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A Conversation with Worship Pastors on Spirit-filled Lives
Donald Zimmerman (Living Stones – Reno, NV)
Joel Brown (Mars Hill – Seattle, WA)
Matt Stevens (Vintage 21 – Raleigh, NC)
Josh Dix (The Journey – St. Louis, MO)
Michael Bleecker (The Village – Dallas, TX)
Aaron Spiro (SOMA – Tacoma, WA)
This is the last of a four-part interview with several A29 worship pastors on our 4 distinctives and how they play themselves out in different worship contexts: west coast & east coast, suburban & urban.
In wrapping up this series of interviews, let's address the role of the Holy Spirit in our corporate worship gatherings. The Spirit certainly works in our planning but he also works in ways that appear spontaneous to us. Why is being led by the Spirit in both planning and in the moment important for worship leaders?
The bigger you get the harder that is because there are more programmatic things involved. While I do believe that being Spirit-led means planning, I also believe that God is actively trying to guide us in the moment to trust him even if we thought that we had planned it or heard well.
If we want to be led by the Spirit, we need to listen. We need to be better at learning how to listen to him and then walk in that by responding in faith. Some people don’t know how to do that, so first they need to learn how to do it for themselves so it's a natural thing.
Reading Desiring God by John Piper ten years ago completely shaped how I lead worship. We know that worship requires truth and spirit (John 4:24), but do we as worship leaders walk on stage every Sunday empty of either? We need both to be effective.
My ability to respond to the Spirit’s leading during a service (like speaking prophetically over the congregation or singing prayers) is directly tied to my time with the Lord during that week. Without having the truth in my heart, it just doesn’t work.
It’s a theological conviction that's still very much in development in our service context. We're growing in what it means to be joyful and expressive in our response and to not just stand there and absorb or observe. We want worship to be an outpouring of what God has done among us.
Structure should submit to the Spirit, not the Spirit to the structure. Worship leaders do so many things on stage unintentionally or without thought and that’s a problem. We get stuck in structures and forms because we stop listening to the Spirit. There are guys that only expect the Spirit to show up on stage, and others who only expect the Spirit to help in the planning meeting, but not in the moment. We need to expect the Spirit in both. If you believe that, then that will change the way you prepare your band so that if you do respond in the moment to the Spirit, you don’t throw them all for a loop.
Worship leaders do so many things on stage unintentionally or without thought and that’s a problem.
A conviction of Acts 29 is that the Holy Spirit, as a member of the triune God, is always consistent with God’s word. Spirit-led actions are submitted first to Scripture, then secondarily to other leaders. Some have described that sort of thing as “charismatic with a seatbelt.” What are some of the ways you guys experience spontaneity during some of your worship gatherings?
We do spontaneous baptisms about once a quarter. On the spot, people make the decision to speak with a pastor, change clothes, come out, and get baptized. I’ve seen upwards of 50 plus people in one service do that at times; we’ll end up playing our whole music set twice if need be. The music becomes a soundtrack to the whole thing.
Sometimes during the service, I’ve had moments where Tyler Jones is preaching and I’ll go back to the slide guy and just say, “Hey, switch these two songs.” Not necessarily adding a new song we haven’t rehearsed, but switching the order so that our response is more fitting to what’s happening in the service.
We’ve started to put together a plan where we have space for the Spirit on Sunday's. For a while, I felt like there were moments where the Spirit was leading something, but with the services being back to back to back, there wasn’t time...so I felt those moments were squelched. Now we’re experimenting with having key moments where the worship leader intentionally listens for whether we stop and pray or do something else; the key is to try and carve in times for that spontaneity.
Before rehearsal starts, we get levels, take all our instruments off, and walk around the sanctuary. We play a song over the speakers that’s stirred me lately. We sing, pray over the chairs, and collectively plead with the Lord to save these people that are going to be here. At the end of the song, I pray over everyone that we’d be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. This prepares us for possibly spontaneity later.
After a video sermon, we’re not as structured. I pray and dismiss everyone, but I also tell them that there are men and women that we love and trust here at the Village available to pray over you and listen to you. Most people file out, but we’re left with a pretty good amount of people. That’s when I really feel the freedom to kind of let go.
Sometimes as good theologians we focus on head knowledge but not heart response. Being led by the Spirit is active, exciting, and challenging. We want to allow people to hear truth and respond. Maybe we don't need to have services so close together. Do we give enough time in response or in communion to take a walk or to sit? Can we have a time of no teaching and no distractions, but just listen to the Lord for five minutes? Can people share what they feel like God is saying to them?
It’s definitely a risk, but with the help of elders or believers who are present and who know the Word, they can confirm or reject a word that’s given as either right or wrong. Sure it’s risky, but seeing the church function that way is beautiful.
As far as logistics, I musically create moments where you can sit, listen, respond, or think over something like the Scripture that God’s giving you right now? Other times we’ve had opportunities for the people to come up and share on microphones. I’ve tried a ton of things, but rather than giving out ideas for others I think it’s important for us to listen to how God wants to move in the place we’re at.
Being led by the Spirit is a surrendering of your entire self, not just of your verses and choruses.
It’s a great responsibility to exercise this well, one that requires a great deal of trust. How do you equip other leaders to be led by the Spirit?
I teach my guys through blogging, monthly meetings, and speaking with them about services. Asking questions like, “what was going on in your heart as you were leading?" We want to grow in being worship pastors, not just in our heads, but in our ability to hear from the Holy Spirit and be moved by him.
In ministry training, we so often acknowledge the Father and the Son, but we don’t acknowledge the Spirit. It’s important for the church leaders to be men and women that are comfortable operating in the Spirit in their daily walk with God.
You can’t miss the fact that what we do doesn’t happen without the Spirit. It can’t be done. It’s impossible. It’s sin if you try to do it yourself. Even your best attempt is a filthy rag. The Spirit has to empower that work under the covering of Jesus’ blood to work in mission!
I think it's important to help leaders understand the Spirit is always at work, not just on stage during the services, but during planning, rehearsals, when you're with your family or friends, and when you're alone. Being led by the Spirit is a surrendering of your entire self, not just of your verses and choruses. When your heart is surrendered, I think you are able to hear and respond to the Spirit's leading more clearly.
Instead of approaching the idea of “being led by the Spirit” as some trait or skill we would add on, we encourage leaders to pray and spend time studying scripture while allowing God time and space to work in their lives. It’s possible to move through the service distracted by the task at hand and miss the guidance of the Spirit.
If ministry is only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit in us, we should live this way from beginning to end. Stop planning on your own strength and asking God to lead us when Sunday morning comes around. With all our lives we should seek the Spirit, instead of compartmentalizing when we step aside to allow the Spirit to lead us. Plan, write, rehearse, lead, and worship, all while being led by the Spirit. This is not something to add to your schedule or philosophy, but is the reality in the life of believers “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).
Thanks guys for your input on these key issues. Join me in praying for Acts 29, that as it continues to grow as a church-planting movement, God would raise up God-fearing, humble, talented, worship leaders to serve their local church well and lead by the Spirit.