My very early public worship experiences occurred when I was attending Sunday School. I didn’t realize at the time that what the Sunday School superintendant was doing at the beginning was worship. I probably thought that we were singing a few songs while we waited for the rest of the kids (and maybe a few teachers) to arrive. I have never been much of a singer so that time was more useful to me for talking to the other kids, as long as we didn’t catch the attention of the teacher.
Later, our family switched churches and we all began to attend worship as well as Sunday School. I can’t say that I was overly impressed. I did like the new church and grew to be really good friends with the pastor who became an important mentor as I grappled with my call to ministry. Worship was somewhat formal, lead by the pastor with the choir and organist doing a special during the service. As worshippers, we listened, stood for the hymns, bowed our heads for the prayers and put our offerings in the plate.
Recently, I attended a worship service with one of our sons and his family. There were half a dozen people on the stage with guitars, keyboards and drums. We sang lots of songs, one or two of which I recognized. Not being much of a singer even now, I found the music a great time to watch our two grandchildren. Eventually, the pastor walked on stage and lead in the dedication of our newest grandson and introduced some people who talked about their experience leading up to the baptism that had just taken place.
As a pastor, I lead two worship services a week. Neither has the luxury of a worship band–we are actually lucky to have two organists for one and a part-time guitarist at the other. We sing and even occasionally do some worship choruses. I preach, unless I am on vacation. In one, we have lots of congregational participation and sometimes the sermon gets hijacked as we discuss some point from the Scripture readings or sermon that captures the attention of the congregation.
But whether it is Sunday School opening, a traditional worship service, a modern worship service or my own small church reality oriented worship services, there is generally someone in charge, designing and leading the worship. And that has both good and bad points.
A poor worship leader manages to draw attention away from God. This can happen for a variety of reasons: lack of preparation, lack of understanding of the people and situation, a desire to entertain rather than worship, a poor understanding of what worship really is and so on.
A good worship leader tries to design and lead worship so that people are conscious of being in the acknowledged presence of God, something that in the end probably comes more from intuition and art that technique and structure. And, to be honest, the real leader needs to be the Holy Spirit, whose leading is mediated by the human worship leader.
While it would be nice to be able to suggest that we don’t need any other leader but the Holy Spirit, that would be a naive and even dangerous suggestion. I have tried doing worship that way a few times and while it does work, it needs a lot of preparation. Participants have to be prepared before hand; they need to be willing to put themselves in the background, they need to show respect and concern for each participant’s contribution and they need to share. It can work in the right place at the right time with the right participants.
But mostly, we are going to depend on other people to lead us in worship. That isn’t particularly wrong or bad but it does put serious pressure on the leader to work closely with the congregation and the Holy Spirit to design and lead worship that enables all to open themselves to the presence of God. It also requires that the congregation open themselves in trust to the leader and the Holy Spirit, seeking to enter into the worship so that they can become part of offering to God the worship and praise that he deserves.
This seems to put a lot of pressure on the person who designs and leads worship–and it does. But we who are worshippers also have serious responsibility, which we will look at in another post.
May the peace of God be with you.