I’m grateful and honored to be a contributor to this season’s issue of Worship Leader Magazine. It’s been a passion of mine to encourage worship leaders in their shepherding, pastoring, and formational callings.
My inclusion in the magazine all started with a surprise phone call from an old friend; David Bunker. I was signed to a record label that David worked with back in the day. We’d had some rich ministry memories over the years, and it was encouraging to hear his voice – a blast from the past! David had been following my work with worship leaders and as a spiritual director, and he challenged me to write about the intersection of those two ministries.
My first step in tackling a writing project like this was to do a quick Google search on “spiritual direction and worship leading” to see what others were saying about the topic. Well, to my utter astonishment, guess who was listed on the front the page of the internet?
Believe it or not, it seemed I might’ve already been an expert, a primary voice on the matter…and I didn’t even know it!
I set to work right away fleshing out the ideas, concepts, and practical advice floating around in my head, and with David’s continued encouragement, a few articles began to take shape. I was grateful to get rich input and suggestions from colleagues at Biola University who’d studied with me and from other worship leaders in my community. The resulting articles formed three blog posts, available on this site.
David had begun working with Worship Leader Magazine as a guest-editor, and he’d mentioned the possibility of including some of this writing of mine in an upcoming issue. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but one hazy, golden-hour evening, out on a restaurant patio in Ojai with a longtime surfer buddy, a text came through from David with the news… “Justin, I believe you have something important to share. Darlene Zschech, Rory Noland, John Michael Talbot, Carolyn Arends, and Ruth Haley Barton are IN! Are YOU?” I was so overwhelmed by the weight of these well-known names all strung together that it took me several minutes to even realize what he was talking about… Oh, the magazine! Yes! Of course I’m in! *raising-hands emoji*
It truly is a huge honor to be included in this company of leaders, authors, spiritual directors, and musicians. I’m thankful to Chuck Fromm, David Bunker, and Worship Leader Magazine for inviting me in and for believing my experience in practice could contribute to this important conversation. The intersection of spiritual formation and worship is a place of deep soil, the spot where real growth happens. I’m looking forward to all that God can do in and through us as we continue to cultivate the ground here and plant seeds for generations to come!
I’ve been sitting on this story for a couple months now and finally finding the moment to share it. The timing is interesting because Lent is approaching…but more on that later.
It was a sunny, crisp Southern California day in November. My friend Pete and I were driving up the coast toward Ventura, excited to be extended an invite to Larrivee Guitar‘s “Friends and Family Day” at the factory. I was imagining a huge crowd and the slight possibility of not even being able to get in, but God seemed to have parted the waters because when we arrived the place was empty.
We were greeted by the small team of guitar builders and waisted no time in getting down to the business of talking through what we were interested in seeing and what kind of guitars might be lying around for a steal. I’d been on the lookout for a new guitar for about a year, but I really wasn’t sure what I was really searching for. I wanted a story, mainly. I wanted an experience, not just a guitar from a music store’s crowded walls. There was a big, beautiful SD-60 up for sale that had been Larrivee’s flagship factory guitar for many years, and Pete fell in love with it right away. It sounded deep and rich, with years of loving play wear, but the neck was a bit thick for me.
What I really started to gravitate toward was the smaller, 12th fret 000-60. The new model had a slimmer neck, and this smaller body shape was just perfect. Problem was, there weren’t any of these available in the factory that day. Pete pressed the Larrivée guys a bit for a sample, and well, after a bit of digging, there was actually one, lonely, 000-60 up in the racks, but it wasn’t completed yet. It was about 85% done and still needed some final touches. I held the partly finished, tape covered, dusty guitar in my hand, and knew; this was it.
Some lively discussion ensued about how and when the guitar could be ready to take home. We offered to buy lunch for the technical team if they’d do it right then, but that was met with some reservation. Just when it looked like the whole idea might not happen at all, up walks the man himself, Mr. Jean Larrivée; the patriarch, the inventor, the master-builder. His quick walk, jolly face, and upbeat tone hid the fact he’s been making guitars for over 50 years. He still had that Santa Clause like sparkle in his eye when he talked about the instruments, and he was innocently enthusiastic about my new-found love of the 000-60. He gave his team the nod that this guitar could be finished over lunch and even offered a personal tour of his factory in the meantime. Pete and I knew in a second this was a rare opportunity, one of those situations that may never come around again, and we all shook hands on the deal.
