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

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

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

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

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?

Listening in Two Directions: Preparation

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.

A Season of Thanksgiving

This Sunday, September 22nd, our little church entered a “season of thanksgiving.” Every Sunday from now until Advent, several members of our congregation will stand up, before our congregational prayer time, and name some of the things they are thankful for at this point in their lives. Nothing fancy. Just simple thanks. This is my introduction to that season.

Thanks and HopeMy parents moved recently. This, of course, means that all the boxes that I have stored, out of sight and out of mind, in my parents’ attic for x number of years have come to light – and have come home to roost in my garage. As we sifted through some of their contents, I came across a small disco ball with a tiny pair of Japanese shoes attached to it.

When I lived in BC – 3 years before I moved back to BC to attend Regent College—I went through a deep period of depression. There were a number of circumstances involved, but chief among them: I had just returned from a two and a half month trip to Ethiopia. I returned on an incredible high – sure that God was going to move in my life, sure that big things were going to happen. And they did. Our house burnt down, my childhood home. I had to resign from my job in a very messy set of circumstances – without a safety net. I was unemployed for more than six months, living in my friend’s parents’ home, with no idea how to move forward in any aspect of my life.

It was winter changing to spring at that point. In the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada, this means grey, grey, grey, grey, grey. The weather was no help at all.

I can’t remember how I ended up with my little disco ball. Did someone give it to me? Did I see someone else with one, and track one down for myself? I don’t remember. But I hung it from the rear-view mirror of my little Subaru. Not, I think, with any real purpose; I may have thought it made my car look cool.

And then – one day – the sun broke through the screen of grey. And my car was filled with all these little dancing points of light. And I was so thankful. So thankful just to see the sun. Thankful every moment the sun shone. That little bit of thanks, those little points of light, kept me going through a very dark time.

Then I went to Japan for a year. Again, when I came home I was convinced I would participate in big things. Momentous things. I didn’t. I ended up living back at home with my own parents. With minimal employment. In the middle of a long, cold Albertan winter. Again unsure of how to move forward.

I hung up my little disco ball again – this time adding to it a little cell-phone charm I had purchased somewhere in Japan. A little pair of shoes: a little pair of Geta – Japanese flip-flops (although they are usually made of wood, and so are neither flippy nor floppy) – summer shoes. They reminded me that all I had to do was to keep putting one foot in front of the other; they reminded me – spring will come, darkness will end, winter cannot last forever.

Thanks and HopeThese two things – the disco ball, my little pair of flip-flops – were the only two things that came out of those boxes immediately. Much to Andrew’s annoyance I hung them in our new car immediately, realizing that I need that message again: thankfulness, hope.

I wondered if others might need the same message: simple thankfulness, quiet hope. So we will spend some weeks together, in Bon Accord Community Church, simply telling each other the little things – and sometimes the big things – that make us thankful. Maybe there is some small item, some reminder that can hang in your room, sit on your bedside table, or hang from your rear-view mirror to prompt you to thankfulness, and to keep you putting one foot in front of the other.

We want to be a church, we are a church, that is honest with each other – that lets the cracks show – a church in which the answer to “how are you?” does not always have to be “fine.” Because sometimes you’re not. Sometimes I’m not. But sometimes the darkness that we face, and even the little annoyances we deal with on a daily basis, can become so overwhelming that we see nothing else. We lose sight of the good. We can’t see any more that the sun is shining. But it is! And taking the time to notice that little good might push the darkness back a bit and help us to refocus.

It may be that some of the things others are thankful for are things that you lack. Things you want – maybe desperately. I know that will certainly be the case for me. That’s ok. Because we all, every single one of us, have something, somethings to be thankful for. And if we can be a church that both cries with those who mourn and laughs with those who rejoice – then we will always be a place of welcome. And you might find, maybe you will find, that by taking a moment to celebrate what someone else has, and you don’t have, some of that darkness lessens in you as well. Because it’s out there. There is hope. And even if the sun is not shining over you right now. It’s there. And it’s as bright as ever.

I am thankful for sunshine.
I am thankful for my body:

it will never be on the cover of Vogue, but it works—in a basic kind of way—well enough for me to function and to get things done. I can walk, and run, and jump, and almost reach the highest shelf in my kitchen. I’m kind of happy about that.

I am thankful for my friends and family:

Too many people to mention. None of them are perfect. But they are all a joy – at least some of the time.

I am thankful that I am greeted with joy, exuberance, and great hairy wagginess every time I come home:

Finn (our dog) is pretty great too. ;) Andrew and I have walked through some pretty dark moments together, but somehow we still find the time and energy to be silly with each other. And we still find the time and energy to get out and walk with our dog. I’m so grateful.

Finally, I am deeply thankful for this church:

for the warm, generous, and occasionally raucous crowd we have found ourselves in. And that they have graciously allowed us to lead – even experiment. I am humbled and so very grateful for the opportunity to be here in Bon Accord.


How about you?

