Are You In Prison?

1Last week I had the privilege of having lunch with an old seminary professor of mine (I say that because he’s old, and he says so himself) Steve Brown (no relation). He was in town teaching a class at RTS (where I’m attending very, very part-time) and I emailed him to ask if we could have lunch. He said yes, so it was off to Silver Diner we went.

Three years ago I sat in Steve’s class “The Christian Life” in the back row and had my world turned upside-down. For the first day and a half of the class Steve went through what he calls the twelve “prisons” in which Christians can find themselves. Especially Christians who are in ministry. As a Christian in ministry who was a preacher’s kid for his whole upbringing, I sat there and realized that I was in every single prison. Every single one.

I wrote about these prisons three years ago (Pt. 1, 2, 3, and 4) but I wanted to post much of that content again. Too many worship leaders are in bondage without even realizing it. Do any of these sound familiar?

1. Sin
Most of us are in a dangerous place. We’re up front, on a stage, sometimes on a screen, and in a position of leadership. The congregation thinks we’re pure, holy, righteous, have a great prayer life, tithe, sponsor an orphan in Colombia, and never get angry or lust.

The problem is that we know we’re not wonderful. We know we’re sinners. There are things we’ve done that, if people in the congregation knew about them, we’d be humiliated and never want to show our face again.

We’re in a profession where we have to pretend to be who they think we are. This is a terrible prison. This is great bondage.

If you go around pretending you’re wonderful (but feeling ashamed of your secret sin), you’ll be miserable. And so will the people who work with you and serve under you.

Guilty people make people feel guilty. Free people make people feel free. We have been set free from our sin by the blood of Jesus. Yes, we’re depraved. But we’re redeemed. Do you lead worship like a free person or a guilty person?

2. Guilt
Conviction says I have failed to be obedient. Guilt is the feeling associated with that conviction, and its purpose is to send us to Jesus. But once we’re there, guilt has no purpose.

Sadly, we carry guilt with us for years and years, and it is a heavier weight than we realize. This weight weakens us, limits us, makes us do stupid things, and acts as a leash around our neck, keeping us from running free in God’s grace

In addition to making people feel guilty, guilty people are always trying to work towards their own freedom. Most of the time this takes the form of us punishing ourselves in the futile hope that this earns us favor.

Hanging your head low, saying “no” to great opportunities, and carrying crippling feelings of anxiety and unworthiness won’t make you free. They’ll keep you in prison.

Worship leaders who walk in the radical and total grace of God are more emboldened to lead their teams and their congregations with abandon. Are you ministering with abandon or do you feel bound up?

3. Failure
Steve Brown describes the problem this way: “There is a neurotic sense of Christians that they don’t deserve success because of their sin. This sense creates failure”.

Think about that for a second.

Too many Christians, and too many worship leaders, have a neurotic sense that they don’t deserve success because of their sin. And so they fail. Maybe they go to a new church and take a new job. But they still don’t understand God’s grace. So they don’t think they deserve success. And so they fail again.

The sooner we realize that our “sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and (we) bear it no more”, the more freely we can sing “praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!” Until we do that, we carry our sin with us, we don’t think we could possibly succeed because of it, and our songs are halfhearted.

4. The past
I have had incredibly painful experiences in ministry. Many of these came at a young age, leading worship at a small church, coming face to face with some very difficult people and situations.

You’ve had painful experiences too. People have written you vitriolic emails. You’ve made some bad mistakes. You’ve messed up. You’ve been beaten up.

I’ve had to deal with the meanness I encountered when I was a fourteen year old worship leader. I’ve had to really dig deep and forgive those people, repent of my bitterness, and let go of it. You need to deal with your past ministry-inflicted or otherwise-inflicted pain too (if you haven’t).

When we don’t deal with the past it affects the present. Oftentimes it affects us in ways we don’t realize and can’t anticipate. When we get a critical email from someone in our inbox today, we’ll blow up and freak out because we’re responding to the woman from 15 years ago. When our pastor critiques how we prayed in public we’ll overreact and draft our resignation letter because we’re responding to the nasty comments we heard two churches ago.

