I had spent the last fifteen years of my life on staff as a worship pastor. Until November 8, 2009. At that time I resigned my staff position in order to start a mission organization aimed at equipping worship leaders around the world. And for the first time in 26 years I went to church each weekend and did nothing. I sat in a chair just like everyone else. I visited churches and felt out of place. And I struggled. As I sat “in the pew” each weekend I would often think of things that all worship leaders do – “that speaker has a hiss” or “Hmmm….that transition should have been tighter” or “oops, that cue was off”. It was hard to worship from an entirely new place – the place of an average church attendee.
Oh, I’d taken a sabbatical for three months. I even trained a group of worship leaders and had them lead regularly. I purposefully sat under other worship leaders so that I could be filled and have a chance to “just worship”. And as much as I wanted to learn from each of these experiences, while I was a worship pastor I could never experience worship from the perspective of your average church attendee and learn what it might be like for them.
A few weeks ago I was having coffee with a friend at Starbucks. I was sharing some of this with him – how I hated visiting churches, and how awkward everything felt for me, and how vastly different it was to come to church to worship and instead to cry the entire time because it made me so homesick for my team, for my old church, and for everything else I said good-bye to on that day. Church became a painful reminder of all I had lost and so every time of worship felt filled with grief. Harry, who is a fellow worship leader, sat forward and said “But Jan, have you realized how much God is teaching you about leading worship during this time?”.
I realized he was right. I’m learning things right now that I would have never learned if I had stayed where I was. I thought you might benefit from all that I’m learning as well. So here goes…..the top things I’ve learned about leading worship from NOT leading worship!
1) While crowded churches might make for great energy in a worship set, they are terribly uncomfortable for the attender. And nothing makes for an uncomfortable time of worship than sitting squeezed up next to an absolute stranger. As a worship leader, I loved a big crowd. As an attendee, I’d prefer a little more personal space .
2) I don’t care if you sound “just like the recording”, if I can’t sing with you I cannot participate in worship. I have always been extremely conscious of putting worship songs in “friendly” keys, but my experience from the pew showed me how vitally important this is. I’ve listened to many beautiful worship songs in the past seven months. If a song is too high, I’ll jump in and sing harmony, but I have been reminded that most people do not have that option. So guess what? When they can’t sing, they just stop singing. So remember – we really do want to participate and sing and worship with you. Please keep that in mind when you choose keys for songs.
3) Church is all about relationships. Most people come in the door of church looking for one thing – a chance to love and be loved. I learned a startling truth while visiting churches. People love the music and need life giving sermons, but they may be more interested in being known and being loved. They are less interested in being “wowed” and more interested in drawing near to God. They are not impressed with a grand performance where we all sit and watch. What will impress them is a sincere hello, taking the time to remember someone’s name, giving them time to be with God, and helping them find a friend and a place to serve quickly. Take your leadership off the stage and into the congregation!
4) New songs are fun, but we need some familiar songs each Sunday as well. I used to tell my team, “By the time we are tired of a song, the congregation can finally sing it without having to concentrate. And that’s when they begin to worship!” It takes a member of the congregation much longer to learn a new song than it does our worship teams. Remember that I am a musician and it still takes me several Sundays to learn a song from the congregation. If every single service is filled with new songs I spend my time reading the screens and trying to keep up. As much as I might long to really enter into worship, it is much harder when nothing is familiar.
5) Please give me time and space to worship. Sing long enough that I have the chance to turn that corner from a crazy busy week to being still before the Lord. Don’t interrupt me over and over again with instructions to sit down or stand up or moments where I have to learn a new song. I need a few minutes where I can forget that you are on the stage. I need time to shut my eyes and get lost in the presence of God. His voice is most important of all! I’ve realized that sometimes our worship services are not really designed for this. That leads me to the next point….
6) Honor the move of the Spirit. I know you’ve experienced it. That sweet, holy moment where God is moving and there is a sacred hush. But guess what? We have a funny skit or video set up to follow RIGHT NOW. And so we move on, disregarding what God is doing in our midst in order to move on with our own plans. I’ve done it and you’ve done it. And I’m sure your pastor has done it. (Big smile!) While this is awkward when leading from the stage, it is brutal when you are following from the congregation. There is a huge disconnect at that moment and we feel jerked awake by a splash of cold water. Worship leaders – and pastors – leave room for God every Sunday and be sensitive to where HE is going! Isn’t that what leading worship is all about?
Thanks for listening to the hard lessons God is driving home for me during this phase of the journey. As I travel around the world to train worship leaders, and as I sit in the second row each Sunday morning and follow our worship pastor, I am always aware of one vital truth: God is the one that does the transforming. I think the greatest gift we can give our congregations is the chance to simply be with God.
God bless you my friends! I pray God moves in your churches in a mighty way as you worship Him!