A couple of years ago on our honeymoon in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, my wife and I got to do a couple of five-mile hikes in the Smoky Mountains. To save money and time, we decided to fill our backpacks with a picnic-style lunch and some snacks (mostly candy). It was so much fun eating sandwiches and cheap bags of chips picnic-style because there was a beautiful view, no one was around to tell me to get my elbows off the table, and I was eating with my new wife.
Another memorable meal was when I was in grade school. Every Christmas Eve my family would get out our fine china, light some candles, and have a fondue night. We didn’t get out the classy dishware often, mainly because my mom was afraid we would break it, but when we did, we knew that it was something special. We would fill one dish with cheese, one with butter, and one with chocolate, and among our assorted hors d’oeuvres, we would make the most out of the special experience.
As worship leaders, we set the mood for what is expected for the worship experience for the majority of the congregation. Obviously, there will always be those who are bold or mature in their faith who we don’t need to bring to the throne because they are already there. But for the lion’s share of the church, we set the table and the layout for what is generally expected during a worship service.
We can be the examples of whether or not it is OK to be expressive worshipers. I know that a meal with fine china versus a picnic will have two different moods—both fine and enjoyable, but different. In the same way, a campfire devo with an acoustic guitar and cajon has a much different feel than a Sunday morning service with a full band. Both are great and both can be incredibly powerful times of worship, but they are different styles.
We are called to do the prep work through prayer, devotion, study, and thought to find out what message we want to convey to our congregation. Josh Huckabay, a wise worship leader that I interned under, once told me, “Worship ministry is not about telling people where to go, but about leading them as you go there yourself.” Every week I try to encourage this mindset in the way our team leads. Whether the position is deserved or not, if you are onstage or have a role on the worship team, you are seen as a leader. What you do dictates to the majority of the congregation what is acceptable or inappropriate for the service.
However, as worship leaders, we can’t make the congregation do anything they don’t want to do. Just like a table-setter, I can bring you the finest dishes and cups, light the table with candles, and set out fancy silverware, but I can’t make you eat the food or even like it, and I shouldn’t try to. If our goal is to lead people to worship and we begin to judge our services based on how many people raise their hands, we will become very effective manipulators. If we take a close look at Scripture, however, we can see that isn’t our job. In Psalm 23, God Himself does nothing more than prepare a table for David in the presence of his enemies, and it is David’s choice whether or not he will partake in the “meal.”
Table-setting is about giving people the tools to eat the meal. Likewise, it is our job to prepare the setting for worship and then get out of the way.
I imagine that our experiences are often like Moses’s after he came down from Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. Moses had a literal mountaintop experience with God and was told to go down and tell the people to prepare themselves for worship. Then on the third day, he led them up on the mountain so they might worship God.
As many worship leaders or “creatives” do, we put a lot of time, prayer, and effort into our weekly services. We map out the flow of the songs so there aren’t any distractions, and we tie them together with the topic or theme we are trying to convey. As Moses did, we lead people up the mountain. But I highly doubt that Moses would have held the trust of the Israelites had he not first been to the mountain himself and stood before God. You cannot lead someone where you have not been yourself.
It is easy to gauge a service by how well the band played, how the tech team did, and if the congregation sang loudly or only a few people raised their hands. I fall victim to this mentality quite often, but leading worship is centered around trust in God. Craig Groeschel said, “If we blame ourselves when things go poorly, then we will be tempted to credit ourselves when things go right.”
Table-setting can be scary.
But we can do nothing more than that. So as you plan your service this week, think about what table you are trying to set. We lead our congregation to the table, not by pointing a finger, but by saying, “Come alongside me as we go together.”