Spiritual Direction and the Worship Leader (Pt. 3)
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?