* 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?
In this article, we’ll discuss some practical ways that the ministries of spiritual direction and worship leading interrelate. In Part 1 (catch up HERE if you missed it), we discussed some of the ways the two ministries are unique and the particular developmental benefits of spiritual direction in the life of a Worship Leader. We then turned our attention to these specific questions: How might a Worship Leader prepare, plan, and lead worship as a Spiritual Director? Is it possible to some extent? Could it be beneficial to consider? I said I believed the answer to both of these questions was a resounding “Yes”, so let’s dive in.
Let me address a question you might have right off the top; “Why should I adopt or embody this style or method as a Worship Leader?” Especially if you haven’t had an experience with spiritual direction and don’t personally subscribe to it as an element of discipleship in your life, this is a fair objection. But, whether you are a “fan” of spiritual direction or not, it’s important to consider that as Worship Leaders, we are also Culture Makers. Meaning, the way you approach, prepare for, and lead worship creates values and cultural touchstones within your context. Whatever you’re doing to get people in your pews, you will have to continue to do to keep them there. If your strategy and values, for instance, are high-production, Vegas-style smoke and mirrors, having the right fitting jeans, or staying up on the latest, greatest worship songs, you will need to keep that up, or do one better each week in order to keep your congregation engaged and entertained.
I’d propose another way, a deeper, more thoughtful approach. What is the culture you want to create through your leadership? What kind of worshippers do you want your people to become over time? Let these greater questions shape your worship leading. You and your congregation will be grateful and blessed by doing so. And, again, because I’ve experienced first-hand the profound journey of spiritual direction in my own life, and researched its effectiveness in the life of believers around the world, for over a thousand years, it seems worthwhile to pursue this connection between spiritual direction and worship leading.
It also seems logical and helpful to discuss elements of preparing for worship before addressing the act of leading worship in this way. It’s particularly interesting to reflect on the ways a Spiritual Director is instructed to prepare before meeting with a Directee, and how those items of preparation have some corollary with the preparation to lead worship. So, before talking through practical ways to lead worship as a Spiritual Director, let’s look at ways to prepare for worship leading through this lens.
These prayer points are copied from my course syllabus in Spiritual Direction and Soul Care at Talbot Seminary. I’ll list them, just as they were written (with a few edits for context), and then unpack various ways I see these instructions and values inform the preparation of worship leading. I see these prompts being helpful as Worship Leaders begin to plan a service or liturgy, or as they enter the sanctuary or worship space to prayerfully get things ready for the already-planned gathering to come. These postures take practice, repeated over time, to develop, and so they are listed as “practices” for that very reason.
5 WAYS TO PREPARE FOR WORSHIP LEADING AS A SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR
1. Practice stillness. Ask the Lord in prayer, “Spirit, how quiet is my soul? Show me and hold for me what is in my soul so I can be truly present with those I’m ministering to. Give me peace, make me still.”
What a powerful prayer for anyone preparing to offer service to another! How might starting your time of planning or preparation with a prayer like this shape your experience? How “still” is your soul as you plan your worship services, print chord charts, or plug in mic cables? If you took even five minutes to pause and ask this of the Lord in prayer before jumping into all the necessary, practical activities of preparation, your entire demeanor, pace, and availability to God and others may be changed. How might it change you?
If we’re honest, often our Worship Leader souls (especially in preparation for leading) are a churning, turbulent sea of anxiety, fear, and self-consciousness, rushed and compressed by hurry, busyness, turmoil, and uncertainty. Unfortunately, if this is the case, it gets reflected to our teams and congregation. We cannot provide a peaceful place of stillness to those around us if we are not experiencing it to some degree ourselves. We need the Spirit’s power to help us do this. That’s why this is a prayer, a request: “Give me peace. Make me still.” But not only is this a prayer, it’s also an action-step that we can begin to walk out. We can begin to evaluate the state of our souls as we prepare or set-up for worship. It’s an orientation that can color our every move, action, and word. What would it look like for a Worship Leader to lead from a place of inner peace and stillness? In what ways would this be a gift to our congregation and volunteer teams? In a chaotic and anxious world, this posture can make our sanctuaries truly become sanctuaries for many.
