Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit During the Worship Service

24 03 2014
Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions: Preparation
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Planning
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Practicing

It’s tempting, once we’ve planned, and confirmed or adjusted that plan in practice, to think that we are done listening to the Spirit – that everything is prepared, and now we can simply follow the plan. If the Spirit has been guiding us in our planning, then surely we can just trust that plan completely. No more adjustments necessary.

But our planning and practice are not only listening moments in themselves, they are also the preparation that frees up brain-space so that we can listen in the very act of leading – and adjust accordingly. Because rarely is the Spirit done at this point. He’s still moving, still refining, still longing to speak to us and through us.

And here that argument about spontaneity comes back. Because there is an element of dependence that we need to cultivate – despite good and thoughtful planning. A willingness to move with the fluidity of the Spirit. A willingness to abandon some of our preparation, no matter how prayerfully and carefully it was done, and to move in step with a Spirit that is always doing something new.

Now, I will say this: never have I felt that the Spirit has asked me to completely abandon the preparation we made together. Often, however (although not every week), there are small adjustments that are necessary in a given moment.

Recently, for example, having planned and practiced the service with my ears open – in the very act of playing “O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus” the last line of the second verse jumped out at me: “how for them he intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne.” I continued with the rest of the hymn, and moved on to “The Same Love” in which we sang of Jesus calling us to the cross – in which we learned of the strength of his love to get us to that uncomfortable place. And that one line kept tugging at me. So, somewhat clumsily (and with no warning to the person putting words on the screen), we moved back to that one line about Jesus’ intercession for us. And ending with that one line, somehow became beautifully enabling. The love that is calling us to the cross, is the not only the same love that set the captives free, but the same love that is interceding, is praying for us, even as our hearts are stirred to answer that call. It was something I missed in my planning. Something I missed in my practice. But I’m so thankful that my planning and practice enabled me to be awake at that precise moment when the Spirit needed to gently push my preparations aside and do something new.

I’m not sure if anyone other than myself was moved by that moment. But I suspect that at least one person was. I have often found that those moments when things have necessarily needed to change at the last moment, there is something going on under the surface. Your other ear, of course (as we will learn in the next few posts) should be open your congregation – but they might not tell you everything. Sometimes the deepest struggles are those unspoken. So, no matter how carefully you plan and no matter how wide open your ears in both directions as you do so, sometimes something needs to happen at the last minute: to comfort, to reassure, to challenge, to empower, to simply transmit God’s love more clearly.

Sometimes I have brought back a song we sang earlier, rather than singing the closing song we had planned. Or I have skipped a planned repeat and moved on – or I have added a repeat in a different tone. Or there is the simple (and, for me, the most clearly heard) command to “pray now.”

Those weeks that I am most attuned to the Spirit as I lead are inevitably the weeks I have prepared well and thoroughly, and the weeks I hear the most from those worshipping with me.





Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Practicing

17 03 2014
Listening in Two Directions: Preparation
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Planning
Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

The idea of listening to the Spirit during practice may seem silly. After all, you’re simply figuring out who plays what, when, and making sure everything will go smoothly when it’s time for the real deal.

But practice is more than rote learning, or getting our musical ducks in a row (if only we all had musical ducks!). It’s also a moment of confirmation and adjustment. Either practice confirms that I’m following the Spirit’s voice or it is another opportunity for the Spirit to interrupt the “me-show” and re-align my plans with his calling and purpose.

We may have planned well and thoroughly, and tried our best to listen as we did so, but sometimes our sin-selves still get in the way. As we, with prayer, enact the prayer-soaked plans we made, we hear we feel the places that are “not quite right.” The spots where my pride, or my agenda, or my selfishness got in the way of my service to the Spirit.

