Though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet.
Worship leaders often make their living on stage in front of hundreds of people. In my opinion, this may very well be a disadvantage in our spiritual formation. Our faith is one with a cross in the middle of it – a symbol of torture and shame. We worship a King who “represented a new moral option” (John Howard Yoder!) in his life and teachings. This moral option was one of selfless love. Needless to say, it doesn’t leave a ton of room for the elevation of oneself.
Now, to be clear, when I say that this profession may present a disadvantage, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily sin. Far from it. I believe worship leading is a wonderful calling. But it’s dangerous, like fire. Treat it carefully. Don’t get too close, too comfortable, too at home. Let the front platform always remain a place of surrender. Be competent, but don’t be cavalier. Lead well, but don’t drink your own Kool-Aid. Let the spotlight always maintain a bit of foreignness to we who serve the One who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6).
So I have been thinking about spiritual disciplines for the worship leader. What spiritual exercises can counter some of the potential dangers of living a life “up front?”
1. I believe the discipline of secrecy has to be included near the top. Let there be things only God knows. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt 6:3). Fast and don’t tell people. Pray and don’t mention it. Give but don’t take credit. Have soul secrets, just you and your God. When your flesh inevitably screams for the attention it so desperately wants, tell it to shut up. Look for every opportunity to have secrets with God. Who knows…maybe you’ll have inside jokes with each other. Sounds fun!
2. Worship leaders should regularly confess. Confession can be like a soul detox. But don’t just confess to anyone. Find a mentor, a spiritual guide, an accountability partner, whatever you want to call it. I have a mentor, Norman, who at the end of our meetings says, “now tell me something you don’t want to tell me.” Gulp! It’s not always fun, but it’s necessary. At my church we want people to “worship free of inhibition.” I can’t authentically lead people in that unless I have named my sin and confessed it to God and another human. For me, there comes a level of honesty, authenticity, transparency, and rawness when someone is able to claim their junk and take responsibility. Plus, it’s only then when we can experience the real fruit of confession – grace. And there is no better inspiration for worship leading than that.
3. This may seem obvious, but worship leaders should worship. My senior pastor Phill Tague shared in his sermon last week (that was coincidentally about worship!) a quote that essentially said that trying to worship corporately without having times of intimate, private worship is like having the dry heaves. You’re trying to bring something up that isn’t there. Get alone, get your guitar, and let it all out for your God and King.
4. Last but not least, worship leaders should practice justice. This goes back to a post I recently wrote about what God really expects out of his people. Let me give you a hint: it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with how loud you sing. It’s about a life led in obedience to him, and it just so happens that God is a God who cares about the oppressed in this world. True worship is inextricably linked to justice and righteousness. Worship definitely has a horizontal dimension to it. In the spirit of solidarity, I’ll just admit that this is the area at which I am feeling the most convicted right now in my own life.
One of the most telling moments in the Bible is when Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Son of God reaches for a towel and a basin, kneels before his followers, and washes their stinky, smelly feet. In my opinion, that’s one of the best examples of worship leading we find in the Bible. And guess what? No guitar necessary.
Dear church family,
Most of you know that I lead the singing at Church. Often, we refer to this act as “worship.” It’s sort of an unfortunate thing that this word has become so closely associated with the songs we sing at church. It’s not that singing these songs isn’t worship; it’s just that this is only a sliver of what worship is. The danger is that after having referred to these songs as “worship” so many times, we start to lose that distinction. Soon, we lose sight of the fact that worship is something that permeates everything we do.
Apparently God’s people have had this problem for some time now. We have thought that doing certain things was what God actually wanted from us, but it turned out that we were missing the forest for the trees. In passages like Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, and Amos 5, we discover that God really didn’t care about Israel’s “acts of worship” (in this case being things like fasting and offering sacrifices) when they weren’t actually living out what it meant to be God’s people on a daily basis. In Isaiah 1 God tells us what he really thinks of Israel’s acts of worship:
“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”
says the Lord.
“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fattened cattle.
I get no pleasure from the blood
of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to worship me,
who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?
13 Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
the incense of your offerings disgusts me! (Isaiah 1:11-13)
Instead, God wanted Israel’s worship to look like this:
Learn to do good.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows. (Isaiah 1:17)
How I sometimes wish that God had said something different! If only he’d said, “Learn to sing on key. Seek beats two and four. Help the tone deaf. Defend the cause of the sound system upgrade. Fight for the rights of guitarists to have more of themselves in the monitor.”
