Some 20 years ago, in the earliest season of serving in the ministry of musical worship, I chose songs that said good things and made my voice sound “awesome.” Really mature, I know.
In the next chapter of my life, I tilted heavily toward theology. My reading list over the course of the next few years was almost entirely devoted to theology proper and systematics.
For obvious reasons, the second chapter was better than the first. I cared more about truth and substance and God’s glory being known and seen and cherished. But there was something lacking. I had spent the first season of ministry thinking like a musician and spent the second season thinking like a theologian. Both of these are important practices as a worship leader, but I wasn’t thinking at all like a pastor.
Over the years of serving the church my heart has been expanded to care for the people of God in a deeper way. God providentially oversaw this process through a number of pivotal moments. Along the path there were shaping experiences and conversations that served in this development. These events transformed how I view worship leading, and my role as a pastor in the local church.
- I sat down with my sister over the kitchen table (early 20′s) and talked about how I was disappointed to hear that a writer of one of my favorite hymns was suicidal and depressed. Her perspective on this was realistic and compassionate. She was completely gracious but the truth stung nonetheless. I’m glad it did.
- I had a conversation in my mid 20′s with a team of pastors who were about to bring me on staff. In my answers to their questions they heard a young man who wanted to dot every “i” and cross every “t.” They told me, we want you to come not as a theological educator but a shepherd. I joined a small group and experienced biblical fellowship, confession of sin, and the beauty of praying and being prayed for.
- I attended a seminar around that same period, by a man who has become a dear friend, Bob Kauflin. The seminar was entitled Corporate Worship as Pastoral Care. Bob offered biblical categories to the very things I was starting to experience as ministry was becoming deeply personal.
- I heard an interview between Mark Dever and David Powlison, in which Powlison talked about how he had to read a classic volume on the doctrine of sin while in seminary. He said he got to the end of the book and noted that there were “no case studies.” No descriptions of why a teenage girl cuts herself. He went on to talk about the disconnect that often happens between theological study and the work of pastoral care.
- My first walk-in counseling session was with a man named Ricky, with a 4-year-old boy at his side. (He had stumbled off at a nearby bus stop and had clearly been crying, and drinking.) Ricky had been on the news a couple of nights before. His ex-wife had come over to get the two of their little boys for the weekend and he didn’t hear from them for hours. So, he drove to her father’s house only to discover that in the river behind the house was an empty boat and 3 floating bodies: his two sons and his drunk ex-father-in-law. I had a high view of God ready in hand, but this moment changed everything. We just sat there and wept together while his boy rolled a toy car on my desk.
Little by little, God was shaping me through my own suffering and through the suffering of the people I was growing to love. Musical equipping was necessary, and theological formation was as well, but now I see how these tools are given to building up the people of God.
I still want to think like a theologian (though I’m not half as smart as I thought I was back then). But I don’t want to sing theologically-charged songs merely for the sake of orthodoxy. Not anymore. I want to sing them because the Ricky’s who are present on Sunday morning need so much more than Christian clichés strung together and hung on a good groove. They need a massive, all-sufficient, loving, and compassionate God who comes near to the broken.
Thinking like a pastor means that when I look around as we are singing, I’m more emotionally engaged (read: vulnerable to losing it!) in being a part of God’s people. The longer I serve on the pastoral team, the more stories of hardship, and suffering, and pain that I know. The more stories I know, the more I’m confronted by the reality of the nearness of God. His nearness is the only explanation I have for why all of the Ricky’s out there are singing at all.
Matt Mason is the worship pastor at The Church at Brook HIlls in Birmingham, Alabama. Follow Matt on Twitter @MattMason3