10 Life Lessons That Leading Worship 600 Times Taught Me

It just sort of happened.

As a teenager growing up in an a cappella church with an a cappella youth group, I sang a lot. In a non-instrumental church, any guy who can loosely carry a tune will be asked to carry that tune. A lot. And so I was. Over and over. And over. No guitar skills necessary.

In college, our inter-denominational student ministry needed a band leader. I still lacked all guitar skills, but no matter, they tagged me and I became the de facto leader for our Thursday night gatherings.

And then I actually started working for a church, leading the youth and worship ministries. I led worship nearly every Sunday for about six years. And that’s how we get to 600 plus.

I recently sat down to ponder what life lessons those experiences taught me.

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1. It’s not about me.
Whether I’m standing before a group of 15 or 500, it’s not about me. It’s about the struggling mom of littles, the financially-strapped couple wondering how to make ends meet. It’s about the widower who feels his loneliness deep in his bones. It’s about the teen who’s trying to figure out who she is — and who God is.

Of course, it’s not about me.

And of course, it’s not primarily about them either. It’s about the Father who is longing to connect with his beloved people through moments of communion and community. It’s about the presence of the only One who is worthy; it’s about what the Spirit is saying to his Church.

 

2. Sometimes, you just have to show up, even when you don’t feel like it.
When you do anything over and over and over again, even if it’s a good thing, there will come a time when you don’t feel like doing it. Well, what’s a worship leader (or human) supposed to do? Is it inauthentic to stand before people when you’ve had a crappy night’s sleep, or when you’re in the middle of a big fight with your wife, and pretend that things are OK?

I really had to wrestle with this. Every Sunday is not a glorious day, and there were many Sundays the last thing I wanted to do was go to church, much less lead people in worship.

Showing up and doing your job, even when you don’t feel like it, isn’t inauthenticity. It’s actually maturity.

One question that continues to help me with this is, “Who is benefiting from my NOT revealing everything?” Am I hiding my true self from people in order to protect myself? In order to avoid intimacy? Or am I not revealing EVERY THING IN EVERY SINGLE MOMENT to get myself out of the way and help people meet with God? Is it for me or for them? If it’s for them, then it’s probably OK. (Of course, this assumes that at some point, and with some people, the leader will be authentic and vulnerable.)

God is worthy of worship whether I feel like it or not, and sometimes I need to stand before him and worship not because of my feelings, but in spite of my feelings. This is true about leading worship, and it’s true about leading life.

 

3. Smiling matters. A lot.
Effie Harnden was a kind old lady who became The Great Encourager of my 16-year-old self. When I was just starting out, someone told me, “Locate the few people who are smiling; look at them often.” I looked at Effie a lot.

It’s pretty good life advice too, “Locate the few people who are smiling; look at them often.”

 

4. Eye contact matters.
I’ve seen worship leaders who never look at a single person in the audience. That M.O. can look super-spiritual, and maybe it is. Maybe they’re lost in total adoration, caught up in the moment. Or maybe they’re just super disconnected from the people their leading.

In life too, I’ve seen people who never notice the people in front of them. So look at people, look at their eyes, wonder about their stories, ask about their stories. If you do, you will impact people very deeply; for when it comes down to it, we are all longing to be seen, even if we’re desperately afraid of it.

 

5. Church people are the worst.
Some people at some churches hated me. They disliked my style, my music, and maybe even my face. It’s just the way it is. Some people will not like you no matter what you do. That does not necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong or bad, but it does mean that you (and they) are humans.

 

6. Church people are the best.
It was church guys who painted our house when my mom was sick with terminal cancer.

It was the “casserole ladies” who fed us.

It was inter-generational trips and Bible studies that showed me how to be a Christian adult, not just a Christian teen.

It was a man, a leader in the church, who came to my side when I couldn’t finish leading God Moves In a Mysterious Way. The cancer-induced tears were drowning me. He stood with me, shoulder to shoulder. We were two men at the front of a church, one young and crying, unable to voice anything. The other, older, an elder, choking tears and singing through empathy.

I will never forget that moment, because in that moment, standing vulnerable before God and his people, I was not alone. I was joined by a man thirty years my senior, and I was saved.

 

7. Complainers complain.
It’s what they do. But it is possible, sometimes, to maintain a positive relationship with complainers. And when it’s possible, it’s also extremely valuable.

