I once had a pastor give me this advice when dealing with those we serve: “Kevin, the church is a bunch of sheep, and sheep are dumb.” I was 23 at the time, and whether you find this phrase offensive or not, I just took it to heart and tried to learn from it. On one hand, it did help me to not take comments of people too personally (both positive and negative), but on the other hand, it subliminally caused me to distance myself from my flock. While it’s true that sheep are not the smartest of creatures, and Jesus refers to us as sheep, our Good Shepherd never holds our abilities against us but leans in constantly to love us.
As worship leaders, we can be fragile creatures. We design worship services and can wear our hearts on our sleeve, as if each Sunday we ask, “Did you like it?” Now, there’s a whole lot of gospel missing from this scenario, but nevertheless, it is the experience of many worship leaders all over the world, and it has been mine for years as well.
By God’s providence, I have been placed frequently in church bodies that have wide generational demographics. There is so much beauty in this, and I believe it is how the church is meant to be, with older generations mentoring younger and younger serving and loving the older. However, this can commonly lead to a “sides” mentality and especially when it comes to worship. As a young worship leader, I felt caught in the middle of a war I had no idea how to win. As any green worship leader might do, I looked to popular influences for answers. Those seeming answers were “be cool, and they’ll like you,” “create an experience, and it’ll work out,” or “the old people just need to get over it and realize they’re not in anymore.” While no one overtly says these words, it can be written in between the lines all over our culture. And so I would lead worship with a bit of forced passion, eyes-closed, hands raised, and hoping the “experience” would copy and paste to the congregation. Well, that was clearly an epic fail.
What is the outcome? You start to receive prayer cards that become a suggestion box with comments like “TOO LOUD” or “Your guitarist wore a T-SHIRT. A T-SHIRT!” or “Choir members swaying? What are we? Holy Rollers?” (All of these are actual comments I’ve received). On the other hand, when you do something people approve of, you get comments like these, “I just love when you do the old hymns,” which can be a back-handed way of saying, “Do more hymns.”
All of this can make for an easily embittered worship leader and a disgruntled and distrusting congregation. So what are we to do? How do we become a conduit of unification for a body of people that range from newborn to over 100? We put down our battle sword and stop crying “Follow me!” and point to the cross and say, “Follow Him!” The difference here can make or break the health of your heart and your church. Why? Because if I’m relying on my charisma, my talent, or my ideas that I perceive are so full of innovation, then I will tire myself seeking the approval of others and finding my identity in my work. The congregation will feel that, and I would have not treasured Christ in any of this. To be an under-shepherd under the Great Shepherd means I spend my energy, gifts, and creativity pointing to Jesus. Suddenly, your worship sets are not first an experience but rather a retelling of the Gospel and a beholding of Jesus, and people know the difference. Though we may be sheep, we’re not that dumb. Jesus is the one who can change a heart. He is the one who can convict of sin, and He is the one who can (and wants to) unify His church in worship.
The apostle Paul writes in Colossians 1 “To them God has chosen to make known…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” You may have heard it said that the church is the hope for the world, and here it is evidenced. Christ in you is “the hope of glory.” It is the church that Jesus has enjoyed imparting the task of advancing the kingdom, being ambassadors in His name, and making disciples. It is also the church that he prays for in John 17 that we would be one with the Father as He is. Jesus LOVES the church, and it is this love that fuels it to health and mission. As his under-shepherd, then, it is my task and my joy to do likewise.
The church is the place where you will experience the power of God in the presence of people. You will encounter elderly couples who have generosity of time and resource beyond what you can fathom. You’ll experience families who welcome the lonely into their homes. You’ll see college students forsake a promising career for the mission field. You’ll watch children sing and learn to love Jesus. It is truly a marvelous place. It is also the place where you, as a leader, may incur some of the deepest wounds. However, the beauty of the Gospel is that Jesus perfectly follows the command to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) that we can fall into his nail-scarred hands, see His spit on face, and find the grace to love the church, as Oliver Cromwell would say, “warts and all.” Jesus understands what it is like to be mocked, to be betrayed by those close to him, and to hold out your heart to your people and be utterly rejected. However, it was still the “joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2) that caused him to endure the cross, and while he hung there, he saw generations of future believers and “was satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11). It was for a joyful and worthy cause that Jesus laid down his life for the church, and it is to our joy that we do the same.
We are commanded to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). While in the midst of a season of heart-wrenching conflict in the church body, this can seem like a daunting and threatening word. However, what God commands, he surely has the grace to provide. Praise God it is not from my effort that I love from a pure heart, but it is that hope – Christ in me – that causes me to say, “This is my beloved” as Jesus would. All His commands are for my joy and for our good.
This is the heart behind the new Grace Worship “Christ Be All” EP. I and the members of Grace Worship desire to craft songs that serve to unite the church to treasure Jesus. It is out of a love for the church that these songs were born. The church is a family of worshipers, and they are worth loving and giving yourself for. I have dug to the end of the well of seeking acceptance and self-exaltation, and that well was ugly dry. However, “there is a river that makes glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4) and that well of Living Water never runs dry. I pray that these songs, which intentionally draw from the historic church as well as modern influence, cause you to treasure your Savior, and allow for generations to stand side by side and worship together with joy. May Christ be all!
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Kevin King is the worship director at Grace Worship, which is the worship ministry of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Peoria, IL, a church that is passionate about making the gospel known through song and story. Drawing on its 150-year church history, Grace Worship brings a multi-generational focus to its debut EP Christ Be All. The EP, which is available to preorder now at https://slinky.to/ChristBeAll-EP, is centered on Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for the body to be “one” and honors the rich heritage of Christian hymnody while incorporating modern anthemic choruses and pop hooks.