Here’s the shot of Mr. Larrivee and me with the never-before-played 000-60.
Hearing Jean’s stories as we walked the factory that day will be something I’ll never forget. Pete and I would just stare at each other from time to time, wanting to pinch ourselves – was this really happening? We marveled at the pallets of exotic woods from around the world, curing in stacks, the humidifier room where guitar bodies were resting in their new-formed shapes, and floored by the one-of-a-kind, ancient, handmade “machines” that automated some aspects of Jean’s guitar building.
There’s too much to list here (and some things we swore secrecy about), but a kaleidoscope of images will be forever burned into my memory. Everything about this experience was an overwhelming joy. I think God answered my prayer for a “story” and not just a guitar. At the end of the day, Jean posed one final time with me and the finished instrument. He said he didn’t sign them inside anymore (couldn’t get both his hand and a Sharpie into the sound hole very easily), but he graciously signed a custom label that I could put in later. How a craftsman continues to be so passionate and inspired after 50 years was beyond comprehension. He still comes into the factory almost every day to put his personal touches on each guitar.
I’ve been playing this amazing new instrument for a couple months now, and I can truly say it’s the most lavishly manufactured, quality sounding guitar I’ve ever held in my hands. I feel blessed every time I pick it up. But that’s the irony here; I’m sharing this story a couple weeks before Lent begins, and I’ve decided to put the Larrrivee away for the 6-week season ahead. Lent is a time of stripping away, a time to get in touch with our limitedness, and confess in honesty our brokenness and need for a Savior. To that end, our church will practice “A Cappella Sunday” on March 1oth, relying on our voices alone, taking us back to our roots, and my new, gorgeous 000-60 will stay tucked away in its case. It’ll be a few weeks before I play a guitar again on Sunday morning, and even then, in my own personal Lenten tradition, I’ll be lugging around my big, beat-up Hummingbird until Easter morning. But what a glorious Easter that will be…enhanced by the feeling of opening up that case and bringing out the Larrivee once again! Thank you, Jean!
* This devotional is meant to be experienced weekly; for the four weeks of Advent and the week of Christmas. Feel free to pick one day during the week to spend some extra time with these reflections. Lighting a candle to begin your time each week would be ideal, but not critical. Journalling your thoughts and responses to God is encouraged, as well.
* I’ve been inspired by Biola University’s Advent devotional, and it’s available HERE.
* The music is from my album Noel. The poems come from Malcom Guite (an English poet, church leader, professor, and musician) and the photos are taken by Farrah Fox (a Richmond, VA photographer and writer) with a film camera as autumn took hold of the south.
WEEK 1 – HOPE
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. John 1:4-5
The first candle of the Advent Wreath, the “Prophecy Candle” or “Candle of Hope”, is traditionally purple. We light this candle because, like God’s people centuries ago, we also look forward with hope to the coming of the Shepherd. The purple color of the candle reminds us of the seriousness of our hope.
Hope is a light shining in a dark place. As we look at the lights of this first week of the Christmas season, we celebrate the hope we have in Jesus Christ.
First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced
The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.
Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace
In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream
For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.
PRAYER:Dear God, we hope for your coming as our Good Shepherd. Please gather us in your arms, feed us with spiritual food, wipe away every tear from our eyes, and “let your face shine, that we may be saved”. Come, our Shepherd! Amen.
WEEK 2 – JOY
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” – Luke 2:10
The second Advent Wreath candle, named the “Shepherd Candle” or “Candle of Joy”, is pink in color. Pink represents joy or rejoicing and reveals a shift in the season away from repentance and toward celebration. From hope, joy grows.
We reflect on the subject of joy to remind us that when Jesus is born in us we have joy and that through him there will be everlasting joy on earth.
Joy is a light shining in a dark place. This week, we celebrate the joy we find in Jesus Christ.
“St. John’s Eve”
Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill
Burn for the man who makes way for the Light:
‘He must increase and I diminish still,
Until his sun illuminates my night.’
So John the Baptist pioneers our path,
Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,
Unlatches the last doorway into faith,
And makes one inner space an everywhere.
Least of the new and greatest of the old,
Orpheus on the threshold with his lyre,
He sets himself aside, and cries “Behold
The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!”
