How Do Worship Leaders Worship?
by Ronald M. Rentner (May / June 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 3)
A pastors' study group explores how leaders can worship even as they lead
In Sparks and Reno, Nevada, a clergy study group meets once a month. Simply called "Study Buddies," this interfaith group tackles issues of pastoral care and theological inquiry. Our topics have ranged from discussing updated information on Alzheimer's disease to viewing videos featuring nationally known theologians.
The group is open to all clergy in the community, and attendance varies depending on the topic. The mainstays of the group are the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Carmelite nuns, and the Reformed and Conservative rabbis. All like to speak, and the discussions are stimulating and lively!
At one session, several clergy persons candidly mentioned how difficult it was for them to worship while they were leading worship. A spirited discussion followed, and I was assigned to lead a full discussion on this significant topic at a later date.
Following are the recommendations presented to the group and discussed by them. They are offered here because this is not a problem limited to one corner of Nevada.
1. Don't allow your main worship leading to be your only worship. The daily office, meditation, personal prayer, and/or other worship opportunities are necessary adjuncts to your public worship life.
2. Be intentional in your worship. Commit in advance to participating in worship, not just leading it. People will notice whether you're involved and being nourished, and you'll feel better if you are. Genuinely use the time of reconciliation built into worship, and make corporate prayer a time of sharing in which you take part.
3. Increase your comfort level — to a point. Moments of discomfort in worship can prevent your worship (Are there enough bulletins? Who takes the offering? Who's minding the thermostat? What's different about this worship service? Is the sermon really adequate?). On the other hand, don't preplan worship to the extent that the creative tension dissipates entirely. It is this creative tension that will help both worship and Word to come alive.
4. Allow for a brief time of focus before worship. Take a few moments free and alone to pull yourself together after being fragmented by greetings, requests, reminders, and surprises. A quiet place and perhaps some meditative breathing can help focus. It's also important to do this as a transition between worship styles. Make prayer a part of preparation.
5. Be in decent physical condition. Leading worship is physically as well as emotionally demanding. Someone once told me it's the same expenditure of energy as running a marathon. I don't know about that, but I do know that Sunday afternoon is the only day I ever take a nap. Like any athlete, build endurance and deal promptly with painful issues like a pulled back muscle or shoes that are too tight.
6. Never lose the sense of awe in the presence of God. Moses took off his sandals on the holy ground before the burning bush. Disciples were awed in the presence of the transfigured and risen Christ. When we lose that sense of awe in the presence of God, worship becomes a job.
7. Go naked. Of course, I don't mean "naked" naked. I mean, trust God's grace — no pulpit, no notes. After a little practice, you and the congregation will love the spontaneity and the immediate connection with each other. At times, allow the hearers to help fashion your sermon in an interactive way. (For example, the metaphor is, "Jesus is the light of the world." What does that mean exactly? Help me unpack this metaphor by giving me examples of what light does.) By the way, King David did go naked before the Ark of the Covenant and engaged in ecstatic worship.
8. Empower your worship helpers. Sometimes this is training: Do your ushers know what to do if you need more chairs or if there's a medical emergency? Sometimes it means sharing a theology of worship that lets your musicians innovate on the spot and go where the Spirit leads. At our contemporary service on Easter, I was distributing the sacrament, and our musicians and ensemble began to play an inspired set of songs familiar to the congregation and which didn't require printed texts. By the time I got "back" to worship everybody else was ecstatic, and I, too, got caught up in it.
9. It's not about me! Worship leaders are unavoidably in the spotlight. That generates worry. But in the worship tradition of all faiths that engage in corporate worship, the focus is on God. Worship is the praise and adoration we bring to God. Now, our people — and sometimes we — have it backward: Did I like the hymns, and did the sermon give me something useful? We have some educating to do, and it probably needs to start with us. If it's not about me, after all, there's less reason to worry.
|When we lose our sense of awe in the presence of God, worship becomes a job.|
An animated discussion surrounded these suggestions in our Study Buddies group. Others talked about being willing to let others, especially lay people, have significant parts in leading worship and in proclamation.
Others mentioned the necessity of getting rid of the "clutter" in our minds that we bring to worship. All agreed that there was a need to be involved personally in worship and to speak and lead from experience.
If your group wants to discuss this topic, you might want to follow these steps:
1. Ask the following question: Are you able to worship when you lead worship? (A 30-second response — save the "What helps me to worship" stuff for later.)
2. Lead the group through the above list of suggestions.
3. Go around and ask for specific responses and additions to the list from the participants.
Ronald M. Rentner is pastor of Lord of Mercy Lutheran Church, Sparks, Nevada.