The Four-Legged Stool of Discernment

Learning how to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit during a time of corporate worship can be challenging. It’s a bit like learning to walk. You start out a bit wobbly, and even after you’ve “gotten it”, you still trip over yourself from time to time.

To lead worship in a Spirit-led way simply means to lead in submission to the sovereign will of God at every turn, as much as we know how. Our planning is good and necessary, but God’s plan is better. And as much as we seek to be led by the Spirit in our planning, we still can’t be arrogant enough to know in advance exactly how God is going to move. Only he does. And so when the service begins we offer our planning up to him and ask him to bless and use it – but also to guide us and lead us by his Spirit to follow his sovereign will.

And this can be hard. So much goes into a service, and so much is going on during a service, that there are all sorts of pressures and competing voices in our head that make it hard to know the Holy Spirit’s leading. He doesn’t usually announce his promptings on a billboard or with a bullhorn. So we doubt whether what we’re hearing is the Holy Spirit or our own preferences. We stick with safety. We wonder what could have been. Or we go the opposite way and follow every whim that comes into our head and we lose all sense of order.  How does a worship leader discern the direction of the Holy Spirit during a service? I like to think of it as four-legged stool.

1. What does God’s word have to say?
No matter how strong the urge, how great the song, how many people agree, or how cool an idea, the Holy Spirit won’t lead you to do something that conflicts with the infallible word of God that he inspired. God’s word is authoritative and can be trusted to lead you in the right direction.

This is particularly applicable when you feel prompted to say something, or lead people in a spontaneous song, or some other form of verbal expression. If it doesn’t fit with God’s word, then it’s not God’s leading. The lyrics to the songs, the words you say, the expressions and articulations you encourage, and the atmosphere you cultivate must be in conformity with God’s word or else you’re in conflict with the leading of his Spirit.

2. What do you hear?
God gave you ears for a reason. You’ve got to use them when you’re leading worship to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading.

Listen for the sound of unified, enthusiastic singing to provide a confirmation that you’re on the right track. Conversely, listen for the sound of distracted talking, confused melodies, or ho-hum singing to tip you off that the Holy Spirit might be nudging you to adjust your leading.

See, this isn’t all rocket science. The Holy Spirit might not declare his promptings on a billboard, but he’s also not trying to make things difficult for you. Listen. Your ears won’t tell you everything – as sometimes even what you hear can deceive you. But your ears are one very important leg of the stool.

3. What do you see?
Likewise, God has given you eyes. Look at the people you’re leading. Open your eyes. Turn the house lights on. Look around the room. What do you see?

You can’t tell everything from what you see. There will be people who stand there like statues who are actually deeply engaged with God. And there will be people who dance in the aisles and wave their arms around who have no idea what’s going on and whose hearts are far from God.

But you can tell a lot from what you see. If people just aren’t that into it, you might need to move on to the next song. If people are enthusiastically engaged, you might need to linger a bit longer before moving on. You’ll learn to read the room the more time you spend with them, and you’ll often find the Holy Spirit giving you cues based on what’s happening before your very eyes.

4. What do you sense?
When God wants to get my attention during a service, I’ll often sense it in my stomach. I’ll have an uneasy butterflies-in-my-stomach sensation that won’t go away and is an indication that the Holy Spirit is trying to get something across to me. Then I’ll try to focus as clearly as I can on what he might be saying. This comes in the form of a word, a phrase, an idea, a song, etc. It’s different every time.

And God speaks to us all in different ways. For some people it’s more of an intellectual thing. For others, like me, it’s more of a physical sensation. Don’t discount something you’re “sensing” and assume it’s just nerves. Maybe it is – but maybe it isn’t. Chew on it, think on it, and pray on it for a moment. Maybe even add a few empty measures into the song while you listen and discern.

Just seek to be obedient to the Holy Spirit’s prompting. It really is like learning to walk. You’ll get more confident as you go along, and even though you’ll still trip over yourself from time to time, you can move forward again once you’ve gotten your balance.

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