So keep his fires burning through this night,
Beacons and gateways for the child of light.
PRAYER:Gracious God, you came to us in human flesh and you abide with us in the Holy Spirit. Fill us with your joy, and help us shine as a light to the world. Through Jesus Christ, who makes our joy complete. Amen.
WEEK 3 – LOVE
“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” – Matthew 1:23
The third Advent Candle color is purple. It’s called the “Angel Candle” or the “Candle of Love”.
We light this candle because, like God’s people centuries ago, we also need a Savior who will forgive our sins. The purple color reminds us of the sacrifice found in true love: Mary’s sacrifice and Jesus’ sacrifice for us.
Love is a light shining in a dark place. As we look toward this third week of Advent, we celebrate the love we have in Christ.
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
PRAYER:Dear God, in You, we rejoice. We know that because of your great love for us, we can live lives of sacrifice and love with one another. As we prepare for our celebration of Jesus’ birth, also fill our hearts with love for the world, that all may know your love and the one whom you have sent, your son, our Savior. Amen.
WEEK 4 – PEACE
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6
The fourth Advent candle, called the “Bethlehem Candle” or the “Candle of Preparation”, is also purple in color.
We light this candle of “peace” to remind us that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and that through him real peace is found.
Peace is a light shining in a dark place. As we look toward this fourth week of Advent, we celebrate the peace we find in Jesus Christ.
“O Rex Gentium”
O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.
PRAYER: O God of all good gifts, we desire to know you fully; to understand completely your love for us so that peace may truly dwell in us. Help us, during this season of preparation, to remember the true meaning of readying ourselves to participate in your peaceful and loving ways. Give us the courage to spread the message that your peace and love is for all people. Grant healing in our personal lives, and throughout the world, that we may more deeply know Your peace. Amen
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God. ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’” – Luke 2:11-14
Christians around the world light the last, white candle on Christmas Day to remember the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As the prophets promised so long ago, God has come to us; and with the shepherds, we are filled with wonder and amazement.
We are filled with great joy and celebration, because Christ is born in Bethlehem. God’s Son has come into the world to be our Savior! And he will come again in glory.
“Christmas On the Edge”
Christmas sets the centre on the edge;
The edge of town, the outhouse of the inn,
The fringe of empire, far from privilege
And power, on the edge and outer spin
Of turning worlds, a margin of small stars
That edge a galaxy itself light years
From some unguessed at cosmic origin.
Christmas sets the centre at the edge.
And from this day our world is re-aligned
A tiny seed unfolding in the womb
Becomes the source from which we all unfold
And flower into being. We are healed,
The end begins, the tomb becomes a womb,
For now in him all things are re-aligned.
PRAYER:Lord, you come as a tiny, fragile baby; yet we know that you are God and you are with us. May the celebration in these moments remind us that you are the light of the world and that if we follow you, we will never walk in darkness but will have the true light of life. Dear God, we rejoice in the birth of your Son. May we worship him, welcome him, and make room for him in our hearts. O come, let us adore him! Amen!
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
I was recently asked this question: “How does somebody get more of the fruit of the Spirit in their life?” After reading and reflecting on the above passage, it’s a very understandable and practical question, and this short article is an attempt to answer it. As the Christmas season draws near, it’s also a timely discussion since we’ll be hearing a lot about hope, love, joy, and peace these next few weeks. When you hear those words, do you wish you had more? Do you wish these traits were not merely seasonal sentiments but more of a reality in your life? I know I do! So, to that end, here’s 3 steps toward that goal…
* REMEMBER: These characteristics are fruit of the Spirit, they are not fruit of our efforts – they don’t come from us, they come from God. Just like grapes come to life through the nourishment of the vine, a person cannot externally fabricate this fruit and paste it onto their life. It must organically grow from within, through the Spirit in us. Jesus said it best, “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15:3-5) Does that mean we simply sit back, do nothing, and wait for God to do His work in us (in spite of us)? What’s His part, and what’s our part? It’s true, He is the one who does the changing, but we need to position ourselves to receive His work in us. We need to posture ourselves to be open and available. With that in mind, these three steps are a way we can participate better with the Spirit’s work. They’re a way for us to position ourselves and assume a posture that connects us more deeply to the vine.