But sometimes complainers are just toxic and keeping relationship with them is inadvisable. One key difference? If the complainers really want what’s best for you and for the church, they just really disagree with you, it’s probably best to try to maintain a friendship. If they’re out to control and dominate, manipulating through pressure and threats, to meet their own twisted needs, yeah, run away.

 

8. Every minute leading people requires two minutes NOT leading people.
At least.

The times that you’re NOT leading are more important than the times when you are leading. It may not look related, but sabbath has a direct impact on Sunday.

 

9. Displaying authentic emotions, even tears, in front of people, may be the most “leaderish” thing you ever do.
We live in hard times, and my current job as a pastoral counselor has convinced me (again) that most people do not feel free to really feel their feelings. They feel societal, religious, familial pressure to “keep it all together,” whatever that means. By showing emotions, leaders can help change this. We must change this.

 

10. If at the end of the day, people only remember your skills (or skinny jeans), you’ve failed.
When it really matters, people won’t care about your vocal ability. People won’t care about your flashy .pptx or Prezi or Keynote. People won’t care about your hair style or flannel shirt. At the end of the day, people will ask, “Did he care about us? Did he care about the Church?”

Basically, what matters when the sun sets are these three things:

  • Was I a person of faith, even in my doubts?
  • Did I demonstrate hope, even through my despair?
  • And in a world gone mad, did I love like Christ?

May God help us all to live towards that.

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As I drafted this article, I wept.

I remembered my church, the Red Bridge church of Christ, and my breath caught.

You see, as I pondered, I realized something: I needed them way more than they needed me. That’s just the truth. I was in front of them, but they were leading me. I taught them new songs, but they taught me what Jesus looked like with skin on. I cried in front of them, and they joined their hearts with mine and embodied those beautiful people who mourn with. I got frustrated with them and I’m sure they got frustrated with me, and yet, we stayed friends. I’m so very glad we did, for those dear saints showed me what a “long obedience” could look like.

I’ll forever be grateful for the group of God’s people who invited a scrawny teenager with a pitch pipe to stand, to cry, to lead. They taught me so much, and I will never forget them.

 

*Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

 

10 Life Lessons that leading worship 600 times taught me

Communion as the intersection of all things

by Elizabeth

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I didn’t grow up with the Sacraments. Sacraments were for liturgical traditions, while I was a proud and happy member of Restoration Movement churches. I did, however, grow up with physical commemorations of spiritual truths — for that is what sacrament means. Of course, I didn’t know that back then.

I like to talk about these things when I get together with my friend Heidi, whose husband is an Anglican priest. When I asked her what sacrament means, this is what she told me:

 “The Anglican Book of Common Prayer uses this definition of sacrament: a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us. There’s also the pithy phrase ‘Matter matters.’ It relates to the way God comes to us through matter (water, the bread and wine, etc) and to His value of matter (our physical bodies themselves and all of creation are precious to him – not evil or something to be escaped as in Gnosticism).”

“Matter matters.” As someone who has been running away from her physical body since early adolescence, this was novel concept to me. But as I reflected on my spiritual history, I realized that my church tradition did observe two sacramental practices: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Baptism celebrates our union with Christ through death, burial, and resurrection and is intended to occur once in a lifetime. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, is a regular occurrence and a reminder of how much we are loved. We are loved enough for Christ to pour out his very blood and allow his very body to be broken for us and for our eternal home.

(I like to designate corporate singing as a sacramental practice due to the fact that in singing we join the physical sound waves of our voices together to worship our Triune God and to declare spiritual truths over ourselves, but that’s another conversation entirely.)

Some people call it the Eucharist. I usually call it communion. Whatever its name, this meal of bread and wine is our feast of love. It is where we learn and remember our belovedness. It is where God speaks to us. It is where He calls us: every particle of every person in every place.

God communicates His call in every conceivable human language, for in His wisdom He created communion as the intersection of all things.

It is the intersection of the physical – bread and wine – with the spiritual – the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life.

It is the intersection of the deeply personal – what Christ did for ME – and the incredibly communal – what Christ did for ALL of us.

It is the intersection of the Old Testament sacrifices and the new covenant where no more sacrifices are needed.

It is the intersection of the ancient and the far future as we look back to the Exodus and the Passover – the central story of the Old Testament – and eagerly await the wedding feast of the Lamb.

It is the intersection of the ordinary — a regularly repeated act — and the ceremonial — a special event.

It is the intersection of celebration – our God is victorious and we are free — and mourning – our God suffered and our sins caused it.

