I have a really good friend who would love to write a book celebrating mediocrity. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as both of my boys dive back into their schools. The worlds of academia, sport and music don’t seem to put a high value on the person of average ability who doesn’t excel. An athlete doesn’t get trained to come fourth, a musician doesn’t go to a conservatoire with the aim of playing 2nd violin. The Christian church musician can often feel the same sort of pressure to excel, having watched or listened to the polished arrangements of songs performed by others on the internet. Church musicians are not performers – we’re servants, but our skill is still up for public scrutiny, and expectations of ‘excellence’ can put pressure on us to please men by our technique rather than to please God by the attitude of our hearts.
I’m going to get my caveats out of the way early! This article certainly isn’t encouraging sloppiness – we are called to work heartily in everything as if working for the Lord (Colossians 3:17), but even in this verse, the emphasis is on the attitude of the heart rather than the quality of the end product. My second caveat is that striving for excellence isn’t in itself a bad thing, but excellence merely for the sake of excellence can easily become idolatry – in that we can end up serving our creativity rather than the Creator.
Instead, this article is about trying to take the pressure off church musicians by saying that if we have prayerfully and humbly done our best for Jesus, then we can rest in the knowledge that we have been faithful servants. We may feel terribly inadequate if we can’t read music like the bloke who plays the cello so beautifully. We may have a sound system that doesn’t produce the quality we’d like. The person who wrote the song we’re playing may just happen to be visiting our church meeting. We don’t need to worry about any of these things. We have an audience of One, who in his grace looks at our hearts and not our Associated Board of Music exam results. Nor does he look with displeasure on how little we spent on our sound system.
What’s more, excellence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As is mediocrity! What we think is excellent may be perceived as mediocre by someone else. Similarly, what we consider to be our own mediocre music may be perceived as excellent by others. I know that there are many who have visited my own church family meeting who have gone away thinking about our music, ‘Excellent!’, and just as many who have thought ‘Mediocre!’ Praise the Lord that excellence doesn’t define us as church musicians. What a relief!
Godliness is a far more valuable characteristic in the Lord’s eyes, so it’s fine to be mediocre in the world’s eyes as a musician if we are someone who is a person of prayer and who trembles at his Word.
Elliot is a bass player who plays on Sunday mornings with me regularly. He has just been through 4 months of chemotherapy for a high grade cancer. When he plays the bass, he works heartily as if working for the Lord, because even though he can play all the right notes, he doesn’t necessarily play them in the right order! It’s Elliot’s godly character rather than his technical skill that commends him as someone who is excellent as a church musician. When he received his diagnosis, he became determined to use his cancer as a way in to talk to his friends about Jesus. Not only that, he was so concerned not to leave me short of a bass player that he introduced me to others who may be able to help out.
I’m praying that I would be more like Elliot, and that the Lord would bring more to us like him – that as mediocre church musicians together, we would excel in godly humility, a care for the lost, and a simple goal to help people sing with real and settled joy to the Lord Jesus, our audience of One.
Originally posted in EN Nov 2019