by Dr. Bill Brandenstein, Assistant Minister of Music & Worship
The sensationalism of public “worship” alarms me. For years, I’ve been concerned and humbled by what I hear as I stand before God’s people to lead music: the congregation’s voices magnifying God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Although one biblical purpose for music is to edify and encourage one another, I find a healthy tension exists between facilitating praise, and feeling out of place while overhearing the God-directed, heaven-bound collective voice. It’s one thing, as an undeserving sinner permeated by my sin’s egregious blackness, to have Christ’s righteousness imputed to me and to be delivered into His kingdom of glorious light. As if that weren’t enough – and it’s way past “enough,” as if God’s grace would somehow be insufficient and less than wondrous if it stopped there – I am called to be not only Christ’s adopted son, but His ambassador. That is just outrageous and wonderful! And so I stand, His completely unqualified but gloriously equipped representative, encouraging the saints as we surround His throne with our adoration. My friends, what a miracle of divine grace this is! It is also, in a sense, eavesdropping. Being there in a Sunday service helping people sing is a place of both privilege and blissful discomfort while listening in on what is intended for God’s ears.
Meanwhile, pop culture has transformed much that is called “corporate worship” into a spectacle. Far too often now, public gatherings are a carefully manufactured music event driven by adrenaline and emotional manipulation, while seeking by any means necessary (artificial or otherwise) to craft it into The Ultimate Experience. I understand that this is part of the spirit of the age, but just because it’s timely has nothing to do with whether or not it’s biblical. Much can be said of this, but that’s not my purpose now. Consider, rather, the so-called “Worship Leader” or the team or the band up front. Do they, like me, standing between the crowd and the Throne, share this irrepressible tension between necessity and being out of place while eavesdropping? Shouldn’t we all cringe at the thought of any attention being diverted away from Christ? So then, do we deflect the glory and attention from ourselves and back to Him? If we can say that we’ve purposed to make this true of our ministries, are our attitudes followed on by actions that communicate, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30)?
At our most recent Shepherds’ Conference, Tom Pennington laid out the Blind Spots of spiritual leaders in a wonderful exposition of Matthew 23:1-12 (https://www.gracechurch.org/sermons/11835). His third point was titled, “Embezzling God’s Glory.” The Pharisees “do all their deeds to be noticed by men” (Matthew 23:5), and the passage continues by furnishing a pair of examples of their behavior. You can see immediately the dilemma posed to those of us who, in carrying out even the most basic of our responsibilities, stand up in front of a group of people. Thus we must seek to not draw attention to ourselves even as some degree of attention is necessary. Pennington built a closed-and-shut case that wanting to be noticed is nothing short of self-worship by contrasting Matthew 5:16 (“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven”) with 6:1-2 (“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them... so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full”). The Greek word for “glorify” and “honored” in those two passages is identical!
Permit me to quote Tom Pennington at length:
The sincere Christian’s motive is that men will glorify God. The hypocrite’s motive is that man will glorify him. Hypocrisy is idolatry – instead of wanting God's name to be hallowed, I want my name to be hallowed. When we want to be noticed by men, when we want to be glorified like the Scribes and Pharisees wanted to be glorified, men, we are embezzling from God that which rightly belongs solely to Him. We embezzle the glory that belongs to God when we desire to be exalted in the eyes of our church, or our community, or the larger Christian community, rather than desiring most of all that God would be exalted, even if that means we ourselves are unnoticed and unknown. We're embezzling God's glory when we perform spiritual or ministry activities with the desire in our hearts or in a way designed for others to notice and glorify us.
By the way, Jesus’ solution in Matthew 6 to this problem is to make a concerted effort to be seen only by God.
For music leaders to be seen only by God in our work is a practical impossibility. However, may God help us to stand before His people during corporate worship in complete humility, undeservingly, with an exclusively Christ-exalting focus. And may we never, ever, ever do the slightest thing to be noticed by others, nor for the sake of recognition, lest we who claim to promote the worship of God embezzle what belongs to Him alone: His glory.
Lord God, I come to You this day,
And ask You: fill me now, I pray.
May all I seek, and all I do
Bring your name glory, as is due;
All praise to You alone today.