Mr. Holland’s Opus and the Lousy Worship Leader


Mr. Holland teaches Lou Russ how to keep a rhythm.

Mr. Holland teaches Lou Russ how to keep a rhythm.

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.

7 Responses to “Mr. Holland’s Opus and the Lousy Worship Leader”

  1. Nice thoughts. And I would add that, even beyond music and teaching music, that the worship position is a noble one for the mere fact that we are participating in communicating eternal truths to the congregation in ways that, perhaps, will stick with them for the rest of their lives.

    Your post also reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from John Newton, written about his hymn writing, I believe it also applies to worship leaders:

    “If the LORD whom I serve, has been pleased to favor me with that mediocrity of talent, which may qualify me for usefulness to the weak and the poor of his flock, without quite disgusting persons of superior discernment, I have reason to be satisfied.”

    • 2 churchmusicblog

      Thanks for the comment, Rich. I appreciate the Newton quote, as well.

      • 3 Matt Miley

        Just stumbled upon your blog after a friend posted your “O Worship the King” song. Nice arrangement.

        I appreciate what you said in your article here. I often think that i’ve missed my opportunity for “greatness” as a musician because i’ve been to busy doing “God’s work” as a worship leader. Sounds more ridiculous when i type it out. I grumble sometimes that i never get to just make music at home and record songs i’ve written because my keyboard is at church (it’s just more convenient to leave it there than to haul it back and forth every week).

        But that’s just an excuse. In this day an age all it takes is webcam and an idea and lots of people can be ministered to and you don’t even have to leave your living room.

        But what you said about being a lousy worship leader hit hard. The fact is i used to be a good worship leader… i used to be sensitive to what was going on in the service and then.. well.. like you said, you wake up one day married with kids and in my case leading worship on the side every week because the church can’t afford to pay someone…

        Being a lousy worship leader in my case stems from growing apathetic toward the job of being a “music teacher”… and maybe blaming the congregation for my own lack of enthusiasm… But actually it’s my own fault. Losing focus of what’s really important. Forgetting to “Glorify Him as God and give thanks” (Rom 1:21)… that’s where things start to get fuzzy and we forget who we are or rather whose we are.

        Thanks for the reminder that my job, although i may never be paid to be a full time worship leader, is to lead in worship… to teach the congregation to make a joyful noise to the Lord… to encourage… to edify… to embrace God in full view of everyone and set the example. Blessings on you and your ministry… Thanks. Matt

  2. I appreciate your blog. I am in this position now – to try to get ordinary people to sing in church – and often give up in frustration. I saw this movie last week and that phrase convicted me “You are a lousy teacher.” But how do we learn to be better teachers? Inspiring them? I sure would love some ideas and encouragement.

    • 5 churchmusicblog

      Thank you for reading and commenting. When I reread this blog post (now over 2 years old), I realize that the thing it is missing is encouragement. And that is often what we, church music leaders, need. The job can be frustrating and often thankless. On the other hand, church music leaders can be local celebrities, sort of miniature rock stars. The tone of this post was directed more at folks who are prone toward being rock stars.

      That said, once you’re on board with the vision (that the congregation is the most important instrument in the room and serving them by getting them to sing is your main job) the question of “how” is still there. I don’t have all the answers, nor could I get them into this comment if I did. But I wanted to start by saying that I appreciate where you’re coming from. I’d like to put up a post before long that talks about this and takes the time to develop some more thoughts on it.

      And here’s the briefest of encouragements: The New Testament tells us that worship is going on all the time in heaven. The saints who have gone before us are there, joining together with angels, seraphim and cherubim, lifting their voices in worship. When we gather together to worship in our little congregations, it’s not really on our shoulders to start something new. We’re not trying to build a house from the first brick up. We’re not trying to crank a stubborn engine that won’t turn over. The house is built. The engine is running. We are just inviting people to enter with us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, into the worship that is already happening. God is being worshiped, glorified, exalted, whether we “succeed” or feel like we’ve succeeded today or not. So, in a sense, the most important thing is already happening, and it doesn’t depend on us.

      That is not practical advice on how to be a better teacher. But it is does offer a perspective on worship that has encouraged me. I have a few practical ideas–hymn sings in people’s homes, and talking to your pastor about preaching on worship. I’ll talk more about these in an actual post. Thanks for reading and commenting, Maria. Don’t give up!

      • 6 miriam

        hi! great post. thank you!
        just wondering if you’ve talked more about your above ideas (re: practical ‘encouraging/leading’ ideas) in a new post. i’d be interested in hearing more.
        soooo grateful for having stumbled upon your blog! my husband and i are loving your hymn ‘tutorials’ and are using them in our worship leading here in calgary, alberta.
        thank you!! 🙂

      • 7 churchmusicblog

        Hopefully after Easter I’ll get another post up. For now, I have some ideas brewing. So glad you’ve enjoyed the blog.

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