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How to “Set the Table” for Worship

How to

A couple of years ago on our honeymoon in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, my wife and I got to do a couple of five-mile hikes in the Smokey Mountains. To save money and time we decided to fill our backpacks with a picnic-style lunch and some snacks (mostly candy). It was so much fun eating sandwiches and cheap bags of chips picnic-style because there was a beautiful view, no one was around to tell me to get my elbows off the table, and I was eating with my new wife.

Another memorable meal was when I was in grade school. Every Christmas Eve my family would get out our fine china, light some candles and have a fondue night. We didn’t get out the classy dish-ware often, mainly because my mom was afraid we’d break it, but when we did we knew that it was something special. We would fill one with cheese, one with butter and one with chocolate, and between our assorted hors d’oeuvre’s we would make the most out of the special experience.

As worship leaders, we set the mood for what is expected of this experience for the majority of the congregation. Obviously, there are always going to be those that are either bold or mature in their faith that we need not bring to the throne because they are always there. But for the lion’s share of the church, we set the table and layout for what is generally expected during a worship service.

We can be the examples of whether or not it is OK to be expressive worshippers. I know that a meal with fine china and a picnic are going to have two different moods; both fine and enjoyable, but different. The same way a campfire devo with just an acoustic guitar and cajon is going to have a much different feel than a Sunday morning service with a full band. Both are great, both can be incredibly powerful times of worship, but they are different styles.

We are called to do the prep work through prayer, devotion, study and thought to find out what message we are trying to convey to our congregation. A wise worship leader that I interned under told me, “Worship ministry is not about telling people where to go, but about leading them as you go there yourself.” Every week I try to encourage this mindset in the way our team leads. Whether the position is deserved or not, if you are on stage or have a role on the worship team you are seen as a leader, and what you do is what dictates to the majority of the congregation what is acceptable or inappropriate for the service.

However, as a worship leader, we can’t make the congregation do anything they don’t want to do. Just like a table setter – I can bring you the finest dishes and cups, light the table by candles and set out fancy silverware, but I can’t make you eat the food or even like it, and I shouldn’t try to. If our goal is to make people worship and we begin to judge our services based on how many we saw raise their hands, then we will become very effective manipulators. If we take a close look at scripture, however, that isn’t our job. In Psalm 23, God himself does nothing more than prepare a table for David in the presence of his enemies, it is David’s choice whether he will partake in the “meal.”

Table setting is about giving people the tools to eat the meal. Likewise, it is our job to prepare the setting for worship and then get out of the way.

I imagine that our experiences are often like Moses’ after he came down from Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. Moses had a literal mountain top experience with God and was told to go down and tell the people to prepare themselves for worship, and then on the third day lead them up on the mountain so that they might worship God.

As many worship leaders or “creatives” do, we put a lot of time, prayer and effort into our weekly services. We map out the flow of the songs so that there aren’t any distractions, and we tie them together with the topic or the theme we are trying to convey. As Moses did, we lead people up the mountain. But I highly doubt that Moses would have held the trust of the Israelites if he had not first been to the mountain himself and stood before God.

It is easy for us to catch ourselves gauging a service by how well the band played, how the tech team did, and if the congregation sang loud or a few people raised their hands. I fall victim to this mentality quite often, but leading worship is centered around trust. I am at least skeptical of someone’s directions if they haven’t been there themselves. Worship leading is the same way; you cannot lead someone where you have not been yourself. Craig Groeschel says, “If we blame ourselves when things go poorly, then we will be tempted to credit ourselves when things go right.”

Table setting can be scary.

But we can do nothing more than that. Lead our congregation to the table, not by pointing a finger, but by saying, “Come alongside me as we go together.” So as you plan your service this week, think about what table you are trying to set.

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Creighton Tamerius serves as the Worship Pastor at First Baptist Church of Sarcoxie in Southwest, MO. He enjoys traveling with his wife, Jennie, watching sports, reading, hunting, and looking at electric guitar gear that he can't afford.