I grew up in the church as a pastor’s kid. This means I’ve been to a lot of worship services in my life. My faith has been built in large part due to the joy we shared as a congregation when we came together to worship. Yet, the more the years go by, the more opportunities I’ve had to experience grief, uncertainty, fear, and even doubt. As I continued participating in worship gatherings, whether by leading or just simply joining in as part of the congregation, I wrestled with what to do with these experiences. It’s not like you can just check these things at the door before entering a place of worship. Yet there were so many times I felt like I had to because they just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere or in anything we came here to do. Because of this I began asking myself many questions as a worship leader and continue to do so now as a pastor. Namely, what do we do with our grief, our uncertainties, our fears, and our doubts when we come to worship? Is there a place for our brokenness among the chorus of Spirit-led praise and thanksgiving? Our songwriters in the Psalms certainly believe so.
In fact, the Psalms contain many instances where expressions of lament are woven directly into the fabric of the singer’s praise to God. In these laments, our songwriters and singers attempt to articulate their hurts and doubts with honesty before God, the source of our everlasting hope. The psalm-writers give us permission (we can be completely free from fear of exclusion or rejection) to acknowledge the brutal reality of how messy our lives can be even as we wrap ourselves in the safety and assurance that Jesus is still Lord while we worship.
As worship leaders and planners, we have the unique task of making sure everyone at our gatherings not only knows that they have a role to play in our worship, but also knows there is plenty of space for their own voice among the many Spirit-led choruses that will be lifted up before God. We have the task of somehow conveying that this space doesn’t have to be filled purely from a place of joy or peace in life. While it is true that we are always called to enter the presence of God and participate in worship with praise and thanksgiving, joy is not a prerequisite for either. Honesty, on the other hand, certainly is. But how often do we make that clear when we lead? Do we intentionally choose our songs, corporate prayers, or any number of different acts that facilitate our corporate worship that clearly say to everyone, “whether what you bring before God is joy or lament, every voice here is important in our worship today.”
When we create space for everyone’s voice in worship, that space can be filled with everything from the sounds of deep joy to the echoes of psalm 22 that say, “O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; and by night but I have not rest.” That space can be filled with profound gratitude or with whatever expression of grief we just happen to be carrying with us that day. That space can be filled with the most exuberant praise imaginable or even with the very words that convey the confusion and doubt that the disciples found themselves wrestling with at their last supper with Jesus.
A Place at the Table
At this table, on the night he was to be betrayed, we find a group of scared, confused, doubting, and even grief-stricken men sitting with Jesus. They broke bread together, remembered the story of God, and recited or sang from the psalms according to Passover tradition. They also asked Jesus lots of questions. Questions that voiced and revealed their own grief, confusion, and doubt. What strikes me most about this scene is that in the end no one was excluded from participating that night. On the contrary, there seems to have been plenty of space in the midst of this celebratory gathering for each to voice what they needed to Jesus.
As worship leaders and planners our aim should be for our gatherings to mirror this very experience with Jesus. That by doing so, we would continue making room for all in our worship. Those who bring joy and those who lament will be able to find space in which to add their voice to the many Spirit-led choruses of the beloved body of Christ.