2. Practice safety. Ask God in prayer, “Lord, am I safe? Make me a place of confidentiality. Take away any judgment.”
Spiritual Directors operate with a code of confidentiality, like many other therapeutic practices, so this particular element may not directly apply to worship leading, but there’s something here nonetheless. What would it mean for a Worship Leader to be a “safe” person, without any judgment? Are you a leader that your congregants and volunteers can trust with personal disclosures, with vulnerability? Are you a safe person that others can be honest and real with about their failings and doubts? Can you keep confidences and respond with grace and love instead of judging too quickly? Do you thoughtfully address any hint of “gossip” as you manage your team members, their personal challenges and prayer requests? How about addressing musical or liturgical differences? How do we approach the various musical tastes, preferences, and suggestions of our congregants and volunteers – with snap judgments and quick dismissals if we don’t agree, or with grace and a suspension of criticism?
Practicing this kind of posture as we plan and lead our teams in rehearsal and preparation can help us deepen relationships and provide a space for accountability, honesty, and spiritual growth. Practicing safety also enables our congregants to express their unique perspectives, challenges, and insights, strengthening a sense of dialogue and conversation – key elements of spiritual formation for all believers.
3. Practice love. Include this in your preparatory prayers, “Lord, give me the capacity to love these people. Remind me of how much you love me.”
What “love” looks like from the Worship Leader standpoint can take many forms. It has profound, practical implications in our song and liturgy planning. When you, as a Worship Leader, choose your songs, have you thought lately about how “loving” your song choices are? How about the choice of song keys; is this key loving to your congregation or more helpful to you as a singer, or to your electric guitar player or pianist? Our love should be directed to those we are ministering to, the congregation. How can you love them better in your worship planning?
How about your liturgy, service order, and pacing? How might you love your congregants with these decisions, as well? Greg Scheer, in his book Essential Worship draws a helpful analogy here. He describes our worship gatherings as “nourishment” for our spiritual formation. We know a loving thing to do when caring for a child is to provide a balanced diet, a healthy plan of nourishment for them to grow. In the same way, we can view our congregants as people who receive nourishment from our worship services, and this means we need to lovingly provide a balanced diet for them, not a reliance on our own personal preferences or strengths as a leader. Greg writes, “If worship services are indeed sustenance for lives of worship, we could approach them in the same way we do with the meals that maintain our physical health. We wouldn’t fall into the trap of the head mode, which is all vegetables and no dessert. And we wouldn’t fall into the trap of the heart mode, which chases after anything sweet and memorable. Instead, we would be careful about our long-term diet. Are there some things we focus on to the exclusion of other things? (All praise and no lament, for example.) Is there enough Scripture to fill our services with the right ‘nutrients’? Do we sing about all facets of the faith? Do we pray for the needs of the whole world? Do we enjoy a balanced diet of Word and Table and celebrate the work of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit?”
This is a loving way to plan and prepare for worship!
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ESV) reminds us: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
“Lord, give me the capacity to love these people. Remind me of how much you love me.”
4. Practice hospitality. Prayer point: “Lord, help me welcome these people and be fully present, as if they were you.”
As a Spiritual Director, this means practically making sure your meeting space is calmly lit, tidy, chairs are comfy and placed intentionally, cell phones are silenced, and Bibles, tissues, and other items are visible and available. These are small things that speak volumes and reflect our intention to love others well. As Worship Leaders, we can adopt this same value and practice hospitality in the way we prepare our worship spaces.
Before rehearsal, are the necessary materials and technical needs prepared in advance for your volunteers? How is the lighting, tidiness, and organization in the room? Does it represent a still, peaceful, loving, and hospitable soul? The attention paid to these details will greatly help your teams experience peace, love, and hospitality, and they will reflect it back. It will enable them to move beyond petty distractions and to focus more clearly on the important things, like their own spiritual formation and call to service, as well as the task at hand.
Before your congregation enters the worship space, how hospitable have you made it? How is the lighting, cleanliness, and organization? Are things intentionally placed exactly where they should be? Have you given adequate attention to how the platform looks (since most people, as they enter for worship, will sit in their seats and look in that direction first)? Is it organized, thoughtfully planned out, and clear of unnecessary distractions? If Jesus where to walk in a few minutes before service and have a seat, what would he be noticing? What are the surroundings saying about your gathering to come? Is the lighting pleasant and warm, theater-dark, or blindingly fluorescent? Are the seats arranged with adequate space around them, crammed together, or scattered haphazardly? Does the platform have intentional lighting, meaningful, color-coordinated items on it (candles, art, pulpit, nature, Scripture, etc…)? Or, is it cluttered with guitar cases, broken drum sticks, dusty plastic flowers, candy wrappers, and dented water bottles? Again, these items are surprisingly important to the care of others. When the topic of soul care and the eternal trajectory of a believer’s spiritual formation is on the table, the first step of hospitality is crucial.