Listening during practice is also essential because it is at this point we invite others to enter our conversation with the Spirit, adding richness and diversity. It is often in practice that I realize someone else should lead a certain song. Sometimes a band member will offer a Scripture passage that completes a transition – or a band member’s sharing of their spiritual journey through the week will subtly and beautifully transform the shape and flow of the service. Sometimes it becomes very apparent that a certain song simply does not work, or needs to be placed elsewhere.

Again, there is no set way in which the Spirit speaks during practice: except that your practice should lead you (and your band, if you have one) to Jesus. If that happens, you can assume you have heard the voice of the Spirit. If that happens, you can assume that you are serving this part of your “audience” well. That you are offering a gift to the Spirit by joining in his work.





Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit While Planning

10 03 2014
Listening in Two Directions: Preparation
Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit
Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

It is sometimes assumed that spontaneity (interpreted as a complete lack of planning) is the only way to be truly dependent on the voice of God as we lead. This assumption, however, is not an accurate reflection of God’s movement throughout Scripture.

It’s a strange leap of logic, at best, to assert that the God who planned out the tabernacle in intricate detail and provided complex plans for tabernacle worship would want us to lead his people in worship of him with absolutely no planning or forethought.

New Testament worship also seems to have been quite structured and thoughtfully planned. While we don’t have a lot of details regarding  the planning of gathered worship in the early church, many of Paul’s instructions (including some of his most troublesome and debated instructions) are concerned with order in gathered worship, and reflect a thoughtful working through of what gathered worship should and shouldn’t look like. So I would suggest that we need to employ the same level of thought as the early church – we need to plan carefully but we need to do so while actively listening for the Spirit’s voice.

Setting that debate aside, however, even those who argue for complete spontaneity in worship at least recognize the need for prayer as preparation. And prayer is the primary means of listening to the Spirit during planning, so that you can serve the Spirit as you lead.

So whether you like to plan every detail, or whether you prefer to leave things loose – pray. And don’t fill your prayer up with words, either. It’s the Spirit’s job to point us to Jesus – so ask the Spirit to point you to Jesus in the text or, if there is no text, in the topic for the week. When you begin to see Jesus in that text/topic, ask what needs to happen in order for you to point the congregation toward Jesus. What needs to happen for them to be prepared to see Jesus in the week’s text/topic. How will they need to respond to Jesus when they find him there? Spend time in silence. Read the text. Ask the Spirit to speak to you, be silent again, then re-read the text. Keep praying as you choose songs, as you order them, as you consider your transitions.

I realize that this isn’t earth-shattering advice. But it’s very, very easy, even tempting, to rush ahead and “get planning” without silence, without cocking your head and tilting your ear.





Listening in Two Directions: Listening to the Spirit

3 03 2014
Listening in Two Directions: Preparation
Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit: Mark S. Images, Flickr Creative Commons

I began my series on Listening in Two Directions a couple of weeks ago, with a post about the importance of preparation, and how preparation enables attentiveness during delivery. This week I want to begin talking about the sound toward which our right ear should swivel. If we think about leading worship as serving our two-fold “audience,” God being one part of that audience, what does it look like to serve the Spirit, to listen to the Spirit, through the whole process of worship leading – and what are we missing when we fail to be attentive in this way? Before we dive into the three parts of worship leading – planning, practice, and delivery – I want to offer two caveats and give a general picture of why it is important to listen to the Spirit in every stage of our preparation and delivery.

First caveat: there are no hard and fast rules regarding how the Spirit speaks. In fact, as with all conversations, we each interact with the Spirit differently. So please don’t take the examples I lay out in my next few posts as the one way in which to hear God’s voice while planning and implementing a worship service. The corpus of Scripture shows us, intentionally, a variety of individuals and groups who hear from God in a variety of ways. We should never foist the ways and means of our own relationship with God on someone else.

Second caveat: my underlying assumption in this series is that the Holy Spirit always points beyond Himself. My husband calls the Spirit the shy member of the Trinity – because the Spirit always points to Christ. So, to phrase a complex concept simplistically, we know that we have heard from the Spirit when we are pointed toward Jesus. And we serve the Spirit best by doing the same – by pointing beyond ourselves to Christ.

