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Worship leader: Are you following the Spirit, or just the atmosphere?

The effects of coronavirus mean many worship leaders are playing in front of a camera rather than a congregation. Richard James Butt, who leads worship at a large church in Sussex, says it's time for musicians and singers to re-think what it really means to 'follow the Spirit'

I’m on another Zoom call. This one is with a group of volunteer worship leaders who during the initial lockdown period led worship via Facebook Live every morning for 15 weeks. They demonstrated an incredible level of commitment as they provided the scattered church with a place to connect with God through sung worship, prayer and the reading of scripture.

As we're celebrating all that’s been achieved, one of the group asks, “Does anyone else feel like you’re just performing songs? I’m trying to follow the Spirit, but there’s no feedback”.

As we all paused to consider the question, I remembered something a pastor once told me: "Pay attention to the congregation, but they aren’t your primary focus”. This is good advice. We should be able to follow the Spirit without being overly reliant on feedback from a congregation.

Worship leading can be a tricky dynamic at the best of times. There’s so much that can steal our attention. Not just what the congregation are up to, but what’s the next lyric? Am I going to hit that note? Was that the right chord? Does my next song work? What time is it? Why is the drummer scowling at me? All of this is going through our minds while we're seeking to focus on where the Spirit might be going and what he might want to say.

At the beginning of lockdown, our times of sung worship for online services were all acoustic. Just one person and their guitar. It felt like the most appropriate way for us to do it. We hoped it would be intimate and would translate as people feeling as though we were there with them. The first few weeks were strange. We had so much to adjust to. Shorter times of worship, no congregation, no band, no singers, no sound team to banter with, just me here alone. Except we were not alone. The whole time I felt the Lord speaking these words from Hosea 2:14" “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”

The “stuff” that can distract, including the congregation, had been stripped away and God was calling us into greater intimacy with him. I started to change my practice. Where I’d prayerfully plan a setlist to tie in with the sermon and focus for that week, I was now simply asking the Lord “where do you want to go together?”.

In many gatherings, spontaneity is seen as a mark of the Holy Spirit moving and speaking. My earliest Christian formation occurred in a charismatic evangelical church. There I learned to listen and hear the Spirit speak; in scripture, in prayer, through the prophetic, through worship. I also learned the importance of having a fairly large library of songs that I could draw on at any time, in case someone brought a word and my next planned song would cut across it and kill the momentum of the meeting.

How do you know if you kill the momentum of the meeting? The volume of singing goes down, less hands are raised, or perhaps the Pastor gives you the “I think we’re done now” look. None of these indicators are necessarily bad, but should they be the primary indicators of whether or not we're following the Spirit?

I know there have been times where I have convinced myself that I was following the Spirit because it felt like everyone in the room was engaged, hands raised, singing loudly. But what was the lasting fruit of those times? None of us can ever know the full long-term effect of our actions. Even in the moment, where we can discern apparent fruit, we don’t always know for sure. This, in part, is why worship is an act of faith. We rest in him and we rely on him to do what only he can do; transform our hearts.

Leading worship requires courage. Particularly when you are trying to listen and respond to what the Spirit is saying. “Don’t let the room psyche you out” a pastor once encouraged me. He was right. I say to you “don’t let the camera psyche you out”.

Many things are different, but one thing has not changed. Our role is still to point people to Jesus. If we just play to the room - or to the camera - we do our people a disservice. Instead we must lead them to Jesus by whatever means we have, in faith believing that despite the trials he is drawing people to himself. Yes there might be lack, but he is our provider. Yes there might be loneliness, but he is the friend that sticks closer than a brother. Yes there might be weakness, but he is our strength.

Richard James Butt is a worship leader, songwriter and producer based in Eastbourne. He is married to Lucy, has two children and is the worship pastor at Kings Church. For more information visit richjamesbutt.co.uk

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the publisher

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