If one word could describe leading congregational worship in my 20s that would be it. “Leading worship and worshipping are two separate things,” I told myself. “I’m not here to worship but to take care of logistics so that others can worship.” It wore me out. It felt noble. It was rubbish.
Years later an older man invited me to play a weekly two hour set at a local prayer room. Two hours. Seems like a long time, I thought. Twenty-five songs ought to do it.
That first Wednesday afternoon the older man finished his worship set and handed things over to me. The room was empty. How could I lead worship with no one to lead? I started into my set, ploughing through the songs. Next week I did it again. And again. Each time to an empty room.
Somewhere in those months, the focus shifted from head-song performance to heart-song surrender. Not that the songs were made up on the spot, though eventually some were, but the singing and playing began flowing from an authentic place inside me. “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.’” It was no longer about accomplishing the work of leading worship. It was about communing with Life Himself through the mystery of music.
That secret time taught me that job one in leading others in worship is worshipping God oneself. The river-belly worship learned in the prayer room will overflow from the stage to the congregation. By worshipping, the leader offers an unspoken invitation for others to do the same. And it’s those unspoken invitations—invitations by example—that most respect the freedom of the ones being invited. Example evaporates coersion. It also lends authority to invitations given by word. “Let’s lift our voices,” is a lot easier to receive from the one who is already lifting his heart.
There is no shortcut to learning this way of worship. It must be received in the secret place and is often sharpened through seasons of suffering. We need not seek the suffering, plenty will come and provide the opportunity to shape our character. But the secret place must be sought. If as a musician you have never spent a season worshipping God in the secret place, a committed time and location is helpful in doing this—there is nothing better you can do for your heart, for God’s heart, and for the hearts of those you serve.