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What I Wish I Knew About Worship Leading…10 Years Ago

Last month marked 10 years since I graduated from college. It also marked 10 years of leading worship in a full-time, vocational capacity. I was 21 when I started and I thought I had it figured out. I was a theology major in college and had led worship in chapel services and traveled all around the world with teams from our university, leading worship and teaching churches how to do it just like we did. I knew how to run auditions, put a set-list together, and make worship flow like a river. 

But I was clueless. I had no idea the way I would be drawn aside by own ego, fooled by opportunities and so-called fame. I was not prepared me for the hidden dangers that threaten the modern worship leader. If I could time-travel and talk to Glenn circa 1999, this is what I would say to him:

1. Don't be fooled by popular worship CDs/DVDs.

Almost every worship CD– including ours– begins with the roar of a crowd. I have yet to see a worship DVD filmed in front of a handful of people. The more time you spend with worship CDs and DVDs, the more you subconsciously believe that a worship service is about the euphoria of a crowd, the adrenaline rush of taking the stage. More people aspire to be worship leaders now because of what a cool profession it has become. It's sickening to sit with young worship leaders and watch a U2 or Coldplay DVD and see their eyes light up as mine once did as they think of ways to incorporate those elements at their church. Why wouldn't they? There is little difference between today's worship services and rock band show.

And yet, lights and smoke are not the fall guys. Crowds and electric guitars and not evil. The problem is much more subtle– and more sinister. It is what is happening in our hearts: the subtle confusion between showmanship and leadership that comes from paying too much attention to recordings of people on a stage. Speaking of the stage…

2. Beware of the stage.

The stage is a dangerous place. The sooner we admit it and stop hiding behind cliches about a "platform God has given us" or an "opportunity to make God famous", the better we will be. Then we can be honest about how tempted we are to work for the praises of men. The stage makes us talk in funny voices, prone to melodrama, careful with how we report the facts. It makes us less honest versions of ourselves, and, in the worst cases, reduces us to a persona and no longer a person.

Confession is the path to healing. Psalm 90 is a confession of how temporal life is, how fleeting our best efforts are, and what limited, time-bound creatures we are. The Psalm is attributed to Moses, the leader and heroic deliverer of, quite likely, millions of people. Moses knew that standing in front of people who could one day be an adoring crowd and the next day be a riotous mob would tempt the best leaders to attempt more than they can really achieve, to inflate themselves to be larger than life. So, confess your limitations. Ration your time on stage. Remind yourself and others how replaceable you are by involving other leaders. In Moses' words, "teach us to number our days."

3. Learn to love a congregation not work a crowd.

The more I traveled with the Desperation Band, the more I longed for my church. At first, it was fun to be at festivals and conferences, to share green rooms with other celebrity artists enjoying their vapor of influence. We had always made the commitment to be at our church far more than we were gone. In fact, on average we were leading worship here three times more than we were leading worship anywhere else. 

But still, time in front of large crowds can make you do funny things. I've sprayed water from a bottle onto "worshippers" on the front row, I've crowd surfed in a packed room, and kicked beach balls from the stage. All in the name of having fun in church. None of these things are hideously evil, but they are deceptively destructive. They destroy the sacredness of the priestly vocation– and the worship leader is priest before he is anything else. The worship leader is not a priest who mediates on behalf of the people; he is a priest who stands among a congregation of priests, calling attention to God. He is, as a priest is, one of the people. He shares their bloodline, their heritage, their history. He knows their stories. Today's worship leader is trained to be a performer working the crowd, instead of a priest lovingly standing among the people of God. 

4. Worship is more than our response.

Much has been made about how worship is our response to a revelation of who God is. That is true. But what is often left unsaid is that even our response is the result of God at work in us. Grace is not God doing something for us and then leaving us to respond. Grace is God working is us to become and do what He has called us to be and do. Grace is God doing FOR us what we COULD NOT and it is God doing IN us what we CANNOT. 

So worship, then, is more than a grateful, whole-hearted response to God; it is God Himself at work in us causing us to see Him, leading us to surrender, making our offering pleasing and perfect. Here, the whole Trinity is at work. God the Spirit, at work in our hearts, revealing Christ and drawing us to the Father; God the Son, through Whom our sacrifice is made perfect because His was, the One in Whom the Father is well-pleased and so when we are in Him, the Father is well-pleased with us; and God the Father who is glorified forever. 

That takes all the pressure off the worship leader. You are not responsible for how the people respond. That is God's work. You are there to be attentive to God at work in you and in the congregation, and to call attention to God among the people.

There. This is what I wish I knew 10 years ago. Perhaps it can save some of you from shipwreck.

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