But he didn’t say that, did he?
As a worship leader, these verses are some of the scariest verses in the Bible. If I’m supposed to somehow lead people into true worship, I need to ask myself to what degree my own life reflects justice and righteousness. Because otherwise, I’m fairly convinced that God might be about as sick of the songs I sing as he was with Israel’s burnt rams. Maybe even more so, because I claim to be a “professional.”
Now, I said that these verses are scary to me, and they are. But on the other hand, they’re beautiful. They’re beautiful because they reveal what kind of God we’re actually worshiping. Turns out that he is a God who doesn’t clamor for our attention out of some tyrannical need to be praised. Instead, what ticks God off is when his children go without, when widows are harmed, when justice is not served. And when it comes right down to it, that is a God who I don’t have a hard time worshiping. That’s the kind of God I have no problem boasting in. That’s the kind of God I can clap my hands for, lift my hands to, write songs about, and dance in the streets before. That’s the kind of God before whom I can stand in awe. He is a God who has every right in the universe to turn his nose up at us pesky humans, but he doesn’t. Instead, his heart breaks for us. I don’t understand it. But it’s awesome.
So we’ve come full circle. I hope that The Ransom continues to be a church that worships passionately. By that, I mean a church that reflects God’s heart in the world. Let my guitar go out of tune, my voice disappear, and every speaker fall from the sky. But let this church forever pursue the forgotten and the lost. Let us pursue the very heart of God. Because when we do, then we will find that we have something to sing about.
See you Sunday.
The prophet Elijah was fleeing for his life from a vicious queen Jezebel (who I always imagine to resemble Cruella Deville) after he righteously owned some prophets of the false god Baal in 1 Kings 18. Scared for his life, he is ready to throw in the towel. But God has something to teach him first. So he takes Elijah to a cave and sits him down. “I’m going to show myself to you, Elijah.”
The story is well known. First there is a violent wind, but God is not in the wind. Then there’s an earthquake, but he’s not in that either. Suddenly, there is a mighty fire, but God is nowhere to be found. Finally there is a whisper…there it is. God is in the whisper. Elijah pulls his cloak over his face and carefully steps to the mouth of the cave to meet with this God who is about to put his finger directly on his fears, hurts, and insecurities.
We live with constant noise. Not just noise of the aural type. I’m talking about constant stimulation in the background of our lives. When you ride in an elevator or are on hold with your credit card company, you’ll probably be accompanied by the smooth sounds of Chuck Mangione’s flugelhorn. It is there to distract us from what we’re actually doing, which is nothing. Doing nothing is to be avoided at all costs. And we’ve gotten quite good at it.
I was watching a medical drama recently where a patient had to be drugged to within an inch of unconsciousness. They had him on a constant IV of some medicine which continually crept into his bloodstream, keeping him just below the threshold of any real pain. Though something was terribly wrong, he didn’t have to feel it as long as the drugs were flowing.
I realized recently that I’ve connected whatever part of my brain that registers boredom to an IV. As longs as the drugs stay on a constant drip, my brain won’t register said boredom. Those drugs are my social and digital media outlets.
Today the average internet surfer spends less than one minute per page. Researchers say that our attention spans are significantly shorter now than they’ve ever been, due largely to television, the internet, and the like. This means that if God is still whispering, we won’t hear him because we’ll get bored halfway through the mighty wind. We’ll change the channel before we even make it to the mouth of the cave.
For a reason that I don’t really understand, yet I really appreciate, God goes about his business in pretty much the opposite way I do: slowly. He doesn’t appear to be in a hurry. I remember a Steve Deneff sermon I heard once where he essentially said that the degree to which I hurry is the degree to which I am most unlike God. God does not seem to pander to our neurotic sensory desires. If we’re going to hear God speak it seems that we’ll have to learn to sit down in our caves and not come out even when we hear the wind, earthquakes, and fires going on outside our door. To sit still is torture. To be silent is to starve ourselves of the attention we crave. To be bored is to check ourselves into a rehab center and stay strapped to a bed while our body goes through a screaming withdrawal.
