Sabbath-Keeping for Lead Worshipers

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by Gregg DeMey This article first appeared in Reformed Worship; for other articles and to subscribe go to www.reformedworship.org .

Sustained Hospitality Requires Learning to Rest

In order to sustain a healthy and fruitful ministry, those of us called to serve a particular worshiping community as lead worshipers must confront the “frantic challenge.” This is true simply because there are, and always will be, greater needs than our pastoral capacity to meet them; more injustices than we have time to address; more hurts than we have time to attend to; more troubles than we can counsel; more spiritual explorers than we can disciple; more good strategies than we can implement; more worship services than we can be fully present at . . .

But as personally as you might feel the pinch of this reality (especially on Monday mornings), the larger issue at stake is one of hospitality. As a lead worshiper, you are an integral part of God’s hospitality team: you welcome worshipers and seekers into the safety of God’s presence where they can praise, adore, confess, question, cry, listen, learn, and commit. In God’s presence, human lives can be transformed, for transformation is the primary business of God.

It’s About Staying Fresh

So here’s the bigger question: Given the inevitable craziness of ministry, how can you optimally create space for people to meet with God? How can you deepen your worship leading skills, while avoiding the temptation to drown in the glut of ministry needs? Consider a few other pointed questions:

  • How can a lead worshiper stay fresh and vital fifty-two Sundays (plus holidays!) per year?
  • How do worship leaders keep the Sabbath when part of their work is on Sunday?
  • How does one choose what not to do in ministry?
  • How can one maintain the surety of God’s call in the midst of busyness?
  • What is the relationship between a leader’s private life and his or her public authenticity?

The short answer to the frantic challenge is simply that lead worshipers need to be fresh. Let me define some terms. By “fresh” worship, I mean to say any real encounter with the living God. I don’t mean to imply anything about style or substance or the relative age of anything or anybody. One of the beautiful ironies of the Christian faith is that it is simultaneously ancient and ever-new.

It’s About Hospitality

Can you remember (or imagine) an occasion when you were a guest at someone’s home and felt profoundly welcome from the moment you walked through the front door? Chances are, the atmosphere was warm but unpretentious; the rooms were carefully prepared and decorated with purpose but without ostentation. Perhaps there was something about the meal, or the art on the wall, or the conversation that seemed just the thing you needed at just the right time. Perhaps the demeanor of the hosts, lively in their labors, yet utterly relaxed and open to the joy of the moment, made an impression on you.

God himself extends this sort of custom-fit hospitality to worshiping communities collectively and to individual human souls one by one. As a lead worshiper, you are on the vanguard of God’s hospitality team—called to the same lively labor and flexible ease.

So how can lead worshipers cultivate their Spirit-given gifts of hospitality? I believe they are cultivated as we observe the rhythm of the Sabbath in our lives.

Sabbath-keeping (unlike financial generosity) is one of the easiest disciplines of the Christian life to “sell” to new believers. Who can argue with a weekly rest from the routine of work? Who can fault time set apart for worship and the soul’s refreshment?

For Christian folks in ministry, observing the Sabbath can be a bit more complicated. For us, Sunday worship satisfies half of the Sabbath function—that of collective worship—but it fails to grant a respite from the weekly routine of ministry (quite the contrary!). For lead worshipers to bring our best energy to God’s hospitality team, we need a weekly non-Sunday Sabbath rest from our ministry responsibilities.

Time Spent Alone

What’s needed is time spent alone. This could take one of a hundred forms. It’s worth noting that many facets of leading worship are intensely social: leading rehearsals and meetings, recruiting volunteers, coaching and pastoral relationships, friendship evangelism, worship itself. So it makes sense that respite and refreshment would come in silence and simplicity, in time alone with God.

Consider these words from Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should
change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

And a little later in the psalm:

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter. . . .

Into this roaring and foaming, into the noise and hubbub of our fallen world, God instructs us, “Be still, and know that I am God!” (v. 10). Be still . . . and know . . . that I AM God. Unless lead worshipers are regularly refreshed with God himself, the very things we love to do will grind us down and ultimately rob us of our calling.

An acquaintance from seminary days lives in the Boston area. After school he returned to the part of New England where he grew up and was enthusiastic about planting a church there. About six months into this new ministry venture, his enthusiasm was at an all-time high, but his capacity for the load of ministry was waning. He found himself forgetting appointments, feeling exhausted, annoyed by his spouse and children at home.

His frustration grew until he and his wife sat down and reevaluated their schedules, habits, even the minutia of their daily routines. They found that each needed more regular time alone with God. They committed to allowing each other a one-day-per-month retreat, time to spend “being still.” Time away from the house, away from the kids, away from each other. Time with God.

When my friend observed his wife’s demeanor as she exited the car upon her first return—singing and dancing in the driveway (hardly typical behavior for this reserved woman)—he knew it was going to be a long-term pattern.

Different Rhythms of Rest

Another wise church planter/pastor/friend summarizes his Sabbath keeping patterns like this:

To survive in ministry, I need

  • a daily diversion (non-ministry focused devotional time)
  • a weekly withdrawal (a day completely away from the routine of ministry)
  • a monthly move (an off-site, change-of-pace day)
  • an annual escape (a yearly spiritual retreat—not vacation—for renewal)

My friend has built a deep pattern of Sabbath into his ministry life. Admitting the need for this is no sign of weakness. On the contrary, to notice your deep need for God’s leading and inspiration is wise, mature, and strong.

Communicating this need to your elders, councils, or coworkers would be a fine thing to do. Asking for help

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