Wearisome. That about sums up my early years of leading congregational worship. 

“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 an older man, Pierce, invited me to lead a weekly two hour worship set at a local prayer room. Two hours is long time, I thought, and an awful lot of four-minute worship 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 empty room. How could I lead worship with no one to lead? 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, 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 worship is worshipping God oneself. The river-belly worship learned in the secret place overflows from stage to congregation. 

By worshipping, the leader offers an unspoken invitation for others to do the same. And it’s those unspoken invitations—invitations by example—that most respect the freedom of the ones being invited. Example triumphs over coercion. Example also lends authority to invitations given by word. “Let’s lift our voices,” is easier to receive from the one 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 as a leader of worship you have never spent a season worshipping God in the secret place—a committed  time and location is helpful in doing this—there is nothing better you can do for your heart, for God’s heart, and for the hearts of those you serve.

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Originally published March 2016 at watershedmusic.com.