“How can I, as a leader, create a safe worship environment?”
This is a significant question that draws at the heart of what it means to be a worship leader. I remember what it felt like to me when I first encountered a safe worship zone! The atmosphere in the room felt electric. The sense I had was that there was more happening than what I could see. It was more than emotive, well-played songs. There was a tangible weight in the room, that others were experiencing as well. There was a sense about the place that anything could happen at any given moment. I had stepped into a culture of impossibility. I had never led worship before. I didn’t know what a setlist was. I sensed that the people in this room, myself included were connecting with something outside of themselves. I experienced the safety of being in Jesus’ presence, with folks who believed He was the Son of God. I realize that the reason I experienced “the presence” of God was because the leaders in that place worked to create that environment, it didn’t just happen, did it? The things of God were easy for me as a new believer to access. There were no obstructions between me and Jesus, I was able to get a clean look at who God actually is, without anything getting in the way. Fearlessly, the worship leaders used gentle authority to lead me well. They were leading from a place of authenticity, and transparency. That made all of the difference. Those leaders modeled for me what it looked like to be gently lead into the presence of God, and gave me permission to express my heart to Him. That is the safest place we can be. It is important to remember that when we come to lead people into God’s presence, we are doing more than simply singing songs, or reciting lyrics off of a screen. We need to create that safe environment for the body to experience God.
It is simply amazing to watch folks connect with Jesus during our times of worship. After all, this is why we are worship leaders! We do not lead so that others will see how amazing our band is. We do not lead so that folks can listen to our amazing new worship song, with revolutionary lyrics, that will shape the landscape of music culture for decades to come. No, we come to serve, we come to set the table for folks to express their hearts and minds to the living God. We have the extreme honor, week in and week out, of creating a culture of impossibility. During the week we get alone with God to hear the Father’s affirmation over us! We hear from the truth of His word; That He takes great delight over us. He doesn’t simply tolerate us, he loves being with us. He loves when we create a space to meet with Him. Only by doing this are we allowed times of freedom during gathered worship. What is cooking on the inside throughout the week, comes to simmer and boil over in our services. The culture you create as a worship leader spills out to the people. You are contagious! A massive portion of creating a safe worship environment depends on your ability to get alone with the Father, and then lead others into His presence. Your church body is able to connect with a loving God because they are given permission by you to experience Him. We are built to hear from God, out of his written word. We hear gentle whispers throughout the week that affirm our identity in Jesus; That we are loved, accepted, and forgiven. If we do not hear those affirmations during the week, we will find it difficult to lead others from a place of security and intimacy. Jesus always gives out of His abundance (Luke 5:5-7). When we receive from Him, we in turn have a deep well to draw from in our times of gathered worship. There’s a magnetic quality about the worship leader who seeks hard after Jesus, or has been alone to the secret place with Him. It’s kind of like how James Taylor describes himself after he has been around the woman he loves; “And if I’m well, you can tell she’s been with me now!” People are able to sense if we as worship leaders are finding time to hear from God, to listen to his word and receive from him. When we get around Jesus, when we dig into the scriptures, something in us comes to life. We begin to view life differently, the more we behold Him, the more we become like Him. We begin to carry the promise of hope within us. And that hope is dangerous, because in order to create a safe place in worship we need first have hope. Hope is the anchor for our souls, for if our souls are not tethered to hope, we will fail to see ourselves in proper perspective that we are loved by the Father, and because we are loved by the father and accepted…we have been given a new story, a new future! Because we have been given a new future, we can have hope that nothing is impossible for Him to accomplish. If the people collectively sense that nothing is impossible, then that sense of anything being possible is contagious. When we know deep down in our guts that we are loved by the Father, and that Jesus’ presence is real, and He is even walking in the room. When we are secure in the Father’s love for us as leaders, the people feel safe! When worship leaders understand and have a profound sense of the Father’s smile over their lives, the people are given permission to experience the same joy that comes from that acceptance! This is how the safe place in worship is created. As worship leaders, when we keep our eyes on the invisible and eternal, the people we receive perseverance (Hebrews 11:27) (2 Cor. 4:18).
We can only be secure when our souls are anchored to hope. When we bind our hearts to the promise of Jesus, we will see the impossible happen. The impossible can only happen in a culture of hope!
