Wearisome. That about sums up my early years of leading musical worship at a church. 

Leading worship and worshipping are two separate things,” I told myself. I’m not here to worship God myself, but to take care of logistics so that others can worship.” It sounds noble. It isn’t. 

Years later I met Pierce, an older man with a God-soaked heart. He invited me to lead a weekly worship set at a local prayer room. Sure,” I said before getting the details. 

Wonderful! The set is two hours.” 

Gulp.

Two hours is an awful lot of four-minute praise songs.

That first Wednesday afternoon Pierce finished his set and handed things over to me. Armed with a binder full of songs I surveyed the living-room-like setting — chairs and couches filled with not a soul. 

Where is everyone?” I whispered to Pierce. 

He smiled back. It’s for the Lord, man.”

Indeed.

I started the set, ploughing through the songs one after the next. Next week I did it again. And again. Each time to an empty room.

Somewhere in those months a shift occurred. Head-song performance became heart-song surrender. Old songs lingered and new songs emerged. Singing and playing started flowing from an authentic place deep within me. Whoever believes in me,” Jesus said, Out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.” I no longer came to accomplish the work of leading music. I came to commune with Life Himself through the mystery of music. 

That secret time taught me that job one in leading others in musical worship is to be a worshipper. The river-belly worship cultivated in the secret place overflows from stage to congregation.

Some traditions place the musicians in the back of the room, or forgo musicians altogether and sing a capella. This is perhaps preferable to being led by a person who draws attention to him- or herself. But when a leader is a worshipper, it’s contagious. The best leaders are aware of the congregation (it isn’t just a me and Jesus” moment), but more aware of God.

By engaging in authentic worship, the leader offers an unspoken invitation for others to do the same. And it’s those unspoken invitations that most respect the freedom of the ones being invited. Example is better than coercion. 

Example also lends authority to invitations given by word. Let’s lift our voices,” is easier to receive from the leader who is already lifting his heart.

There is no shortcut to this way of worship. It must be received in the secret place and it is sharpened through seasons of suffering. We need not seek suffering; plenty comes. But the secret place must be sought. 

If you are a leader of musical worship who has never spent a season worshipping God in the secret place — a committed time and location is helpful in doing this — now is a great time to create a plan for doing so. There is nothing better you can do for your heart, for God’s glory, and for the sake of those you serve.

Originally published March 2016 at water​shed​mu​sic​.com.