For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of the Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy. (1 Thess 2:19-20)
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul speaks of his care for his fledgling community of believers in an unexpected way. Paul imagines the day when he stands before Jesus, who glorifies Paul by giving him the crown of victory, the ancient equivalent of an Olympic gold medal. Yet, what is this crown? It is the Thessalonian church. Paul’s true success in ministry, indeed, his glory, has to do not so much with what he did as with what he facilitated in the church God had entrusted to him.
Example of Paul
Paul’s example both teaches and inspires those of us who are charged with leading God’s people in worship. To be sure, we should lead in such a way that God is honored in our words and deeds. We should strive to do our work with excellence, faithfulness, and integrity.
Yet, as we imagine ourselves standing before Jesus, we will be rather like Paul. The primary question will not be “Did I lead with excellence?” but rather, “Did the people entrusted to me worship with excellence?”
This fact does not minimize the importance of leading well. If you miss your notes, if you are flat when you sing, if your prayers are self-absorbed, if your song choices are predictably narrow, if you read Scripture poorly, if you prepare your sermons on the fly, then it’s unlikely that your people will worship well. They will be distracted and uninspired. On the contrary, if you perform with musical excellence, if you pray with thoughtfulness and authenticity, if you choose songs that reflect the breadth of God’s revelation, if you read Scripture with the reverential awe or interpretive depth due the Word of God, if you tell God’s truth with insight and conviction, then your people will be encouraged to offer themselves to God in genuine worship. So, it’s essential for worship leaders to pay attention to the quality of our performance as we lead.
Performance For God
But, we must avoid the tendency to make our performance the main thing, as if worship were mainly a performance for the congregation. To borrow the well-known imagery of Søren Kierkegaard, worship is a performance, not for the congregation, but for God. The worship leaders are prompters of worship, rather like conductors of an orchestra. The best conducting in the world isn’t worth much if the orchestra doesn’t play well. So it is with worship leading.
Therefore, our call as worship leaders is not mainly about our own performance. Nor is it mainly about pleasing those we lead. Rather, our performance is most of all a matter of leading our people to perform for God with excellence. In some congregations, this will sound wonderful. In other congregations with limited talents, this will sound mediocre at best. But true excellence in worship has to do with God’s people offering all they are to him. It’s a matter of heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The Fine Line
When it comes to faithful worship leading, we walk a fine line. On the one hand, we should seek to do everything with excellence. This encourages us to hone our skills, prepare, practice, rehearse, and grow in our theological understanding and spiritual maturity. On the other hand, we desire God’s glory above all. We mustn’t focus too much on our personal performance. Rather, like conductors, our job is to lead others so that they might perform with excellence.
If we are to walk this fine line well, then we need to be utterly honest before the Lord about our desires and motivations. There have been many times when, as a preacher, I have confessed to the Lord that I wanted most of all to be liked. I have asked him to reroute the longings of my heart so that I might strive for excellence in preaching, not for my glory, but for his. Yet, in the irony of God’s grace, as he is glorified through my ministry, I experience the glory of his pleasure. To use Paul’s stunning language, those whom I lead in worship become my crown, my glory.