We get hit with stuff all the time as worship leaders. It will pile up if we let it. Let it go and drop it at the foot of the cross. Jesus has offered to carry our burdens, so let’s take him up on that offer. Break out of the prison of your past so you can be a better worship leader today.

5. Self-abasement
Being humble doesn’t mean being a pushover. Being a servant doesn’t mean being weak. Being conformed to the image of Christ doesn’t mean we can’t be ourselves.

It’s possible to be humble and be strong. It’s possible to be a servant and be bold. It’s possible to be conformed to the image of Christ and be ourselves.

The good news of the Gospel is that we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. We’re covered. All the time. We’re not in danger of becoming un-reconciled because we speak up a bit too loudly at a planning meeting when we disagree or make decisions that will offend the pastor’s wife who always wants to play piano (but can’t).

This prison – this bondage of always hanging our head low and apologizing for ourselves and polishing our shoes and taking the easy road and doing the same old bad songs to keep people happy and avoiding difficult conversations – will drive us to insanity.

Being a wuss doesn’t make God any happier with you! Nothing you do makes God any happier with you. God is only happy with you because of Jesus. You’re covered. So, in Christ, be yourself. Break out of this prison of self-abasement.

Yes, wash people’s feet. Yes, serve them. Yes, love them. And yes, pursue humility. But don’t be a pushover. Don’t be weak. It doesn’t make you a better worship leader.

That’s good news. And it should make you feel free.

6. Perfectionism.
Our assumption that perfection is possible is a fatal error. God knows this. So oftentimes God will give us a thorn in our side to prove this isn’t possible. Just because he loves us.

Sin and failure are God’s methodology of showing love to us and receiving praise unto himself since the only way we can really know and appreciate the depth of God’s love is to be unlovable. We are. And the only way to really be grateful for that love is not to deserve it. We don’t.

We all (hopefully) agree in theory that we can’t be perfect. Jesus is the only one who was ever perfect, and it’s through him, the perfect sacrifice, that we are reconciled to God. We don’t deserve God’s grace but it’s been lavished on us.

But in practice we often live in the prison of trying to be as perfect as we can be, in the hopes that it makes God happy with us. This makes us really nervous worship leaders.

Worship leaders who are trying to be perfect in order to please God are in a dangerous place. It’s only when we get it – really get it – that we’re only made righteous through Jesus and because of this we live in tremendous freedom – that we’ll be able to help our congregations get it. Break out of the prison of perfectionism and rejoice in the freedom that comes from the One who is perfect on our behalf.

7. Fear
In 2 Timothy 1:7 we’re told that God has not given us a spirit of fear – but a spirit of power and love and self-control. Why, then, are we so afraid of so much, and afraid so often?

There are some worship leaders who constantly live in a fear of shame, conflict, the unknown, difficult people, new ideas, being exposed, losing their job, missing God’s will, ruining a service, etc. The list goes on. This prison of fear kills worship leaders. We have to break out of this one so God can use us.

Sometimes God puts us in situations that cause fear because then we can realize where we need to trust him more. If we didn’t have a Savior who had known excruciating fear but persevered all the way to the cross for our sake, we would have reason to be afraid. But Jesus took care of any reason to fear. He is our Redeemer and Mediator, our Father is sovereign and good, the Holy Spirit is the Comforter. So relax and get out of the prison of fear.

8. Needing approval
Steve Brown gives this list of six “nevers” for people in ministry.

–       Never grovel (kiss up)
–       Never apologize when you’re right
–       Say no more than twice
–       Never lie
–       Never pretend to be someone’s Mother
–       Never take responsibility for something that isn’t your responsibility

I don’t know about you, but each one of those points resonate with me and are incredibly freeing to consider. What is he getting at in each one of these “nevers”? Get rid of your need for everyone’s approval.

Living in the freedom of God’s grace doesn’t mean being a jerk, insensitive, undiscerning, un-pastoral, harsh, arrogant, sharp-tongued, or politically stupid. Not by any means.