In order to create a safe worship environment, we must cultivate a culture of impossibility. But how is this even possible, when it’s 7am Sunday morning, we’re tired, we carry our stress into worship rehearsal, have a band to lead, and a million other things that are competing for our attention and affections? As worship leaders, we get to witness the impossible things of life take shape right before our eyes. But some of these impossible things take time to cultivate, but some others will appear instantly. This means that as worship leaders, Jesus calls us into a life where we are regularly seeing the things we are singing about take shape. What would it look like, in humble confidence to expect the unexpected each time we come to lead others in worship? What would it look like for you as a worship leader to call out the things you see happening in the room at that very moment? There are times in our gathered worship that we sense God nudging at our spirits, maybe whispering to us to take a step in faith and lead people to a place they’ve never been before. Let me give an example of what I mean. Last year, during a time of Sunday morning worship, I sensed the Lord nudging my spirit to call out an encouragement to the people. So, without a lot of faith (honestly), I took the leap. I called out to the room “I sense Jesus is wanting to bring rest to an individual who has been dealing with severe insomnia. You have been up at 3:00am for the last 3 nights, it relates to worries about your family, and the Lord wants to encourage you that He is your rest.” After the service a man walked up to me, and said that the man I was referring to, was him! He was greatly encouraged that God saw him, and that he felt loved by God because of this. You see, if we truly believe that Jesus is the son of God, that He is alive, and that he gave the gift of the Holy Spirit, then it is true that when two or more of us are gathered to worship Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to us and “walks into the room.” If we believe that this is true, then the Holy Spirit doesn’t simply show up on the scene to “be there.” The living God is an active participant in our lives, He longs to do things in and among us. He has an agenda, and he desires to heal us, speak to us, comfort us and affirm us when we gather to worship Him. The unexpected happens when shift our perspective from monologue to dialogue. If we are the only ones talking in our prayers, how can we hear from Him? It’s when we listen for Him that He responds. When we open our hearts to hear from Him, we being to see the things of Heaven materialize before us. The Russian pianist Arthur Rubenstein once said; “… I leave a lot to the moment. I must have the unexpected, the unforeseen. I want to risk, to dare. I want to be surprised by what comes out. I want to enjoy it more than the audience. That way the music can bloom anew. It’s like making love. The act is always the same, but each time it’s different.” and again; “I was born very, very lazy and I don’t always practice very long. but I must say, in my defense, that it is not so good, in a musical way, to over-practice. When you do, the music seems to come out of your pocket. If you play with a feeling of ‘Oh, I know this,’ you play without that little drop of fresh blood that is necessary – and the audience feels it.” Now, quoting Rubinstien here doesn’t imply that we as worship leaders should neglect our gifts, and leave everything to chance! But the truth of the matter is that, in today’s culture, where everything is counted and cataloged to scrupulous critique, there is something refreshing about journeying to the unknown. When our worship ceases to become formality and begins to become exploration, we seek God with the the expectation that He wants to show up, in His faithfulness, and lead us to uncharted waters. We shift our perspective from that of just another weekend sing-along, to the truth which is that when Jesus is enthroned on the praise of His people, anything could happen.
Practically, this requires lots of trust. We need to to trust that our leaders are hearing from the Lord and lean into that leadership, honoring them by asking for their input. It takes trust in your band or team. The tribe of musicians the Lord has gathered around you as a worship leader, are folks who are there for more than simply to fulfill the function of playing their instrument. It takes trust to create space in arrangements of songs, to allow for moments of transaction to happen between Jesus and His people. It will take trust and courage for us as worship leaders to step into a servant posture of gentle authority. When we begin to trust and make ourselves vulnerable as leaders, we will begin to see that people are given permission to express their hearts to God more fully. The more we lead from a place of transparency authenticity, the more our lives match up with the songs we sing, the the words we read in the Bible, and the example that God has given us in Jesus. Your church body will see that you are really there to serve, and not to be served. It is your privilege to see the things of the Kingdom happen in times of gathered worship. As a dearly loved child of God, you will have the extreme honor of seeing hearts come alive in His presence. You will be surprised at His faithfulness to your community of believers. Jesus is good to us, and whether or not we experience joy or trial in different seasons of life, we still have a song to unfold. There is a longing in our hearts to connect with God, and as we lead others into that safe place of the Father’s love, we see that desire met. The father’s love is the safe place every human heart longs to experience.
God, we do not want to simply sing songs during gathered worship! Please give us faith to believe, and open hearts to experiencing more of Your love.