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We are highlighting Leadership Journal's Top 40, the best articles of the journal's 36-year history, presenting them in chronological order. Today we present #27, from 1990. Countless readers told us how Jack Hayford's practice, mentioned in this article, of praying on Saturday night over the seats that would be occupied the next day, stirred them to similar preparation.
I was 22 when I took my first pastorate, a small congregation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. At best we averaged forty-five people in worship.
Before that peak, we had one rough stretch. As some members moved and others went away for the summer, our average attendance over a five-month stretch dropped steadily from forty-seven to forty-four to thirty-three to twenty-two and finally, by the middle of August, to eleven.
One Sunday morning only eight people attended church. When my family came back for the evening service, nobody else showed. No one.
I sat discouraged in the front row next to Anna, my wife, and our baby, who was lying in a bassinet.
I already was defeated after the morning service, but now I felt simply awful. What in the world am I doing here? I thought. If we had had enough money, I would have packed my family in the car and left town. But we didn't have it.
As I was sitting there, I made what I later realized was a crucial decision.
"Honey," I said to my wife, "you stay here with the baby and kneel. I'm going to the nursery to pray. If I we don't pray right now, this will beat us."
While praying in the nursery, I saw a mental picture of the church building on fire-not burning up, but flames were going up from the building, and the cinders were blowing east of the church and raining on top of houses, igniting them. I felt the Lord was telling me he was still intending to bring his "fire" to that church.
I was strengthened and encouraged to stay at the church, which I did for another two years. I can't say the church exploded with Spirit-filled enthusiasm after that. In fact, it never became much larger than it was at its peak. But in those two years, we had a number of families from that housing development to the east start attending.
That incident reinforced for me the priority of prayer in ministry and especially in preparing to lead worship. A pastor, of course, must do many things to prepare to lead people weekly in worship, from preparing a sermon to making sure hymnals are in place. But before I attend to technical matters, I've learned to attend to spiritual concerns.
Prayer helps my heart, mind, and soul focus on the meaning and direction of worship. I make prayer a priority because it dissolves the distractions of worship. My story illustrates a leading distraction: the yearning for superficial success. Certainly, I was concerned about the spiritual welfare of individuals at the time, but I confess I was also overly concerned with mere numbers.
But the yearning for "successful" worship can take other forms, each of which undermines our ability to lead worship in a right spirit.
1. Seeking a smooth service. During one recent Sunday service, I became angry. A group that was to make a presentation didn't show up on time; it was a rainy day, and the van that was supposed to bring them was late. I became irritated and said a couple of abrupt things to a staff member on the platform.
At once, I felt rebuked. First, I realized this group's tardiness wasn't anybody's fault. Second, I remembered the strength of our service isn't in its smoothness; that's not the source of its power. So I immediately apologized to my colleague.
Naturally, we want to run a smooth service. If things are disjointed, people can be distracted from focusing on God. But spiritual power in worship doesn't come from the smoothness of transitions.
2. The pursuit of excellence. Sometimes we get distracted from true worship by being preoccupied with the excellence of the choir, the preaching, or the special music. We even sanctify that yearning by saying that nothing we do for God should be less than excellent. Unfortunately, we sometimes end up sanctifying human pursuit of excellence as though it somehow ennobles God.
The greater truth is that while we ought to aim for excellence, God doesn't need our excellence; it doesn't enhance him a bit. It may make things more lovely, but it also can lead to pride. We become preoccupied with style rather than substance, with how things look and feel rather than with what truths they communicate.
Naturally, I'm not encouraging a studied shoddiness to keep us all humble. From how we dress to how we lead singing, from how we make transitions in worship to how we preach, our worship leaders strive to lead to the best of their God-given abilities. When the choir does well, for instance, we rejoice and are moved deeply. That's perfectly in order, as long as everybody keeps it in perspective.
3. Longing for an effective service. Sometimes we're distracted from worship because we want to make an impact on people. In the first service, for instance, I might say something funny that I didn't plan but nonetheless makes a point in the sermon. I may be tempted to repeat it in the second service mainly because it's cute and people will like it. If that's my motive, the spiritual vitality will be drained from it.
Recently, in the first service, as I came to the key point in the sermon, I became increasingly moved as I spoke. I asked if we wanted to be a charismatic entertainment center or a body that transmits the life of Jesus to the next generation. I was surprised, in fact, at how moved I became. I did something unusual for me-I hit the pulpit. I didn't tap it. I pounded it!
I haven't done that ten times in twenty-one years of pastoring, yet on this morning, I did. But it came naturally, spontaneously, and it genuinely communicated my passion for the subject.
But what was I to do the next service? For me to mimic that emotion would be disastrous. To do so would be to seek merely an effect, an emotional response, not to focus attention on the truth of the message.
By the time we enter the ministry, we've been made conscious of style and technique, intonation and appearances. Those are valid concerns. The machinery of worship is not unimportant. But when we end up being unduly conscious of such things, when they preoccupy us, we are distracted from the worship of God.
