Start with this: I categorically deny that worship is doing whatever you do all day long. I’m not saying that it can’t be, or that it shouldn’t be, but I am saying that Martha-ing is not the same thing as Mary-ing. There is one thing needful, and it isn’t summed up or subsumed in our other daily activities.
Worship is worth-ship. It is the mental and emotional act of ascribing the proper weight to that item which is of supreme value. Any physical act is essentially symbolic, specifically because worship is primarily a mental and emotional act. It is only because physical acts of worship are symbolic that someone can make a ham sandwich as an act of worship.
But we must keep in mind that the symbolism is still the drive train of everyday worship. The further removed from the mental and emotional evaluation of the one for whom all service is due, the less like an act of worship it really is. You can totally run a cash register as an act of worship. But singing is still a better kind of worship, because the physical is more closely tied with the mental and emotional act that makes up true worship. If you must run a cash register, why not rather run the register and sing?
I say this because leading worship is a strange task. And it is not the task of equipping people to wash dishes with a better attitude. By all means, wash with a better attitude, and may your washing be qualified by worship. But worship is more like prayer and less like labor, so leading worship is more like leading people into better prayer. You prepare, musically, emotionally, administratively – Individually – so that the congregation may worship immediately. You work at worship so that the congregation may worship more effectively without the same labor.
Judy Renfrow doesn’t sing in the choir. She isn’t on the worship team. She doesn’t play, and not to put too fine a point on it, she can barely sing. Well, music isn’t everything, despite its blessed usefulness in getting our hearts where they need to be. But let’s be honest: she’s not all that great at privat prayer and personal devotions. She loves Jesus, but the fires of her devotion are a little dusty ember. She needs corporate worship to pull her through the next week. When she joins in a congregation that worships well, her heart is lifted, the veil is torn, and she remembers what it is to be human,
A little dusty ember does a better job of burning on a bed of hot coals. It’s the worship leader’s job to make the job of burning brightly as convenient as possible, not by engaging in displays of impossible pyrotechnics, musical and emotional displays of what their worship could be if only the congregation could collectively quit their day job, but by providing songs that engage the heart and mind to the proper glorification of God with as much ease as possible.
It’s a bit like the pattern of excellence in practice my mother taught me when I was a kid: You work hard in private so that you can perform easily in public. Only the worship leader works hard by himself and in a small group so that the congregation as a whole can perform easily in public. And it has lasting ramifications: The worship that is easy in the congregation leads to better and more frequent worship in the prayer closet, and every congregant who worships well in the closet becomes a little worship leader, with the world as her congregation.
Leading worship well is not as easy as it looks, but oh! what work is there that is more like prayer and less like labor?! How can you practice leading worship, except by worshiping? And how can you study to worship well without pursuing clarity on what true worship consists of?