What it does mean, though, is that once we know – really know – that because of Jesus Christ we are completely loved, accepted, ransomed, redeemed, covered, and freed. I love the line from “Be Thou My Vision”: “riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise, Thou mine inheritance now and always”. What an inheritance we have in Jesus. We don’t need man’s empty praise.

9. Obligation.
No one told me, when I first started leading worship, how often I would end up come face-to-face with various problems over the years.

Some problems are small: the music stands are broken, the chairs are in disarray, the website hasn’t been updated, the piano tuner needs to get into the church but it’s locked, etc.

Some problems are big: the drummer (I can pick on drummers because my brothers are drummers) cursed out the sound engineer, a small coalition of longtime members are petitioning the pastor to get your music out of the service, etc.

Worship leaders will face lots of problems over the course of their ministry. They get in trouble when they think they’re the solution to each one of those problems.

Repeat after me: I am not the solution to every problem.

Feel better? You should. That’s what God’s grace will do to you.

10. Rules
Believe it or not, people will try to manipulate you. They might not even realize they’re doing it, but they are. Don’t be manipulated by the rules people try to set for you. If you want to stay out of the prison of these other-people-imposed rules, you’ll need to set boundaries.

You might recognize some of these:
– Jerry needs a worship leader for his Tuesday night men’s ministry meeting. He asks you. If you say no he won’t have anyone. So you say yes even though it means you’ll be away from home for a fourth straight evening.
– Your bass player refuses to use the online rehearsal resource that the rest of your worship team uses. So you print out chord charts and mail him a CD and spend an extra two hours just on him.
– Amy Amison, a woman who has always sung solos at your church, wants to sing “O Holy Night” this Christmas Eve. She’s not very good. But she’s always sung. You’d rather not have her sing, but you hear from several people that you don’t really have a choice.

So rules get imposed on you. You have to lead worship for the men’s ministry meeting. You have to cater to your uncooperative bass player. You have to let Amy Amison sing.

Why? Because you have to.

You’ve been manipulated.

Being a Christian, and being a worship leader, doesn’t mean you lose your right to set boundaries, to say “no”, to go against unhelpful traditions, and to ruffle feathers. You will burn out more quickly than you can imagine if you allow the prison of rules to keep you locked up.

11. Religion
Leading people in magnifying and exalting the greatness of God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is exciting. Leading musicians in using their gifts to passionately, skillfully, and humbly lead the congregation in singing praise to God is a joy.

But presenting people with a safe, predictable, and polite collection of songs is robotic. Playing chords and melodies to please the ear and manipulate emotions is dangerous.

In the first example we have a picture of the church gathering to celebrate the glory of God. In the second example we have a picture of a religious institution that wants nice music.

When people get really excited about Christianity as an institution, then they’re in prison. The same principle applies to worship leaders. When they get more excited about presenting a polite collection of impressive songs than they do helping people encounter and exalt God’s greatness, they’re (no pun intended), behind bars.

If you find yourself dreading leading worship or coming into the church office to prepare for services and rehearsals, that might be a red flag that you’re in a prison of religion and need to be refreshed and amazed again by the freedom of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Jesus elicits our worship. Religion elicits our duty. If you’re duty-bound, then you really are bound. Worship Jesus, not the institution.

12. Prison of gurus.
The last prison that entraps worship leaders is the prison of gurus.

There is no shortage of worship gurus out there. To learn from them, be mentored by them, and follow their example is a good and healthy thing (depending on the guru). To worship at their altar is not healthy. In fact, it’s idolatry.

We all have people we put on a pedestal. We think that by emulating them and following them we’ll be more sanctified. But we’re not. We’re less so. We’re fake and in bondage.

There really is incredible bondage in worshipping other worship leaders. There is freedom in worshipping Jesus. Be intentional in seeking out good role models. But be careful not to cross the blurry line into idolizing them.

My prayer for myself, and any worship leader who reads this blog, is that God would continue to break the chains of bondage that seek to hinder our effectiveness in ministry, and that we would be set free, by his grace, more and more every day.

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