Becoming Present to God’s Presence: The Lost Pastoral Leadership Skill

Sunday morning worship gatherings can be weird times. Often it feels like entering a world so disconnected from our normal lives that gathering hardly makes sense. The words and actions we rehearse have little intelligibility for our daily lives. One of the implications, which most missional ministers are familiar with, is that fewer and fewer people (believing or not) come to worship gatherings out of habit or curiosity.

No wonder many worship services lean toward entertainment or classroom instruction. It’s not always clear what we’re gathering to accomplish and how to enter that space, and we’re already trained in how to enter those dynamics.

More than that, there is little imagination among ministers for what it means to lead in a worship gathering. Inasmuch as the minister fails to embody the posture of a good entertainer or instructor, like the gathering itself, her leadership can feel ambiguous and odd – though many of us don’t notice the oddity because we’re trained to deal with it. We avoid the question, like I did for many years, what’s going on here? There is little imagination among ministers for what it means to lead in a worship gathering. Click To Tweet

Truly, the oddity and ambiguity hits home for me. When I stand up in front of people on Sunday morning during corporate worship, much of the time, I feel disconnected from my words and actions and also disembodied from the people around me. The bigger the crowd or the less I’m familiar with the faces looking back at me, the more aloof I feel. I cease to be fully present.

Does this matter?” I’ve asked myself over the years. “How ought I to be in this space and what difference does it make?”

The inability to be fully present, both as a leader and a congregant, was revealed when I joined a church with an unfamiliar arrangement in the worshiping space. Rather than rows of seats all facing an elevated stage at the front with a pulpit in the center of the stage (classically modeled on the Temple with progressive degrees of holiness), seating was arranged in concentric circles all facing toward the Lord’s Table in the center of the congregation.

The effect of this room dynamic was important: not only was each person essentially looking at everyone’s face, rather than at the back of heads, the lead ministers also prayed, preached, read scripture, served the elements of Communion, and enacted every other sacramental action from within the congregation. The body’s presence among other bodies was inescapably central to the worship gathering.

As I watched others lead in this space and stumbled through this dynamic myself, I became more aware of what was going on amidst the oddity that I was missing: the worship gathering is made intelligible by presence, which means entering and leading in that space requires a know-how for becoming present to myself, to others, and to God’s presence.

The pastoral practice of leading worship has been lost in many protestant, free-church traditions where all the worship leading has been transferred, both semantically and liturgically, to the person playing guitar. I’m increasingly convinced, however, that learning how to lead worship is a crucial skill for missional leaders. That is, in order to lead others on mission as witnesses in the world to the true life of the world, we need the know-how for leading in worship – becoming present to God’s presence.

On a Sunday morning in my tradition, there’s a lot to say and do. The worship leader (the celebrant) repeats certain words and moves her body in certain ways, leading the congregation to be participants in the sacred rhythms that rehearse the narrative of God’s redemption of all things in Christ by the Spirit. The danger in all this is that the leader will become disconnected from what is actually happening – either in mindless repetition or ostentatious play-acting. In either instance the leader is not truly present.

One of the gifts of being a pastor in a tradition whose liturgy is more “involved” than the music-sermon-music pattern typical in many evangelical churches is that I’ve had to learn a new posture of leading worship that qualifies neither as singing a hymn/chorus nor preaching a sermon. It’s neither entertaining nor simply teaching information. It’s a pastoral practice that has to do with leading through presence.

Because leading worship well boils down to presence – being present to God’s presence and to one another – knowing how to lead well is not only for Sunday morning gatherings but also for what happens in the rest of our lives. That is, knowing how to be present among the hurting and lost in daily life is nurtured by the practice of being present to God’s presence. This is why worship leaders can make the best missionaries.

Put another way, the “skill” of leading worship translates from the Lord’s Table to our tables. In fact, there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the two “tables.” Without presence around our tables, what happens at the Table can easily become domesticated as a service the church provides to religious consumers – something it does for its own sake, not for the life of the world. And without presence at the Table, what happens around our tables can become subsumed into a different narrative than the one where Jesus is Lord over all things.

As I’m recovering the practice of presence on Sunday morning, I’m learning to ask myself three questions before every worship gathering: Do I know it? Do I understand it? Do I need it?

Do I know it?

As the first and most basic question, it is not necessarily the most important. I can’t escape, though, how important it is for me to have a familiarity with the rhythms I’m leading and the people joining me. A lack of familiarity will usually interfere with my ability to be present to what I’m saying, present to what the Spirit is doing and how God is moving in people’s lives.

Do I understand it?

It’s possible to have a familiarity with the content and have no idea what it means or why it’s important. Or, I can recognize faces but understand nothing about what makes them tick.

My concern with this question is not that I have my mind completely wrapped around a concept, but whether or not I understand why any given word or action connects with God’s self-revelation in Christ. Do I know the mystery to which these words or actions point and why it matters?

Do I need it?

Early on in the process of wrestling with questions about presence in our worship gathering, the light bulb clicked on one Sunday after noticing how one of our pastors led the prayer and invitation to come to the Lord’s Table. “He doesn’t just know this stuff,” I thought, “he needs it too.”

Does this also have to do with me or is it a product I’m selling? Do I realize how much of myself is at stake in this? Is this something in which I am an equal participant, or a service to provide for people?

This question is, arguably, the most important question I ask, but also the one I’m most tempted to forget and ignore. Asking, “do I need it?” implicates me in the words and actions such that I must choose (or not) to become a participant along with everyone else. Asking this question cultivates a posture whereby I’m learning to tune-in to real presence. It indicates that something more is going on than just wishful thinking, and if I want to avoid the hollowness that will surely sneak in after the novelty of the words and actions wear off, I must learn to how to become present.

— [Photo by Jaako, CC via Flickr]

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