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Fresh Worship? Fresh Lead Worshipers!

Looking deeper into challenges faced by emerging churches.

In my last article, I outlined some of the significant challenges that worship leaders must confront in order to stay healthy and fruitful as they serve the worshiping communities God has called them to. This article, it’s time to begin tackling these challenges one by one. First up, the frantic challenge.

Everyone in public ministry deals with the frantic challenge. This is true simply because there are, and always will be, greater needs in the world than our pastoral capacity to meet them: more injustices than we have time to address, more hurts than we have time to attend and heal, more troubles than we can counsel, more learners than we can disciple, more dreams than we can make reality, more good strategies than we can implement, more worship services than we can be fully present at . . .

But as personally as you might feel the pinch of this reality (especially on Monday mornings), the frantic challenge is not just about you!  The larger issue at stake is one of hospitality. As a lead worshiper, you are an integral part of God’s hospitality team; you welcome worshipers and seekers into the safety of God’s presence where they can praise, adore, confess, question, cry, listen, learn, commit . . . In the environment of God’s presence, a human life can be transformed, for transformation is the primary business of God.

So the frantic challenge turns into a bigger question: Given the inevitable craziness, how can you as a worship leader optimally create space for people to meet with God? How can you leverage your other ministry responsibilities to deepen your worship leading skills, while avoiding the temptation to drown in the glut of ministry needs? The questions that I brought up last time fall within the larger context of the hospitality question:

• How can a lead worshiper stay fresh and vital fifty-two Sundays (plus holidays!) per year?
• How do worship leaders keep the Sabbath when part of their work is on Sunday?
• How does one choose what not to do in ministry?
• How can one maintain the surety of God’s call in the midst of busyness?
• What is the relationship between a leader’s private life and his or her public authenticity?

My short answer to the frantic challenge is simply that lead worshipers need to be fresh. Let me define some terms. By “fresh” worship, I mean to say any real encounter with the living God. I don’t mean to imply anything about style or substance or the relative age of anything or anybody. One of the beautiful ironies of the Christian faith is that it is simultaneously ancient and ever-new.

Furthermore, in terms of a lead worshiper, FRESH = RESTED + REAL. Worship leaders who have the twin habits of rest and reality/authenticity are habitually able to host and guide worshiping communities into the transformational presence of God.

I’ll spend the rest of this entry detailing what I mean by rested, and next month’s entry exploring the concept of being real and authentic as a way to transform the frantic challenge.

Can you remember (or imagine) an occasion when you were a guest at someone’s home and felt profoundly welcome from the moment you walked through the front door? Chances are that the atmosphere was warm, but unpretentious; that the rooms were carefully prepared and decorated with purpose, but without ostentation. Perhaps there was something about the meal, or the art on the wall, or the conversation that seemed custom-fit to your person—just the thing you needed at just the right time. Perhaps the demeanor of the host, lively in his labors yet utterly relaxed and open to the joy of the moment, made an impression on you.

There are hosts and hostesses in this world who are able to elicit a reaction like this in their guests. It is this sort of custom-fit hospitality that God himself extends to worshiping communities collectively and to individual human souls one by one. As a lead worshiper, you are on the vanguard of God’s hospitality team—called to the same lively labor and flexible ease of a fine hostess.

How are these qualities achieved? I believe they are among the regularly occurring good gifts that God shares with those who are called to worship ministry. They are also, in part, kept and cultivated by lead worshipers themselves as they observe the rhythm of the Sabbath in their lives.

Sabbath keeping (unlike financial generosity) is one of the easiest disciplines of the Christian life to sell to new believers. Who can argue with a weekly rest from the routine of work? Who can fault a time set apart for worship and refreshment?

For veteran Christian folks in ministry, the observing of the Sabbath can be a bit more complicated. For us, Sunday worship satisfies one-half of the Sabbath function—that of collective worship—but it fails to give us a respite from our weekly routine of ministry (quite the contrary!). For lead worshipers to bring our best energy to God’s hospitality team, we need a weekly non-Sunday Sabbath rest from our ministry responsibilities.