STEP 1: VISION
The first step is to get a vision for what this fruit looks like, in yourself and in others around you. Dallas Willard’s concept of “vision, intention, and means” (or “VIM” as he calls it in Renovation of the Heart) is a helpful model here, so I’ll use it to guide our discussion. Each of these three steps will be accompanied by a 30-minute prayer time to help you further explore this area with the Lord. Experiencing more of the fruit of the Spirit simply will not happen apart from spending concentrated, focused time alone with God. If that is something you’re not willing to do, I’d recommend closing this screen right now and doing whatever else you’d like to do…
(On second thought, my goal is to make this invitation to time with God more compelling through the course of this article, so I hope you’ll stick with it to the end, and then decide if you’re up for it!).
Getting a vision for what the fruit of the Spirit is, what it looks like in practical terms, and how it might be more evident in your life is our first step. Take the following three questions to the Lord in prayer. I highly recommend writing your thoughts and prayers (and even doodles!) in a journal as you spend this silent, solo time with God…
– Set your timer for 30 minutes
5 minutes: Begin by reading the Scripture passage at the top of this article (Gal. 5:22-25) a few times for about 5 minutes. Read it slowly and thoughtfully. If the five minutes isn’t up, and you’re already bored of the words, read it again! Keep at it for five minutes!
10 minutes: Take 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “What about the fruit of the Spirit is appealing to me? When in my life have I experienced these characteristics most, and what were the circumstances surrounding that time?”
10 minutes: Take the next 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “What fruit of the Spirit do I notice in others that I can thank God for? Where have I seen these characteristics best displayed in the individuals and community around me?”
5 minutes: Take the last 5 minutes to thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thank him for His power, which is able to work in and through you.
STEP 2: INTENTION
The next step is to orient your heart toward a desire to see more of this “fruit” in your life. It is to intend to follow the will of God, to walk according to His Spirit, and to commit anew to His will and way in your life. Take the next 30-minute prayer time to ponder, reflect, and respond in your own personal way to this step…
– Set your timer for 30 minutes
5 minutes: Begin by reading the Scripture passage at the top of this article again (Gal. 5:22-25) a few times for about 5 minutes. Read it slowly and thoughtfully. If the five minutes isn’t up, and you’re already bored of the words, read it again! Feel free to pause for moments of silence as you read and reflect but keep at it for five minutes!
10 minutes: Take 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “When in my life have I experienced a lack of these characteristics most, and what were the circumstances surrounding that time? What gets in the way now of this fruit being born in me?”
10 minutes: Take the next 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “How close am I to the ‘vine’ these days? How is my relationship with You, Lord? What could I do to strengthen that closeness?”
5 minutes: Take the last 5 minutes to thank God for His love for you. Ask Him to grow the fruit of the Spirit in you, and thank Him for His ability and desire to do so.
STEP 3: MEANS
In following Dallas’ model to the end, our last step is “means”, and it’s where we find the practice of spiritual disciplines. Discipline is not a very fun sounding word, yet it’s where real, actual growth happens. Just like in the gym; no pain, no gain. Do you want gain? Do you want growth in your life? Then this last step is essential. But unlike exercises at the gym, Spiritual disciplines do not change us, they only make a space for engaging with God – and He’s the one who changes us.
So, let’s make some space for engaging with this life-changing power of the Spirit! The classic list of spiritual disciplines often includes these: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, Study, Solitude, Submission, Service, Confession, Worship, and Celebration. Some of these might seem joy-filled for you and others might look dreadful…and that’s okay! If some of these sound difficult, or the whole idea of doing a spiritual discipline seems painful and costly, remember the main way a gardener actually grows more fruit – it’s through pruning. Jesus says, “’I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.’” (Jn. 15:1-2) In a way, God uses spiritual disciplines to prune us, so to speak, so that even more fruit might grow.
It’s time for our final prayer time, so let’s go to God. I encourage you to spend these last 30 minutes realizing your relationship and partnership with the Lord. You are not alone! He longs for you to do this with Him!
– Set your timer for 30 minutes
5 minutes: Begin by reading the Scripture passage at the top of this article once again (Gal. 5:22-25) a few times for about 5 minutes. Read it slowly and thoughtfully. If the five minutes isn’t up, and you’re already bored of the words, read it again! Feel free to pause for moments of silence as you read and reflect but keep at it for five minutes…and viola, you are now meditating!