5. Practice attentiveness. Prayer point; “Lord, help me focus on others and their experience, to feel for and pay attention to them. Help me set aside anything going on in my own life. Help me to be absent from myself and present with you and for these people.”
This last one is complex because there are often personal experiences we are going through as Worship Leaders that can be quite helpful to share with others. We need to be discerning, though, on what things might be truly helpful or not. This is where practice #3 comes in; is what you want to share about your own experience “loving”? Be skeptical and suspicious of your own motives. It’s likely better to error on the side of the prayer above, to be “absent” from yourself and more present with God and others.
In our worship planning and preparation, it is a rich gift to offer our attentiveness to others, instead of ourselves. How might they experience these songs, these readings, or this liturgical order of things? When we are able to step out of the way, we can more deeply connect with God and others, which allows others, in turn, to more deeply connect with God.
So to recap, the five practices are stillness, safety, love, hospitality, and attentiveness. I pray these five ideas will be an encouragement to you and those you serve with. These aren’t “5 Quick Steps” – they’re more like deep, inward character traits that we learn to embody over time. There are entire books written about how one becomes a person of “stillness” for instance. Putting on an act, or trying to emulate a behavior pattern is not the same as internalizing these values and becoming a person who is these things. This is a work of the Holy Spirit, so be patient, and begin by opening to God (maybe with the help of a Spiritual Director!) and inviting the Lord, the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2) into the places where change and growth are needed.
Now that we’ve addressed some of the preparatory elements of worship leading, the next article will touch on the mechanics and execution of worship leading, through the lens of a Spiritual Director. I’ll present “5 Practical Ways to Lead Worship as a Spiritual Director.” Stay tuned!
Subscribe (HERE) to receive updates on future articles. And feel free to leave a comment below. Are you a Worship Leader, Spiritual Director, or congregant with further reflections to share? What’s been your experience with these topics and where do you see the connections? I would love to hear from you! Your voice would be a welcome addition to the discussion. Also, consider checking out Greg Scheer’s helpful book Essential Worship quoted in this article.
Leading worship for thirty years and serving as a Spiritual Director for the last five of those, has given me a unique perspective on soul care, formation, and the dynamics of worship leading. In this article, I will briefly attempt to describe the interrelatedness of these two roles, how they are alike, how they differ, and how the ancient art of spiritual direction can inform and deepen the ministry of worship leading.
Many Christian leaders have found great value and support in meeting with a Spiritual Director as part of their ongoing discipleship and spiritual formation. This is a growing trend in evangelical circles, and I’m grateful for the interest in this aspect of spiritual formation. Graduating from Talbot Seminary and serving as a Spiritual Director these last several years has been a deep joy. Describing the many ways that serving in this ministry (and personally receiving spiritual direction) enriches my life and faith would constitute an entire article by itself, so I’ll simply say here that it has profoundly impacted the way I shepherd, lead, and love others. It has also shaped the way I approach worship leading and my role as Pastor of Worship at Grace Community Church.
HOW THESE MINISTRIES ARE UNIQUE
Before diving into the interrelatedness and connection between spiritual direction and worship leading, it might be helpful to discuss how they are not the same. Worship leading usually describes the activity of guiding a small-to-large group through an experience of corporate singing, prayer, reading, and listening to God together. It’s a role that can quickly scale from a few individuals in a quiet room to thousands in an arena. Traditional, formal spiritual direction, on the other hand, is limited in scope from a one-to-one relationship up to a small group setting, with usually never more than about ten people. It is not effective in a large group because spiritual direction relies heavily on the participant (the “Directee”) having space to talk, share, and process out loud the activity of God in his or her life. There is more content coming from the participant rather than the leader in spiritual direction. Significant time and opportunity must be created for this to occur, and a Spiritual Director goes to great lengths in providing a spiritually and emotionally open space where the Directee is free to set the pace and take the conversational and topical lead. Worship leading, especially in large groups, is the opposite; the worship leader provides most of the content, pacing, and agenda. A Worship Leader is more “directive” in this case, intentionally planning a structure and program for individuals or a congregation to follow and participate in.
