Early on in my experience as a worship leader, I heard someone paraphrase Jack Hayford who said something along the lines of: “My greatest fear as a pastor/worship leader is that our church services could become such a well-oiled machine that the Holy Spirit could leave altogether and we wouldn’t notice for six months.”

It’s a bit dramatic and intentionally hyperbolic, but he gets his point across. And the possibility of that scenario playing itself out is something that rattles me to this day.

Could I let something like that happen? Could I (and my worship team, or choir), and could my church, become so good at “doing church” or making good music, or sticking to our liturgy, to the point that we’re no longer asking for, expecting and depending on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in our midst? Yes, I could.

When my worship leading becomes dominant over my Spirit-leaning, I get into dangerous territory. And you do too.

Here’s what happens when our worship leading becomes dominant in our eyes: We allow the excellence (or lack) of our musical/liturgical/technological execution to determine for us whether or not the Holy Spirit was at work. As a result (in our judgement), a tight band, a beautiful Cranmerian prayer and flawless sound engineering all equal a powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, and we head off to Sunday lunch very pleased.

Conversely, a lousy band, a pitchy choir, a dead liturgy and constant squealing feedback all equal (again, in our judgement) the complete absence of the Holy Spirit, and we head off to Sunday lunch feeling worthless.

But what if it’s more complicated than this?

What if our criteria for determining whether or not the Holy Spirit was actively present in our services is not so black and white? What if we’ve allowed our worship leading gifts to become dominant over our calling to be Spirit-leaning?

Is it possible that we could experience a flawless service on every level: from the parking lot attendants, to the greeters, to the nursery and children’s church workers, to the technical team, musicians, preacher, and fantastic church coffee (is that possible?), but we’ve not actually asked for, or left room for, or relied upon, the Holy Spirit to undergird and work through all of it, for the sake of the exaltation of Jesus Christ and the efficacious preaching and hearing of the Word of God?

And is it possible that we could experience a messy/unpolished service on every level, to the point that we feel like there is NO POSSIBLE WAY the Holy Spirit was even in a five-mile radius of our church, but he was actually very much at work in powerful ways?

I know I’ve experienced this kind of upside-down reality in my experience as a worship leader. You probably have too.

There have been times I’ve planned and executed a service with so much planning, rehearsing, technical excellence, musical flare and seamless transitions, that the Lord would have been crazy not to let the train of his robe fill our temple. But the service ends and I don’t get a single comment, not one email, not one “great job” in the parking lot, and no one had any visions of angels dancing up and down the aisles.

On the other hand, there have been countless times where I’ve felt unprepared and disjointed, I’ve noticed a bunch of mistakes in the slides, we have multiple musical issues, the reader messes up and reads the wrong Scripture passage, the drummer forgets how to play drums, and the congregation looks like a room full of mannequins. But the service ends and I hear from person after person who were deeply ministered to, who were clearly and unmistakably pointed to Jesus, and who had a profound sense of the nearness of the Holy Spirit.

I think back to Jack Hayford’s concern: that our services could be so well-oiled that the Holy Spirit could leave altogether and we wouldn’t notice for six months.

But there’s another side to that concern: that our services could be so ordinary, and so unpolished, that we would become blind to the very real and sweet presence of the Humble King himself, by his Holy Spirit, walking up and down the aisles, with his face beaming, while the worship leader is too distracted by his broken string to notice.

Am I saying that the Holy Spirit isn’t always present with us? No. Of course he is.

Am I saying that the Holy Spirit isn’t present in well-oiled services? No. Of course he is.

Am I saying that the Holy Spirit is only present in the services that we think are lousy, so we shouldn’t strive for excellence, or to remove distractions? No. Of course we should use our gifts and skills as well as we can.

Here’s what I am saying to worship leaders: to stay needy. Stay dependent. Stay expectant. And stay faith-filled. Our Spirit-leaning must be dominant over our worship leading. Never the other way around.

Stay needy for a God who will empower you with his Holy Spirit for the work of ministry. Stay dependent on that Spirit to keep you fixated on Christ. Stay expectant that the Spirit will do what he alone can do, and don’t try to do his work for him by over-programming or over-thinking or over-filling every possible detail that you can.

And finally, be full of faith in a God who can work through you, or around you, or in spite of you. This way, you can head off to Sunday lunch with full assurance that regardless of whether the service was amazing or average, you were faithful, and the Holy Spirit was at work. Our trust and identity is in his unchanging grace, not in our weekly (or daily) performance. This is good news.

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