10 minutes: Take 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “What has been my experience with spiritual disciplines? Where have I seen them abused, and where have I seen them beneficial? Which ones have been particularly helpful in my life?”
10 minutes: Take the next 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “What spiritual discipline (or disciplines) are You calling me to do? When and how should I start? How long should I focus on this particular activity? How can I remember to do this with You and not in my own strength?”
5 minutes: Take the last 5 minutes to thank God for His constant presence in your life – for His bottomless patience and grace. Ask Him to help you and be with you in a special way as you carry out your spiritual discipline plan.
Go in the grace of the Lord! May the fruit of the Spirit grow in your life and may it be a blessing to many around you. May peace, love, and joy, be not simply empty slogans on cheap decorations this Christmas – may they be an increasing reality in our lives!
In this article, I’ll discuss 5 Practical Ways to Lead Worship as a Spiritual Director. In articles 1 and 2, I put forward a few thoughts regarding the connections between worship leading and spiritual direction and also explored some practical ways to prepare for worship leading through the lens of a Spiritual Director. Now, the preparation is done, the stage is set, the congregation is here, and it’s time to lead! Let’s discuss five ways to lead worship as a Spiritual Director.
Again, I’ve chosen to list these methods with the verb “practice” before them for intentional reasons. These are practices that take time to develop. They are not quick fixes or “five easy steps.” They require sustained attention over time and through various seasons. Give yourself grace and permission to not get these “right” the first time you try them, and rest in the reality that they will never be perfected – by you, me, or anyone else (but Jesus). Practicing these postures will help align your heart with God’s heart. They’ll guide you in enabling more and more people to experience the love of God through you as you lead.
1. Practice Compassion.“Lord, help me give compassion in my statements, in my posture, in my face, in my presence.”
Again, this encouragement and prayer are taken directly from my training materials on spiritual direction. Compassion is a critical, priority practice as a Spiritual Director, and yet it has so many applications for the Worship Leader, as well. What is it to practice compassion for our congregations from the sanctuary platform? How compassionate are you when you lead? How aware are you of your congregation’s challenges, hurts, doubts, and fears? I find that, as a Worship Leader, there are so many distractions around the technical, mechanical task of performing music well, that we often lose sight of who we are actually leading. If your congregation becomes a blurry mass of nameless faces, whose only function is to sing or clap along with the band at the appropriate times, compassion will be tough for you to display.
Charlie Hall gave a lecture a while back with some powerful insights into this topic. I highly encourage you to check out the podcast here (I’ve also posted it as a dropbox link here, if that’s more convenient).
In this talk, Charlie gets at the importance of knowing the people we lead in worship, and how their stories change everything about the way we approach facilitating worship. It makes the process more human and infuses it with compassion and empathy. He realizes there is a tension for us Worship Leaders between “excellence” and “affection.” We can often make our musical execution so excellent that we lose the heart, the compassion, the affection for the people God has placed right in front of us.
How well do you know your congregation members? Are you aware of their struggles, health concerns, and prayer requests? If your congregation is large, it’s impossible to know everyone’s story, but can you begin one at a time and practice holding them in your heart, one by one? The next time you sing “It is well with my soul…” make a mental note of who is singing with you and what their experience might be. See their faces, their closed eyes, their open hands, and show compassion. Show compassion in your statements; the way you talk, the Scriptures you decided to include (or not include), and the tone of your voice. Show compassion in your posture; the way you stand, where you are on the platform, and what your body language is saying to the congregation. Show compassion in your face and eyes; where you look, how you look, when you smile and when you don’t. These little nuances all matter, and they communicate in significant ways.
Compassion is an emotional and intellectual identification with another. It is understanding the content and feelings in those around you, and it’s communicating your understanding and identification with them. It’s also refraining from value judgments on others’ experiences or feelings. Compassion is a powerful way of strengthening the relationship between yourself and those you walk alongside. Be intentional to practice compassion, to give empathy, and watch your ministry begin to connect in deeper places for you and for those you lead.
2. Practice Listening.“Lord, help me listen with my heart to the sights, sounds, body language, silence, feelings, and awareness of You and others as I lead.”
Here again is a practice from the spiritual direction realm that translates to the sanctuary. It’s also another practice that’s often in tension with the mechanics of musical and technical leadership. How is it possible for the Worship Leader to manage a band, chord patterns, key changes, monitor mixes, Scripture readings, prayers, service orders, stopwatches, and media screens while at the same time maintaining an openness to “listen with their heart” to the congregation? Or even to listen to the gentle leading, the still small voice of the Holy Spirit?
