Recently I was at a worship service and there were a variety of others leading bits of the service. At one point someone led us in a prayer of confession. I think it might have been responsive, in that we (the congregation) had bits to say throughout it. Then afterwards, the leader led us in a further prayer, asking God for forgiveness for what we had confessed.
We need to remember that there are (at least) two modes of speech that a worship leader needs to have at their disposal. The most obvious is prayer: that’s when we talk to God on behalf of the congregation. But there is another, and that is when we talk to the congregation on behalf of God. Let’s call is pronouncing for lack of an official term.
When we have prayed a prayer of confession, it makes more sense for the worship leader to respond to that, not with more words directed at God, but with some words directed at us in the name of God. That’s why this part of the service is called ‘The Assurance of Pardon’. God is assuring us that we are forgiven. We speak our confessions, God speaks grace. It is a conversation. It is a rhythm, like breathing out and breathing in. If instead, we confess and then conclude by asking for forgiveness, the conversation is left unresolved. Are we forgiven or aren’t we?
Likewise, at the end of the service, a blessing makes the most sense when it is pronounced in God’s name, not prayed in ours. We are not asking that God will go with us into the world, we are hearing these promises from God. This is where the worship leader speaks over the congregation God’s hope and promise. These are not mere sentiments, but God’s own benediction over us all.
But it requires something from the worship leader. It requires that they have made peace with speaking in God’s name. Some of us (from non-liturgical, or free church backgrounds) might sense an inherent danger in people speaking in God’s name, but this is why what is spoken is often drawn from Scripture, or the deep well of Tradition, having been handed down to us from the saints of old who whisper to us, ‘we have heard God speak to us through these words.’ This is not an exclusive rule, but its a good place to start.
The worship leader needs to make peace with keeping their eyes open, and using those eyes to make contact with other eyes in the room, as they speak words in the name of God to the people of God. It is my hunch that lots of us feel a bit awkward about that. Its hard to make eye contact with people at the best of time, and maybe it feels a bit presumptuous to presume that we speak for God. But let’s also admit that closing our eyes is a bit of a cop out. It internalises a pronouncement that belongs to the whole people of God. There is something a little strange about praying words that ought to be pronounced, because then the congregation are left overhearing a prayer about them, rather than one which is giving voice to their own hopes and fears. But it requires that worship leaders find the courage and confidence to know these words well enough, and know the God they speak of well enough, to say them to people’s faces. Words like, ‘You are forgiven.’ Words like, ‘Go in peace.’
This mode of speech ensures that God doesn’t remain silent in our worship. In Christ, God takes human form and dwells amongst us. In the liturgy, God takes our words and makes them Holy, so they might abide with the people of faith, and bring them life. Even the traditional posture of blessing, standing with arms stretched wide to encompass all, speaks of this being an open, living conversation.
Can we find our voice, and let it be God’s?