Exactly how does a worship leader prepare to lead the congregation each Sunday in worship? If my experience is typical, many leaders spend most of their time preparing the various elements of worship—such as the sermon or congregational prayer—and give little attention to preparing themselves for that majestic privilege of ushering people into the presence of God.
What strange creatures we are! We meticulously groom ourselves to meet some human dignitary but will waltz unthinkingly into the presence of the Almighty.
The Busy-Servant Syndrome
For me the first step in personal preparation for worship is recognizing that worship is the highest and most important activity to which God calls me. More times than I care to admit I have slid into my study, surveyed the piles of work on my desk, and thought about all the people I should visit that week and about the sermons I have to prepare for Sunday. In the press of all this busyness, I quickly open my Bible to skim a few verses and bow my head in a brief prayer so that as soon as possible I can get to the "real business" at hand.
When I find myself falling into that pattern, I remind myself of something that happened a few years ago—a homely incident with my son which helped me realize that I was often neglecting the "real business." I was reading the paper one evening when our four-year-old son wriggled onto my lap. I looked down and asked, "What do you want, Jim?" "Nothing," he said, but then he snuggled closer to me. I realized then—in a rush of parental joy— that he just wanted to be with me.
Personal worship is simply "lap time" with God. God rejoices when I come to him daily to enjoy his presence. How awesome to realize that you and I are ingredients in divine happiness—that our daily fellowship brings God real pleasure!
So quiet time with God must be a top priority each day. I know this with my head but not always with my heart. I have had to learn and relearn this lesson repeatedly. As a pastor I must read the Bible not just professionally but devotionally. When I am caught up in the "busy servant syndrome," it is much too easy to overlook my daily walk with the Lord in favor of doing things for him.
Doing Versus Being
Living in the tension between doing and being, I am tempted to fall prey to activistic urges, forgetting that God calls me to be someone in relationship to him before I attempt to do anything lor him. I cannot effectively lead people into the presence of God in corporate worship on Sunday unless I have been in God's presence during the week in private worship. So my first and basic preparation for worship is remembering that unless I am quiet before God, my outward journey to help the world will prove only to be frantic action without the proper spiritual undergirding.
My life is most meaningful when I deliberately center it in God, observing the daily disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, and meditation. Only then can I face my task in God's strength rather than my own. Lap time with God is crucial.
Knowing My Congregation
Another part of personal preparation involves knowing the people I minister to. I can hardly expect to lead the members of my congregation effectively before God's throne of grace if I don't know what their experiences of God are. Where are they hurting? Are they seeking God's help in their suffering? What are their anxieties and their expectations?
I must be in touch with people's needs. Surely my pastoral prayers and sermons will not be helpful if I am oblivious to what is troubling individuals. Though I am a senior pastor with primary responsibility in preaching and leadership/administration, I am assigned hospital and pastoral calls each week by our pastor of visitation. In a sense, every contact with members of the congregation during the week helps prepare me personally to lead them in worship on the Lord's day. If I am worship leader as well as preacher for that day, I make a list during the week of special needs that should be included in the pastoral prayer.
My strategy is to plan sermon titles and themes at least three months in advance, allowing room for change as special needs arise in the life of the worshiping community. However, I do most of my intense studying the week preceding the Lord's day so that my preaching will be fresh and contemporary.
To avoid disaster on the weekend, I must get started in serious study early in the week. Usually I try to spend either Tuesday or Wednesday in the library, where I devote my time strictly to sermon preparation, uninterrupted by telephone or visitors.
I've discovered that disciplined time management is important; without it other tasks and concerns quickly cut into study time. Of course, sometimes that can't be prevented. All ministers have weeks when unexpected emergencies consume time they intended to spend on worship preparation. When that happens, I just try to do my best with the hours I have left and leave the results to God.
During my earlier years of ministry, I frequently allowed legitimate but nonessential matters to rob me of precious hours of study time. But I soon discovered that panic praying on Sunday morning does not make up for lack of careful preparation during the week. Such prayers are similar to that of the young boy who knelt by his bed asking, "Dear God, if I get an F on my science test tomorrow, please make it stand for 'fantastic'!" Can we actually expect God to be impressed with emergency prayers offered against the backdrop of poor time management?
Allowing for Input
I meet regularly to plan worship with a committee composed of an associate pastor, the choir director, the chairperson of our worship council, and a congregational member-at-large. Together we carefully coordinate the sermon theme with music and Scripture, plan innovations within the liturgy of the day, and insure that the service will allow appropriate congregational participation and response. The result is a more unified and interesting worship expeiience.
Of course, there will always be a degree of tension between structure and spirit. How can we balance form and freedom? Is it possible to follow a liturgy without stifling spontaneity? I believe it is, but I also admit to praying, "Lord, let something happen today that's not in the bulletin."
My Saturday usually includes giving the completed sermon, or at least the essence and flow of it, to my wife, who is my most loving and exacting critic. She has saved me from many a pitfall by reminding me how a sermon sounds to the person in the pew.
The importance I attach to Sunday worship determines how I spend Saturday night. My rule of thumb is that I take part in only those Saturday evening activities that permit me to awaken refreshed and ready to meet God in worship on Sunday morning. I arise early each Sunday to have time for devotions and for fine-tuning the sermon.
No matter how carefully I prepare, however, I know there will be times when I fail, when worship seems like an empty exercise. In this earthly arena we can at best attempt to worship. Thanks be to God that he meets us more than halfway. Jesus promised, "But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him" (John 4:23, RSV).
Worship is the loftiest activity of which humans are capable. God is pleased when we prepare as adequately as possible for worship, for by our actions we are saying that meeting him is important—and it is!