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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

Go to the small places {A Life Overseas}

Jonathan is over at A Life Overseas with an important message. (Yes, this is Elizabeth talking; I just loved my husband’s post so much I had to put this plug in here.)

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There are three places that make me feel very small.

  1. Standing at the edge of the sea, watching the never-ending motion as water is pulled by the unseen and unrelenting forces of gravity and wind and planetary motion.
  2. Standing at the foot of a mountain, pondering the historical shifting and breaking that pushed stone into sky
  3. And sitting with a client during pastoral counseling, listening as they delve into the deepest parts, the pains and hurts that few see.

In the small places, I feel inferior and inadequate, unable to change much or make an impact. Do you have those places? Truth be told, those feelings of “smallness” are why I love the sea and mountains; that’s why I seek them out. But I don’t typically welcome those feelings on the job, with clients. Maybe I should.

Maybe we all need go to the small places. On purpose.

Finish reading 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.

This is what I know about spiritual formation (so far)

by Elizabeth

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An Anglican priest ruined it for me. He ruined the phrase “enter the presence of God.”

I was at a Lenten prayer service last year when he said, “Let us become present to the Lord, for He is always present to us.” I knew what he was saying was true, for I’d learned it in other areas of my life (Psalm 139 anyone?). So what he said was more a vocabulary lesson than a course correction.

God is always present and available to us, and I can no longer say with integrity that we “enter the Lord’s presence” during a worship service. In fact, now when I hear that phrase from others, I start to tune out. What I can say with integrity is that we can choose to become present to the Lord.

So with that in mind, here’s everything I know about becoming present to the Lord. In other words, here’s everything I know about spiritual formation (so far).

 

1. Regular, private devotional times with God.

I’ve talked about this a lot before and how it’s changed my life, so I won’t rehash it here. I’ll just summarize my low-pressure method for cultivating intimacy with God:

  • Don’t feel guilty for short times with God
  • Don’t feel guilty if you can’t keep up with a fast-paced Bible-reading plan
  • Don’t feel guilty for deviating from your plans
  • Don’t feel guilty about skipping times.

 

2. Meeting with other believers for corporate worship.

The Church has been key to my spiritual growth. I go into a worship service expecting God to speak to me through songs, sermons, and prayers. And He does.

I’d like to quote Misty Edwards here on the mystery of corporate worship: “Musical worship involves a physical voice, physical sound waves that actually move through the air and strike your ear, go into your mind, into your emotions and spirit.” She also noted that “Musical worship is how the Body becomes One.”

I cannot downplay the importance of the Church in my spiritual life; neither can I downplay the importance of my private devotional life. I need both.

 

3. Small group Bible studies and other intimate forms of community.

I’ve talked about this before, but for years in the States I was part of a small ladies’ Bible study. I learned so much about life and faith from those (mostly older) women. They empathized with my struggles and prayed me through some of my darkest days. Most of what I know about Grace, I learned with them.

These days my teammates function as my small group. We share sorrows and joys together and pray for and support each other. I’m so thankful for people who listen to, accept, pray for, and advise the “real me.”

 

4. Getting counseling.

Sometimes personal devotionals, corporate worship, and talking with trusted people are enough to work through my issues; sometimes they are not. I’ve had several key breakthroughs in my life because of counselors (both licensed professional counselors and pastoral counselors), and I cannot overstate the importance of sometimes getting outside help. I would not be where I am today in my relationship with God and my relationship with others without the help and intervention of those counselors.

 

Well there you have it, everything I know about spiritual formation (so far). What would you add to my list?