Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Worship Leaders: Imitate John Newton

"Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith." -Hebrews 13:7

Every now and then I run across a little gem of a quote that hits me like a freight train. (Like this one I posted a while back from Martin Luther.) Not to long ago I ran across one of these great quotes from John Newton, best known for his hymn “Amazing Grace”. John Newton and William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) collaborated with each other to compose an entire hymnbook in 1779 called Olney Hymns. (get the pdf here) And in the Preface to the hymnbook John Newton wrote this, concerning his hymn writing ability:
"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."
When I first read that sentence I was struck at how applicable it was to the characteristics of a worship leader. In fact, it is applicable to anyone who leads worship; be they pastors, musicians, songwriters, even for those who read Scripture or lead in prayer.

This sentence is so loaded that I want to break it up and take it piece by piece in hopes that we might discover helpful truths and advice that might impact those of us who participate in leading worship.

“If the LORD whom I serve…”
First and foremost, we must recognize that we are to be fully subservient and submitted to God. But, as ministers, we are also servants to God’s people. This is the distinction; we are to serve the people of God as a servant would serve the guests of a King. There can be no question as to who is in control of the servant. The servant serves the guests but is obedient to the King. So to, in the worship of God, we must not bow to the whim of the people, nor should we seek their praise. God has the final say about worship. It is God we submit to, not man.

“…has been pleased to favor me with that mediocrity of talent…”
Your talents, at whatever skill level, have been given to you by God, because God was pleased to give them to you. The mere thought of that should inspire us to increase our use of them! It also should keep us humble. When we recognize that our abilities have been given to us by the Creator, pride falls away and thankfulness, humility, and dependence rush in to take its place.

We should also notice that Newton calls his talent “mediocrity”. Now I don’t claim to know Newton’s intentions but I would venture to guess that; 1) this isn’t an accusation against God for shortchanging him on talent and 2) he truly recognizes his own limits and weakness in light of other hymn writers (such as Isaac Watts, according to the Preface) and that he not only understands his weakness, but (as we shall see) he is content that God would use that weakness for His purposes.

“…which may qualify me…”
Why are you qualified to lead worship? As we have seen, it is because the Lord has been pleased to favor you with particular abilities, even in (and some might say, especially in) your weakness. The truth that we keep coming across so far is that nothing originates with us. How humbling! It all comes from God. I personally, take great comfort in knowing that it is God Almighty who has lead me and gifted me by His sovereignty that I might be qualified for usefulness in His service.

“…for usefulness to the weak and poor of his flock…”
‘Usefulness’ is a huge word here. God has gifted many people with talents, but how many people are useful in the kingdom of God? If the King has ordered his chef to cook a meal for his guests, but instead the chef uses his skills to make food only to impress and feed himself, or his friends or fellow servants, of what use is he to the King or to the King’s guests? He is of no use.

So we see here that God has gifted you in a particular way to lead worship. Perhaps it is a practical ability such as playing an instrument, or speaking clearly. Perhaps it is a spiritual ability such as preaching or discernment in song selection. Perhaps it is a mixture of practical and spiritual (as I suspect is the case for many ministers). But the important thing to consider is whether or not your gift from God is being used for a useful purpose in serving the people of God. Don’t squander your God-given usefulness!

But Newton reminds us that God has made us useful to the weakest and poorest of His flock. This is where it becomes easier for the most talented to fail.
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
God chooses that which is weak to glorify Himself. So it comes as no surprise that the vast majority of church leaders and musicians possess (alongside Newton) “that mediocrity of talent”. John Piper reminds us that we who serve are not professionals. It would be faulty, however, to assume that God cannot or will not use those who are immensely talented. Newton speculated in his Preface, “The late Dr. Watts, might, as a poet, have a right to say, That it cost him some labor to restrain his fire, and to accommodate himself to the capacities of common readers. But it would not become me to make such a declaration. It behoved me to do my best.” What Newton is saying, is that Isaac Watts was so skilled in his composition of hymns that he had to “labor” for his ‘usefulness’. Where Newton strived to be his best, Watts did his best not to do his best! Why? So that he might be useful to the lowest in the flock, or in this case “the capacities of the common readers”! That is a beautiful picture of what the heart of a worship leader should look like!

