Authentic Worship? Authentic Lead Worshipers!

An article exploring the notion of authenticity in lead worshipers.

by Gregg DeMey (gdemey@earthlink.net)

Posted 12-22-04
Last time
we began exploring the first of five challenges that lead worshipers must face in order to stay healthy and fruitful for the long haul. I proposed that “fresh” worship leaders were rested (in the Sabbath, experiencing-God sense) and real (in the being-an-authentic-person sense). This month, it's time to more deeply explore this notion of authenticity.

Whenever we begin a round of self-examination, it's good to place ourselves in the context of the Bible's big story. Here are four basic biblical facts about each of us:

1. God designed us well—he made us in his image (Gen. 1:26-27).
2. We are a corrupted version of God's original design because of our fall into sin (Rom. 5:12). We also add our own unique flair to the world's troubles.
3. God loved us (the whole world!) so much that he sent Jesus to save us from ourselves and from the powers of evil (John 3:16).
4. Jesus is coming back someday to make all things new (Rev. 21). In the meantime, God is at work renovating the world he holds so dear—and he invites us to be his partners in this project.  

Based on these four simple facts, we know that our ministries and service are really just a small part of God's grand-scale purpose for the world. This helps take the pressure off! It keeps us from taking ourselves and our contributions too seriously. We can rest secure that God will recreate this world—whether we are part of the process or not. Indeed, the Holy Spirit can work with us, through us, around us, and (as often as not) in spite of us. All credit to God!

With this basic Biblical perspective in mind, we can get a sharper picture of ourselves. This is no small task! It's a difficult prospect to be honest about ourselves. We are our own chief advocates, cheerleaders, and supporters. It can be difficult to see and tell even the simple truth.  

To illustrate, I'd like to turn to the animal kingdom.

Have you heard the saying “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck—then it's a duck”? I'm fond of this little saying for its humor and hard-hitting honesty; frequently I am fearful of calling a simple duck a duck.

To put it another way: Imagine yourself walking through a zoo full of exotic animals. There is a lovely herd of gazelles leaping and grazing in the wind-swept grass. There are graceful swans paddling nobly across a small lake. Giraffes pull leaves off of twenty-foot-high branches with ease. Nearby there is a gorilla who looks as though he might have some violent tendencies. And there is jackass, braying for all he's got.

Here's the truth: In your life and ministry, right now, there are lovely gazelles, graceful swans, noble giraffes, violent gorillas, and some jackasses as well.

Here's an even deeper truth (with a bit less humor): Inside yourself there is grace, nobility, the potential for violence and—yes!—even the ridiculous voice of the jackass.

Let's be honest about ourselves. If you hail from North America, you are a self-absorbed narcissist (i.e., similar species to jackass). If you're not North American, you've probably been tainted by American culture enough that the same may be true of you. This is no slam on you. You and I were born selfish by nature (remember biblical fact number 2?) and have been nurtured by the most consumer-driven, meet-my-needs-now culture ever to exist. That's the truth.

If you're in ministry it gets worse! According to psychologist Rich Plas of The Transforming Center, folks in ministry are more self-absorbed and narcissistic than our unchurched American counterparts. These qualities underly our conviction that we have something to offer the world.

So what's a ministry-minded, Jesus-following narcissist to do? Throw in the towel given the lousy hand we've been dealt? Hardly. Let's take the analysis one step further.

Psychologists speak of three major forms of human needs:
1. The need to be loved, to feel special, to be accepted and approved of. If you doubt this, spend some time with infants. (This is called the “grandiose” need.)
2. The need to look up to someone stronger, more powerful—or in spiritual terms, more righteous. Simply, we need role models. (This is called the “idealized” need.)
3. The need to be related to and connected to community. Only a mature narcissist even becomes vaguely aware of this one.

Now consider the dynamics that exist between a pastor or lead worshiper and a worshiping community. What do you get when you combine a lead worshiper's need for acceptance with a congregation's need to look up to someone? What do you get when you combine a pastor's longing to be loved with a community's need to love him and look to him as a role model?

This dynamic presents lead worshipers with a strong temptation—a temptation to fake it in ministry. How can we as flawed individuals live up to the ideals of those we serve? How can we gain the acceptance we crave when the spiritual bar is set so high by parishioners who desire a shining example?