Spiritual Direction meetings usually occur once a month to give adequate time and space between appointments for a Directee to process God’s activity in their lives and to collect and ponder their unique experiences before they meet again with their Director. Quite different from this schedule, the people of God, in groups small and large, often gather for worship once a week on Sunday and sometimes on various days in between. The frequency of these meetings poses a unique set of challenges and opportunities for a Worship Leader that are not shared by the Spiritual Director. Formational practices that occur this frequently demand a thoughtful and directive approach as the Worship Leader must consider what truths, experiences, and messages are most important for the Christian to rehearse and habituate. These many gatherings over a length of time also pose a unique opportunity to lead through a variety of themes and seasons, with the goal of expanding a believer’s knowledge and experience of God’s ways and the whole of Biblical narrative and revelation.
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION AND WORSHIP LEADER DEVELOPMENT
With these basic differences in mind, let’s begin to turn attention now toward the various ways that spiritual direction and worship leading interrelate. The first aspect of this being how spiritual direction can play a specific role in the devotional life and professional development of a Worship Leader. As mentioned earlier, the value and benefit of spiritual direction has gained visibility in recent years. Church leaders and pastors, particularly, have been espousing its restorative, reflective, and soul-nurturing aspects. For Worship Leaders, specifically, there seem to be several poignant benefits.
First, spiritual direction helps Worship Leaders develop an ability to be in tune with the leading and activity of the Holy Spirit. It gives them space to ponder and reflect on God’s presence in their own lives, to learn to hear and trust the voice and stirrings of God, which in turn informs the way that they lead others. It strengthens their sensitivity to the leading of the Spirit in worship planning and the facilitation of worship gatherings.
Secondly, receiving spiritual direction helps a Worship Leader get better in touch with their own emotions and situation, with where God is taking them personally. The contours of this journey often lead to deeper, contemplative places of honesty, confession, and growth, exponentially broadening a Worship Leader’s understanding of developmental spirituality and the complexity of human anthropology. The concept that a leader cannot effectively guide people to where they have not gone themselves takes on critical meaning here. Spiritual direction enables a Worship Leader to more contemplatively write and choose worship elements and liturgies that reflect these realities of heart, soul, body, emotions, and habits. It gives them the long view of spiritual formation in the life of believers, taking into account process and conversational prayer, moving beyond merely the goal of emotional expression or musical excellence. This perspective gives the thoughtful Worship Leader new metrics for evaluating the success or effectiveness of their ministry, including the ongoing development of a congregation’s prayer life and overall growth in spiritual maturity.
HOW TO LEAD WORSHIP AS A SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR
Now that we’ve discussed some of the dynamics of these two ministries and how spiritual direction can specifically play a meaningful role in the life of a Worship Leader, it seems interesting and worthwhile to explore the ways these ministries are alike and the many ways they may further inform one another. How might a Worship Leader prepare, plan, and lead worship as a Spiritual Director? Is it possible to some extent? Could it be beneficial to consider? I believe the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes!”
In the next article (before getting into practical ways a Worship Leader might lead worship as a Spiritual Director), I will explore several ways that a Worship Leader can prepare and approach the ministry of worship leading through the lens of spiritual direction. I’m hopeful these ideas and suggestions will inspire fresh thinking and creative application. Stay tuned for “5 Practical Ways to Prepare for Worship Leading as a Spiritual Director.”
Subscribe HERE to receive updates as this article will be released in several installments – and please leave a comment below. Your voice would be a welcome addition to the discussion. Are you a Worship Leader, Spiritual Director, pastor, church volunteer, or congregant with further reflections to share? What’s been your experience with these topics and where do you see the connections? I would love to hear from you!
Also, if you’re curious about spiritual direction and interested in finding a Spiritual Director yourself, may I recommend graftedlife.org. This is the organization I affiliate with, and helpful information plus their extensive Spiritual Director Listing can be found HERE
* Special thanks to my academic and professional colleagues for help in shaping this initial conversation and providing valuable feedback and input: Beth Balmer, Matthew Lewis, David Bunker, Monica Romig Green, Andrew Yee, and Mike Ahn.
I had the privilege a couple weeks ago to teach on Sunday morning at my church on the topic of silence. Here’s the sermon audio if you’d like to take a listen. May God strengthen and stretch you this Lenten season!