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The Worship Leader as a Spiritual Guide

We are in need of a Biblical imagination.

We need a picture that captiviates us and pulls us into it, giving shape to our vocation, guarding against profaning our profession. This is true, I think, of doctors and nurses, lawyers and business people; but it is also true of pastors and worship leaders. How we see shapes how we act.

A few decades ago, legendary Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann wrote about a “prophetic imagination” as an alternate vision of reality that led to the prophet either criticizing the “Empire” through the language of grief or “energizing” the people of God through the language of hope. Picking up this idea, Eugene Peterson wrote about developing a “pastoral imagination”, the vision of a “personal and local” pastor who can weave the stories of his congregation into the Story of God.

Worship leaders are very much in need of a “worshipping imagination,” something to shape our notion of what it means to be a worship leader.

For better or worse, we become what we behold.

For many worship leaders, all we behold are images of bands and lead singers, epic concerts in packed arenas. And so that is what we become: lead singers of skilled bands, moving the crowd in emotional ways with the aid of lights and images in motion and soaring guitar riffs.

It’s not inherently problematic. In fact, much of it can be wonderful. Music is powerful. Music experienced in a crowd is epic. And technology can work together to make the whole experience a truly spiritual one. And there are many bands that do an inspiring job of this .

But we need more that captures our “worshipping imagination” than the “rock band” motif.

We could speak of the worship leader as a prophet, and borrow Brueggemann’s language about grief and hope to inspire our song-writing and leading. This would be a wonderful theme to explore.

We could speak of the worship leader as a pastor, borrowing themes from Peterson about being “personal and local.” There is much here that we could say about a worship leader knowing the names and stories of the people she leads into worship each Sunday.

But I’ve been thinking about the worship leader as a spiritual guide. The Church has a long history of spiritual guides, from the desert fathers to the mystics and monastics to the parish priest himself.

The spiritual guide typically develops a structure– a rhythm or a pattern– and then leads others through it. Think, for example, of St. Benedict and his famous Rule. It structure the day into time for reading, reflection, and prayer. Yet the Rule had enough flexibility to adapt to different settings. In fact, the Rule may indeed be one of the key reasons Christianity was able to spread through an agrarian pre-“Europe” Europe that was divided into serf territories. St. Ignatius developed the Prayer of Examen, to help people pray through an examination of “consciousness”, beginning with gratitude and ending with repentance and a “resolve.”

As I think about how a worship leader may see herself as a spiritual guide, I think of two things:

1. Worship is structured as a narrative. It’s a fairly common practice to throw all the “elements” of the service together in a kind of “salad bowl” approach. A few fast songs, one mid-tempo, a couple of slow, intimate ballads, communion, then a rousing anthem to wrap it up before the announcements, a sermon, and then some time for prayer and ministry. Nothing wrong with this. In one sense, all the “ingredients” are there so spiritual nutrition is not necessarily an issue. (N. T. Wright has suggested that this is quite a “post-modern” approach, since it is the elements in fragements, strung together in no particular order.)

But what if we thought of the service as a narrative? If the worship leader is to be a sort of spiritual guide, the service can be arranged in a way that re-enacts a Story. This is, in fact, how all the historic liturgies are ordered: they deliberately move the worshipping congregation from celebration to proclaimation to adoration to confession to thanksgiving to commission (or something like that!). Generally speaking, the service re-enacts the Great Drama of our Redemption, leading us to the place where we cry, “Holy, holy, holy” and then, “Lord, have mercy,” and finally the great “Thank You!” as we receive the Eucharist (which means, the “Great Thanksgiving”).

A spiritual guide may interchange some elements or re-arrange the sequence; but he or she always has a narrative in mind– the Narrative of the Gospel, the life and death and resurrection and return of Jesus Christ.

2. Leadership is expressed as guidance on a journey. Worship leaders are tempted every week to goad people into particular expressions of worship (“Come on! Shout to God!”), like a cheerleader at a pep rally. There is room, of course, for exhorting the people of God to respond to God in a particular way (Psalm 95 is a good example of this). But the word “leader” in our role as “worship leader” can get over-emphasized, and we can become obsessed with getting a particular response out of people. The temptation is only strengthened when the only thing that feeds our “worshipping imagination” are rock concerts.

What if the worship leader thought of her role more as a spiritual guide? Think of a good tour guide, orienting you to the sites and scenery, but getting out of the way so you can soak in the beauty for yourself. (There’s nothing worse than being surrounded by breath-taking veiws or being in an ancient cathedral with stunning artwork only to have it ruined by a chatty tour guide!) A good guide informs and instructs, then makes room for the people to enter and experience it for themselves. In a similar way, a worship leader can pick the moments in between songs to pray or read a Scripture or share a short exhortation, then get out of the way. Let the people behold the Beauty of the Lord for themselves.

What are your thoughts? What might it look like to think of our role as a spiritual guide?

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