Leading worship for thirty+ years teaches you a few things. One of them is that lingering in musical worship – led by a worship leader who has been trained over years to be pastorally responsive to the Holy Spirit in worship – saves lives.
I hold at least 100 stories in my heart that attest to that statement, and many of them are flooding back to me today. Each of the following is a story, but I’ll just give a summary of each below.
- A suicide is averted.
- A single mother believes she can take on another week of challenge.
- An unemployed man receives courage.
- A young woman releases years of pain over a teenage tragedy.
- A hard heart is profoundly converted from a life of anger to a life of love.
- A young man experiences an emotional release of decades of trauma.
- An alcoholic experiences the strength to get help.
- A tortured mind experiences another level of healing.
- Grief from a miscarriage is released.
- A woman with cancer experiences a complete physical healing.
- A homeless man is embraced, tears flowing from his eyes, as his favorite worship song begins.
- A teenager drawn to occult experiences with spiritual power comes face-to-face with the love and presence of the Living God.
All of this occurred in a the midst of a worship set where a seasoned, Spirit-responsive, pastorally-oriented worship leader repeated a chorus until it was almost awkward, or an instrumental carried on and the words disappeared from the screen, or a holy silence fell on the room and the sweet presence of the Living Christ was honored by the community.
Yeah. I’m ruined.
Songs are Not Always the Point
“…Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
1 Thessalonians 1:5a
Now, before any worship leader runs off to their pastor and says, “See! We do it all wrong!” Please, hear me out. Not every worship set, and not every church, has the same call.
And to be candid, not every worship leader is ready, experienced enough, or has been mentored, to pastor a room (in tandem with others) to the kind of healing space I’m talking about here.
I watched other worship leaders model this kind of leading for many years (in my Vineyard family), before I started to understand how to cultivate a more Spirit-responsive, pastorally-oriented worship leadership myself.
I treasure these and other stories in my heart, as do many of my worship leading friends, of people who had a transforming experience with God in the context of musical worship.
Discernment, Experience, and Patience
Many of these stories came into being, in part, because a worship leader – one who had been taught to discern what the Holy Spirit was doing in any given moment during a worship set – did not just move on to the next song.
“Taught” is the operative word here. We learn not only by practice – we must be taught how to do it first. That takes time and a good set of models and mentors.
And as we are being taught, I will contend, our secret place worship life must be growing in strength. That’s where discernment is learned.
For me, there’s no turning back. And there’s no diplomatic way to say it. Not after all these years and all these stories in the front of my mind today.
Lingering in a song, in a chorus, in an instrumental, or even in silence in the midst of musical worship, can create a space of spiritual transformation unrivaled by any other form of worship.
And if a worship leader sees their primary job as anything less than pastoral, those stories will never occur.
Not on my watch.
Good music that moves us all emotionally and devotionally is not enough to renew a Church for whom the Gospel must be – in our day and time – expressed in the real transformation of lives.
That can happen live on a Sunday morning, and online as well.
Why the Musical Worship Moment is Different than Others
I live in the ancient-future worship world. I am a deeply sacramental worship leader who cares about all the formational pathways of worship the Church must travel for the sake of the world.
I continue to be one of those calling for the recovery of sustained, rhythmic, calendar-oriented and embodied patterns, rituals, and practices in worship – all for the deep formation of the Christian’s habitus – our way of reflexively being Christ followers in the world (read The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Kreider) and You Are What You Love (Smith).
I’m in. The whole way. I love leading the Eucharist, reciting the Nicene Creed, and passing the peace of Christ to one another. All of it matters.
But I’ve also been a musical worship leader for thirty years – as I noted, trained largely within the Vineyard Movement – and I’ve seen more than words can describe.
And during those years I and many other pastoral worship leaders have discovered that songs are a place we go (I’ve written on that here) for people to meet with God.
There is something about the musical moment, in an effectively led worship time, that opens the heart and the mind, as well as the body, to an encounter with God that intellective, affective, and bodily impact.
When the Words Get in the Way
And let me add that sometimes, just sometimes, the words/lyrics are in the way of what the Holy Spirit wants to do in any given moment.
So, to be honest, the way I see many churches utilizing and framing the musical expression of worship, in my view, is very limited. Deep down, we think the words and the music are the point. It’s didactic. Somewhat affectively didactic. But if we see it as a transformative space, things can happen.
In a church. In a living room. In a hospital room. In an online healing service.
Worship music, pastorally led, can create a transformative, liminal space – in which tremendous healing can occur.
And a worship leader who is trained to perceive the musical worship space as transformative, spending more time in the secret place worshipping with their instrument than they do practicing for a Sunday set, and trained by others who they see modeling Spirit-responsive worship leadership, will not miss precious pastoral opportunities to partner with the Spirit in the working of miracles of the heart, mind, and body in worship.
The world needs this to be real, and we as the Church must continue to create elements in our worship life together that facilitate this kind of healing environment.
Grace and Peace,