To some extent, then, the reasons we listen to the Spirit as we lead worship are obvious and hardly need to be stated. Of course we need to pay attention to God – the whole point of worship is to pay attention to God. In fact, everyone should be listening for the voice of the Spirit, not just worship leaders. Worship leaders (and pastors, for that matter) are not super-hero Christians who take people and bring them to God. God always reaches toward us – every one of us – first. Every single one of us needs to be attentive to this reaching. To learn to hear the Spirit’s voice, to see the Spirit pointing toward Jesus as we enter in to gathered worship, and as we worship during the week through our work, in our homes, and through our relationships.

As worship leaders, however, we do have a sacred task to perform. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are invited into the process of God’s constant calling; God’s constant drawing of his people toward himself. If we don’t actively listen for the Spirit’s direction and respond in service to the Spirit we will miss this invitation. Worse, we may become an obstacle to others hearing and responding to that invitation.

The tendency of worship leaders is to drift toward one of our two audiences: God or the congregation. If we fail to listen for the Spirit, we will forget who we worship and our gathered worship will no longer be spiritually formative. If we fail to be attentive to the Spirit then we are leading nowhere and to no one – we will simply follow our own preferences and thoughts and hope that the Spirit will use them. And he very well may use them – but how much deeper, how much richer would the worship of the Church be if worship leaders actively listened for the Spirit’s voice, and joyfully accepted the Spirit’s invitation to join God’s work in his congregation?





Thinking Worship Interviewed on Worship Links

6 02 2014

Brad over at Worship Links email-interviewed me recently, and it was posted today. Brad’s intro:

I like to describe Stacey Gleddiesmith as a worship theologian. With a strong academic background in the theology of worship, she shares some excellent insights on worship at her blog, Thinking Worship. Recently, Stacey talked to Worship Links about the lack of theological training in worship ministry, the future of church worship, and how many different keys is too many for one song.

I like to describe myself as a worship theologian too. It’s good to be on the same page! Incidentally, we also discovered that we share a common problem: pet hair.

Here’s the FULL INTERVIEW. What say you – am I off base or on?





Listening in Two Directions: Preparation

3 02 2014

Last summer my husband and I took a class at Regent College on public speaking. Like pretty much every course Regent offers it was carefully researched, thoroughly prepared, and well delivered… in this case by Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Stackhouse describes public speaking as a gift: the goal is to serve the audience to which you are speaking. To give to them the knowledge, the motivation, the passion, the change you have to offer. Thus your audience must be the focus of your preparation, of your practice, and of your delivery.

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit, Allan Old, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit, Allan Old, Flickr Creative Commons

My brain has a secret “worship theology” setting that is always at a low hum in the background, so this started me thinking about the two-fold “audience” in worship leading. What does it mean to focus in two directions – to focus our preparation, our practice, and our delivery on our congregation and on our God simultaneously? I’ve often described a worship leader’s primary task as one of intense listening – to the congregation and to the Spirit, but the idea of this listening being present throughout the process of preparation, practice, and delivery – while not entirely new to me – has caused me to consider the idea more deeply.

In my next two posts I will explore what it looks like to listen to the Spirit and to your congregation, respectively, but I want to introduce this idea with a further word about preparation.

One of Stackhouse’s key points is that preparation frees up brain space during presentation. If you prepare well, then you can adjust to your audience as you present, shifting to better engage their attention, sensing and responding to difficulties they might be perceiving in your material.

Now, in the world of worship leading, I’ve heard and read a lot of arguments for and against preparation. Usually these arguments pit careful and rigid preparation against the spontaneous and loose leading of the Spirit. On the one hand we have those who meticulously plan every chord, every note, every word. On the other hand we have those who don’t know what song they’re going to sing until they start singing it. This, of course, is a false dichotomy.