The Lord’s Supper is the intersection of the marriage invitation and the acceptance of His offer. It is the intersection of being chosen and the act of choosing back.

The Table brings together all human experiences. At the Table He speaks to each person’s particular history and particular language and particular longings. At the Table He places us in a community that will never end.

So come to the Table where there’s always room for more.

Take, eat: the Body of Christ, broken for you.

Take, drink: the Blood of Christ, shed for you.

Come to the Table and remember. Come to the Table and celebrate. Come to the Table where there’s always room for more.

 

photo source

This is what happens when you take your children to church

by Elizabeth

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When you take your children to church, they’ll listen to the sermon. (Yes, even the little ones.) They will hear the Word of God being preached. Even when it doesn’t look like it, even when they fidget and squirm. But just wait, because after you take your children to church, you’ll take them home again. You’ll be sitting around the dinner table discussing life together, and they’ll bring up the sermon. And you will realize they were listening, and on their level, they understood.

When you take your children to church, you’ll be able to make theological connections and fill in missing pieces. Phrases and stories that you may know and understand but that you hadn’t gotten around to explaining, you’ll have the opportunity to talk about. Because they’ll whisper to you during the service, asking questions about sermon. They’ll bring up all sorts of topics you might not have addressed on your own. And you’ll have the opportunity not to shush them in the moment, but to answer their questions in brief and then dive deeply into them later.

When you take your children to church, they’ll pay attention to the songs you sing. They’ll ask you about the song lyrics they don’t understand, and right then and there, you can answer with the biblical truth for why we sing that part. And when they encounter God in worship, they’ll encounter their humanity too. The congregational singing will stir emotions in them that they may not entirely understand, emotions that need comforting, emotions that need talking through. And you’ll be able to take them into your arms and meet them in their need.

When you take your children to church, they’ll learn what it means to live in community. They’ll see people repenting through tears. They’ll see people on their knees, begging God for healing. They’ll see what happens when God touches someone’s heart, and they’ll see that it looks different from person to person. They’ll watch the different ways people worship, and they’ll be able to explore different ways of expressing their own devotion.

When you take your children to church, you’ll practice being patient with their impatience. You’ll practice not being embarrassed by their questions and their tears and their excitement. You’ll remember that you have a greater purpose than looking perfect or put together on Sunday morning: to engage your children with God and His people.

When you take your children to church, you’re committing to spiritual growth as a family. Of course church is not the only place spiritual growth is supposed to happen. It’s supposed to happen when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. But it’s also supposed to happen in church. As parents we are only one or two people in our children’s lives. We are key people, but we are few. We need others to walk with us in bringing our children up in the faith. And that is what happens when we take our children to church.

 

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*Children’s church is another wonderful option for the spiritual instruction of our children. In fact it’s often a life-saver for parents of young children. We have just found over the past 3 years that doing church together as a family has enhanced our family life and our spiritual growth. It goes without saying here that sometimes keeping your children in church can be hard. It can be wearying. It is not picture perfect, and it can interfere with your own communion with God from time to time. All that said, attending church as a family unit has been worth it for us.

How I Learned My Belovedness {Velvet Ashes}

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Czechoslovakia felt like home to me. Well, not Czechoslovakia exactly, but my mom’s large Czech family. Their love was a constant throughout all my TCK moves. I never fit in at school, but I never, ever doubted my belonging in the Musel family. And wherever I go in the world now, the memory of my mom’s relatives is a comfort that I return to again and again.

Nobody loved or accepted unconditionally like they did. Friends and significant others were always welcomed, no questions asked. It was mind-boggling, really, the inclusiveness they demonstrated, especially as I view it now through adult eyes. They are the ones who taught me my belovedness. That knowledge is a gift that sustains me anywhere I go (and one that the Church would do well to imitate).

Each Christmas we cemented our family relationships with a tradition that harked all the way back to the “old country”: The Apple. Every Christmas Eve after a special meal of noodle soup and hoska (traditional Czech pastry), we gathered around Grandpa (or the oldest living male relative) and listened to him tell the story. It was the same story year after year after: a story about getting lost and finding our way back again.

Grandpa would take an ordinary apple and cut it into the same number of pieces as the people present at the meal. One piece for each person, right on down to the fidgety toddler or the newborn baby. He would pass the plate around, and we would all take a piece, even the little ones who didn’t like the peel. Then we would each eat our piece of apple.

