I am taking a short break from the reflections on worship in the contemporary American church for a couple of weeks to highlight four of my favorite authors on the subject of God’s grace. Two weeks back, the two Roberts, Webber and Farrar Capon, provided insight into how grace applies to worshipers, and this week two other sets of authors consider how it applies to worship leaders. The writing speaks for itself, but a general overarching theme relates to previous weeks’ discussions re: how we view worship–i.e., human effort we bring vs. divine effort the Almighty facilitates in and through us. (This is especially pertinent in situations where worship leaders feel compelled to serve as motivating forces by which congregations should worship more passionately and fervently.)
I have become so enamored of Debra and Ron Rienstra’s Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry, to which I have referred in this space before, that I plan to use it as a primary text in my Worship Resources class at Judson University next fall. Here they speak to the perfectionistic tendencies to which worship leaders often succumb. (In particular, consider how focusing on others, the world, universal pain, and the like in worship can help foster shared experience, which helps take worship leaders’ individual efforts out of the spotlight just a bit.)
Worship leaders often feel the pressure to be perfect and holy and put-together at all times—at least on the outside. But keeping up a good front actually works against leadership effectiveness and good worship. Instead, worship leaders have to allow themselves to be “slammed by life,” as one of my students put it. The spiritual life does not always lead us through green pastures and beside still waters. There are valleys of shadows, too. Worship leaders have to be open to life—to our own and others’ pain, to events in the world, to people who are especially difficult to deal with, to disappointment and frustration. If preachers and pray-ers and musicians can show others how to bring those shadows to God through worship, they will demonstrate an authenticity that we all can emulate. Being open to life enables leaders to fill out “empty” technique with solid content, the genuine stuff of real life.
John Witvliet is one of the head honchos for all things related to worship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He has authored and edited numerous books and journal articles on the subject of worship over the years. This excerpt comes from a revelatory piece he wrote for Reformed Worship a few years back called “Constancy, Enduring Dispositions, and the Holy Spirit’s Help in Our Weakness.”
There is also another layer here to address, which gets down to our fundamental understanding of agency in worship. It is very tempting to conceive of a worship leader as the spiritual engine that drives the worship train, or the highly-charged sideline coach who needs to keep her team fired up.
This puts all the focus on our agency, a vision that doesn’t square with the New Testament. In the New Testament, our agency as worshipers and leaders is intimately linked with what Jesus is doing as we worship and with what the Holy Spirit is doing as we worship. Remember these comforting words: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26).
In the past few years there has been a lot of attention drawn to the emotional engagement of up-front worship leaders. We hear and read things like “you cannot lead others in worship unless you are a worshiper,” or “how can you expect to lead people into the throne room of God if you haven’t been there yourself?” or “to be a worship leader is to be a ‘lead worshiper.’”
I can see the appeal of these statements—the way they prophetically address those of us who simply go through the motions or those of us who stoically dismiss emotional engagement as unimportant. But they can also discourage and demoralize us in their exaggerated incompleteness. Your congregation’s worship is not ultimately mediated by your level of or capacity for emotional engagement but by the perfect mediating work of Jesus, effected through the Holy Spirit. Praise God! This can free you—and all of us—to engage emotionally, but without a sense of burden that it all depends on us.
I pray both of these excerpts will speak peace to those of us who lead worship on a regular basis–especially coming out of a wonderful but often ridiculously stressful time of the year, when so many people have such high expectations to be moved in worship, and historical traditions and current sentimentalism wage war on uncluttered, focused worship. Worship leaders, be encouraged. Your congregations don’t need your perfect example. They don’t need your exhortations to really sing or to authentically worship. What they need most from you is your quiet recognition and confident resolve that in your (and their) weakness, God will be strong–and (attend to these pronouns) far from needing or even desiring our frenzied activity (as we lead) for His worship, God will provide the means by which He (as we lead) will facilitate His people’s worship.
The gracious Lord be with you!
Coming next week, Lord willing: The public reading of Scripture in contemporary worship.
Warren, awesome words! I love what you said about how historical traditions and current sentimentalism wage war on uncluttered, focuses worship. It’s so true!!