If you had asked me two years ago how a worship director can have the greatest impact on God’s Kingdom, my answer probably would have focused mainly on leading worship on Sunday. It is the primary function of the team, so doing that well is the most important thing. Something like that. The longer I work as a worship director, though, I begin to see that it’s almost impossible to know how God will use me. Earlier this year, God continued to remind me that his ways and purposes are infinitely beyond my imagination or expectations.
We were just about to begin practice one evening when I noticed Harry sitting in the third pew. Before I continue, I want you have an accurate mental image of Harry. He is an older fellow, who always looks in need of grooming and smells strongly of smoke. He has a raspy, hushed voice and a speaking style somewhat like the stereotypical surfer. His clothing is usually pretty well worn and a little out of place; in the winter he would wear a stocking cap during the Sunday service. His posture is hunched over, and he walks slowly, with a subtle limp. I have a feeling he is not nearly as old as he seems.
Harry had been coming to church for a number of months, but I didn’t really know him. So as everyone else got ready for practice, I went over to find out what was up. He said he just wanted to see how things work because he was thinking about playing guitar with the worship team. Now, this was a strange moment for me. I don’t know what my face looked like, but I hope it did not reveal my incredulity. I did not see how Harry could play guitar with the praise team. A variety of thoughts went quickly through my mind, but since Harry wasn’t hurting anything, I told him he was welcome to sit and enjoy practice. That’s what he did. Of course had that been the end of the story, I wouldn’t be telling it.
The next week Harry came with a guitar. This was even more strange than the previous encounter. He set up a chair for himself, right up on stage amongst the rest of us, got out his guitar, and asked me for some music and a stand. I hadn’t expected this at all, so I had nothing to give him. I know I was smiling, out of bewildered amusement. This just seemed so odd. How could this man actually play guitar? What did he expect to get out of this? I simply couldn’t make sense of why he was there. Nonetheless, I ran quickly to make a copy of my music, and we carried on with practice as usual.
Harry didn’t play much, from what I could tell. He mostly looked alternately at the music and his hands, seemingly trying to remember where to place his fingers to play the various chords. After practice, he told me he’d need that chair again for Sunday morning, since he only plays sitting down. I tried not to show I was taken aback. Did he really expect to play on Sunday morning? I simply told him there is a schedule for participation, and we could discuss adding him to it after he’d been practicing with us awhile.
The next couple of weeks went mostly the same. Harry would show up, I’d scramble to make a copy of my music, and he’d sit through practice, playing very little. Well, no big deal, I thought. I don’t get it, but as long as it doesn’t distract anyone else, it’s fine. The moment I realized Harry did indeed expect to play on Sunday morning came on a Sunday morning soon after. He arrived a few minutes before the service, guitar in hand, asking where he should sit. That morning I didn’t mind telling him he would not be playing because he had missed our practice an hour earlier. It’s exactly what I would have told anyone in that situation. In this case, however, I assumed Harry wasn’t serious enough about playing to show up ninety minutes prior to the service.
Then God jumped ahead a ways in the Trust syllabus, skipping the part where he tells you he’ll be teaching you about trust. The next week Harry did show up for Sunday morning practice. Up to that point, I thought I had been acting graciously. I had been accommodating Harry at practice, but this was too much. Harry had come to only a handful of practices, I had never agreed to add him to the schedule, and I’d never yet heard him play anything. How could he possibly play with us? The truth is, my attitude had really been polite condescension, not welcome and acceptance. Thankfully, God created a situation I couldn’t handle or escape. Harry was there, and it was happening, whether I wanted it to or not.
Once Harry played in that first service, God went to work on all of us. Harry kept coming to practices and playing in the worship service every week. I expected him to be there, and planned accordingly. He began calling if the weather was threatening or to tell me when he would be absent. He bought a new guitar (I actually felt a little bad about that since it was unnecessary). Harry even started wearing khaki pants and a collared shirt, and combing his hair on Sundays (I assure you no one had said anything to him about his appearance). The whole thing felt completely different, and all the strangeness was gone. The greatest change, though, was of the kind only the Holy Spirit can effect.
When Harry had started coming to practice, none of us talked about it. I think avoidance of a topic is often an indication that something’s not right. In this case, it was our attitude that was not right. We couldn’t let go of our assumptions about Harry and about what it means to be part of the worship team. We viewed him like a child, really: sweet and well-meaning, but not part of the real team. God was probably rolling his eyes at us, if he does that at all.
After that first month, though, we all started to see something more in Harry. There is a sincere and visible joy in Harry when he plays on Sunday. It’s palpable. The other team members started to talk about how great it is to have Harry among us. Not for his musical contribution, but because he seems to love being there more than anyone else. On separate occasions, three or four different congregation members told me they love seeing Harry up there playing. It brings the sort of genuine smile that’s all too rare in our modern culture. And what’s more, when Harry took a break for a few weeks, several people, both praise team members and parishioners, asked me whether he was alright. I doubt very many people would have noticed his absence if not for his playing in worship. It’s a beautiful thing.
All this movement of the heart had really nothing to do with the actual worship on Sunday. The songs and music didn’t change at all. No, it was because God wouldn’t let me keep a squishy soft enclosure around a person who wanted to be part of something. As a worship leader or team member, have you experienced God working in ways you never expected? I hope the story of Harry encourages you and renews your hope in God’s mysterious and powerful ways.