There’s one thing I can count on nearly every Sunday following one of our worship services at Decatur First. As I’m putting things away, sharing in conversation, or headed to the car someone will stop me to offer a handshake or a pat on the back and tell me, “You really sounded great out there today. I love your music!” It’s a wonderful thing to hear. I put in a lot of time practicing, honing my craft to make sure that I’m a good steward of the talent God has given to me, so knowing it is well-received puts a smile on my face. But sounding good is just a tiny sliver of what I really, truly desire for our worship time.
In the church (or anywhere, really) great music can be a powerful tool to help connect the heart and the mind, which is fantastic for evoking an emotional swell in the midst of a worship service. Because music is an art it can, and should, have elements that engage its audience on an emotional level. Skilled musicians understand this and use it. – Why do you think we pay good money and flock to concerts to hear our favorite artists play? Being there as part of the experience connects us to songs that have stirred us at some time or another on an emotional level. We’ll sing at the top of our lungs, we’ll dance in the aisles, we’ll shout and clap our hands. And after a couple of hours, we’ll leave on a bit of an emotional high, all for the sake of great experience. Funny enough, the same can be said about many times I’ve been part of a church service.
So what, then, separates a gifted worship leader from a gifted musician? As I mentioned, I’ve been to church services that looked pretty similar to the hypothetical concert described above. The music has been phenomenal. The clapping, the dancing, the singing – those things were all there. The emotional swell? Check. On the surface, they can appear nearly identical, but there is is one giant, crucial difference between leading worship, and leading a concert – the audience.
Let me give you an example of some of the questions I have been asking myself over the last few years when planning music for a worship service:
- What music will engage our congregation in singing praise with passion?
- What songs will cover the worship tastes of each generation?
- What songs will fit well with the theme of pastor’s message?
- Is this a good week to introduce a new song?
- Is there a song I’ve played too much and needs to be given a break?
Some of these questions may be very familiar to fellow worship leaders. And I believe these are good questions to ask, but I contend that these questions are not the most correct questions to consider. Why? Because each of these questions assumes that the primary audience for the worship leader is the congregation. I’m not sure why this is so often difficult to remember, but God is, always has been, and always will be the intended primary recipient of worship. A worship leader’s responsibility is to bring the church to unified adoration of our God and creator. Worship’s most important function is to stir the heart of God, but so often, the worship leader struggles instead to find music or create an experience that will stir the hearts of the people.
I’ve been stuck in that pattern of thinking for longer than I’d care to admit. Recently, however, I’ve been reminded of something that has begun to reshape the way I view worship leadership. That “something” is this: The moments in my life where God has moved most powerfully were not at large, impressive gatherings – not at places with the most well-rehearsed bands or the most beautifully arranged music. Some of my most Spirit-filled encounters with God were in places where our praise was led by an inexperienced kid with a guitar and a decidedly average group of vocalists. Other times the Spirit of God fell and we weren’t singing at all – He simply showed up and lives were changed. He moved because He was invited to move. That’s all it took. That’s all that mattered.
I believe that God desperately wants us to remember that and take it to heart. Worship leadership is so much more about invitation than technical perfection. Before the first chord is struck, before the first note is rehearsed, and before the order of worship is even put together, the single most important thing a worship leader/pastor can do is seek God with desperation. Read scripture daily – pray constantly – get alone and sing praises to God. Draw near to Him. Don’t just rehearse music – encourage and build up the worship team to seek God with the same desperation. Make God your greatest joy and delight. Overflowing with the praises of God makes you a living, breathing conduit of His spirit to those you lead.
Don’t stop rehearsing. Don’t stop looking for songs that people will enjoy! God takes delight when we seek to honor him with excellence and skill. I love the words of the psalmist in Psalm 33, that urge us to play with passion:
“Let the godly sing for joy to the Lord; it is fitting for the pure to praise him. Praise the Lord with melodies on the lyre; make music for him on the ten-stringed harp. Sing a new song of praise to him; play skillfully on the harp, and sing with joy.”
Excellence without mission, however, is never the end goal. If I’ve created an entertaining experience and no one was led closer to faith in God, I have squandered the talent He’s given to me. Did our praise music sound good this week? If so, that’s great, but what I really want to know is if God’s Spirit was at work in our worship time drawing hearts closer and changing lives forever. I’m happy if what I do is entertaining, but there’s a very good reason why my title will never be Pastor of Entertainment. That’s not what I am meant to do.