The Church is God’s work and God’s handiwork. As people who work in church we need to turn to him and depend upon him and let him shape our work. Often in churchworld dependence on God can become either an excuse for not working hard or an excuse for downplaying the importance of our efforts. Sometimes there is a sense in church work that good enough is good enough, it doesn’t have to be any better, it’s only church!
Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. We don’t earn God’s grace, but grace does build on nature, including our efforts and when it comes to working for God, he wants our best efforts, he wants excellence.
In parish work we need more people who understand the importance of discipline and skill. It seems especially so when it comes to the main tasks of our weekend experience: music, ministers, and message. Skill brings excellence and excellence honors God and inspires people to worship him more fully. But skill only comes through discipline. To get good at anything requires persistence and dedication.
Oftentimes priests and pastors suffer because we do so many things that we don’t leave time to practice the skill of crafting a meaningful message and speaking it in an engaging style. We allow people to lead music, just because they want to, not because they’re any good at it. We allow volunteer ministers to do ministry on their own terms, and sometimes in very mediocre and half-hearted ways just because they’re not paid. I know a church I visit on vacation and year after year the lector is always the same guy. And year after year he is obviously unprepared. Why is he up there? Probably because he wants to be. It’s serving his needs, unfortunately it’s not serving anyone else’s.
Our weekend environments suffer as a result of these kinds of amateur attitudes and far from a deeper celebration of the Eucharist, people are distracted and annoyed…and less likely to come back.
Scripture advocates we develop our skills and use them in worship. In Exodus, God instructs Moses to have those who are most skilled prepare for the liturgical worship. There is a whole list of skills in Exodus 26 and 28 that God wants employed to help the people worship him. Later David, who was probably more skillful in worship than anyone before him, says in Psalm 33,
“Sing a new song, play skillfully on the string with loud shouts.”
Skill matters in our worship of God and so our approach to worship should be a disciplined effort. As ministers we have to always be about growing in skills. I think that means a few basic things.
One, it means learning. As a communicator, I try to learn from other speakers. I listen to other speakers and try to find phrases or methods they use that seem to work. I also watch recordings of myself speaking. This is the most painful, most difficult thing to do, and it is also the best way, the fastest way to grow as a speaker. Growing in a skill means understanding the skill better, and understanding yourself better.
Second, as noted above, it requires practice and practice requires time. You have to set some time in your schedule just practicing your craft. Put time in your schedule and make it non-negotiable. As I am writing this (Sunday afternoon) the band is in the sanctuary rehearsing music for Easter, and I am sure they have been repeating the same song for the last hour. They’re good enough that they could walk in and wing it, but they’re not after “good enough” they’re after excellence that honors God. There are a lot of others things I could do that would be more interesting than my solitary work of weekend message preparation. But aside from the celebration of the Sacraments, there is nothing more important that I do.
Third, as leaders we must learn not to accept amateurs. The Church can’t afford to be amateur hour anymore, we simply can’t have people leading worship or ministry who are not skilled. In our culture, it will drive people away from God. If we are stewards of the most important message ever, the one the world needs to hear, then we should be relentlessly improving our ability to communicate it.