As we move close to the celebration of the incarnation, and then turn around and contemplate the New Year, it is inevitable. It’s time to think over our mission and purpose. Taking stock of the past couple of years, here are some of the most important thoughts on worship leadership I have encountered in my time here at Worship Leader. Right now, they seem a little obvious, but they continue to form and inform all that we do in our journey towards biblical worship.
1. Jesus is our worship leader.
Jesus is both the message we sing and he is the medium by which the message is conveyed. This is classic Torrance theology, but as worship leaders have a tendency to take on quite a bit of pressure, this is a powerful and freeing lesson for us. Our self-esteem, sometimes even self-worth is liable to be based on the enthusiasm and participation of our worshiping communities on a given Sunday. But good news! It is the worship that Jesus offers in our midst that is acceptable to the Father. Not our ability to produce powerful moments (though those are great when they come). It is the work of Christ on the cross and his continual work of renewal of all things that we by grace are invited to join when we worship God. And that worship is already worthy and acceptable to God because it is the worship of the Son—our true worship leader.
2. Leading worship is an art of leading participation.
In biblical times, God’s people went to the Temple to offer their sacrifices to God. Today the role of the church leader can still be viewed through this lens: a worship service is designed to create space for people to offer sacrifices of prayer and worship. Worship then—for it to truly be called worship—cannot be something that our congregations come and watch. It is essential to its very nature that people come and participate in what is happening in a service of worship. And the role of a leader in worship is to help people walk into a space and become active. More good news, singing is the most participatory act in a typical service of worship, so we are on the right track when we help people sing.
3. Worship is not evangelism, but it is evangelistic.
Worship evangelism as a term has gotten a bit of negative press in the past couple of years. But biblically speaking, worship does reach the lost. Evangelistic worship is in no way shaped by the response or feelings of the unchurched. But when we worship well in spirit and in truth, we declare that God is the saver of lives, the Savior of all things. He is the living water for the desperately parched souls. He is what makes sense in a senseless world. Worship then not only declares God’s worth and victory, it declares it amongst the nations (Ps 96, Isa 12:4). And lives are changed as a result. And the world is redeemed.
4. Performance is not a dirty word.
God uses people. He has used people to accomplish his deeds throughout history, and it has often been our temptation to minimize our role in the whole process. We feel if we give ourselves too much credit, we are taking glory from God. And in many ways this is true. But not in every way. Successful life-changing worship comes only from God. But God uses us to join in this narrative. Services of worship represent the divine partnership between God and man to bring about the renewal and restoration of his Church—of his people. Music is a performance art. As such, worship leaders prepare, worship leaders play skillfully, and worship leaders partner with the Spirit, all with the single goal: to perform in such a way that others are encouraged to engage with God. And a well-performed worship set helps make this happen. Leading worship is a performance … but it is more than mere performance. It is performance with a purpose in partnership with a holy God.
5. Enduring worship songs are about God.
This might seem like a no-brainer. But it’s actually a much-brainer. I hear so many worship songs. And the ones that tend to have staying power, the ones that unite, lifting diverse and wide-ranging eyes and hearts, are songs about God. In other words, God is the subject of the song. In contrast, many worship songs have another subject (in the grammatical sense): me. When the “I” is the subject of a worship song, the power seems to shift and lose its enduring impact. This brings up an old conversation that used to grace the pages of Worship Leader when Robert Webber was a consistent voice. There is a place for “me” songs in worship, just take a look at the Psalms. But the songs that seem to endure have God as both the subject and the object of the prayer. We are praising God, and it is because of his mighty works that we praise him.
6. Worship music is sung prayer
At its most fundamental essence, worship is prayer. And prayer is always at the heart of church renewal. Prayer is the engagement with God that transforms individuals and communities to his likeness. God is alive; he is real, and he is close—available to those who seek him in prayer and humility. What we have in sung prayer is fully engaged prayer—prayer with heart and a zeal for intimacy with God.
Understanding that our congregational songs are the common prayers of the people is vital to worship leadership. Since transformation occurs through prayer, when we see our set lists as prayer lists, we change the definition of what it means to worship together. Sung prayer, when recognized as such, will be the heart of God’s plan for renewal in the Church today. It is meaningful prayer that is felt, thought, and even given physical space in our very bodies. As the quote attributed to Augustine goes, “He who sings, prays twice.” This theme of worship as prayer will be developed further in the Jan/Feb issue of Worship Leader as well as at the National Worship Leader Conferences in 2016.
Jeremy Armstrong is the managing editor for Worship Leader magazine. Subscribe today!