3 Things I Have Learned as Student, Leader, and Teacher of Worship

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Worship:   is Lifelong

More than 44 years of professional life should amount to something, perhaps even three things. Three distinct functions of the music/worship leader’s life are being a student, a leader, and a teacher. These three things are not necessarily sequential; they can happen all at once and for a lifetime. I want to carefully look at each of these functions and find a single great truth I have learned from it. Hopefully the matrix effect of all three functions happening all at once all of the time will result in a connected wisdom: three statements that lead to one great truth.

My life as a worship leader followed many years as a student of the ways of music and the ways of the Spirit of God; I must start with the task of worship study.

Worship Study

Worship Study has Fixed Points—Its Principles are Changeless

While worship leadership is constantly changing, worship itself in the context of the New Covenant, is a finished phenomenon of the Risen Christ, the Holy Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the hearts of human beings. How can this be? Simple.

Worship is the response of the redeemed human spirit to the revelation of God. When my spirit responds to the Spirit of God, I am worshiping in Spirit. When I obey God in total sincerity in response to the Word of God, I am worshiping in Truth.

God is changeless so the revelation of Him does not shift from age to age or culture to culture. He is “holy, holy, holy.” As the Gloria Patri says, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.” Done. Finished. Complete.

The fallen heart of humankind is universal. There is no land, linage, or language that has escaped the Fall. Yet each of us has a distant memory of Eden where and when our common ancestors walked with God in the cool of the day. We want to get back to that green paradise. This is the common worship impulse in the hearts of people everywhere. Though most often expressed in ignorance of the Word of God or the knowledge of Jesus, the need for worship is fixed in the heart of humanity.

So, God is changeless and the deep human need to know God is changeless. Temporary trends and momentary methods flow from deeper needs and universal forces. This is why the worship leader’s first job is worship study—finding these fixed points of Christian orthodoxy:

  • The Nature of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  •  The Nature of Humankind—Fallen without God, Redeemed in Jesus, and Regenerated by the Spirit
  • The Nature of Worship—in Spirit and Truth, In the Name of Jesus, by the Spirit and in the love of the Father,
  • The Character of the Church—the Body of Christ, the Holy-Royal Priesthood, the Family of God, the earthly branch of the Kingdom of God.

With full knowledge of these and other fixed points of truth, the worship leader can navigate the troubled waters of cultural change.

Worship Leading

Worship Leading has Flex Points—Its Applications Change

While the theologies of worship are fixed (though our knowledge of them should be continually growing) the application of these truths is capable of surprising flexibility. Change is inevitable. Whether we call it progress or evolution or if we call it apostasy or renewal, change is present and constant; worship leading is not exempt.

The great challenge is leading change. Worship Leaders should lead the progress and renewal of the local church.

Too often Christian artists, both local and professional, follow the culture instead of leading it. This makes too much of our Christian art—public worship is a work of public art—derivative, not original, and a poor imitation of the surrounding culture instead of a fresh word from God to the culture. We are called, as Dr. Robert E. Webber often said, to be a “holy counter-culture.” When we know what to change and what we must not change, we can function in this prophetic ministry—speaking eternal, universal truths into our times and places.

This knowledge helps equip us to lead change, not just respond to it.

Here’s a bonus—the Flex Points are fun! Instead of dreaded conflicts between generations or cultures within the congregation, seasons of change can be times of expansion and rejoicing in our fixed unity and our flexing diversity. There need be no “worship wars” or seismic shifts in the foundations of the church. The road to change can be really progressive leaving no casualties along the way. It should be a pathway of joy and discovery that fully engages our creativity and never represses it.

The absolute necessity for this miracle of spiritual/social change is Worship Teaching.

Worship Teaching

Worship Teaching Flows from Fixed Points to Flex Points—It Is Fixed and It Flexes

If the embedded theologies of the people we lead in worship hinder us, or if the “necks” of our worship are “stiff,” creating unreasoning resistance to change, the answer is teaching. The whole congregational discussion of worship needs to be elevated above the level of flexing culture to the level of fixed truth. If there are one thousand people in a congregation there may be one thousand different theologies of worship and one thousand sets of expectations of the worship service. There is no way to win this conflict. Jesus Himself declined to join the battle.

“To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ … But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Luke 7:31-32, 35 NIV

Many Worship Leaders and Lead Worshipers live with this conflict of expectations. We tend to complain about this issue more than we take steps to correct it. Worship Teaching should serve to standardize things:

  • Make the vision for worship clear to all—there are fixed points that will not change and there are flex points where we can be creative to express them in our way.
  • Simplify the expectations of the people—worship is a corporate expression of personal worship; there are disciplines of public worship.

An agreed-upon vision stems from common beliefs and unifies the expectations of the congregation. Thus, just as Jesus said, knowing the truth (fixed points) sets people free (flex points!).

Teaching the Test

Current education theory holds that student scores on standardized tests are a valid measure of the effectiveness of the educational process. The jury is still out on this question since this theory inevitably leads to “teaching the test.” Let’s apply the theory to our congregations:

Worship Study

  1. Do our people know what it means to worship in Spirit and Truth?
  2. Do they know that the Bible is the chief source book for truth on worship, not our culture or personal preferences?
  3. Do they know that their worship is ministry to the Lord?

Worship Leading

  1. Do our people know their identity as “Holy-Royal Priests” unto the Lord?
  2. Do they know that New Testament worship is a sacrifice of heart, thanksgiving, and praise?
  3. Do they realize that the Lord inhabits and is enthroned upon their worship so when we draw near to Him in worship, He draws near to us with His manifest presence?
  4. Do they know that music is the principle art of worship and that all should sing and make music in their hearts to the Lord?

Worship Teaching

  1. Do our people see that each of them is a worship leader in the public service?
  2. Do fathers and mothers know how to teach their children to be worshipers?
  3. Do we all demonstrate daily that life should be lived as worship unto the Lord?
  4. Do we know that private worship fuels public worship?

Eleven questions on the quiz—how did you do?

These three things I have learned:

Worship Truth is Fixed.
Worship Leading is Flexible.
Worship Teaching flows from the Fixed to the Flexible and back again to set us free.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

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3 Things I Have Learned as Student, Leader, and Teacher of Worship

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