Reflections of a Worship Pastor: Part I
Part 1: The Burden and The Role
I periodically find myself trying to describe to people what it is exactly that I do. Generally the role of a Worship Pastor, I’ve found, is highly appreciated but greatly misunderstood. I have run in to several ideas over the years that people have of what a Worship Pastor is and does.
Here are two “pictures” of the life of a Worship Pastor I have encountered.
The Over-Saved Worship Pastor Each week this Worship Pastor spends five hours in prayer on Monday, praying for guidance and direction. And then Tuesday, they take hours to pour over their catalogue of songs, prayerfully discerning where the Spirit is guiding their mouse in the “worship music” folder. They then rehearse by themselves for hours on Wednesday to make sure each song fits tightly with the others, constantly making changes and tweaking. And by time rehearsal with the band rolls around on Thursday night, they are confident that God’s will for what songs will be sung on Sunday have been prayerfully and accurately discerned, assuring that Sunday will be the best 30 minutes of singing the church has ever experience.
That would be a nice story, I suppose.
The Super-Lucky Worship Pastor This Worship Pastor does very little during the week, causing the Board of Elders to wonder why they were convinced to pay someone full-time to “do some singing in church.” They show up on Sunday morning with a few song charts they downloaded off the internet the night before, and throw them on music stands for the band members to “just follow along” moments prior to the first service. Fingers are crossed and prayers are hailed up at the last second. If the morning goes off without too many hitches, it will have been considered a “success.” Luckily the songs the Worship Pastor picked were well liked by the people and the sound guy kept the volume at an acceptable level. The Worship Pastor heads home and starts planning how to update his blog the following week, when to meet friends for coffee, and whether to go v-neck and skinny jeans or plaid shirt and distressed jeans for next Sunday.
That would be a nice story, too. In it’s own strange way.
The reality of what my week looks like often falls somewhere in between. And those are the good weeks. I never have a week like the first story (sorry to burst your bubble). I have, however, on the rarest of occasions, had weeks like the second story.
This past week forced me towards the “Super-Lucky” end of the pendulum. Before leaving for vacation I quickly picked out five songs that vaguely had to do with God’s faithfulness and our response of trust. I knew our pastor would be speaking on Noah and God’s covenants, so I guessed my songs would work well. I sent them out to the band, while also telling them that we would not be having mid-week rehearsal, so practice well because we’ll have just an hour Sunday morning to go over the songs.
Yesterday, while worshiping with my church friends and family, two thoughts ran through my mind: One, I carry a heavy burden (perhaps “responsibility” would be a better word) as a Worship Pastor, and two, the reality is that the Spirit of God is the real leader of worship, not me.
My Heavy Burden In more traditional church environments (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, etc) they use a lectionary to guide their worship. This is a collection of scriptures and prayers that maps out readings for Sundays three years in advance. One of the big values/advantages here is the assurance that the whole spectrum of the human experience will find a voice. All of Scripture finds a place in the life of the church’s worship.
In our non-traditional environments, we generally flow from sermon series to sermon series. And the worship gatherings are planned around whatever series we may be in. One of the big values/advantages here is the flexibility to do different things depending on the life of the specific church community.
But what can happen (in the non-traditional environment) is an over-emphasis on some aspects of the human experience with a simultaneous neglect or ignoring of others. For instance, as one who plans out worship gatherings, I often set the direction (along with the teaching pastor, of course) for what types of songs we’ll sing, scriptures we’ll read, and prayers we’ll pray. If I am not paying attention or being intentional about it, I could end up spending week after week celebrating the love of God, God’s grace and forgiveness, and the joy of being known by the Creator. You would agree these are all wonderful and true realities, needing to be expressed and acknowledged in worship. But part of the human journey also involves pain and suffering, feeling distant from God, being stuck in sin and darkness. And for those whose lives are in these types of seasons, the question is: does my church give me space to be in this season? Is there a place to voice where my soul is at? What songs (if any) give expression to where I’m at?
And so perhaps you can see why I was struck with the thought that I carry a heavy burden and/or responsibility as a Worship Pastor. It is imperative that I am sensitive to the realities of the wide spectrum of human experiences, and give adequate opportunities to be in those seasons and worship accordingly. And this past Sunday reminded me of this, but before I talk about that I want to share the other thought that weighed on my heart.
It’s Spirit Led When someone says “Spirit led worship,” they often imply a sort of mystical experience whereby the “leader” is simply a tool or a vessel used by God and instead of overly planning and preparing the service, the leader is “open” to wherever the Spirit wants to go. It is often (wrongly) assumed that preparing and planning are at odds with letting the Spirit lead. And that having a specific plan (even one organized around a clock! Gasp!) is preventing God’s Spirit from truly being a part of the worship.