One way of coping is to create a ministry persona for ourselves. Like an actor who plays upon the stage, we can create a character, a public self who is good and happy and always smiling and always able to placate the idealized needs of the Christian community. I believe this dynamic explains much of the burnout among our peers. Maintaining the ruse and habitually playing the part will eventually lead to depletion, fragmentation, and an ultimate withdrawal from our calling. Public ministry has dramatic qualities, but we cannot survive ministry by creating a dramatic persona. The call of Christ on us is to labor and serve from our broken, in-process-of-being-recreated selves.

Allow me to share a short story of one young man who got to see behind my persona but still liked what he saw. (Believe me, there are many more stories that end with the person running scared or my being a poor witness.)

Josh was a 14-year-old prodigy when I first met him. He could play classical piano with lightening-fast speed and incredible accuracy; he was a brilliant improviser on the keyboard and could play great lead guitar, bass, drums, etc.

For some reason (I credit the force of his mother's urgings and my scraggly goatee), he took a liking to me. We began jamming together occasionally, and before too long were having weekly discipleship meetings to talk about music and our spiritual lives. It turns out that Josh was having some trouble at home, struggles with truth telling, struggles using the Internet wisely . . .

Josh was a great listener, thoughtful, but also with a silly side. He aspired to be a worship leader and a professional musician. We would sometimes meet in my office before a rehearsal; other times we would go out for coffee or meet at my home where more “real life” happens.

It was on one of these occasions, on a cool evening in late November, that Josh and I were talking about a book called The Heart of the Artist by Rory Noland and praying in my living room. Into the deep spiritual atmosphere of our meeting came the surprised shouts of my wife who, up until then, had been kindly making dinner for us.

Evidently a few excess potato skins had made it down our post-Thanksgiving garbage disposal and now a river of watery potato goo was running from the kitchen to the family room. I tried my best to remain calm and centered in the midst of the raging spuds—but I was less than perfect. I did get the disposal stopped, then the water shut off; the flood soon abated and we got to work on the clean-up and the rigors of unclogging the disposal.

Through this whole scene, Josh looked on in horror at the mess, and then in amazement at how Sarah and I worked together to fix, clean, and still have dinner ready in fairly short order—all while explaining the various steps of the disaster relief to our two young kids. It became a sweet evening, full of humor and as many bad potato jokes as we could think of.

Five years have gone by since then. Josh lives in Atlanta now. Yet this spud-saturated event remains one of the defining moments of our relationship. It was in the context of a domestic disaster at my house that he saw the real me—real mess, real work, real teamwork with my wife. Josh claims he smelled not only the aroma of leftovers gone wrong, but (credit God!) also the fragrance of grace.

In full confidence that God will allow you to have many “Josh moments,” here are a few suggestions as for keeping things real and authentic in your own life and ministry.

1. Let trusted, faithful people into your life and show them the full-blown you. We cannot be transparent for everyone, but neither can we be unknown.
2. Disciple seekers and new believers in the context of your life. Invite folks along to share a car ride, a hospital visit, a youth group event . . . anything where they see the public you and the behind-the-scenes you and how the two intersect. If you were a Greek, you would call this being a Peripatetic. You might notice that this was how Jesus most frequently taught—he brought folks along for the ride.
3. Rehearse and prepare thoroughly for public events. Have you ever caught yourself singing or praying in public and realized that your mind was a thousand miles away—on the temperature of the room, on a sound issue, on a particularly interesting face? Strong lead worshipers worship in private before taking it out in public. The secret times with God become the fuel for public authenticity.
4. Find a mentor or spiritual director to help you along your journey with God. Tell them everything.
5. Practice spiritual disciplines that compensate for your weaknesses. For example, if you struggle with busyness and pace of life, you are a prime candidate for a monthly silent retreat, or a daily habit of centering prayer. If you struggle with self-gratification in any of its many forms, you are a prime candidate for fasting.  
6. Pray (preferably in secret).
7. Give (preferably anonymously).
8. Serve (in an area other than your main spiritual gift).

—Gregg DeMey (gdemey@earthlink.net)

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