Mr. Holland’s Opus and the Lousy Worship Leader
In my last post, I argued that making music is a great experience that God intends for everyone, not just musicians. And it’s the musicians’ job at church to lead music in such a way that it invites people into the experience of music making. To underscore this point, I want borrow a sentiment from the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus.
If you haven’t seen it, Mr. Holland’s Opus is about a musician who dreams of grandeur but instead ends up teaching high school music his whole life. In other words, he spends his career teaching non-musical people (the vast majority of which will not go on to be musicians) how to make and participate in music. At the end of the movie, he realizes that his life has been meaningful and rich, despite never becoming a renowned composer, and the the credits role. It’s a happy film.
I mention it because I think Mr. Holland’s life and work are not all that different from that of a worship leader. You may have visions of one day being a renowned musician like…um…Tom Petty or Fleetwood Mac. But instead, someone hears that you can play guitar and enlists you in worship leading duties. A few years later, you find yourself married with kids and working full time for a church doing music and youth ministry.
Whether you stay in this path for the entirety of your career or not, I want to suggest that your role, while you are a worship leader, is not all that different from Mr. Holland’s. And it’s a noble role. Your job is to teach normal, non-artsy, non-musical people how to make music together. Your job is not to get them to watch you make music. Teach them how to make music with you.
You may balk at this idea. I often do. Mr. Holland does. There’s a central scene that captures this tension (and the thrust of the whole movie). Mr. Holland is asked to teach a musically incompetent kid how to play drums, so that the boy can be academically eligible to play football. Mr. Holland tries halfheartedly for a bit, then basically gives up, because it’s too frustrating. In the scene below, Mr. Holland is confronted by his friend, the football coach, for his professed inability to teach a willing kid how to play drums.
I saw this movie in 1996, and that scene has stuck with me since. ”Then you’re a lousy teacher.” It’s rare that someone, a friend especially, says something so direct and so challenging. Maybe it seems harsh, but in the film, Mr. Holland actually takes it to heart and redoubles his efforts. And, as you see while the Stevie Wonder song plays over the montage, Lou Russ learns how to drum.
So I say to you, O worship leader, (and to myself), if you can’t lead worship in such a way that it invites ordinary non-musical people into the making of music as praise to God, then you are a lousy worship leader.
Now, hear me, I wouldn’t say this if the crucial issue was one of talent. If you’re a younger musician, learning to play guitar or piano or whatnot, and you think, “well, I’m just not talented enough to lead worship,” you’re probably wrong. In the film, the issue wasn’t how much talent Mr. Holland had as a teacher or musician. It was his priorities and commitment to teaching music to a non-musically-inclined student. Likewise, if you’re a struggling musician or a beginner, I’m not talking to you. You may need to grow as a musician, but you can still be a great worship leader who invites congregational participation without being a great musician.
But if you are a competent musician, perhaps even a darn good one, and you lead worship in such a way that it demonstrates your skills as a musician while failing to welcome, facilitate, and value the participation of your congregation as co-creators of the music, then I am talking to you. You need to change. If I was talking to you in person, I wouldn’t say it as harshly. I’d suggest to you that there are ways in which you can adapt, priorities you should adjust. I would be pastoral about it. But since I’m writing a blog and sending it out into cyberspace, I want to state it strongly.
It’s just my opinion. Take it for what it’s worth. Or argue with me if you like. Either way, thanks for reading.
Filed under: Congregational Participation, Leading Worship, Worship Leaders | 7 Comments
Tags: 1995, Mr. Holland's Opus, Richard Dreyfuss, Stevie Wonder