And as we ate, Grandpa would tell us that whenever we felt lost and alone in life, we could sit down, quiet ourselves for a few minutes, and remember eating apple together at Grandpa and Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve. He told us that if we did that, we would find our way. He told stories of family members who had been physically lost in the woods who found their way home because of this communal memory. But the promise wasn’t limited to physical lostness. It was for metaphysical lostness too.

There is nothing magical about a shared meal, or even a ritualistic one. And there is nothing magical about finding peace through the memory of that shared meal. But there is something mystical about it.There is something calming about sitting quietly and remembering how very much you are loved, regardless of what you do or how you perform, but simply because you are part of a family.

Science shows that sharing a meal together produces the same hormone as that produced when you give or receive a hug or when a mother bonds with her baby: oxytocin. The first time I read about the physiology of shared meals, I marveled at the wisdom of a God who instituted a Church tradition that chemically bonds us together. This tradition goes by various names — communion, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist. Regardless of what we call it, it’s been commemorated by the body of Christ for nearly two thousand years now. It goes back much further than my family’s life in the “Old Country.”

I grew up in churches that practiced open communion. Open communion means that anyone who was a follower of Christ could participate, no matter your history or church membership, no questions asked. It was customary to wait till after baptism to take communion, but over the years I witnessed actual open communion of both adults and children, pre-baptism.

I love this practice of open communion. God’s love and forgiveness are free for all, and open communion is a physical representation of that spiritual truth. The bread and the cup are offered to all; there is no judgment here. Everyone is welcome at this Table. We eat together, we gather people into our family, and we remember the love and sacrifice of Christ that created this family.

In the churches of my childhood we celebrated communion weekly, so I have literally a thousand memories of ingesting the bread and wine together with my brothers and sisters. A thousand times of remembering Christ’s sacrifice for all of us regular, ragamuffin believers sitting (and sinning) in those red-padded pews. It was a tradition much like my Musel family Christmas Eve Apple: capable of bonding us together and teaching us how loved we really are.

The Church is supposed to be that safe family atmosphere. And communion is meant to be our oxytocin-creating feast. It’s supposed to be a shared meal, a shared message, and a shared memory. It’s how God wants us to learn our belovedness. But we all know that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the church fails to live up to Christ’s dream for His Bride, and communion doesn’t become the inclusive, bonding event it’s designed to be.

If any of that is true for you today, let’s reclaim communion for our ever-wandering, never-belonging-anywhere hearts. Let’s remind ourselves that communion and other shared meals are an opportunity to rejoice in Christ’s offer of love to us. Let’s reframe time at the Table as a way to remember Jesus as the One who initiates relationship with us, over and over and over again. Let’s pick up the bread and reach for the wine. Let’s put them in our mouths and pass the plates on to the next person. Let’s remake communion into a time to breathe in our belovedness.

The promise offered to me as a child around the Christmas table is no stronger than the promise offered to us when we partake of the bread and wine. It is the promise of becoming one with Jesus and with His people. It is the promise that He is always with us, always welcoming us, always wanting us. So the next time you take communion or share a meal with your brothers and sisters in Christ — yes even the ones you don’t like or who don’t like you – may you remember that you are dearly and truly loved, and that you don’t have to do anything to gain this love.

 

Originally published here; reprinted with permission.

When you’re out of time

by Elizabeth

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Eugene Peterson, in his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (which was originally published in 1980), writes: “America does not honor the quiet work that develops spiritual root systems and community stability.”

One sentence. That’s all it is. Yet for me it was flooded with meaning. I’ve always felt myself to be outside of time. I’ve never grasped fashion (NEVER – you can ask my sisters) or been able to keep up with what’s cool, hip, or current. In that predicament, I felt I didn’t belong amongst my peers. And in fact, friends were a rare jewel throughout many of my childhood years.

At the same time, I look back over my life and see the slow development in small, local Churches of Christ, learning Bible verses by heart, studying Biblical and early church history, and thoroughly taking faith into myself. I see my soul woven into other souls – not mostly of my peers but of those both older and younger than me.

It was my parents’ choices that kept me grounded in theology and tethered to church community. It was slow — very slow. And steady: Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Wednesday evenings, every week, for decades. And though we lived in many places, my parents certainly weren’t church hoppers.

Later it was my own unconscious choices that rooted me. I think of how we got married young (so young!) and started volunteering in youth ministry right away. I think of years and years of working side by side in the local church, serving the people right in front of us. And we stayed in those small places. Even when it got hard — and it DID get hard — we stayed.

