My wife, Abby, had just given birth to our first baby. We were enjoying a night out as new parents at a Denver Nuggets game when Abby noticed that something was wrong with her eyesight. She had mentioned concerns about her vision several months back, but we’d chalked it up to one of the many changes the body goes through during pregnancy. The blind spot she discovered at the basketball game, however, could not be ignored. A doctor examined her eyes and, after giving a concerned look, sent us to a specialist. The next day, another doctor gave us the news that Abby had a cancerous tumor growing inside her eye.
We needed to act immediately. Suddenly, our world had been turned upside down as we pondered the possibilities of imminent death and the thought of our newborn son growing up without a mom. Abby underwent radiation, which ultimately stopped the cancer, but the trauma of the ordeal left my precious wife mostly blind in one eye. During this painful time in the life of my young family, I was leading worship every week in our church.
On Abby’s first Sunday back in church, as she was feeling an acute sense of grief over the loss of her eyesight, we sang the hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.” For my wife, that song immediately took on a new meaning. It deeply comforted her.
Abby shared her epiphany with me after the service. “I don’t need my vision as long as God can be it for me,” she said. As her husband, I can’t not cry as I write this, and I can’t not cry every time I sing that hymn now.
As the worship planner and leader that week, I will admit that I was oblivious to the potential ministry that the double meaning of that hymn would have for my wife. But Abby’s comment that day helped me realize that worship wasn’t a heavenly pause on her earthly grief. Nor was worship a means of helping her “get over” her grief. Worship was helping her to grieve. It was giving language to her tears. It gave her scattered prayers a script to follow. In the service, the Holy Spirit was applying pastoral care through the songs I led and the prayers I prayed. For the first time in my life, I understood in a very personal way that a worship leader has a pastoral ministry of giving care.
The Divorce of Worship and Pastoral Care
When we hear “pastoral care,” we typically think of one-on-one, gut-wrenching meetings between a pastor and a hurting congregant. We think of counseling sessions, hospital calls, in-home visits, praying for individuals’ needs, and presid- ing over funerals. These are all vital, indispensable care practices of any pastor. But the history of the church points us to a center, a starting place for pastoral care. The pastors of early Christianity saw the core of their ministry to sick, hurting, wounded sheep happening in the context of leading worship. Worship is the ground zero of pastoral care. It is where all pastoral care rightly begins, and without it, all other forms of pastoral care lose their meaning and power. Before I show you why this is so, we need to address another question: How did we ever get to the place where we don’t think of worship when we talk about pastoral care?
William Willimon has argued that modernity has overly individualized and psychologized the landscape of pastoral care. He traces historically how, after the Reformation, pastoral care took an increasingly individualized shape: “A major difference in the pastoral care of previous ages of the church and that of our modern era is the switch from care that utilized mostly corporate, priestly, liturgical actions to care that increasingly limited itself to individualistic, psychologically oriented techniques heavily influenced by prevailing secular therapies for healing, personal fulfillment, and self-help.”
The long-term impact of this shift is that pastoral care has been detheologized. Willimon points out that pastors have lost their ability to “hear the faith issues behind the psychological distress.” To put a finer point on it, our secular age has severed the biblical explanation for our pain and suffering, no longer speaking in categories of sin, the fall, justification, and forgiveness. And worship, which addresses sin and salvation, appears to many to have no practical bearing on our psychological problems. The result has been the disassociation of pastoral care from corporate worship. I believe that we need a renewed vision for how worship functions as pastoral care.
Worship as the Ground Zero of Pastoral Care
“In worship, all the community’s concerns meet and coalesce,” Willimon says. Corporate worship is where we encounter God, ourselves, our judgment, and our grace. It is where our most fundamental human problems and concerns are directly addressed by God and His Word. Worship is the nucleus of all pastoral care. Let’s look at three ways in which worship addresses the pain of our human experience.
- Worship acts as preventative treatment.
The services we plan and lead can be thought of much like a regimen of vitamins for God’s people, the body of Christ. Worship begins caring for us long before the crisis of sickness strikes by building up the immune system of our souls. Long before people are sitting in a pastor’s office seeking counsel, they have likely been sitting in the pews for weeks, months, even years. The services we plan and lead have been offering them words and images of meaning and hope that can speak to their souls. Here’s how one pastor put it: “The minister has a clear duty to counsel the ill and dying, but he should first have helped create a community with a religiocultural view of the meaning of illness and death. … The difficulty with much of pastoral counseling today is that more time is spent discussing the tools of counseling than in the more challenging process of developing the structure of meanings that should constitute the context for counseling.”
