On Motivating Worshipers

I remember being in a hymn-sing years ago, about eighty of us in the room, all Music Ministries and Worship people. Dr. Don Hustad led from the organ. He took us up the hills and into valleys of spiritual fervor, teaching and encouraging us as we went. Oh for a thimble-full of his skill! I don’t remember a lot about the songs or Scriptures he selected, but I do remember singing at full voice with everything we had —and it wasn’t so we could hear ourselves— he accompanied as he led, a duet between congregation and organist-leader.

At the end he brought us to a quiet conclusion with something gentle, a new and simple praise chorus. We finished a capella and he improvised a Coda at the organ, Soft, muted flute stops, barely audible at the end. It was so quiet when he finished I was sure I could hear God breathing. Several seconds of silence was its own “A-men”.

I remember the moment still, though it occured neary twenty years ago. When the awe of that silence finally let us inhale, our leader turned to face us from his place on the organ bench, that over-the-glasses, elder-statesman look in his eye, one arm crossed in front of him, his other elbow resting on his wrist.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he admonished us, “there is a profound and significant difference between motivation and manipulation in church music. And it’s a fine line that separates the two.” His extended index finger emphasized the gravity of the moment. We were all ears. “And if you EVER cross that line…” He paused for effect. (Oh-no. What?!) “…don’t tell anybody.” At which point he smiled and dismissed us with a kindly wave. He didn’t have to say another word.

I remember to this day the point he made that afternoon in Alumni Auditorium on the campus of Moody Bible Institute. I will do just about anything to motivate people I lead in worship. Almost. But I’m afraid to manipulate. (Don’t think I haven’t been tempted!) I’ll adjust the order of service, try different instrumentation, bring out subtle nuances to emphasize a text, punctuate with instrumental interludes so people can think about what we just sang, LOTS of things.

But it would be wrong for me to manipulate. What if I get everybody to do something the Holy Spirit isn’t prompting? What is it then? When I start urging people to do something because I want them to, I risk usurping the Holy Spirit’s role at that point. That’s thin ice, and I’m not much of a swimmer. Bill Hull made the observation in “Reproduction of a Disciple”, a Moody Graduate School course he taught, that Jesus invited people to do things much more than He commanded them to. He had no trouble giving His disciples specific directives, but when he spoke to large groups, He seemed to invite more than compel. We discussed Jesus’ approach at length one afternoon and Hull encouraged us to strive for the same balance in our ministries.

I can always tell when I’m about to step over the line into manipulation. I start thinking about how I’M doing as a leader. My patience wears thin with those who just won’t come along. Usually I want more from them than I’m getting. “What is WRONG with you people?!” I squeeze my mic harder. I add a bit of an edge to my voice to cut through. I motion for my drummer to bring out the kick drum a little more. I consider changing the tempo to get what I want. And that’s the problem — it’s what I want. But that’s not my job. I am an usher, bringing these people into a fuller awareness of who God is, and all they know about Him. How they respond is God’s responsibility, not mine. How freeing that realization was to me! All those things I just mentioned are things I might do as part of leading and motivating, but it’s different when it’s for me. When I manipulate I abuse the power of the leadership entrusted to me, at which point God reserves the right to withhold His power and blessing. So I tell myself, “Let the Holy Spirit do it, Phil. It’s not your job”.

 Do you face that same thing? I welcome your comments; let’s discuss how you approach this part of worship life and learn from each other.

Jerry Hagelin, my pastor when we lived in Tucson (1985-86), had a way of sharpening our focus on Sunday mornings after we prayed together but before we took our places on the platform. One morning he noted the time as we stood in the wings and nodded to us. It was time to begin. “We’ve nothing to prove. No one to impress,” he said, “but God is in the audience. Let’s go.”