It has been a long time since I led worship. And my thoughts on worship leading come mostly from study, observation and my own personal experiences, not a doctrine of worship or a theology of worship.
I became a believer back in the Jesus Movement of the early 1970’s. And wouldn’t you know it; I was already a guitar player when ‘contemporary worship’ was just being birthed.
Praise music had come to the youth of America in a language they could understand – folk music with guitars instead of hymns played on the church organ. It was great – you could sing worship music anywhere you could haul a guitar to; and you didn’t have to memorize 3 verses and a chorus of western European music that had words like “bulwark” and “Ebenezer.” You could sing “Jesus I love you” and “What a mighty God we serve” and not have to look at a textbook for the wording.
When I became a youth pastor in a suburb of Chicago in 1979, somehow we decided to have contemporary worship for our Sunday night services. Since I could basically carry a tune and was well versed in guitar music, I got the job.
But as I look back on those days, I remember worship being more than just singing a list of praise songs. When I approached worship, I prayed and asked the Lord what he wanted us to sing that night. I made out a list and set it on the floor at my feet, but I warned the band that we might deviate from the list.
It almost became the rule rather than the exception that we would add or subtract a song or two. Praise God for fellow musicians who were flexible!
Some senior pastors saw worship kind of like the appetizer before the meal, with the sermon being the main course. Some pastors thought praise was like plowing the ground before they planted the crop – their spoken message.
But I saw worship as entering into the presence of the Lord. It was a time where we touched God, and God touched us. Worship was an experience, not just an event listed on the church bulletin.
I led worship with my eyes closed. Strange, huh? Not for me. I was entering into worship no matter what the crowd decided to do. No distractions, no discouragement, just me and Jesus, almost alone together.
At a concert, Buck Herring once said, “I am not a worship leader. I am a worshipper, and I invite you to join me in worshipping, if you choose.” I like that. Buck (who was married to Annie of the band 2nd Chapter of Acts) was putting into words what I already lived.
It is sad that some forms of worship are actually a performance. You know, they have a band and several singers and the singers look like they are on television or something. Always smiling, always scanning the crowd with their eyes, slow majestic hand and body movements.
That’s not how we did it back in the days of the early Jesus Movement. We wore jeans up on stage, there was usually one singer/leader and the band didn’t really practice much in advance. No fake smiles, no slow motion “charisma” movements, just a bunch of musicians trying to enter into the presence of the Lord.
One of my most memorable worship experiences was leading worship at a youth convention of 2,000 teenagers, just me and Sally and my guitar. It was simple worship, but sincere.
I get tired of praise/worship being the same thing every week, just change out a few songs. We looked for the Lord to do a new thing every time we met for worship. Did you know there are 9 different Hebrew words in the book of Psalms that are translated “praise?” Correctly translated they mean SHOUT, CLAP, KNEEL, BOW, SING, CELEBRATE, PLAY MUSIC, EXTEND HANDS, LAY PROSTRATE, etc. Now that makes for creative worship time!
I guess what I mean to say, is I think worship should be more than a performance, more than a “preliminary” before the sermon, more than a cheering session, and more than just a timeslot of singing.
Worship should be entering into the presence of the King of Kings. Like the priests who entered into the tabernacle of God, they weren’t just going through the motions of prayers, actions, sacrifices, etc. They were immersed into the presence of God.
When my son leads worship, he takes his shoes off first. I like that. That says something about the presence of holy ground.
Do modern worship leaders feel that sense of seriousness, that total abandon of “God if you don’t meet us here, we are just going through the motions?” Do worship leaders wait sometimes in silence between songs, being “still” and praying that God will speak or do something? Do worship leaders come with a word from the Lord sometimes, or a scripture of encouragement? Are worship leaders ready and willing at any time to abandon their song list and go wherever the Lord directs?
We did. And that is all we wanted. We didn’t need an orchestra; we didn’t need six singers on stage singing in perfect harmony.
Just a worshipper and a basic band of musicians, all with hearts toward God, hoping to catch a glimpse of His glory.
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