Worship sets our individual problems in a cosmic context where we consider ultimate things. Worship reminds us of the spiritual realm, of good and evil, of death and resurrection, and of the hope of future healing on the other side of present pain.
I remember talking to a hurting woman in my congregation who, having gone through a series of miscarriages, was able to say through tears, “My only comfort in all of this … what I cling to … is that God is good, He is sovereign, He loves me, and He knows my pain.” Where did she gain that cosmic structure of meaning? She learned it in her regular, habitual encounters with God’s goodness, sovereignty, and grace in worship. And she learned this and embraced it well before her world caved in. Worship shaped her heart and soul, preparing her in advance for the inevitable suffering she would experience in this fallen world.
We see this time after time throughout the Psalms. The psalmist’s present distress—whatever it may be—doesn’t suddenly disappear. Instead, his pain is contextualized by the vast landscape of God’s sovereign mercy. “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? … But I trust in your unfailing love” (Ps. 13:1, 5). Recovery from grief begins with remembering God’s greatness. Worship offers us this vision.
- Worship contains some ingredients of care that you can’t get anywhere else.
Have you ever experienced a time when the medicine you’d been looking for could be found in only one pharmacy in town? Worship is that one pharmacy. It’s the only place we can go to find a remedy for our spiritual terminal illness. In God’s perfect wisdom, He has chosen to use specific human actions to be His ordinary vehicles for dispensing extraordinary grace. And He’s chosen these actions to be put on display weekly when His people gather for worship. To the naked eye, these actions may look weak and ineffective. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, they are God’s means of caring for His people.
I’m talking here about the preaching of the Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. These are God’s supernatural care package, hand delivered to the world chiefly in worship.
- Worship gets to the heart of the matter.
The various elements of worship just mentioned are powerful vehicles of pastoral ministry because they all address the heart of the human condition. As worship leaders, part of our caregiver’s call is to recognize what makes Christianity unique among all other ideas of care and healing in the world. Christianity insists that sin and alienation from God are at the root of all of our social and psychological problems. The classic symptoms that cause people to seek care and counsel—guilt, shame, loneliness, depression, relational dysfunction, fear—find their ultimate answer at the cross. […]
The rest of the world at best offers bandaid therapy. They can give techniques for managing pain, fear, anger, and the like, but only the church through the Word can offer Jesus—the cure for every curse. If our worship is not offering Jesus to the world, we provide nothing more than the same bandaid solutions the rest of the world is offering, and we might as well close our doors because, to be honest, the world has bigger and better bandaids. While some “Christian” services can still feel quite therapeutic with very little mention of the person and work of Jesus, those feelings are always proven to be temporary and fruitless. True pastoral care in worship has something far better to offer than superficial wound care. In worship, God offers heart transplants (Ezek. 36:26) and resurrection from the dead (Eph. 2:1–5). And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness for the people’s healing, so our worship must display Christ high and lifted up (John 3:14).
The root of all pastoral care in worship is the ministry of the gospel because every last person’s deepest need is not a motivational talk, a life adjustment, an inspiring song, a new outlook, or a soul makeover. We don’t ultimately need New Year’s resolutions. We need the New Adam’s resurrection. Therefore, the most compassionate thing we can do as caregivers is to plan and lead services that offer the ministry of the gospel in lavish excess.
Zac Hicks is Canon for Worship and Liturgy at Cathedral Church of the Advent (Birmingham, AL). He writes regularly at zachicks.com. He and his wife, Abby, have been married for over fifteen years and have four children.
About Zac’s New book, The Worship Pastor:
Every worship leader is really a pastor. The Worship Pastor by Zac Hicks is a practical and biblical introduction to this essential pastoral role. Filled with engaging, illustrative stories it is organized to address questions of theory and practice, striving to balance conversational accessibility with informed instruction. It is meant to be read by pastors, worship leaders, worship teams, and anyone else interested in deepening their understanding and experience of worship. To learn more, visit theworshippastorbook.com.