“…without quite disgusting persons of superior discernment…”
It would be wrong to assume that our congregation is made up entirely of those who are weak and poor (in whatever capacity). The lame and the blind followed Christ, but so did Joseph of Arimathea. In fact, “persons of superior discernment” will most likely include those of us who actually lead worship and minister. By that I mean, those who lead worship will, more often than not, be more acutely aware of things like: how the liturgy progresses, how the content of a song is used, the quality of musical skill, etc. So be aware of those in your congregation who understand and appreciate truth and beauty in quite a different fashion than those who might, honestly, not care at all.

It is interesting to note that while Isaac Watts labored to restrain his talents in order to be useful to the least, Newton labored to “do my best” in order to be useful to “persons of superior discernment.” In both cases these men took what God gave them and made it useful for the Kingdom.

“…I have reason to be satisfied."
John Newton knew that his talents—however average—were from God. He knew that he was no Isaac Watts, yet God still qualified him to be useful and he glorified God by saying “I have reason to be satisfied.” In this quote, Newton was essentially saying, “If God is pleased to do it; I’m satisfied.” So Newton echoes Job who says “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” and anticipates John Piper who says, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.”

When your usefulness is squandered then it is difficult, if not impossible, to be satisfied in your ministry. It seems to me—at least from where I stand—that many of today’s Pastors and Worship Leaders are not satisfied in their ministry. Why else would church leaders rush with a zombie-like hunger for everything that is ‘new’ and ‘innovative’? The Unsatisfied Mentality has become so pervasive in the North American Church that it isn’t even recognized as a problem. In fact it has become the norm. “What’s the next big thing that can really ramp up our worship service? Why not do things like the big church down the street? What can we do to draw in the crowd? Why not serve at another church where my talents are ‘recognized’?” All of these questions stem, in one way or another, from a lack of satisfaction.

The danger in not being satisfied is that you try to find satisfaction in everything else. This is how worship becomes performance music and preaching becomes pop psychology. There is a shadow of satisfaction in both because an itch is scratched, like crowds of people start coming. They come because the music is hip and bring their friends because the preacher doesn’t talk about hell. But that kind of satisfaction is fleeting and new and different things come rushing in to fill it up. It might be money or a new building or a certain status in the community. It could be pursuing a book—or record—deal. Maybe the leaders start to resent their congregation for ‘holding them back’. Then a church splits or a pastor has a ‘moral failure’ and people are scratching their heads asking “How did this happen?” The consequences of an unsatisfied mentality in ministry are numerous, but the examples above provide an easy track to follow.

Satisfaction in ministry is crucial. Paul said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” (Phil. 4:11). That means you really can be satisfied (and give God the most glory!) whether you serve in a church of 50 or 5000, because it is God who has enabled you and qualified you and has given you particular abilities so that you may be useful to His flock!

In summary, Newton’s quote provides us with a few basic, but vital, truths that we would be wise to mimic and keep in the forefront of our minds when we lead worship.

1) It is God we serve
2) It is God who gives us our talents and abilities
3) It is God who qualifies us to be useful in ministry
4) We must not squander our usefulness, but labor to be useful for the sake of the church
5) God is glorified when we are satisfied in the ministry to which He has called us

I am very grateful to God for John Newton and how his words have impacted my life and ministry. O that the same character and humility would flow through me! That my heart would resound with the words: “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.”


  1. Rich, what a splendid article! Thanks for sharing it. I love your reflections; you're clearly somebody I should get to know.

    I've set several of Newton's hymn texts to music, though somehow I missed getting any of them onto my upcoming CD. His words are always extremely singable and lend themselves well to expressive melodies, not to mention full of excellent theology. The man just exuded grace. Have you ever read his autobiography, Out of the Depths?

  2. Thank you for this! What a great reminder. Extremely encouraging.

  3. Eric, I purchased "Out of the Depths" today!

  4. What a fantastic quote! Thank you so much for drawing our attention to it.

  5. This is a fantastic post. There's a lot of spiritual wisdom here! Good diagnosis of the common problems of "performance" worship and "pop-psychology" preaching.

    Glad to know there are worship leaders out there thinking about this stuff.