My favourite definition of worship comes from William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942-44):
“Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His Beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.”
However I’m sorry to say that for several years my “worship” looked a lot more like this:
Of course it was a lot more subtle than that, but the basic focus was the same.
It wasn’t just down to sin and selfishness, though those certainly contributed. The other main factor behind it may be surprising: professional musical training.
At music college the focus is on excellence, if not perfection. It’s all about performance and achieving certain standards. You’re constantly seeking approval from others, whether it’s the applause of the audience or good critiques from the examiner. While you have to work together with fellow-students, at the same time you’re also competing against them to be the best. If you want to succeed, it really has to be all about you.
When I began playing for worship it was hard not to carry those same attitudes across. There was no-one to direct my focus, I was surrounded by others who thought the same way and, although deep down I knew this wasn’t how it should be, I didn’t know how to do it differently.
Then I met Dave. Looking back, God was definitely behind this. I only lived in that place for 11 months and Dave was only there for 9 months. Neither of us had intended to be there at all, but circumstances had led us there, and for 8 months we were there together. God used that time to completely transform my approach to worship.
The church we were part of needed some support in worship leading, and, because Dave had a lot of experience in this, he was asked to come and lead worship and also to do some training with the worship team.
It was eye-opening! For the first time I began to understand that worship was more than just musical excellence. I learned about the heart and focus behind it, we explored examples of worship from the Bible, we spent time as a team worshipping and praying together, and, with no congregation to worry about, the focus was all on God.
The best thing of all was that Dave had been a professional musician in the past and, because he had been there, he understood that I was struggling in ways that other people just didn’t relate to. While others talked of pursuing excellence to glorify God, I couldn’t see how the two could work together. I had no concept of how to pursue excellence without making it all about me or turning it into a competition.
Dave realised this and he had a plan to address it. It was a harsh plan at times- definitely a case of tough love- but it was certainly effective!
To start with, he took away all my music. He would allow me to have chord sheets (occasionally they were even in the right key!) but no dots and lines. He also said I could play anything else I liked but I was banned from playing the melody.
At first I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know what to play, and I was scared to play anything in case I did it wrong. There was no way I was going to get up and do this in front of other people, and for a while I genuinely wanted to quit.
Eventually we reached a compromise- I would do it his way and I would even play in public, as long as I wasn’t amplified at all so that no-one could hear me. That eased the pressure just enough for me to give it a go.
And to my surprise, with a bit of practice, I found that I could do it, and gradually I began to enjoy this new way of playing and experience a joy and freedom in worship that I never had before. Without the constraints of the printed music it was so much easier to put my focus where it should be as it became about listening and responding rather than striving, and I felt that, for the first time, I was actually playing for God and not for myself, that I was expressing who he had made me to be.
After a few months I agreed to be amplified so that people could hear what I was playing. I began to receive compliments but, while they were appreciated, I didn’t feel the desperate need of them the way I had in the past. I wasn’t playing for people’s approval any more!
Dave continued to push me: in the middle of a service he would spontaneously change the key to a completely different one from what we had rehearsed. Occasionally he would introduce a song that wasn’t even on the list. My perfectionism struggled to cope, but gradually I realised that a wrong note wasn’t the end of the world, despite what people at music college might say, and that the heart behind it mattered more than technical perfection.
I look back on those 8 months with gratitude. In many ways what was happening outwardly was a reflection of what was happening internally: a stripping away of self-confidence and self-reliance, of people-pleasing and perfectionism, dealing with baggage from the past in order to be able to step into something new, a correcting of focus resulting in joy and freedom.
The way I worship has never been the same since, because I had finally learned to do it in a way that wasn’t all about me.