It's not only poor technique that gets in the way of worship, but improper attitudes. Developing a worshipful attitude is, for me, the most important thing I can do to prepare for worship. It's vital for me to nourish humility before God and to sustain a genuine childlikeness before the people I lead.
Unfortunately, our culture tends to think there is something fundamentally immature about childlikeness. But we in the church know there's a difference between childlikeness and childishness. Childlikeness is the attitude I want to nurture. It reminds me that no matter how old or seasoned I become, however mature or expert, when measured beside the Ancient of Days, I'm not that wise or experienced. I'm a mere child, not only at living the Christian life, but especially in leading others in worship.
In addition, I stress the importance of childlikeness because I want to remain flexible, open to the Spirit, as a child is open (usually!) to the leading of loving parents.
As I suggested earlier, prayer is the key activity for me, especially when it comes to nurturing a childlike spirit. When I regularly engage in three particular forms of prayer, I develop an attitude conducive to leading worship.
When I was a boy, each Friday night my father would give me a list of chores for Saturday. He usually worked on Saturday and wouldn't arrive home until after four o'clock. But then he'd walk with me and examine the work I'd done.
He was a perfectionist, although not an unkind man. He had been in the Navy where everything was shipshape. So, he'd examine my yard work carefully. If I left a couple of leaves in a flower bed, he'd just point, and I'd know to go over and pick them up. If he saw a weed I'd missed, he'd point it out.
For me this was a positive experience. I loved my dad, and I wanted to do well for him. When he looked at what I'd done, I wanted him to be happy. So when he pointed things out that I'd missed, I didn't mind. I would have done those things had I seen them, but I saw them only when he pointed them out.
King David wrote, "Search me, O Lord, and know my heart. Try my thoughts and see if there be some wicked way and lead me in the way everlasting." When it comes to preparing myself for worship, that's my desire as well. I want my Heavenly Father to walk with me through the garden of my heart and see if I've missed anything.
I do this by regularly engaging in cleansing prayer. This is different from my daily devotions; it's more intense. Sometimes I feel like I need a thorough cleaning, like a car radiator periodically needs to be flushed. It usually happens about once a month. I take a day and devote it to prayer and self-examination.
I don't have a specific agenda. I usually prostrate myself and "call on the Lord," as the Psalms put it. I'm not loud, but since I'm alone in a closed room, I feel free to speak aloud. I try to let God stir within me. I don't think I'm finished just because I feel stirred or teary-eyed. I'm ultimately looking for a new perspective on myself, a revelation of pride or self-centeredness, or an insight into what God would have me do next in ministry.
During one of these cleansing prayers, for instance, I was feeling a vague hollowness. I couldn't put my finger on a glaring sin, but eventually I realized I felt empty because I had been squandering my free time. It wasn't an earth-shattering revelation, but I had to acknowledge that I had been watching an excessive amount of television.
I see nothing intrinsically wrong with TV. It's just that there are few constraints to watching it. And it doesn't demand anything of me. In short, if I watch it too much, I begin to get lazy. I also enjoy reading novels and playing basketball, and these are activities that truly refresh me. I felt like the Holy Spirit was prompting me to prune this form of sloth to allow me to nurture better activities.
So, regular cleansing prayer keeps my spiritual garden in order. It helps me maintain attitudes that assist me in leading worship in Spirit and truth.
For me, Sunday morning starts on Saturday night, and Saturday night begins with a special form of prayer. Almost every Saturday night about 7:00 or 8:00, I go to the church, walk through the sanctuary, lay hands on each chair in the room, and pray.
Sometimes I'll walk down every row, sometimes I'll go down every other, but I'll let my hand at least slide over every seat. Once in a while, I'll sing a hymn or chorus as I walk. Sometimes I'll do this alone, other times with a few church leaders. Praying through the sanctuary usually takes about fifteen to twenty minutes, but it makes a profound difference in the next day's service. Specifically, it does three things.
1. I become open to God's power. Although God is present with me at all times, when I acknowledge his presence and get in touch with his power, I become more dependent on him.
As I walk along, I might pray, "Lord, you've given me gifts as a speaker. But I also know I can't touch all those people where they need to be touched. Only your Spirit can touch their spirits. I ask you to do that tomorrow."
Sometimes I will so feel the presence of God, I'll be moved to tears. Other times I won't feel a thing. At such times, I go to the back of the sanctuary afterward, look over the room, and pray, "Lord, I'm glad you're here, even though I don't feel one thing. And I'm depending on you being here tomorrow."
2. I allow the Spirit to lead. As I pray through the sanctuary, I'm also asking the Holy Spirit, "What is the one thing you most want to do tomorrow?" By this time, we have the essential outline of the service put together, but without the final details. So, it's a time when we can still adjust and decide which element of the service we will highlight. That decision, then, flows from this prayer time.
In our tradition, a "word of prophecy" is a message from God for the present moment. So sometimes as I'm praying this prayer and walking along, I literally will feel grief for people who have been bereaved. Another time I'll feel weepy for sick people. Yet another time, I'll become angry at Satan's attacks that have divided homes, abused children, or encouraged drug abuse.
