I love what happens when God’s people worship, and I count it a joy and a high honor to help lead worship. It’s odd, though, that leading worship and worshiping are not the same things. They can be very difficult to do at the same time.
Conscientious worship-leaders can easily get so caught up in the nuts and bolts of leading worship that they themselves worship hardly at all. Some of that tension is unavoidable. Trying to structure worship so that it flows smoothly and feels spontaneous takes, ironically, a great deal of planning, preparation, and hard work that is not spontaneous at all. Leave off the preparation, and it won’t feel spontaneous; it will feel shoddy because it will be.
Surely the best and truest worship occurs when what we do and see and say and sing and hear in worship is designed to point beyond us. We ourselves, what we’re doing, and what is being done, cease to be on center stage as through worship we’re focused on God and what he has done. When we open our hearts to praise him we also open our hands to receive the blessing he reaches down to impart.
Sometimes, though, we worship-leaders can structure worship in ways that make worshiping harder. About the time worship really begins to happen, we short-circuit praise to call out hymn numbers. Or a chatty worship-leader breaks in so often urging us to praise that he makes it harder for us to do what he’s incessantly asking. About the time we’re centering on the Healer of our souls, an ill-timed and lengthy announcement calls our attention to Sister Smithers’ gall bladder. We’re about to feast at God’s banquet, but next Sunday’s all-church picnic takes center stage.
Just when we’re about to worship, thoughts about worship intrude, tastes or scruples about forms of worship stifle, and the Life-connection that God graciously gives when we freely adore is lost as we’re slavishly drawn back to focus on ourselves, our leaders. Was it C. S. Lewis who observed that, as long as you’re worried about the steps of the dance, you’re not dancing?
Make no mistake, genuine worship has far less to do with the quality of the service than it does with the quality of the worshiper’s heart. But conscientiously leading worship—planning it, structuring it—is still a big responsibility. Do it badly, and a shoddy, ill-prepared service calls attention to its shoddiness. Plan it and execute it well, and even then, if our attitudes are wrong, the attention may focus on the messenger and not the Message, the singer and not the Song.
By the way, as hard as our consumer society finds this to believe, we might even worship best at times when we’re singing a song we really dislike but we sing anyway out of love for a fellow worshiper down the pew who finds it a blessing. We are, after all, worshiping a Lord who went to a cross rather than have his own way.
Ah, to worship can be tough. So much inside of us and outside of us can derail the train. But it also can be breathtakingly beautiful if—only if—it helps us connect with the One who is all beauty.
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Copyright 2015 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.