That’s why this practice, like all the others, starts with a prayer; “Lord, help me…” – this is where we begin. You’ll be surprised what God can do with this small prayer! Like a tiny mirror in the desert, tilted just so to reflect the sun, a prayer like this shifts the orientation of our heart just enough for God to begin His transforming work in us, and to reflect His glory.
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present as we lead worship (at least we better hope!), so let’s make sure to call our attention to that reality and to be ready to follow the Lord’s ultimate leading in the present moment. What is God up to in the room? What is He doing in our midst and in the hearts of our congregation during the service? For those that plan well in advance, following His lead might not often mean changing what we do, but it could affect how we do it. It might mean an extemporary prayer, an extra Scripture verse, or an additional moment of silence. It might mean a few less choruses, or maybe more, maybe sung more passionately, or more quietly. Let’s be ready and open to listen and follow.
3. Practice Including Scripture.“Lord, help me find and communicate Your words, through Your Word, which will bless, challenge, and encourage those I’m leading.”
I’m continually surprised at how little Scripture is used in our contemporary worship contexts. I’m not sure if it’s because Worship Leaders aren’t aware of Scripture, or they don’t think it’s relevant, necessary, or helpful. Or, maybe they believe that it’s for the preacher to utilize and not for them. Either way, it’s conspicuously absent almost everywhere I go, like a gaping hole we’re all content to leave and tiptoe around – this needn’t be! If you’d like to say deeper, more profound things from the platform, quote Scripture. If you’d like to regret less of what you’ve said during your worship set, practice speaking Scripture instead of “sharing from the heart.” If you want to appear wise and prepared as a Worship Leader, quote Scripture. If your passion is to communicate God’s love and invitation clearly and powerfully to your congregation, then quote Scripture.
It’s that simple. Scripture is God’s Word. It’s His words to His people, and you can rarely go wrong with including (more) Scripture in your worship planning. How powerful it can be to have Scripture spoken first, out of the silence, as you begin a service! Use Scripture during your opening prayer, your Call to Worship, between song transitions, as confessional readings. Use it to express thankfulness, lament, and petition. Invite your congregation to read Scripture together through responsive readings displayed on projection screens or printed handouts. Call attention to Bible verses used in the songs you sing and search for and treasure songs that feature Scripture as their text.
Of course, the Psalms are a valuable resource for this, but there are also many other places in Scripture that feature verses and passages that enhance and deepen our worship. The Internet is particularly helpful in this: type into your search engine “Scripture verses about _______.” Put what you’d like in the blank; fear, trust, thankfulness, doubt…anything – and interesting things always pop up! Isaiah and the prophetic books contain incredible poetic imagery, the Gospels highlight Jesus’ words of invitation and conviction, the epistles ground us in practical advice and encouraging reminders, and Revelation speaks to us of hope and glory. These are just snapshots of what’s available, and a little goes a long way. There’s no need to quote a lot of verses for maximum impact. The spiritual practice of Lectio Divina reminds us; Scripture can be rich, like a dark chocolate truffle; enjoyed slowly and in small bites.
4. Practice creating space.“Lord, help me create meaningful space for those I lead to process and personally connect with You.”
In worship leading, it has always been a pastoral challenge to consider the importance of revelation and response. It makes sense that our worshipping congregations should have the opportunity to experience the revelation of God (His truth, goodness, holiness, and wonder), but in turn, they also need the chance to respond to this revelation in personal and communal ways. As liturgists, we need to consider both of these aspects in our planning and leading of worship. Just like a Spiritual Director needs to create space for their Directee to process, talk, and explore the Spirit’s movement in their life, Worship Leaders can also think through ways to allow their congregation moments of reflection and personal response. As we declare God’s glory through our songs, Scripture, and prayers, we need to make sure to allow space for those we lead to further reflect and respond to these declarations. Giving no time for this in our worship planning (through silence, pause, or moments of individual prayer) is a grave disservice to those we lead. It affords them little chance to wrestle with what’s being said and expressed, limiting their opportunity to respond and make these revelations their own.
