Can I confess something to you? There have been many occasions as a worship leader where I have said something to the effect of “worship leaders have the privilege and responsibility of leading people into Gods presence.”
That might not seem like something that warrants a confession. I am certainly not the only Pastor or worship leader who has said something like this. But there is something wrong with it. Worship leaders do not lead us into God’s presence.
A couple clarifications before we continue.
First, when I use the term ‘worship leader’ I am referring to the person who leads the corporate singing portion of a church service.¹
Second, I need to clarify what I mean by the presence of God. I am not talking about God’s omnipresence. That is, the idea that God is present everywhere. For example, David’s cry in Psalm 139:7-8
‘Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
Rather, I am talking about what some would call the manifest presence of God. This refers to an encounter with God that is clear and tangible. The writers of the Hebrew Bible talk about God’s glory when referring to the presence of God. The Hebrew word for glory is כָּבוֹד (kavod) and it means ‘weight’ or ‘heaviness.’ God’s glory, or God’s presence has a weight, a heaviness, a significance to it. It is the very presence of who God is. I will refer to this kind of presence as God’s very presence, or God’s glory interchangeably.
Thus, I argue that those who lead the corporate singing in church do not lead us into God’s glory. Here is where I am going with this. First I will address what separates us from God’s very presence, then I will look at who can bring us into God’s very presence, and I will conclude with some thoughts for worship leaders.
What Separates Us From God’s Very Presence?
There’s a scene in Exodus 33 where Moses says to God, “Show me your glory!” God grants the request saying he will make his goodness pass before Moses. However, he adds, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.”
Why can no one see God’s glory and live? God’s glory is the fulness of who God is. And God is holy. Pure. Uniquely different from anything in creation. In the face of God’s glory and holiness, anything that is impure is consumed. And so no one can see the face of God who is holy and remain alive.
Now, there was a time where humanity was able to enjoy God’s very presence. The Bible opens with a garden scene. Adam and Eve lived there and were familiar with the sound of God walking in the garden. But then Adam and Eve disobey God by eating a forbidden fruit, the only thing they were prohibited from doing. They were ashamed and hid their faces from God. God kicked them out of the garden and even placed Cherubim (winged, angelic creatures) with flaming swords to guard the entrance to the garden. Humanity had sinned and disobeyed God and so had become impure, and could no longer live in God’s presence.
However, these events did not change God’s desire to dwell with humanity. So, in an effort to connect with humanity once again, God instructed Moses to build a giant tent (tabernacle) that was to be placed in the centre of the people. The tent had different courts going from the outside in toward the very centre space. This centre court was called the Holy of Holies. There was a tall, thick veil (curtain) separating it from the other courts. Inside was the ark of the covenant, a chest that connected God and the people. On the top of the ark, on either end, were two carved Cherubim who guarded where God’s very presence dwelt, just like they guarded the garden.
Moses and the people built this tent. Upon the completion, we read that the glory of the Lord filled the tent, and that Moses was unable to enter because of God’s glory (Exodus 40:34-35). Similarly, years later, when King Solomon completed the building of a temple (a permanent tent) we read that fire came down from heaven and the glory of the Lord filled the house. The priests were unable to enter in because of God’s glory (2 Chronicles 7:1-2).
Therefore, God dwelt with people once again, in the Holy of Holies. However, there was still separation between God and humanity, because the people could not enter into God’s presence whenever and however they wanted. Remember, God’s glory is heavy and God’s holiness consumes anything that is impure. As such, the priests were given instructions on how to offer sacrifices that would cleanse the people temporarily. But the priests were only able to lead the people so far. They themselves could only get so close to the Holy of Holies. It was only the high priest who entered this innermost court. Moreover, he only did so once a year after a lot of sacrifice and prayer. And he was terrified. Why? Because God’s holiness is dangerous. If anything went wrong, the high priest would die.
Sin and impurities cannot live in the presence of God’s holiness. And so humanity was separated from God’s glory, even while God dwelt in the tabernacle.
Who Brings Us Into God’s Very Presence?
In the Old Testament, priests offered sacrifices to bring people closer to God’s presence. So one might say that worship leaders (or maybe worship pastors) play a similar role. However, it is important to consider that while the priests could bring people closer to God’s very presence, they were unable to bring the people into God’s very presence. This brings us to the New Testament and the arrival of Jesus.
When John writes his account of the life of Jesus, he talks about how Jesus dwelt with people (John 1:14). This word “dwelt” means ‘to tabernacle.’ Moses was instructed to build a tent/tabernacle so that God could dwell with the Hebrew people, but John is telling us that Jesus himself has come and set up a tent to live with the people. Jesus also refers to his body as the temple (2:21). Jesus is God dwelling with people.
When people encountered Jesus in the New Testament they were healed, set free, forever changed. But not everyone responded with joy and praise. There were leaders who were afraid of Jesus. They devised schemes to silence him. They had the local soldiers arrest him and the local rulers put him on trial. Jesus had done no wrong, had lived a perfect life, and yet was sentenced to death. Jesus suffered and died on the cross.
When Jesus cried out with a loud voice, yielding his spirit, the veil in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:50-51). Something huge happened here involving Jesus on the cross and the Holy of Holies. Jesus’ blood was shed on the cross, and the veil that separated people from the very presence of God was torn.
The letter to the Hebrews helps us understand this. The writer presents Jesus as being the perfect high priest. Remember, the high priest offered sacrifices on behalf of the people and once a year entered the Holy of Holies. Now Jesus has performed the priestly duty perfectly. Whereas the priests were never able to remove the sins completely from people or make them whole again, Jesus is. We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:10).