300 Quotations for Preachers/400 Prayers for Preachers: A Review

Logos Pastorum Series

Every worship leader should be actively looking for resources. Some of us, however, are better at this than others. I am not one of those “better” people, which is why I have a blog that pushes me to find worship resources that will be of use to others as well as myself. While I write many of the liturgies and prayers for our church myself, I currently have a number of good books on my shelf to which I refer when I’m looking for a prayer or a quote that I can use to frame songs or provide food for contemplative or congregational prayer. When I want to use one of these books, however, it means embarking on a long hunt through indexes of various qualities. Enter Logos Bible Software. Logos has recently released a series of e-books in its Pastorum Series that provides quotations and prayers “for pastors.”

I’ve been asked to review the first two resources in this collection 300 Quotations for Preachers and 400 Prayers for Preachers, but it should be noted that there are five additional volumes in the collection that provide quotations from different periods and groups in Christian history: the early church, the medieval church, the reformation, the puritans, and the modern church. These give you an additional 1500 quotes to peruse.

300 Quotations for Preachers spans hundreds of years of church history. You can search by author, theme, or Scripture reference. 400 Prayers for Pastors contains written prayers by mothers and fathers of the Christian faith, as well as prayers found in scripture. Prayers may be searched by theme, type (intercessory, confessional, etc.), Scripture reference, or author. Both resources contain bibliographic information for each quote and prayer, making it easy to track the excerpt back to its source.

What I like about these resources is how easy they are to use. This Sunday, for example, the message at Bon Accord Community Church will be from John 6:1–15, the healing at the pool. A search for this scripture passage pulls no result. I can, however, also search for “healing.” Among other results, this yields: “A Prayer for the Sick in Hopes of a Recovery, by Richard Baxter; a beautiful prayer by Clement of Rome entitled “Be Our Help and Relief”; an excerpt from Psalm 30; and a quote by John Newton about how assurance grows through repeated conflict. If I hadn’t already written a prayer to read this Sunday (in addition to asking a member of our congregation to write a prayer for mother’s day), I would definitely consider concluding our service this Sunday (perhaps I still will) with “Be Our Help and Relief.” I will mentally file away the John Newton quote for future use—perhaps when we come up against the inevitable question: why do Christians suffer. My experience with these resources thus far is that your difficulty when you choose to use it will be which quote or prayer to use—not whether you can find one.

Most of the quotes and prayers included in this collection are over a hundred years old. G. K. Chesterton is, as far as I can tell, the youngest of the bunch. This is probably my main criticisms of the series. It may be more difficult to find “enduring” quotes and prayers in current times, but it would be helpful to have some current options available. I would encourage Logos to pursue “300 Quotations from the Post-Modern Church,” if they have not begun work on it already, including authors such as Frederick Buechner, Corrie ten Boom, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Annie Dillard, Henri Nouwen, Elizabeth Elliot, John Stott, Anne Lamott, and N. T. Wright (I’m going to think of at least twenty additional people for this list as soon as I post this review).

This is not to say that the quotes and prayers included in the collection are not pertinent for today’s congregations—you just might have to work at it a bit. Although archaic language has been somewhat updated, many of the quotes and prayers are still quite dense and will be difficult for the average congregation to grasp in a single reading. For example, for the season of Easter (the seven Sundays between Easter weekend and Pentecost Sunday) I have chosen to begin each service with the lighting of a “Christ candle” and a congregational reading of the following prayer:

Almighty God, who by the death of your dear Son Jesus Christ has destroyed death, by his rest in the tomb has sanctified the graves of the saints, and by his glorious resurrection has brought life and immortality to light; receive, we ask you, our unfeigned thanks for that victory over death and the grave which he has obtained for us and for all who sleep in him; and keep us in everlasting fellowship with all that wait for you on earth, and with all that are around you in heaven; in union with him who is the resurrection and the life, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

A. A. Hodge[1]

It’s a beautiful prayer. A rich, dense prayer. However, the first time we used it my mother cornered me after the service and asked if we couldn’t change the punctuation to make it make more sense. You see, congregations tend to read quite rhythmically, and there are a few phrases that become confusing without clarifying punctuation (i.e. when read congregationally, it sounds as if Christ has obtained a grave for us—a somewhat disturbing idea, to say the least). As we have adjusted the line-breaks to ease the reading, and as we have repeated this prayer over seven Sundays (our final reading of it being this Sunday), it has become a weighty and meaningful entrance into worship. One would do well, however, before using a prayer congregationally, to attempt to read it aloud in that sing-songy voice that congregations inevitably slip into. Some prayers will work. Others will not, and may need to be parcelled up between the congregation and a lead reader.

My advice should you use these resources (and I do recommend them), is to give your congregation time to absorb them. Use the slides Logos provides and put quotes and prayers up on a screen so absorption can happen through ears, mouth, and eyes. Embrace repetition. Take denser quotes and tease out their meaning by feeding them to your congregation line-by-line, interspersing congregational response, musical response, or congregational prayer. Be creative. A quote can be more than a simple sum-up of thought. It can be a prayer, a response, an invocation. A prayer can be more than a stiff congregational reading. It can be a song, an antiphonal rejoicing, a layered text that is uncovered bit-by-bit.

If you already use Logos, I would encourage you to explore this series further. If you don’t use Logos – you might want to think about doing so. And keep your eye on additional offerings by Pastorum. It’s not just for pastors anymore.

A. A. Hodge Adapted from Hodge, Manual of Forms, 76–77.

[1] 400 Prayers for Preachers, ed. Elliot Ritzema (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).