Today I’m feeling flat!
No, I’m not depressed. Depression is a serious mental illness and requires medical care and supportive sensitivity. My emotional and mental state today, and indeed the past few days, is simply one of feeling unenthused and unmotivated.
When you survey my last few months you could be excused for telling me to ‘build a bridge and get over it!’ Business wise I’ve had a great year thus far. I’ve implemented a strategic plan for my small business (Singing Teaching) that is reaping tremendous dividends. Praise God! I’m surrounded by people who love me and I have wonderful things to look forward to; both short-term and long. But even still…I have these short periods of time occasionally that leave me feeling despondent and nonchalant about all that needs doing in the immediate. Unlike clinical depression which encases the suffer in a deep impenetrable fog, the passing mist of my temporary pessimism will reveal a clear excitement for tomorrow.
My current sense of dejection did have me wondering (as you do) about the role of the worship leader and how we don’t always ‘feel’ like leading people in worship. Without entering the debate that discusses our contemporary worship orientation, which constantly seeks to be peppy and up-beat (even at funerals!), I thought I’d table a few thoughts about what it is like to shoulder the responsibility of leading worship when you simply don’t feel like doing so.
I’ve been leading Christian worship services for over 20 years. During this time I have had many occasions when I would rather have been somewhere else doing something entirely different. Please don’t misread my admission here. The vast majority of the time I love leading God’s people in worship. Watching the adulation on people’s faces as they lift their hearts and voices in praise to our God, and knowing that I am a part of facilitating such a practice, is both personally rewarding and satisfying; but that doesn’t mean that I’m always thrilled to be ‘rostered on’ to do it! For example, fortunately for me, I am not on the worship team roster to lead this Sunday at my church (St Marks Uniting, Mt Gravatt). If I were, accounting for my current emotional state, I would not have a sense of anticipation for what God might do among His people. I will readily admit that my mental tone might resemble something like, “Argh! If it be your will Lord, then take this cup from me!” My reference to Christ’s turmoil in the garden of Gethsemane is a little over the top (OK, way over the top) but you get the idea…I simply wouldn’t be looking forward to the privilege of leading worship.
Even as I typed that word, ‘privilege’ in the previous sentence my mind tries to rouse me to some higher motivation for doing what we do as worship leaders. But alas, my downcast state will win the battle today…not tomorrow…but certainly today. So let’s hypothesise that I was ‘rostered on’ to lead worship this Sunday. How should I approach such a service? Should I, as I just suggested, ‘rouse’ my emotions and challenge myself to sing God’s praises regardless. Most certainly! God is worthy of my praise, regardless of my situation, circumstance or even emotional state. I want to again highlight here that I am not talking about mental illness such as depression; which requires care and attention before the sufferer can see clearly enough to simply get out of bed little own express a positive and worshipful heart. Back to the question…But can I worship God, moreover can I, and should I lead worship even when I’m not feeling emotionally buoyant? Well I guess the answer to that query is found in the underlying ethos upon which my worship orientation is founded. For example, as Mark Pierson (2010) writes in The Art of Curating Worship, “If excellence is a primary goal, then the weak, the timid, the depressed, the disabled, the unskilled, the sick, the introverted, the overweight, the less attractive, the poor, and the untalented aren’t going to get a look in” (p. 65). I’m adding to Mark’s list…the temporarily despondent.
Allow me to offer the thought: perhaps my worship (and my leading thereof) in this moment of temporary despondency is worship experienced differently. Sure, on the outside it might not present with the level of excellence I have in the past but I am choosing to worship regardless of my feelings; offering myself as a living sacrifice – imperfectly despondent. Could this actually be a wonderful opportunity, disguised though it may be (even to myself), where my offering of worship is simply in the doing? Sometimes our worship becomes very ‘results’ orientated. The task list might include tangible awareness of God’s presence or heightened acknowledgement of God’s transcendent awesomeness. But maybe this occasion calls me to simply do and be with no expectation of result or outcome. How wonderfully un-gratifying! Now, in my current state of glumness, it’s not about me…it has to be all about Him. In the midst of the moment it may well be that God touches me in a refreshing way and I come through the experience changed and uplifted. Equally, it might not happen like that. But that should not be my reasoning anyway. I don’t worship simply for ‘what’s in it for me’. At least I shouldn’t…and this circumstance (my feeling flat) has actually gifted me with the opportunity to make sure that the worship service can’t be about me – but about the one to whom we offer our praise!
Of course this is all hypothetical…or is it! As sure as the sun rises in the east I will encounter another Sunday when a general sense of despondency coincides with my scheduled responsibilities for leading worship. Perhaps when that day happens I should remember to re-read this post and give myself a good reason to be and do. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Please share this post with a worship leader who you think might need some encouragement in a time of general despondency. And feel free to leave your comments below about your experience and thoughts regarding leading worship when you have ‘felt flat’.
