A New Perspective On Worship

As worship leaders, we often think it’s our mission to cultivate experiences where the drums crescendo and the lights dance against the fog machine so the crowd is swept up in the moment and throws their hands skyward as they cry out about the majesty of God. This is how I always imagined a perfect worship set. But then again, the Lord seems to enjoy leading me to places I never imagined I’d go.

You see, I grew up in church. I have been leading worship since middle school. At 20, I moved from my hometown of Seattle to New York determined to “make it” as a Christian pop star. When things started taking off, I realized I was trying to promote MYSELF in order to promote Jesus. That didn’t sit well with me. So I ended up diving into the worship team at my church in NYC, an urban church plant in an affluent Jewish neighborhood in Queens known for its hostility toward the gospel. I loved working for the church full-time and building a worship team, leading Bible studies, and seeing the lost be saved. Then God mysteriously told me to move to Denver, and before I knew it I was headed to the Mile High City with two suitcases, two instruments, and nothing else. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have a job, a car, an apartment, or even much of a plan. When my needs were met instantly, it was clear that God had brought me to Denver. But I still didn’t know why.

johanna-picThen one day, a letter from the Assemblies of God U.S. Missions arrived in my mailbox with a story about a couple who were planting a dinner church for the homeless and hurting in Denver’s most notoriously dangerous neighborhood — Five Points. I attended the very first Sunday service, and as Isaac spoke, he said a few things I will never forget, one of which was this: “The people outside these doors have every problem you can think of. Drugs, prostitution, alcohol, poverty, mental illness, gangs and crime, deadbeat dads, families that gave up on them. Do you know what they don’t have out on these streets? JESUS. That’s why we’re here!” I might have squeaked out an “amen” but my heart was screaming, “YES. Finally, someone who gets it!” I filled out a connection card before leaving, just to let Isaac and Jaime know they had a friend in the area and to let me know if they needed anything. A few days later we met for coffee and they told me they needed a worship leader. After praying over it, I needed to be part of what God was doing at UO Denver; it was too special not to.

We assembled a worship team and got a solid repertoire going for Sunday services, and for two years our band led the church in praises to God. When we discontinued Sunday services to focus entirely on Thursday night Community Dinners, it was the right thing to do but a tough pill to swallow. I wondered, “where do I fit in now?” Instead of crafting a high-production worship service, God challenged me to think simply: Just vocals and an acoustic guitar while the congregation eats dinner. I continued singing worship songs, but now I also include a few pop songs with a more personal message; whatever feels appropriate based on the Holy Spirit’s leading and what the community seems to need that night.

For many, I’m probably just background noise while they eat dinner and discuss the odds that the Broncos will win this year’s Super Bowl. But occasionally I’ll notice a man in his 60s listening intently with tears rolling down his weathered cheeks, or someone will start singing under their breath as I play the chorus of “10,000 Reasons.” Oftentimes I don’t get a response from anyone for the hour I’m playing, but when I step off the platform someone stops me to discuss a lyric that resonated with them. In the end, isn’t that really what any worship leader should want, an authentic connection between lost sheep and Shepherd? While the environment is not what I used to consider ideal, the Holy Spirit is guiding people who often feel neglected, unsafe, and ostracized into the loving arms of the Savior.

Since I came to UO Denver three years ago, God has performed incredible miracles. He has broken the bondage of addiction, He has protected our church and walked with us through countless spiritual attacks, and He has blessed us with being able to see people be saved and to partner with other members of the Body to pull it all off every week. I’m grateful and encouraged to be able to be part of what God is doing. When I compare my former expectations of what I used to want a worship experience to be, I can’t help but recognize that maybe He wanted me to not be in the spotlight so I would be able to see His hand moving.

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