In some ways ministry has blossomed for me in the past few years, seemingly out of nowhere. But it’s not out of nowhere. It’s the fruit of working in small, local churches for many years, developing a love for people, for “small” ministry, and for the local church, which I believe is the very heartbeat of God.

All this was quiet work, silent work, unseen work, and yet it’s beginning to yield a harvest in my life. I’m beginning to understand how God uses small ministry to prepare His people for a little bit bigger ministry. And I’m beginning to see that if it’s God who roots and grounds us, we can still love, embrace, and be satisfied by that small ministry.

I may be unable to keep current, and America may only honor currentness, but in my square-peg-in-a-round-world life, I see something richer and deeper and more meaningful than fads and fitting in. I see that being out of time, in cooperation with God who is also out of time, and in friendship with His people, isn’t so very obsolete after all.

Further resources on these ideas:

Kelly Hallahan’s “Hidden” blog post

Video discussions on Banning Liebscher’s new book Rooted

You can also read the rest of my Church series here.

When You Stop Loving the Church

by Elizabeth

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I’ve had a life-long love affair with the church of Jesus Christ. Many of you know that. I’ve talked about it often enough.

But. I almost lost my faith in Christ’s blessed church recently. I was disappointed with His people. Disillusioned even. I felt betrayed by the depravity of mankind.

And then.

I sang the Doxology with my teammates. The words of life set in rich, deep harmonies. Ancient truth, ever new.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost

And then.

I sang Hillsong’s “Glory” with my local church. Words I’d never before heard. Words my spirit desperately needed to hear and to proclaim.

Glory to the risen king, glory to the Son, glorious Son
Lift up your heads, open the doors
Let the king of glory come in
And forever be our God

And then.

I remembered the words of Psalm 29, words that my husband had read aloud earlier that day.

The voice of the Lord twists mighty oaks and strips the forests bare.
In His Temple everyone shouts “Glory!”

And then.

It all came rushing back to me. All along, it’s been CHRIST. Christ is the reason I believed in His church in the first place. Because of Him, and not because of His people.

We are His because of Him, and because of Him, He is our God. Never because of us. For as we used to sing in youth group,

My only hope is You, Jesus
My only hope is You
From early in the morning till late at night
My only hope is You

Human beings were never worthy of my hope. My only hope is in God, and when we’re in God’s Temple, we all cry Glory! Even the believers who disillusion me.

And then.

I remembered more. Standing there with my hands lifted as high to the sky as I could reach, I remembered standing in that same position last year, shouting out Hillsong’s “The Creed” with a shattered heart.

I believe in God our Father
I believe in Christ the Son
I believe in the Holy Spirit
Our God is three in one
I believe in the resurrection
That we will rise again
For I believe in the name of Jesus

And then.

I realized that my strongest experiences of worship don’t usually happen when life is going well. No, it’s when life is going poorly and I’m in the middle of a storm and I still stand and sing GLORY that I most intensely experience God’s nearness and God’s greatness.

And this praise, this powerful act of defiance against evil and against discouragement and against hatred, it’s something no one and nothing can take away from us. It’s our right and our privilege as God’s children, and it can’t be stolen from us.

God alone is worthy of our hope and worthy of our praise. We proclaim it now, and one day in the Temple, we will all join together, saints and angels alike, to shout GLORY. Forever. And ever.

Amen.

This article was reprinted at both Relevant and Faithit.

You can read all the posts in my Church series here.

When your husband calls you “a shell of a woman” {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today.

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For months this spring I felt like a shell of a woman. I was empty and didn’t have anything to give. Oh, I was still doing all the “right” things. I was still getting up most mornings attempting to connect with God, and I was still relatively consistent with my commitment to exercise.  But I felt dead inside and couldn’t figure out why.

My husband noticed. Where before him once stood life and life abundant, he now saw a shell of a woman. He even suggested another round of counseling. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do about it or even what it was. I was unhappy in life and unmotivated in work. Was it depression? Burnout? What???

I felt especially dead at church. That was a strange feeling, because corporate worship has always quenched my thirst and nourished my soul and made my spirit come alive. But I just buried that newly incongruous feeling and ignored it. I tuned it out and refused to listen to it. I ran to the nearest screen and numbed out on TV and Facebook and solitaire games instead.

Finish reading here.