Pierson, M. (2010). The art of curating worship: Reshaping the role of worship leader. Minneapolis, MN: Sparkhouse Press.
Recently I made a statement to some friends while discussing liturgical design and worship service structure. The statement was simply,
“Music is a hard task master. If you let it rule, it will rule with an iron fist!”
As you might expect, in response to my reductionist proclamation I received quizzical looks that ranged from ‘Did he just say what I think he said?’ to ‘That’s ludicrous; music is and has always been a key element of Christian worship.’
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I thought I’d take the opportunity to clarify my statement.
Firstly, music has always been a key element in Christian worship. Throughout Christian history the people of God (the Christian Church) have gathered to hear God’s word and sing His praises. Bob Kauflin (2011) writes, “Singing allows us to seamlessly combine doctrine with devotion, intellect with emotion, and objective truth with our subjective response to it” (p. 30). Music (specifically singing) enables us to join together as one. When we join our voices together we simultaneously, and harmoniously (for the most part J) give distinction to God’s attributes (faithfulness, goodness, greatness etc.). Music’s general standing and continued use in Christian worship is assured; and in my opinion a continuing gift to the Church. But that does not change the fact that music can, when left unchecked, become an unruly dictator. Allow me to explain…
For much of the first 2000 years of the Christian Church’s history, the debate around music has often centred on its emotive nature. For me, this argument is settled (though I understand for many it is not). Music is a part of the wider creative arts. The creative arts move us; they move us to reflection, and to action. In this, music is no different. Music does have a significant impact on our emotions; it causes us to contemplate the present and at times to respond in a manner appropriate to our contemplation. Warren Wiersbe (2000) notes, “If true worship is the response of the whole person to God, then we do not neglect the emotions” (p. 23). Music and emotions are, and should be, powerfully linked in Christian worship. Does this mean that we should abandon ourselves to wherever our emotions lead us in worship? Absolutely not! Marva Dawn (1995) warns us that,
…subjectivism focuses only on the individual’s feelings and needs and not on God’s attributes or character. Some subjectivity, of course, is necessary; worship cannot be vital without feelings. The problem arises when emotions predominate in mindless subjectivism and God is lost in the process. (p. 50)
As with most things, balance is the key. So how can music be a ‘hard task master’? How does it, if permitted, ‘rule with an iron fist’? It happens quite easily. Music starts to direct and fashion the liturgical design the moment it is given a place of prominence in the genesis of said design. Simply, when you build your service structure around the style of music that should or should not be used, music will start to direct and fashion the service structure. The moment it does so the musical cart has been placed before the liturgical horse (so to speak). For example, if a church was to commence using contemporary songs with the agenda (stated or otherwise) of attracting (or retaining) young people, then that church has given the important decision making required for liturgical design over to music. The music is now in control. From hence forth the music will need to be consulted in order to maintain the attractional modelling of the service design.
Does this mean we shouldn’t use contemporary music? Of course not. The cart still needs the horse! John Jefferson Davis (2010) warns us against the swinging pendulum reminding us that, “…the greatest strengths of the evangelical tradition – preaching and evangelism – …unwittingly contributed to its greatest weakness: lack of depth in the theology and practice of worship” (p. 10). Ultimately we need both: Word and song. We must continue to strive for a balance in our liturgical design where music is used as a tool to enrich the worship experience of the worshipper; but also in a manner where it is not permitted to direct or primarily influence how the service should or should not be fashioned.
When I started writing this post this morning, I initially titled it “The Elephant in the Room” because I think there are a plethora of examples where music has become the elephant in the room. I believe many in the western Christian church have fallen prey to the lures of music and in doing so have handed over the reins of their liturgical design to a dictator that will not relent from its constant need for reinvention. It is a metaphorical treadmill that exhausts the runner even though they have gone nowhere. I will finish the post with a statement made to me when I was a young worship pastor; a statement that I have only recently (some 15years later) started to appreciate for its depth of wisdom: “If you focus on having excellent music in church – all you’ll have at the end of it all is excellent music in church!” (Anonymous).
As always, I am keen for your views on this topic regardless of whether you agree or disagree; remember iron sharpens iron! Let’s talk…
Davis, J. J. (2010). Worship and the reality of God: An evangelical theology of real presence. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Dawn, M. J. (1995). Reaching out without dumbing down: A theology for worship for this urgent time. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Kauflin, B. (2011, November/December). Why we sing. Worship Leader, 20, 28–31.
Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.