Leading Worship in a Time of Social Distancing

I have a recurring dream.  It is a familiar dream, and not uncommon to serial over-achievers, although the details likely differ from person to person, and from dream to dream.  In this dream, I am getting ready to lead worship somewhere and I can’t find my music anywhere.  I thought I had it, but now it is gone, and I’m scrambling to put everything together.  Or sometimes in the dream, I have my music, but don’t recognize the songs that I’m supposed to lead, and I’m wondering if I can fake my way through them.  Or other times, I realize that I’ve messed up the order and I’m wondering if there is a way to set it straight.  In any of these scenarios, it comes down to this:  I feel unprepared to do the thing that I’m supposed to do.

In a time of plague like we’re experiencing right now—a time of quarantine and remote worship, with worship services recorded and streamed for insular, stay-at-home congregations, families worshiping entirely divorced from the assembly—I wonder if we are also unprepared to do what we’ve been asked by God to do.  By unprepared, I don’t mean technologically unprepared, although that is certainly a challenge as well.  No, I am wondering if our worship leading hasn’t been a little deficient for a long time now, as we’ve grown to rely too heavily on the wonders we can produce with virtuosity and performance, instead of actually doing what we’re supposed to do:  leading people in worship.  People are easily forgotten when we’re trying to dial in a rhythm section or tune the vocalists.  They can disappear when the house lights go down and the music is turned up.  What remains might just be a polished performance that doesn’t lead anyone.

As I watch “worship” live-streamed on my computer, I might as well be watching just another Netflix show.  How easily I am able to disconnect from it, to yawn and reach for the remote.  Not surprising.  But maybe this has been happening all along in our worship services and I just didn’t realize it.  And if I were so inclined today, could I have turned off “worship” with the push of a button on the remote?  Does that strike you as a little strange?  It should.  Maybe this is an excellent time to revisit what it really means to worship, and how to lead someone there.

1) Leading people instead of performing for them

If what I am saying makes no sense to you, then pause a moment to reconsider what worship actually is.  It is not a song.  Worship is not music of any kind.  It is not essentially a ritual, at least, Christian worship isn’t.  If it were, then how would it be possible for Jesus, quoting the prophet Isaiah, to exclaim “these people honor Me with their lips…but their heart is far from Me”?  Granted, there is a lot more to that passage than this isolated quote reveals, but the principle is still contained within, and it is this:  there is a massive difference between what we offer outwardly and what we treasure inwardly.  One of them is worship, while the other can easily be just a performance.  Worship starts with a heart bowing before the Almighty, regardless of the externals–regardless of what I am doing with my voice or my hands or my instrument.

Only the Spirit of God can cause a heart to bow before God.  As worship leaders, we exist purely to facilitate that flow, if at all possible.  The Spirit is the only true worship leader, no matter who is positioned on the platform.  Everything that we bring to the experience by way of music or enhancements merely embellishes or detracts from what the Spirit is already doing.  Some have said that worship is a verb, not a noun, and that is absolutely right.  It would be impossible to push a button and turn off worship, because worship begins inside of you.

Let me give you a simple test regarding worship and performance—the living room test.  Would it work in your living room?  If you stripped everything away—including the music—would it still work?  Would it still lead people?  Some time ago, I was invited by people from a network of house churches in China to go over and lead worship.  I was enthused about the idea, that is, until they began to tell me about their worship.  Because of the repressive regime, they worshiped with shades down and windows closed.  They couldn’t really have any music to speak of, and definitely not instrumental music.  Would I come and lead them?  Honestly, that really challenged me.  Was I just a musician or was I a worship leader?

2) Sculpting a devotional path for people to follow

The job of a worship leader, contrary to popular belief, is to equip people for a devotional journey.  Think about that for a minute.  It is not the job of a musician or a performer.  It is not the person who can dazzle with their vocal gymnastics or exalted guitar chops, like someone doing a bad rendition of the national anthem in a football stadium.  Rather, it is the job of a pastor.  This is someone who has in his or her life worn a path to the throne of grace, like the grooves on a record, savoring the steps along the way.  It is the job of a spiritual tour guide, escorting people on a journey to a place they know, and leaving them an experiential roadmap to follow.  It is the job of a mystic, who believes it is possible to know things by experience.  A worship leader doesn’t perform; no, he or she teaches people how to kneel.

What are those steps?  In some worship circles we call it liturgy.  In other circles we call it worship flow.  But in both cases, the worship leader creates footprints for people to follow, steps that are manageable and that make sense both intellectually and emotionally, as well as spiritually.  You are leading people to the throne, and so the steps make all the difference.  They are nothing new—they have existed forever—but the sensitive combination of them is what makes for effective worship leading.  And none of them require any kind of performance.

On several occasions, I have told the story of hiking with friends in the high Sierras over the Memorial Day weekend.  We were in Mineral King outside of Visalia, and were hiking up to the Pacific Crest Trail.  It had been a bitter winter, and so the trails were pretty blocked by snow and debris, particularly at the higher elevations.  Above the tree line, we came around a corner and were stopped in our tracks by a sheer glacier, rock-hard and slippery, with a forty-five degree slope.  I was wearing tennis shoes, completely unprepared for these conditions, and unable to move forward at all.  So my two friends chopped steps in the ice so that I could put my feet in their prints, and move safely across.  Friends—that is exactly what the Holy Spirit does for you; it is the practical essence of leading worship.

3) Gratitude and the presence of God

How do we engage the hearts of people without just putting on a show?  How do we take them on a journey of worship that is deeper than just singing songs?  How do we cut steps into the ice so that they can follow on a devotional path?  While there are many steps on a devotional journey, let me focus now on just one.

Gratitude is the entrance to God’s presence.  I find this from personal experience, of course, but also from the experience of the psalmist David, who writes in Psalm 100:  “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise.”  Maybe that just sounds like a little poetic flourish from the musician king, but it isn’t.  In fact, it is practical advice from someone who understood worship.  If you want to take a gigantic step towards the throne of grace, begin with gratitude.  Always.  I know that sounds a little obvious, but in real-life, we doesn’t always initiate that way.  How do we usually start?  We usually start with supplication, because that simply is where our hearts are—with our troubles and concerns.  But if you can resist that urge and start with gratitude—start with praise—it will make a huge change, because you will be moving in synchronicity with the Holy Spirit.

Sometime ago, I was on a spiritual retreat in the mountains.  It had been an exhausting season of ministry, and so I needed to get away to some solitude in the woods.  As I began to worship on that porch in the forest, I entered the way that I usually did, with all of my prayer requests—my “list for God” if you will.  Instead of experiencing peace, however, I found myself becoming more and more anxious.  Finally, it was as if a hand came over my mouth, and someone told me to shut up.  Stop talking.  I waited for a long time until my heart settled down, and I began in another way.  I began to practice gratitude.  I entered with thanksgiving, and my spirit changed, slowly and surely, until I was rejoicing.  I was truly entering the presence of God—with no music of any kind—and it was life-altering.

In a time of social distancing, we have two choices:  we can continue to produce polished performances—epitomes of virtuosity that may or may not lead anyone.  Or, this can be an opportunity for growth.  We can begin to teach people the steps to follow the Spirit.  Gratitude is one of those steps.  Another step is confession, a practice long-neglected by the Evangelical church.  Maybe in a time like this, we should also begin to incorporate lament into our worship services.  There is no better time to make a change.  We can choose to lead people in worship.

© 2020 Daniel Radmacher

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