Sin, which once separated us from God’s presence has now been forgiven:
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which he inaugurated for us through the veil, that is his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Jesus’ body, the veil, is broken so that we may receive new life. Jesus’ blood cleanses us so we may enter the Holy of Holies. Jesus, the perfect high priest brings us into God’s very presence.
Concluding Thoughts For Worship Leaders
Worship leaders are not the ones who bring us into God’s glory. It is only by Jesus’ blood that we may confidently enter and draw near to God’s very presence. So what does this mean for worship leaders? Here are some concluding thoughts on what happens when we take this understanding to heart.
1) This humbles us. Realizing that it is only through Jesus’ blood that we can experience God’s glory humbles us. It is not the result of our ‘awesome’ leading. This humility will lead us to becoming more dependant on God’s leading of our worship. We will be more dependant in prayer when we are planning corporate worship services. And we will be more dependant to the Spirit’s leading during those services.
2) This relieves us. It can become too easy to judge our success by whether or not people felt God’s presence in a powerful way through our music. This pressure can lead us to manipulate our services through the songs we choose, the emotions we play on, and the rising and falling dynamics of our music. Realizing that God’s glory in our midst is not the result of our ‘awesome’ leading will take the pressure off of us to perform.
3) This clarifies our focus. Instead of trying to create a sense of God’s powerful presence we will be focused on pointing people to Christ, his blood, and what he did for us on the cross. Our songs and exhortations during worship will remind people of Christ’s work on the cross. Our worship will point to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and how we are forgiven of sins and given access to God’s very presence as a result. Churches with more formal liturgies include the Eucharist (communion) every week. It is in communion that we remember and celebrate what Christ did for us on the cross and are reconciled to God and each other. In most Pentecostal churches this only happens once a month, but perhaps this deserves some further consideration.
4) This elevates the importance of God’s very presence. God desires to dwell with us so much that he sent his son to bring us into his very presence. Pentecostal writers will talk about ‘the Spirit’s immediacy’ and how integral this has been for us as a movement. Josh Samuel’s recent book, The Holy Spirit In Worship Music, Preaching, And The Altar, is a great resource for Pastors and worship leaders on how to help foster and facilitate the presence of God in church services. This is important. While the pressure is off of us to create a sense of God’s glory, we still need to continually give attention and thought to how we can facilitate and pursue God’s glory in our worship gatherings.
7 thoughts on “Worship Leaders And The Presence of God”
A thoughtful read.
The balance is, that while we can’t bring people into the presence of God, we can help them to remember and realize that God is present! Our role is to help people move beyond the many things that distract us and hold people back.
Its interesting how people get so excited because of a special preacher, worship leader or artist is showing up at their church or in their city, yet in every moment of the day, the God of the universe is in whatever ‘place’ they find themselves.
I have often thought that part of leading worship is about minimizing distractions. But I have just thought about distractions during a church service. We can be very distracted people in our daily lives when we could be more aware of God’s presence wherever we are.
James! Thanks for putting a lot of effort and thought behind an idea I’ve been mulling over – appreciate that. Having grown up in very similar church gatherings to you, here are two thoughts (and one bonus question) that may not be contrary, but possibly add to the fabric of the conversation:
1) “God inhabits the praises of his people” (Psalm 22:3) or “when two or more are gathered I’m there.” (Matthew 18:20)
I’ve been in enough gatherings where I’ve been deeply moved emotionally and have a stronger awareness of God’s presence than my normal day-to-day. Is that just me being more aware of His presence? Or is it a special manifestation/accumulation/intensifying of God’s Glory?
2) The new kingdom priests (1 Peter 2)
We’ve been adopted into the family and brought into the family of Priestly duties. How does our priestly-ness work as we minister to God and to His people – does that flow out of our natural giftings?
And one final question – as a worship leader myself and someone who’s been in countless gatherings – emotions are so often a doorway to our experiencing God… dare I say the majority. How do we balance making space for our emotions to be a legitimate part of both our leading and our church’s response – beyond the intellectual rehearsing of Jesus’ sacrifice?
Keep ‘er coming.
Matt! Thanks for responding. I definitely think these ideas expand the conversation.
1) While I’m not convinced that these two passages are addressing God’s manifest presence or glory, I do agree that something special happens when we gather together in worship. There is an intensification that we experience. I think this is natural because we are created for community and so much of Biblical teaching on worship is interested in community.
2) Yes, we have been brought into a family of priests. This is a great thought that deserves further reflection. Thanks for bringing it up.
We are emotional beings and so I understand how important emotions can be in our times of corporate worship. Ultimately, I think that our worship is a response to who God is and what God has done for us. That’s not just an intellectual rehearsal of Jesus’ sacrifice. We also emotionaly rehearse and respond to that. If we are emotional humans and not just detached rational thinking beings, then we will respond to God through emotions. If we encounter the very presence of God then our emotions and our whole beings should be affected. I want to help remind people of what Christ has done for us, not just on an intellectual level, but on an emotional/affective level too.
The danger I want to be aware of and to avoid is being emotionally manipulative for the sake of creating an experience where we feel we have encountered God. But it’s always a balancing tension.
Really appreciate what you have added here.
Yes! Would be fun to drink root beers late into the night and chat this through as would probably be the most appropriate format to get at these thoughts.
Love your writing and expression on these very common but overlooked issues.
I have changed our description from “ leading people into an encounter” to “leading people to a place of encounter” – if I can use music to set Jesus before you (or better said “raise your awareness of Who He Is and who we are in Him”), the natural response will be worship.
I like that shift of language. We are pointing people to Jesus, who he is, and what he has done.