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.

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