I believe these feelings are more than coincidence; they're burdens the Spirit gives me. Naturally, they arise out of a complex set of factors: what I've been reading, who I've been talking with, what I've just seen on the news. But in the end, I believe the Spirit focuses these concerns and gives me a specific emphasis that should be woven into the next day's service.
Often, based on this experience, I will return home and rewrite the introduction to my sermon or the opening remarks of the service. I'm not talking about changing radically any part of worship at this point. It's more a matter of bringing an emphasis to certain parts.
People have told me I have a knack for opening sermons, for getting people's attention. If that's true, I attribute it to these times when I walk through the sanctuary, pray, and literally place my hands on the chairs where individuals will be sitting the next day, spiritually standing with them, identifying with their lives and need.
3. I impart a blessing to people. I also believe that in some personal way I impart a blessing to people by touching the seats and praying. It's not magic. I believe the Holy Spirit uses physical means (such as human touch or bread and grape juice, for instance) to communicate himself to others. I don't speculate on how God does it, and I strongly guard against the superstition such a truth can breed. But I've found God often integrates the visible and invisible realms to communicate himself.
We regularly receive letters from people who have visited our service. They say that as soon as they walked in the door, something began happening within them. They immediately sensed the presence of the Lord. What changes their life is not the smooth service or dynamic preaching, but their conviction that God was present when they were here. I believe our Saturday night prayers are part of the reason people feel that way on Sunday morning.
In the same way, the night before a baptismal service, I'll often go to the baptistery, get down on my knees to reach into it, and stir the water with my hands as I pray. I believe the Lord wants to make every baptistery like the pool of Bethesda-a place where people are delivered from the crippling effects of sin.
There is, of course, no handy formula, no set prayer that will guarantee spiritual results. Praying over the chairs on Saturday night is not a third ordinance. But for me, it has been a practice that has borne spiritual fruit on Sunday morning.
On Sunday morning, like many pastors, I pray in preparation for worship. And this prayer takes a different form still: I pray through the sermon. Sometimes I look at notes as I do it, but most of the time I simply think the thoughts of the sermon and pray about each one.
This has a homiletic aim, of course. It's one way to get the sermon firmly fixed in my mind. But for me the spiritual goal is more important. I liken the process to Elijah stacking the wood at the altar. What I'm doing in my study is stacking wood, and I'm asking for the fire of the Lord to come down upon the message and the congregation. I often pray something like, "Lord, I want to enter the service with my thoughts fresh and clear. And especially I want you to glow within me."
Often it's during this prayer that a fire for the sermon is ignited within me. One Sunday I was praying through my sermon based on the woman at the well. The subject was missions, and the main text was Jesus' statement: "Whoever drinks this water will never thirst again." I was feeling a little empty because it seemed such an obvious thing that people need Jesus to never thirst spiritually again. Ninety-eight percent of those attending the service already believed in Christ, so I didn't want this to be a sermon only to people outside of Christ.
As I was praying, suddenly I was stirred with the thought that many in the body of Christ, even though they know him, still go back and drink at the old watering holes. They find, of course, that it's no more satisfying than before. But the reason they go back is because they've become preoccupied with their own thirst. If they would seek their satisfaction by satisfying other people's thirst, they wouldn't be thirsty for the things that used to attract them.
I can't convey in print what a difference that made in the service, but it became a powerful point in the message. It helped people identify with the woman at the well and to recommit themselves to satisfying others' needs and not just their own.
One distraction happens not before but during worship. During the service, there are a host of technical things to think about: how to make a smooth transition from one chorus to the next, when and how to get people to interact, how to signal the instrumentalists to cut a song short, knowing when and how to modify a sermon. The worship leader has so much to think about, there's hardly opportunity to worship personally.
At one level, of course, that can't be avoided, especially for the younger minister. For the first few years of leading worship, maybe pastors ought to make sure their need for worship is fulfilled in other settings such as private devotions or visiting other churches.
But before long, one learns to both lead worship and worship. Some of that is due to experience, and some is due to the thoroughness of preparation. The more the details of worship are fully in hand, the more it is possible to operate on these two tracks at the same time: leading and worshiping.
It's like the concert pianist. He's practiced the piece, worked thoroughly on technique, and memorized every single measure. When he steps on stage, he keeps all this preparation in mind. But because his technical preparation has been thorough, he also will be able to engage himself fully in his playing. He will be recalling the various details as he moves through the piece, but he's doing more than playing a series of notes with certain physical techniques. He's personally involved in playing it with feeling. In some sense, then, he is able to enjoy the music more than the audience, which has not put as much into preparing for the evening.
Likewise, the worship leader, especially if he or she is well-prepared about the details of worship, can function on two tracks, with the spirit worshiping the Lord and the mind thinking about what's coming next.
Even more important than that technical preparation, however, is the prayer preparation already accomplished. When that's been thorough, the worship leader feels less like the pianist in control of the concert and more like the piano being used to play something beautiful and majestic.
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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