Spirit-Leaning Worship Leading

1Early on in my experience as a worship leader, I heard someone paraphrase Jack Hayford who said something along the lines of: “My greatest fear as a pastor/worship leader is that our church services could become such a well-oiled machine that the Holy Spirit could leave altogether and we wouldn’t notice for six months“.

It’s a bit dramatic and intentionally hyperbolic, but he gets his point across. And the possibility of that scenario playing itself out is something that rattles me to this day.

Could I let something like that happen? Could I (and my worship team, or choir), and could my church, become so good at “doing church” or making good music, or sticking to our liturgy, to the point that we’re no longer asking for, expecting, and depending on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in our midst? Yes, I could.

When my worship leading becomes dominant over my Spirit-leaning, I get into dangerous territory. And you do too.

Here’s what happens when our worship leading becomes dominant in our eyes: We allow the excellence (or lack) of our musical/liturgical/technological execution to determine for us whether or not the Holy Spirit was at work. As a result (in our judgement), a tight band, a beautiful Cranmerian prayer, and flawless sound engineering all equal a powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, and we head off to Sunday lunch very pleased.

Conversely, a lousy band, a pitchy choir, a dead liturgy, and constant squealing feedback all equal (again, in our judgement) the complete absence of the Holy Spirit, and we head off to Sunday lunch feeling worthless.

But what if it’s more complicated than this?

What if our criteria for determining whether or not the Holy Spirit was actively present in our services is not so black and white? What if we’ve allowed our worship leading gifts to become dominant over our calling to be Spirit-leaning?

Is it possible that we could experience a flawless service on every level: from the parking lot attendants, to the greeters, to the nursery and children’s church workers, to the technical team, musicians, preacher, and fantastic church coffee (is that possible?), but we’ve not actually asked for, or left room for, or relied upon the Holy Spirit to undergird and work through all of it, for the sake of the exaltation of Jesus Christ and the efficacious preaching and hearing of the Word of God?

And is it possible that we could experience a messy/unpolished service on every level, to the point that we feel like there is NO POSSIBLE WAY the Holy Spirit was even in a five-mile radius of our church, but he was actually very much at work in powerful ways?

I know I’ve experienced this kind of upside-down reality in my experience as a worship leader. You probably have too.

There have been times I’ve planned and executed a service with so much planning, rehearsing, technical excellence, musical flare, and seamless transitions, that the Lord would have been crazy not to let the train of his robe fill our temple. But the service ends and I don’t get a single comment, not one email, not one “great job” in the parking lot, and no one had any visions of angels dancing up and down the aisles.

On the other hand, there have been countless times where I’ve felt unprepared and disjointed, I’ve noticed a bunch of mistakes in the slides, we have multiple musical issues, the reader messes up and reads the wrong Scripture passage, the drummer forgets how to play drums, and the congregation looks like a room full of mannequins. But the service ends and I hear from person after person who were deeply ministered to, who were clearly and unmistakably pointed to Jesus, and who had a profound sense of the nearness of the Holy Spirit.

I think back to Jack Hayford’s concern: that our services could be so well-oiled that the Holy Spirit could leave altogether and we wouldn’t notice for six months.

But there’s another side to that concern: that our services could be so ordinary, and so unpolished, that we would become blind to the very real and sweet presence of the Humble King himself, by his Holy Spirit, walking up and down the aisles, with his face beaming, while the worship leader is too distracted by his broken string to notice.

Am I saying that the Holy Spirit isn’t always present with us? No. Of course he is.

Am I saying that the Holy Spirit isn’t present in well-oiled services? No. Of course he is.

Am I saying that the Holy Spirit is only present in the services that we think are lousy, so we shouldn’t strive for excellence, or to remove distractions? No. Of course we should use our gifts and skills as well as we can.

Here’s what I am saying to worship leaders: to stay needy. Stay dependent. Stay expectant. And stay faith-filled. Our Spirit-leaning must be dominant over our worship leading. Never the other way around.

Stay needy for a God who will empower you with his Holy Spirit for the work of ministry. Stay dependent on that Spirit to keep you fixated on Christ. Stay expectant that the Spirit will do what he alone can do, and don’t try to do his work for him by over-programming or over-thinking or over-filling every possible detail that you can.

And finally, be full of faith in a God who can work through you, or around you, or in spite of you. This way, you can head off to Sunday lunch with full assurance that regardless of whether the service was amazing or average, you were faithful, and the Holy Spirit was at work. Our trust and identity is in his unchanging grace, not in our weekly (or daily) performance. This is good news.

