Worship leaders, in general, are artists. Artists, in general, tend to be emotionally invested in their own situation. Emotional investment, in general, results in assumptions which have varying degrees of truthiness.
And we all know what happens when we assume.
I’ve been leading worship for almost 20 years and I certainly fall into the category of emotionally invested artist. Time and time again I’m reminded that there are assumptions I make, there are assumptions I used to make and there will be assumptions I will make in the future which are wrong, unhealthy and potentially dangerous.
Not dangerous in the sense of “look both ways before you cross the street” or “don’t stick that fork in the electrical outlet” but dangerous in the sense that our hearts can become callous, our passion can fade and our sense of entitlement can grow over time. Dangerous, especially for those of us called to lead God’s people in worship.
So let me outline three of these dangerous assumptions that I have seen worship leaders (including myself) make and give some solutions which will be helpful for you.
Assuming the Crowd is Ready to Worship
This, for me, is the easiest trap to fall into. I’ve led worship with this assumption far too many times than I’m willing to admit but I’ve also been on the other side where I’m part of the congregation where the worship leader simply assumed from the very beginning of the service that I and the rest of the crowd were ready to worship.
Sure, I’ve shown up to church. I’m in my seat. I saw the countdown video. I heard your opening line.
That doesn’t mean I’m ready to worship.
My mind is running. My day has been rushed. My wife and I had an airing of grievances last night. My boss is a jerk. My kids have three birthday parties this afternoon. My doctor called on Friday.
Don’t assume I’m ready to worship.
We sing songs of sacrifice and surrender, songs that celebrate God’s work throughout history, songs that tell the sweet story of the life of Jesus but they’re just words, just songs, just sounds filling the room if they’re not being poured at as a response to the greatest sacrifice, the greatest surrender, the greatest work, the greatest life.
Point me to that story, just like you did last Sunday. Just like you’ve done every Sunday for the last year after year. Keep inviting me back in and calling me to worship.
Worship leaders, we need to invite people, remind them, call them to worship. Tell me again how great God is. Open the Bible and read some of the majestic, beautiful, powerful poetry that speaks of the majesty, beauty and power of my God. Take me away from my distractions and point me to Jesus. Call me to worship.
How? As a default, Psalm 121 is my go to call to worship.
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.
Worship leader, you read that for me at the beginning of our service and (if I choose) I’m ready. You’ve acknowledged my distractions in the hills around me, you’ve reminded me that my God is bigger than the altars and idols in my life. I’m brought back to the help of the Lord and we’ve acknowledged together that my time on this earth is fading and there is a greater “going out and coming in” yet to come.
Don’t assume I’m ready to worship.
Assuming the Crowd Hates Me
Not that artists would ever get their identity wrapped up in their artistry .. ahem .. but another assumption I have had and continue to deal with is this idea that if people aren’t singing, if people aren’t engaged, if people aren’t revelling in the sweet presence of Jesus during their time of worship it means they must hate me and are angry with me for trying to force them to be a part of this.
I have said it myself and I’ve heard others say after a worship service that people just seemed to be angry. It seems like people are staring you down, challenging you to work your worship magic and to just try to get me to sing. Kind of like this game of worship chicken, who will blink first?
Worship leaders, remember that even though I’ve just told you to invite me in to worship and to not assume that I’m ready, it’s still up to me whether or not I’m willing to participate. I get to choose if I’m going to unfold my arms, allow a smile to creep across my face and be aware of the incredible presence of our God who promises to inhabit the praises of His people.
Choosing to worship is my choice, not yours.
So if I choose to not sing, to not engage, to not worship then the consequence of that decision rests with me. I choose to miss the blessing and work of God in that moment. I choose to disengage from the community of worshippers which surrounds me. I choose to let go of the opportunity of again retelling the love, grace and mercy of Jesus through songs.
So I don’t hate you.. but I might not love Jesus as much as I used to. Or at least maybe not as much as I try to convince myself and others that I do.
Worship leader, keep inviting me in to worship. Keep singing songs that take me away from the hardness of my own heart. Keep the joy of the Lord present on your face and maybe, if I choose, I’ll see that and recognize it and allow the Spirit to soften my heart to see how good and merciful and tender He is.
Assuming the Worship Depends on Me
Oh man. This one is a doozy, on so many levels. Again I’m pointing the finger at myself here and saying there are times when worship leaders will begin to think that a powerful, blow-the-roof-off-the-place, Spirit of God encounter it not only possible but is somehow related to my performance and my ability.
If I choose the right songs, if I don’t break a string, if I give the right encouragement at the right moment, if I hit that key change and juuuuust the riiiiiight spot then look out! Jesus is very lucky to have me leading His people in worship today. You’re welcome, Jesus.
We can fall in to this trap of thinking that somehow the calibre of our church’s worship potential rests on the shoulders of our worship team and whether or not we get all the pieces to fit in just the right place.
Now this isn’t to say that worship leaders don’t have a responsibility to lead and to encourage. We certainly do. There is an opportunity and a call to leadership which involves standing in front of our congregation, pointing them to Jesus, using songs and scriptures to stir their hearts and emotions and then encourage them to sing as worship to the Lord.
But that responsibility and call to leadership is about Jesus, not about me. The reason the church has done just fine without you thank you very much for the last 2000 years and will continue to thrive and grow and multiply long after you are dead and buried is this core reality that it’s not about you.
So where’s the danger? Worship leading being about you begins to grow this sick sense of entitlement, the idea that we deserve the stage we have, that we are somehow worthy of the opportunity of leading God’s people in worship.
We don’t start there, naturally, but it’s the same with all heart issues which begin with small thoughts and nudges of “I wish it were this way” and “Isn’t this church lucky to have me” and grows over time to an attitude of selfishness and idolatry of our own role and position.
How to deal with this one? Let me say this to you as a friend and as a fellow follower of Jesus. I have seen too many passionate, dedicated, talented worship leaders fall by the wayside, losing their own opportunity to lead God’s people in worship because this sense of entitlement grew far too large and they began to believe the lie that their church’s worship was, in some way, because of them.
The only answer? Kill it. Put it to death. Deal harshly and swiftly with your own pride and arrogance in this area. Fall on your face before Jesus and someone you trust and ask for forgiveness. Take time away from the proverbial spotlight if you need to. If the spotlight is not proverbial but a reality, increase the seriousness of this request ten times.
Go back to photocopying music for someone else’s worship team. Go back to filling cups of juice for communion. Go back to washing toilets after a junior high retreat. Do anything that grows your humility and your love for Jesus and His church. Don’t let this kill you.
In all things, grace
This is the beauty of the story we have entered. To be caught in the assumption trap with ourselves or with others can be quickly undone thanks to the grace of Jesus and the grace we have toward one another.
Don’t let the assumptions kill you. Don’t be a donkey.