Silence is one of the Spiritual Director’s most useful tools. It’s the ultimate space-creator. It focuses attention, highlights truth, and has an otherworldly, transcendent tension that provokes reflection. One of the most challenging aspects of being a Spiritual Director is knowing when to speak and when not to, when to allow for silence instead – even if it’s awkward silence – and maybe especially because awkward! Practicing silence in a large group setting can even be more challenging, but not one worth giving up on. Here’s an experiment: In your next worship set, plan 30 seconds of silence (with no musical accompaniment) at a strategic, intentional spot of response in the agenda, letting the congregation know this is the plan – and watch the clock to make sure you stay the course (30 seconds can feel like five minutes sometimes!). Be patient, remain silent, and wait it out. It’s important.
Another way to create space is to give some time after a song, a declarative Scripture, or sermon for the congregation to respond to God in their own way, with prayers in their own words. These can whispered prayers in their hearts – or if you have a smaller group, public prayers prayed aloud, or spontaneous prayers sung in melody as the band continues to play in the background. There are so many ways to facilitate times like this. The important thing is that you create the space for these moments of expression to occur. Don’t steamroll over every part of the service with your words and responses, give time for those you lead to respond, as well.
5. Practice resisting the temptation to fix.“Lord, help me resist solving the problems of my congregation. Help me stop analyzing what they do or don’t do. Help me step aside and let You lead.”
How many times do we beat ourselves up after a worship set because our congregations didn’t respond how we hoped they would? How many Sundays have you wanted them to sing louder, raise their hands higher, weep in repentance, bow in humility, and more passionately turn their hearts to God? Honestly, probably every Sunday! But, here’s a last word of freedom and release for the Worship Leader (straight from the Spiritual Director’s desk); it is not your role or responsibility to make anyone do anything. It is not up to you to fix the doubts, resistance, and sinful behavior patterns of those you lead – this is a work of God and God alone. You are released from this obligation! Let it go. Step aside and let God lead.
My favorite analogy for this is the Communion Table. Picture your worship planning and leading as “setting the table” for a Holy Communion feast. You’ve prepared with all your might and passion. You’ve chosen songs, Scripture readings, planned prayers and transitions. Maybe you’ve even read Part 2 of this article series and practiced in new ways stillness, safety, love, hospitality, and attentiveness. Picture this as your sturdy “communion table,” its fine linen cover or rustic wood stain. Then, as you begin your worship leading, your compassion, your practice of listening, of Scripture usage, and of creating space, these activities form the Communion table elements; the “bread,” the “cup,” maybe some candles placed just so. All this you’ve worked hard to prepare, to set up, and to make available to your congregation. Maybe you’ve even highlighted and enhanced the “table” with tasteful lighting and artistic elements that capture the eye, the imagination, and the senses. You’ve done absolutely everything you can do to make the invitation to worship and transformation compelling, thoughtful, and Spirit-led.
What happens next is up to God and God alone…
Does your congregation respond? Do they come forward to partake in the “table” you’ve prepared? Do they accept the invitation and engage with the Spirit’s power and presence? Can you make them do it? Can you force them, cajole them, reason with them, beg them? No – this is a work of the Spirit. It is not up to you. You are free just to set up and present the opportunity, to invite your congregation to the table of the Lord – everything else is up to God.
The Spirit calls whom He calls. May He draw many to Himself through your humble, surrendered leadership.
Some questions to ponder with the Lord, as you reflect on this article:
How compassionate am I while leading worship? How do I communicate my compassion and understanding for others? In the tension between excellence and empathy, which side do I naturally find myself? How might I strike a better balance here?
How well do I listen to God and others while worship leading? Am I too wrapped up in the mechanics of what I’m doing to hear His voice? What’s one thing I could change to help me do this better?
Is there more Scripture I could include in my worship leading? Why don’t I? What are the obstacles to incorporating more? Where is one spot I could add Scripture in my next worship set?
What is my balance and rhythm of revelation and response in my worship planning? Is it usually more “revelation” or more “response”? What could help bring this more into balance? How much space do I allow for my congregation to respond in their own way to God? How do I instruct them to do so? How might I practice silence for myself and the benefit of others?
When am I tempted to fix my congregation or control their response for my desired outcome? How do I feel when they don’t do what I’d hoped they would? How do I feel about trusting God with that part and leaving it up to Him instead? What fears do I have about this type of surrendered leadership?