Setting Moral Standards for the Worship Team: Character vs. Talent
We were so close to the former Soviet Union that when I stepped off the Sunday train on a frosty October morning, I could see glimmering minarets of Russian Orthodox churches in the distance. My wife and I had arrived at a Polish border town to visit a Protestant church, which are few and far between; 96% of Polish are Roman Catholic. It takes far more courage to be a Protestant in Poland than it does in America. They are an inspiring people, and we were thrilled to minister in one of their churches. After the service and a meeting with the worship team, the pastor approached me. In a hushed voice, she asked if we could meet privately with her and her husband.
As the four of us sat down in an empty room, I noticed that the pastor looked anxious. A knot had formed between her eyebrows. She fidgeted with her hands. This made me a little nervous. Before the Soviet Union fell, the Communists had persecuted her terribly. They had killed her first husband. She had likely suffered more for her faith in the 1980s than my entire church has in three decades. I could only conclude that a very serious crisis was going on in their ministry if she was this troubled.
So as she began to speak, I leaned forward to listen.
“We have a problem on our worship team,” she said. Her worship team? I thought. I had not been expecting her to say that. She continued. “Our best musician is, ah,” she hesitated, “he is destroying the team’s morale. When he rehearses with the team, he says cruel things to the others. He is very mean, and it is causing great friction. We want our team to have servant’s hearts—that is a big part of our vision—but we’re afraid to lose him. He is the backbone of the music. Our worship services might fall apart without him. It is very distressing. Worship is very important to us. Can you give us advice on what to do?”
As I sat there, staring at two weary-faced veterans of the ministry in Poland who were true spiritual warriors and were, in my mind, more mature in their faith than me, I paused. I did not want to reply hastily. Abba, I prayed. Give me wisdom about what to say!
After a long silence, I suggested they first draft a written statement about their standards and expectations for worship team members—everything from punctuality at rehearsals to the Bible’s standards for sexual purity. They could then sit down with the young man and, with a loving but firm tone, go over the standards and let him know that, unfortunately, he cannot continue playing on the team unless he changes his behavior. They should present the standards to the others as well to establish clear boundaries. After I finished, the pastor and her husband nodded and sighed. They understood my suggestion, but they knew it would not be a pleasant task. I had no doubt, however, that they would handle it well.
This dilemma of talent vs. character, sadly, is not new to the Church. It has been with us from the beginning. What is new, however, is the modern worship band with its rip-roaring amplified instruments and epic drummers who do stick spins between drum fills. We sometimes do not regard the personal (or even public) life of a musician in the worship band to be worth examining. When it’s a worship leader or a music director, that may be a different story. “But, come on,” you say, “do we really have to vet our second string bass player who appears on stage once a month?” Heck, some pastors even hire complete strangers to play on their teams.
The biblical answer, however, is not complicated. It doesn’t take a three-hour session in the concordance and a brush up on your ancient Greek to figure out how God feels about the question of character over talent. Read about Job, Moses, Gideon, Ehud, Stephen, Peter, and Paul, just to name a few. You’ll notice that God looks at the heart first, regardless of a person’s talents. In fact, He seems to enjoy singling people out who have little or no talent but have great heart and character, and then using them to humble the proud people who trust in their abilities more than God. To be fair, He certainly does use people with great natural talent as well—I think of Daniel and Joseph—but God cared about their hearts too.
Not only should we know our band members well and be familiar with their personal character, we—like any good parent would do with their children—should establish clear standards and expectations of behavior before we allow them to join the team. The essentials of character are easily found in Scripture. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are overflowing with details about what kind of character should be present in those who labor with us to wash the feet of the Body of Christ.
And that’s the essential truth about the worship team that many of us, including myself, have missed at times: the true purpose of a worship team is not to look (or even sound) good on a stage. A musician’s purpose, whether they’re the worship leader in the spotlight or the humble kazoo player in the back, is to wash the feet of those who walk into the church. We’re there to wash the weariness of life off the feet of Christians coming in from a long, hard week of work. We’re there to refresh their spirits and inspire them to enter into worship with joy, and to be a model of what worship looks like on and off the stage. Sometimes it’s not the fancy guitar solo that inspires me to worship when I’ve had a terrible morning; it’s more often the sight of the guitarist lifting his hands to God with a contrite spirit, even if that means he might miss a couple bars of strumming.
Frankly, I’d rather have a group of people on stage who have a genuine, unified heart for worship and a desire to live pure and holy lives, even if that means the music is unpolished and (gasp!) unprofessional—even if that means we have a guitarist, an accordion player who only knows polka, and a guy banging some pots and pans taped together with duct tape.
Give me the worshippers! You can keep the professionals.
That might make a good slogan but in practice it’s never easy to do, especially if you’re a people-pleaser who avoids conflict. To make matters worse, our Western congregations sometimes approach church services like consumers who walk into a car lot. If the worship team doesn’t sound like a multi-million dollar rock band, they will go somewhere else to find that new church smell with the virtuoso musicians. There’s a certain pressure to give the people a good show. But is that really what worship is about? If the church’s demand for talented, entertaining musicians is stronger than its desire for character and integrity on the platform, then there might be bigger problems to address.
In the end, the Polish couple was committed to fostering a healthy spiritual environment on their worship team, and they took the hard road. They boldly confronted the problem head on without abandoning a spirit of love toward the young man.
And last I heard, they were happy they did.