You cannot listen to the Spirit without preparation. And the Spirit should be present in every step of your preparation. Also, both a complete focus on the Spirit during delivery and a rigid understanding of preparation as controlled by the worship leader ignore the roll of the congregation in gathered worship. The helpful truth, I think, lies (as it so often does) somewhere in the middle.

Stackhouse’s point regarding public speaking is apt. We prepare because being well-prepared, well-rehearsed, frees up brain space during delivery, giving us the capacity to engage in active listening even as we play and sing and speak. So we prepare well – not so that we can do everything exactly as it has been prepared – but so that we can be free to adjust as the Spirit or as the congregation needs us to adjust.

Think about it. If you’re playing a new song – or if you’re new to an instrument, or to leading itself – isn’t it true that your brain is mostly scrambling for the next chord pattern, the next progression, the next string or key or note? You don’t have the capacity to think beyond the immediate mechanics of the moment. Now, there will be some weeks that are simply like this. You will need to introduce new songs. You can’t mentor a new musician or leader and not expect them to begin with a training period during which the majority of their thought life is taken up with the mechanics of what is happening.

But, as we mature, as we become comfortable with a corpus of music and familiar with the mechanics of leading a band or playing a solo instrument, as we grow in our knowledge and interpretation of Scripture, our weekly planning and preparation should be such that when we get up to lead, we are able to focus not on mechanics – but on the voice of the Spirit, and the movement of the congregation. We should be able to serve our two audiences more fully – ensuring that our worship leading is not just music, not just words, but a gift.





Rant 4: No T in Worship

31 10 2013

6863701649_8c0ece153f_z[1]A friend of mine posted an article on facebook today entitled “Why Rock Star Worship Leaders Are Getting Fired.” Part of me wants to rejoice at what author Don Chapman identifies as the trend of “megachurches” firing performance-oriented leaders. Another part of me, however, a larger part, wants to go on a major rant. Because Don Chapman’s problem with so-called “Rock Star Worship Leaders” is that they are self-absorbed, overpaid, don’t work very hard, and aren’t particularly musically skilled. He writes:

A megachurch is a unique breeding ground for a Rock Star Worship Leader (RSWL)—he [!] probably couldn’t survive in a smaller ministry. A typical church music director is a busy guy or girl who schedules volunteers, conducts rehearsals, writes charts, arranges music and plans Christmas and Easter events. Some megachurch RSWLs surprisingly can’t even read music, let alone create chord chart.

Oh the horror! Ok, I’m as shocked as Don Chapman that there are (apparently) some music leaders out there who are paid big bucks and don’t seem to do much of anything but “perform” on Sunday mornings. But really? Our biggest concern is that they might not actually be as musically talented as we think?

In the 20 + years that I have been leading in churches, which of course includes reading multiple job postings and applying for some of them, I can count on one hand the number of “worship leader” job postings that have asked for any type of theological competency or depth. Musical ability, yes. Ability to plan and lead a multi-media performance, yes. Ability to manage audio-visual equipment, yes. Good people skills, yes. Strong leadership skills, yes. Actively following Christ, certainly. Ability to articulate a cohesive theology of worship and implement that theology in weekly services that draw a congregation deeper into the life of Christ? No. Not once have I been asked about that. I’ve tried to volunteer the information, but even then it sometimes doesn’t go over well.

There is no Theology in Worship.

But then. Then we have the audacity to complain when our “worship” is vapid, when it lacks depth, or when it comes off as mere “performance.” Well – sorry folks. But you got exactly what you asked for. And when you look at it that way, doesn’t it seem a tad unjust – even hypocritical – to fire someone for doing exactly what you asked them to do? We need to spend a little less time blaming, and a little more time re-training. Because unless we find the “T” in Worship, we will continue to sit back and listen to some lovely music on Sunday mornings – drawing no closer to the throne of God, and refusing to enter more deeply into the life that Christ has given us.