That conversation is interesting, but I’ll save it for another day.
When I thought about this on Sunday, and was reminded that God’s Spirit is the “true” worship leader, here is what I mean. God is fully aware of the lives of each of the 1100 people who come to worship at The Grove. God knows what season they are in, and God sees them just as they are. When I pick out songs (whether in an “Over-Saved” way or a “Super-Lucky” way) I may have one thing in mind that the song could convey or accomplish, and God may be planning to use it in an entirely different way. Or God may use it exactly the way I was thinking, too. My point is this, God reserves the right to use the songs we sing, the prayers we pray and the verses we read in whatever way God sees fit. And that may be one way for John Smith while being something almost opposite that for Jamie Smith.
This past week when I hastily chose the music set I had no idea how beautifully they would flow together and how perfectly they would complement the teaching. But I have a feeling that the Spirit of God did. Or at least that the Spirit of God used God’s awesomeness to find a way to use the songs I picked. Either way, it was the Spirit leading the whole thing. And as worship gatherings unfold, it is the Spirit that is connecting the dots for people between what they’re singing and what is going on in their hearts and their lives. I may think I’ve said something brilliant between songs, but if it does any good for anyone it is only because the Spirit made it make sense!
All I can hope to do is find out how and where God is working and humbly seek to join God in that work. I lead people in singing with a fools hope, you could say, that it might serve some sort of redemptive or restorative work for those singing or listening along. And if it does, that is because the Spirit made it so.
And so I was struck again (for it happens often) with the divine reminder by the Divine Reminderer that God’s Spirit is the true Worship Leader, not me.
What I Saw and What I Heard
On Sunday, as I scanned the crowds of people, here is what I saw:
- I saw a married couple attending different worship services because their marriage is crumbling at the seams and they couldn’t muster the strength that day to attend together.
- I saw a woman who’s marriage had already crumbled, but who had just recently received the judge’s un-just verdict that her ex would receive everything. Leaving her confused, hurt, and wondering why God hadn’t blessed her efforts to protect her and her children.
- I saw a family who recently buried a newborn baby who died after just a week of life this side of the womb.
- I saw another family who witnessed, just the night before, a friend’s 6-month-old baby go down for a nap at a birthday party and never wake up, and it never will again.
- I saw a family who received more distressing news about the health of their 11 year old son, adding to the pile of bad news they have received over the past year.
- I saw men and women without work, struggling to find new jobs and make ends meet.
Meanwhile, the songs I had selected, and that we were all singing out together, had the following lyrics, and I couldn’t help but think:
"Savior, he can move the mountains / Our God is mighty to save"
(Really? Can he? Then why isn’t he moving him for these people? Doesn’t seem like he’s been doing much saving lately. What am I making these people sing?!)
"Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him / How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er"
(Really? We can? Based on what? We have trusted him, and we’ve come up empty handed. What am I making these people sing this for?!)
"For you are good / for you are good / for you are good, to, me"
(Really? Is this what these people want to be singing right now? Can they honestly say that God is “good to them” right now? What am I making these people sing this for!?)
"When we arrive at eternity’s shore / where death is just a memory and tears are no more"
(Really? With a dead 6 month old last night, and a dead newborn recently buried, how can we sing about “death being just a memory?!” Death right now is more real to these people than ever. How can we sing about it being “just” a memory, and having no more tears? What am I making these people sing this for!?!)
And almost simultaneously, I sensed God placing the above two thoughts in mind.
That I must never take lightly my task to lead God’s people in worship. If I don’t give them space to be, if I don’t give them a voice for their soul, then who will? If the church can’t be a safe place to be open and honest and real and true with what is going on in their lives, then where is? And yet, at the same time, God’s Spirit is using these songs! Maybe the very last thing someone feels like saying is “For you are good to me,” and yet maybe that is the only thing they can say right now. Not because they feel it, or even believe it, but because they have to say it, to sing it, to proclaim it. For in some way, some mysteriously strange way, singing it transforms us. It changes us. It moves us and compels us. And by “it,” of course, I mean the “spirit of God.”
Next time someone asks me, “so what do you do?” I think I’ll say:
“I’m a Worship Pastor. I do my best to give people space to express where they are at in life, and possibly connect with God through worship while in those different places. God graciously uses my best efforts to draw people towards him, and God graciously uses my weakest efforts to draw people towards him. My role is both highly important and also truly insignificant. I take what I do very seriously, but I try not to take myself too serious. What do I do? Truthfully, I’m not always sure… but I love every minute of it.”