by Shane Heilman
When thinking of worship-leading “coaches” from Scripture, we’re more often inclined to think of David than of Paul. After all, David was a skilled musician who wrote history’s most influential worship songs (the Psalms) and arranged the 24/7 tabernacle worship. There is certainly much to learn from David’s life, his songs, and his philosophy of worship – lessons that could probably fill up an entire blog series itself. Yet, it’s quite possible that Paul’s writings have taught me more about corporate worship than David has.
Several years ago, I was reading 1 Timothy when the Holy Spirit expressly spoke to me some truths about worship leading. These truths instantly took the gatherings I led to new levels of intimacy with God.
1 Timothy is known as one of the three “pastoral epistles,” (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus), so-called because in them Paul is giving explicit instruction on church order to the titular pastors, some of which involves how to conduct worship services.
Here is one of the verses that stood out to me in 1 Timothy pertaining to worship leading:
“First of all, then (emphasis mine), I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…” 1 Timothy 2:1
Again, Paul’s purpose in this letter is instructing Timothy in how to lead the church. In Chapter 2, Paul turns to church function, behavior, and order. First of all, Paul says (indicating primacy), pray for “all people,” which in context refers to “all kinds of people.” Paul also mentions different types of prayer: supplications, intercession, and thanksgivings. This is a comprehensive prayer strategy for the church. Paul indicates its importance as primary.
Yet how much of our corporate worship time is devoted to strategic prayer, to praying out loud for those in attendance, to praying for specific people not in attendance, to praying for each other, touching the heart of God? Songs may act as prayers at times, but prayer must also be specific and personal in corporate worship. Prayer is the primary means by which believers connect to God and to each other, yet strategic, intercessory prayer is often neglected in worship gatherings. It is often reserved only for the pastor’s pre-and-post message prayer, or maybe a prayer tossed up by the worship leader before or after the singing. In one megachurch I attended there was no prayer at all until 45 minutes into the service! Some churches do have a specific “quiet prayer time” set aside in the service to pray for specific people and needs, and this is an excellent practice.
Still, I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in a worship service that spent enough time in prayer.
After reading 1 Timothy 2 one day, the Spirit spoke to me: when were the most powerful, intimate, and life-altering moments of worship that I’ve experienced? Almost all occurred when prayer was central to what was happening in the corporate worship gathering. An elder prayed over me during the final songs of a worship set, or I prayed for someone else. The worship leader offered a powerful, intentional, effectual prayer over the individuals in the congregation, cutting us to the heart and ministering a timely, living word from God to us (these prayers were likely prayerfully crafted and delivered out of intimacy with God before being delivered corporately). The church joined together in prayer for a sick brother or sister. A brother or sister poured his/her heart out to God before the whole congregation. The examples go on and on. The conclusion was inexorable: intentional corporate prayer time is primary and foundational for an effective and intimate corporate worship gathering.
I began incorporating prayer of different kinds into my worship planning in a variety of ways. Here are just some of the ideas I began to implement:
– Hearing from God during the week and composing a Biblical, timely prayer (like a modified, personalized version of Ephesians 3, for example) that would minister to, reassure, and challenge the congregation and the individuals within it, and reciting or reading that prayer during a strategic point in the worship set. These prayers really “opened things up” in the worship gathering. It created freedom in the room for people to engage God more personally. The personal, individualized nature of the words made the gathering feel more “real,” more organic, more vulnerable.
– Asking congregants to pray for each other. Often people need a little direction, such as what to pray for, but getting people outside their comfort zone to pray and minister to the people right next to them is what the church is all about!
– Setting aside a “quiet prayer time” for the congregation to pray for specific requests submitted to the elders (those that are not confidential, obviously), to pray for issues of local or national importance, and to pray silently or out loud for whatever is specifically on their hearts. I usually had an elder a week lead these prayers, but also left quiet time for people to pray on their own and touch the Lord.
– Calling up elders and prayer leaders at strategic points in the service to offer hands-on prayer ministry for people dealing with specific issues, often during the final few songs or in response to the sermon. Very, very powerful ministry, including healings, happen during these times when people have been broken by the Word!
A common concern amongst worship leaders is that too much “prayer time” or “liturgical time” will bog down the flow and bore the congregation. I couldn’t disagree more! When done with spiritual authority, prayer is an extremely engaging experience, even for the seeker. Furthermore, even if some people are coming to church just to be entertained, an intimate time with the Lord will quickly reveal to them that their desire to be entertained can only be fulfilled by the living God. What people are really longing for is connection, whether they realize it or not. It’s our job as worship leaders to give them the time, space, and opportunity to do that.
Another verse that struck me from 1 Timothy was 4:13: “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” We as worship leaders tend to underestimate just how powerful it is to simply pull out the Bible and read it with authority! There is power in the Word of God!! I always put it this way: when God speaks, people are saved, healed, and delivered. When man speaks, no one is saved, healed, or delivered. In the worship services you plan, how much time is set aside just to allow God to speak? Who is primarily doing the speaking in your worship services, man or God? I realize that the pastor will do most of the “speaking,” but let the reader understand: either a person is blabbing under their own power and wisdom, or a Spirit-filled, Bible-saturated saint is pouring forth living bread and living water, the pure milk of the Word, giving adequate time for reflection and for the Spirit of God to move. Which characterizes your worship gatherings?
One of my favorite ways to incorporate more public reading of Scripture was to memorize Psalms and recite them passionately while repeating an appropriate chord progression. SO POWERFUL! As I looked out at the congregation, I could see the spiritual and emotional response. It was like watching heaviness fall off people and watching them be set free! Memorize Psalms. When memorized, you can also “pull them out of your pocket” at any appropriate, Spirit-led time of worship. They work as prayer as well as encouragement, intercession, praise, lament, exhortation, etc.
I hope these lessons from 1 Timothy have been a blessing to you, and I hope you’re excited to see how God works and speaks in your next worship gathering as you give primacy to prayer and the the reading of Scripture. Unchain the word, let God speak, and enjoy Him as He moves and answers the prayers of your congregation!
Shane Heilman is songwriter and producer at The Psalms Project.