There is an old saying in business, “you don’t get to call yourself a leader if you look back and no one is following you”. This thought came to my mind recently while listening to the frustrations of a young worship leader. He was convinced that the lack of engagement by his congregation was their fault. “Worship was awesome this week but they just stood there and stared at me”, he said. “They just aren’t “mature” enough to grasp where I am trying to lead them”. He was doing all of the things he had learned in the school of worship that he had attended. He was putting a lot of effort on creating great worship sets, perfectly orchestrated transitions, and flawless performances while supporting it with a great visual experience. It just wasn’t working.
The structure and function of his worship ministry was a well-oiled machine but something was missing. The “something” is what great storytellers, performers, and comedians possess. It is the ability to lead people on a journey. They engage people emotionally, intellectually, and even spiritually so that they become a part of the story they are telling, much like a great movie. I recently heard someone re-tell a joke that I had originally heard over a year ago. The first time I heard it I was crying from laughing so hard. The way the person told it had drawn me in. As I was listening to it a second time I gave a half-hearted courtesy laugh but really couldn’t remember what I thought was so funny. The difference was the person telling the joke. The first person told it as though the whole experience of telling the joke and the setup was as important as the punch line. The second person placed all of the emphasis and importance solely on the punch line. One person was invested in the journey of the joke and one was not.
People don’t come to our churches to make it hard for us to lead worship. They want to connect with God. They are dealing with situations that only an encounter with God can solve. Worship leaders facilitate and model that experience with God. We can’t just take songs that are great and assume they will make for a great worship experience. There has to be a deeper level of investment and vulnerability. As a worship leader, I have to lead from my story. Every song that I sing needs to be in the light of the hurts, trials, victories, and gratitude that I experience in my life. I can try to copy and emulate other great worship leaders but it will never be as compelling or as authentic as telling my own story in worship. I can try to sing “Great Is My God” and do my best Chris Tomlin imitation, copy every subtle nuance and people may do the obligatory applause/praise offering. Or, I can sing “Great Is My God” in light of the fact that my oldest son just celebrated his first year of sobriety and recovery from a Meth, Heroine and Cocaine addiction that almost cost him his life. All of a sudden it changes the depth of my worship leading from just singing words and nice ideas to a personal and Biblical truth that is a deeply moving revelation that everyone can understand and be inspired by. Same song different context and way more compelling. Don’t get me wrong, I love music that is played well, transitions that flow and multimedia that draws people in but my story, my life surrendered to God has to be my basis for worship. People want to hear the story we know not one we make up or someone else’s we are trying to hijack.
Worship leaders are good at what they do. We can create continuity between keys, concepts, musical transitions and flow of service. Typically, the longer we do it the easier it becomes. Unfortunately, I have led my share of worship services that were a result of my ability and not grounded in the experience of what God has done in my life. It is this dynamic that creates the disconnect between a worship leader and a congregation. Every opportunity to lead worship is an opportunity to demonstrate that God cares for us and is moving in our lives. The story of what God is doing in you is the one you know the best … lead worship from there and people will follow.
Darren Morehouse is serving as the Worship Pastor of Pinon Hills Community Church in Farmington, NM. He has been leading worship for more than 20 years and served at New Life Church and New Life School of Worship in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as a Worship Pastor, teacher, songwriter, and producer. Visit pinonhillschurch.com.