At Hopewell, our contemporary services begin with a prelude: easy-going instrumental music played by the band before a pastor greets the congregation. It’s a practice we bring in from our traditional services, but like so many other things, with a twist. In the traditional services, the prelude is announced only in the bulletin. But for the contemporary worship time, as the music begins, I invite the worshipers to spend time in prayer for the service, suggesting that they pray for all who will be involved with the service and for open hearts and minds to allow the Holy Spirit to do its work. I let them know that the prayer rail is open or they can certainly pray at their seats. Then I head down to the prayer rail myself…which also acts as a cue for the acolyte to light the altar candles… [Strap in, this is a robust discussion…]
When I go to the rail before each service, I follow a particular prayer discipline every time, even between back-to-back services. It’s important to me in preparing to lead worship. What I do is informed by a few essentials to me as a worship leader–in fact informed by some of the Bible passages and verses I cite to describe the essentials of worship. I’m committed to being led by the Holy Spirit in all that I do up front in worship (John 4:23). I want that leadership of the Spirit to not be hindered by anything in my life (Romans 6:23). It’s important that what I offer in the service be selfless and focused on God with love not only for Him but also for the congregation (Matthew 25:45). And I can’t just be focused on my personal experience and offering of worship, I know that all involved with a service are part of the honor we give to God (consider the Revelation 7:9 picture of ultimate worship).
So, at the rail, I follow a pattern of preparing for worship:
- I always begin by thanking God for the opportunity to worship and the privilege of leading worship. We leaders in the church are given an amazing gift and privilege to lead (1 Peter 2:9), and, like my comments about the ten talents, we are entrusted with more or less according to how we treat that privilege.
- I quickly turn to confession. It’s a simple fact that sin separates us from God, and unconfessed sin pollutes our capacity to connect with Him. Notice in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death–I get paid my wages from work on a weekly basis, not as an end-of-life benefit, just as my sin pays me in death incrementally instead of just in the afterlife. But if we confess, God is so ready to forgive and purify us (1 John 1:9). This confession may be about sin I’ve committed in the week leading up to the service or sin that is as recent as during the last service or between services. (Yes, during or between services, I can find plenty of ways to mess up. Probably a topic for another article…)
- With a forgiven heart, I then invite God to fill me again with His Holy Spirit. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul reminded his friends to “…be filled with the Holy Spirit…” The sense of the original text was a continuous or perpetual filling by the Spirit, inviting us to renew our welcoming of that Spirit in our own lives. But there just isn’t an inviting place for the Spirit in a sin-filled me, so this follows confession as a natural way to be more Spirit led and filled, all for the glory of God in worship.
- I then pray for the congregation, for them to have the open hearts and minds I mention in the invitation to pray. And for them to have a wonderful love for the Lord that shows in the worship. Of course, Jesus opened the eyes of the blind man and talked about opening our eyes to the need for a harvest–which makes this a great picture of what readiness we need for His truth and His Kingdom. Similarly, Psalm 51:17 tells us that God loves a broken and contrite heart, and on the road to Emmaeus, two of Jesus’ disciples realized that their hearts burned within them as the risen Jesus spoke to them. Great reasons for us to be radically open to what God offers us in our times of worship.
- Finally, I pray for a true and deep love for the congregation as I stand before them, so that I can be a useful leader of them into worship of God. I might sing, “I could sing of your love forever!” but if I don’t love each member of the worshiping body there in that place (let alone the rest of the world) I cannot correctly love God. Jesus was very clear that whatever I’ve done or failed to do for each of His created children, I’ve done or failed to do to Him. Especially in the worship situation, my love for God will be hobbled by any lack of love I have for His people.
I may have other things I pray for in the moment, things relating to troubles or challenges that come to my mind, or for particular people who are a part of the service, but these five things are to me the staples of my preparation for leading worship.
Even more, I want to say to anyone who reads this who attends worship I ever lead: I pray this for you, with sincerity and devotion, before I do anything to even try to lead you anywhere. It’s been my experience that when I truly humble myself in this way, God is faithful and graceful and loving to respond and use me in ways I never imagined. It is very certainly His grace that makes something good of the gifts He’s put in me, and I am so thankful for it!