What does this look like? It could take one of a hundred forms. I’ve observed, however, that for many lead worshipers what is needed is time spent alone. It’s noteworthy that many facets of worship leading are intensely social: leading rehearsals, recruiting volunteers, coaching and pastoral relationships, friendship evangelism, the bustle of worship events themselves. It only makes sense that our respite and refreshment would come in silence and simplicity, in time alone with God.

To put it another way, in Myers-Briggs speak, worship leaders are generally mild extroverts on the introvert-extrovert continuum. Because this is true of me, I behave as an extrovert in social settings, but draw my inner strength from times of private reflection and creativity. Might the same be true of you? Lead worshipers are socially intelligent and intuitive folks. But without a rich and regular interior life, we endanger the very thing we love (ministry!) with the activity of the thing itself.

At the risk of turning a blog into a sermon, here are a few words from Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and our strength,
an ever present help in times of trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
Though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

And a little later in the psalm:

Nations are in an uproar, kingdoms are falling . . .

Into the roaring and foaming, rising and falling, the noise and hubbub of this fallen world, God then instructs us, “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still . . . and know . . . that I AM God. These words seem to command a special force for lead worshipers. Unless we are regularly refreshed with God himself, the very things we love to do will grind us down and ultimately rob us of our calling.

I have a friend from seminary days who lives in the Boston area. After school he returned to the part of New England where he grew up and was enthusiastic about planting a church there. About six months into this new ministry venture, his enthusiasm was at an all-time high, but his capacity for the load of ministry was waning. He found himself forgetting appointments, feeling exhausted, even being oddly annoyed by his spouse and children at home.

His frustration grew until he and his wife sat down and re-evaluated their schedules, habits, even the minutia of their daily routines. One of their findings was that each of them needed more regular time alone with God. They committed to allowing each other a one-day-per-month retreat, time to spend alone “being still.” It was to be time away from the house, away from kids, away from each other—time just with God.

It was “experimental” for only a short time. When my friend observed his wife’s demeanor as she exited the car upon her first return—namely, singing and dancing in the driveway (hardly typical behavior for this reserved woman)—he knew it was a going to be a long-term pattern.

Another wise church planter/pastor/friend has summarized his Sabbath keeping patterns
like this:

To survive in ministry, I need:

#1) a Daily Diversion (non-ministry focused devotional time)
#2) a Weekly Withdrawal (a day completely away from the routine of ministry)
#3) a Monthly Move (an off-site, change-of-pace day)
#4) an Annual Escape (a yearly spiritual retreat, not for vacation, but for renewal)

Despite his pneumonic tendencies, my friend has built a deep pattern of Sabbath into his ministry life. Admitting the need for this is no sign of weakness. On the contrary, to notice your deep need for God’s leading and inspiration is wise, mature, and strong. I testify to this as one who habitually failed the frantic test on the front end of my ministry.

Communicating your need to elders, church boards, and/or coworkers would be a fine thing to do. Asking for help and support to keep up this sort of rhythm (assuming that your call to ministry leads you to sweat, bleed, and otherwise work your tail off for God’s kingdom) would be in everyone’s best interest.

One added bonus of Sabbath keeping is that when the inevitable times of outrageous busyness come your way, you have been shaped and prepared to endure them. As crazy as your ministry responsibilities are right now, imagine having twins (or triplets!) on the way, adding several challenging new ministry programs simultaneously, or building a facility.

Another bonus of Sabbath keeping is that it allows you a regular change of perspective from which to be reminded of God’s call on you and your community and to re-evaluate your life and ministry accordingly. For me, it’s during these times of temporarily stepping out of the flow of ministry that I’m able to see what activities I ought to give more to, and which activities I ought to give less of myself to. I have a renewed sense of vision and clarity, and it becomes easier to set long-term goals.

Let’s pull back the magnifying glass away from us as individual worship leaders for a moment. The big idea for this entry is that we as lead worshipers are members of God’s hospitality team, welcoming folks into God’s very presence to be transformed. As members of this team, we owe it to everyone to be at our best in executing the plays that God has designed for us. It is impossible for us to host well from a posture of hurry, overcommitment, and unrest.

Fresh lead worshipers are well rested in the Sabbath sense and are real/authentic people. These twin qualities allow them to be hospitable and effective. In turn, hospitable and effective lead worshipers can freely lead and foster a vital worshiping community. May this sort of grace abound in you and your community.

—Gregg DeMey (