging up our harps and mourning. New creation believers have been given the freedom to pursue new vast and delightful expressions of worship through the reconciling work of Christ because we can now draw near to the throne of mercy with confidence.
Excellence can also be corrupted by sin. Excellence can become the excuse for spending millions of dollars on enormous buildings, sound and lighting systems, and professional artists. Read through the prophets and you’ll find many examples of why this is a problem (start with Isaiah 58, Amos 5, Micah 6). Excellence can also become ethnocentric or defined by class values. Excellence can also become defined in human terms and result in an form of knowledge that is void of wisdom (see 1 Corinthians 12 and 13).
So how do we pursue excellence in a worship performance without falling into the traps that our flesh so easily slip into? My admonishment to our choir and what I constantly return to is the kingdom value of love (again, 1 Corinthians 12 and 13). Love means that I spend the time and energy that is required to prepare a song for the fellowship of believers. It’s like inviting a guest into your home; you prepare a delicious meal and clean up the mess in order to demonstrate that you care about this person and want to communicate respect.
When you perform a choir piece that is in the complex and rich Baroque style, it requires a little more time to work out the polyphonic parts and to articulate phrases with clarity which would otherwise be lost in the mix. A sloppy performance is a selfish thing. It’s not any benefit to the listener. It’s only a self-gratifying opportunity for the performer to be in the spotlight.