A number of years ago, while on vacation, I attended worship at a church I’d never heard of before. I had no connection to the church, didn’t have a friend serving there, or any familial connections in the area. I just woke up, got in the car, and pulled into a church that looked friendly and was located within near proximity to where I was staying. Interestingly, it was during this very unplanned, unintentional visit that I learned something very important about myself: in my years of leading weekly worship, I’d somehow lost the ability to participate as part of a congregation!
I sat in the pew of that unfamiliar church assessing what was happening around me rather than allowing myself to engage with God. It wasn’t all critique—in fact, as I recall, I felt great admiration and awe for much of what was happening in the service and through the leadership of those facilitating. In my mind, I evaluated and dissected the worship leader’s tactics and approach to the service. But I couldn’t tell you where or how I’d witnessed and responded to God’s revelation. Instead, I pondered the possibilities of what would happen if I attempted such elements of worship in my own church. To be honest, I don’t really remember any meaningful interaction with those sitting near me in the service or having any sense of my own formation in Christ as a result of the experience in which I was participating. I was too consumed with being a spectator.
Before I knew it, the service was over. The Pastor was offering the benediction and people began filing out of the sanctuary. I looked down at the bulletin I’d been handed upon entering the service and found it contained no notes taken from the readings or the sermon, only my near-illegible scribblings describing everything I’d seen, heard, and thought about during the service.
When I returned to my car, I experienced a sobering, holy moment. Replaying the entire experience of the morning in my mind, I was confronted with my inability to turn off my worship leader mode and simply allow myself to worship—to engage with God as part of the body. It would be weeks (even months) before I would have such an opportunity again as I would be expected to lead my congregation each week upon my return home. It was, unquestionably, an opportunity lost.
I sat in the parking lot of that church for almost an hour after the service, vacillating between silence and tears. I grieved the opportunity I’d squelched to commune with the Lord and the Body of Christ in such a beautiful way. I was distraught and disgusted with my own inability to move out of leader mode and into the whole-hearted-participant role I routinely asked each member of my own congregation to fill each week. I was reminded of Martha, who missed the chance to sit at Jesus’s feet and offer her presence as a sacrifice of praise because she was too busy to notice what Jesus truly desired for her.
Can you relate? How difficult is it for you to step out of leader-mode and into the congregation from time to time? Are you conscious of your need to continue growing and developing as a worshipper versus only growing and developing as a worship leader? For some, when taken off the platform, the temptation is assessment, critique, or analysis (of others or your own praxis, for that matter). For others it is a relentless performance complex that follows you even when you’re not on the platform. You feel the need to be overly zealous or demonstrative as you stand amongst the congregation, sensing responsibility to model for others the “right” way to engage. Whatever the case, the end result is rarely an authentic encounter with the living God or a deep sense of knowing you have engaged in conversation with the Almighty, who desires to interact with you.
As you continue leading the church in worship, I encourage you to also engage regularly in congregational worship in a non-leadership role (and yes, I realize that’s not easy—logistically or emotionally). Arrive early and allow yourself to spend time preparing yourself to enter God’s presence. Quiet the critical, analyzing, performance-oriented voices in your mind and the subtle temptation to feel you are being watched by those around you, and immerse yourself in the Body and the opportunity to be formed by engaging with the congregation and the God who so deeply desires to meet with you.