But when we make it through the night and the dawn breaks, we’ll awaken with a new sense of wonder. We’ll step to the mouth of our caves with our faces covered as we experience for perhaps the first time the gentle voice of our Creator. In the silence, we’ll exclaim with Jacob, “Surely the Lord was here and I did not know it!”
Because he has been. We’ve just been drugged the whole time. So it’s time to remove our IV lines and wake up to the gloriousness of silence. It might just turn out to be anything but boring.
Every Sunday morning all throughout our country, thousands of twentysomething guitarists in thick rimmed glasses fashion their hair to look like they just got out of bed, slip into some skinny jeans, deliberately neglect to shave, strap on their Taylor guitars, and take the stage. There are lights, subwoofers, cameras, and sometimes even fog machines. These people are your contemporary worship leaders, America.
And I am one of them.
At least, minus the skinny jeans, Taylor guitar, and fancy hair. Maybe someday, if I’m lucky. My hair is thinning after all, and perhaps there are better ways to hide it than the haircut I’ve sported since my freshman year in high school.
So I have a confession to make. Sometimes when I observe one of my peers in the professional worship leading field, I…struggle. Yes, I struggle. I have a good deal of tension about all this. I admit it; I’m a skeptic when it comes to my own job. Please know, this struggle not because I think I’m better than other worship leaders. It’s because I’m just plain uncomfortable with the entire paradigm itself. When I see others lead, it’s a rare opportunity to look in a mirror. And I can’t help but think about how much…attention we worship leaders draw. That seems a bit backwards, doesn’t it?
Bottom line, I’m uncomfortable with the way that we’ve practically venerated our worship leaders. Not sure what I mean? Watch a few seconds of this:
Is it awesome? You betcha. Is it worship? Sure. Of whom? Please don’t make me answer that. Besides, I really can’t. Only God knows the heart.
But I will say this. In his book The Pastor, Eugene Peterson argues that while Pastors rail against abusing such things as drugs and sex, many are being seduced by something equally addictive: crowds. I’d probably ignore Peterson’s observation and convince myself that he’s just an old grouchy pants. That is, if I didn’t know firsthand how right he was.
But seriously, what is it about the fact that I can watch the video above and be more drawn to the fact that there are five electric guitars on stage (5!) or the perfectly messy hair than the Exalted One that they are singing about? And yet, I can watch a similar video by, say, Casting Crowns and be truly drawn to Jesus, “friend of sinners.” What’s the difference? Am I just shallow enough that I have a hard time worshiping the God of the universe just because the people on stage are wearing ball caps and beanies? If so, then shame on me.
But this all serves as a good reminder. As worship leaders, we are setting the stage for Jesus to be exalted. But if our attitude is anything other than John’s, who referred to Jesus by saying “the thongs of who’s sandals I am unworthy to untie,” then we’re idolizing ourselves and inviting others to do the same. The line is so thin that it scares me. I guess what I’m saying is, perhaps we’ve become a bit too cavalier with that line.
So my job is to elevate God in the midst of a paradigm (rock and roll) that has literally conditioned us to elevate man. That’s no small task. But I believe that God can bring redemption even in the midst of our broken means of worship. Every day, I have to humbly place my Telecaster at his feet. Who knows…if I’m lucky, maybe someday I’ll have awesome hair that I can place there too. And a Taylor. And while we’re at it, a Vox AC30…
I am no longer my own but yours.
Your will, not mine, be done in all things,
wherever you may place me,
in all that I do and in all that I may endure;
when there is work for me and when there is none;
when I am troubled and when I am at peace.
Your will be done
when I am valued and when I am disregarded;
when I find fulfillment and when it is lacking;
when I have all things, and when I have nothing.
I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you,
as and where you choose.
Glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours,
may it be so forever.
Let this covenant now made on earth be fulfilled in heaven. Amen.
If I were to attempt to understand the love of God, to first fathom the span of the universe would be a good first step.
To acknowledge the difference between myself and an ant might be a good starting point. But then we’re not even in the ballpark yet.
Perhaps if I could lift the earth or hold the sun in my hands, I could start to comprehend something this colossal.
If every molecule, every process, every particle and every quark in nature were to me like remembering my phone number or the name of my child, then maybe then I’d have the capacity to at least fathom something this ubiquitous.
God loves us.
Lunch will never be the same.