4 thoughts on “Spirit-Leaning Worship Leading

  1. seeking Him 1st June 7, 2016 / 10:28 pm

    What a timely blog post! I lead the music in our small congregation of 10 – 15 regular attenders. It’s not much. I don’t have musical training so our music time consists of either my son playing guitar or power point slides with pre-recorded music that we sing to. I’m horrible at planning what to say or pray between songs and trust God to give me the words – and I like it that way. This past Sunday I lead the music after a few weeks off. My life has been busy, especially Friday and Saturday, so I felt a bit unprepared and out of touch for Sunday. I got up early to spend time with the Lord getting focus back but others in the family prevented that. So, I went in not feeling up to speed.

    We got to church late. The equipment wasn’t working very well and I had to change plans twice during our three songs. BUT, I so felt the Holy Spirit leading and I ended feeling like I was more connected to Him in that service than I have at other times when everything went smoothly.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, “Preach it, brother!” My experience confirms yours. God isn’t as interested in our performance and talents as He is in our hearts and dependence on Him. That takes so much pressure off of us and I am so grateful!

    • Chris Johnson June 23, 2016 / 11:18 am

      I feel the same way! I also lead worship for a small church plant in an already small town, and I play the guitar and sing, with my dinky amp I’ve had for 15 years and the “sound system” somebody gave us because it was too out of date for them to use. Still waiting on some people in the congregation to suddenly jump up and tell me they have secretly been learning keyboard and backup vocals… but I digress…

      I absolutely understand what you and Jamie were saying. Some Sundays it just feels like nothing wants to work right, and everything falls apart, but some of the guys come up to me afterward and tell me how much it moved them and how blessed they were to be there… It’s honestly very humbling to me, to realize how little my abilities have to do with how well a service goes!

      Also, this is the area that my walk is struggling with the most. It seems like God is really hitting me hard to learn dependence on Him right now, and I’m trying, but my big head gets in the way A LOT… So thank you, Jamie, and you, unnamed small church worship leader, for reminding me to let God speak to me, and to diligently seek Him and His will in regards to each and every service (and all of my life, too).

      Love that quote at the beginning, too; being sent out from a bigger church, where I led 20 musicians and singers who (in hindsight) were actually pretty good, and where we generally were trying to smooth out our services and get everything as close to seamless as we could, that hit me hard. Thank you for that, that’s definitely a focus to avoid here at the church plant.

      • seeking Him 1st June 23, 2016 / 11:05 pm

        Well, Chris, as to the “big head” thing, I can relate. I’m almost 49 years old and as I’ve said I have next to no music experience. The majority of my training has come from singing with the radio and a few years of band back in high school (which I did not take seriously). Twice over the course of my adult years, I had the opportunity to sing with church music teams for less than a year each time – nothing major and I kept myself more in the background. I never sang loud because I lacked confidence and didn’t really know if my voice was very good. Mainly, I did the talking and praying between songs.

        I had a major life change a few years ago and through those circumstances, including a new husband whom God has used greatly to build my confidence, God opened the door for me to lead the music at this tiny little church and also take voice lessons. Shortly before this, my desire to sing was growing, but I didn’t really understand it. As I look back over my adult life I can see now that I’ve had a desire for this for some time but didn’t realize it. BUT, after I started taking voice lessons and leading the music grandiose ideas of being really good and performing began to take root in my mind. Though I knew I didn’t really want that there was a part of me that was pulling for that. I knew what Jamie writes about – we don’t need more celebrities, it’s all about the Spirit working through us, can’t focus on my talent, etc – and believed it on one level, but my flesh was fighting for something else. I was so excited to find this blog to remind me of the things I knew deep down inside but was fighting to really believe. It was encouraging and confirming. But it still took a “fall” to really knock those self-exalting thoughts out of me. I bombed it big time in church the first time I had to sing alone with my son playing the guitar (usually another woman sings with me) – much more difficult than singing along with Casting Crowns or Chris Tomlin, etc. I felt like such a failure and went into such a tail spin that I almost quit. I sought God for His wisdom as to what He wanted from me – if I was out of His will leading this music or not. It took a few weeks, and it was hard to keep going, but He confirmed I am where He needs me to be so I am plugging along.

        I am so grateful for that time because God knew what I needed. Deep down I knew the pride was there but I wasn’t able to overcome it. So, in His grace and mercy, He knocked it out of me. Since then I’m getting more comfortable with my voice and it’s limitations. I know I will never have a fantastic voice – and I absolutely do not want the limelight! – but I can sing for Him for as long as He wants me to and I can bless my family or friends if God gives me opportunity and I can be content with that (at least most of the time, that ole flesh likes to rear it’s ugly head every now ant then).

        Anyway, I felt compelled to share that with you, for what it’s worth. I find it comforting to know others have the same struggles as I do – or at least similar ones. Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing! I’m saying a prayer for you now as I close this. May we all bring glory to God first and foremost and let HIM have the limelight! I am SO thankful that He is gracious and merciful with my humanity and uses me in spite of myself!!

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