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, Pierce, an older man with a God-soaked heart, invited me to lead a weekly worship set at a local prayer room. “Sure,” I said before getting the details. “Wonderful,” came the reply, “it’s 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. 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 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 worship God oneself. 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 sing a capella songs with no leader at all. This I can see is preferable to being led by a person who draws attention to him- or herself. A remarkable thing happens however when the leader is immersed in the wonder and beauty of the Trinity: it’s contagious.

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 trumps coercion every time. 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 as a leader of musical 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 glory, and for the sake of those you serve.

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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Originally published March 2016 at watershedmusic.com.