One of the phrases I hear prayed quite often from worship leaders and pastors during corporate worship is that God will help them “get out of the way” while they are leading worship or preaching. It is a curious request.
On the one hand, a prayer to “get out of the way” is, I think, appropriate and well-intentioned. Although I can’t be certain of the motives behind the church leaders who ask such a thing, my hunch is that it involves two components. First, the prayer is a sign of humility. By asking God to let them get out of the way, they are essentially acknowledging their own limitations in offering worship, either through music or proclamation, that is worthy of our Creator God. Thus, this prayer is a plea to God to help the worshipers see His beauty and not the imperfections of the leader. Second, the prayer points to the center of worship, Jesus Christ. If a worship leader or preacher becomes the focal point of any service, then the worship deteriorates into a form of idolatry and hero worship. This is a serious concern for modern-day conservative evangelicalism. There is little question that many men and women who are great leaders in the Church have become idols for many other men and women. Thus, the prayer to “get out of the way” is asking God to avoid the dangers of idolatry. I appreciate that.
Having said that, I personally do not use this phrase in corporate worship when I pray. Although I certainly want to be marked by humility and Christ-centeredness, I believe the phrase is confusing and provides somewhat of a wrong message.
Practically speaking, what exactly does the leader mean? If the intent is truly to get out of the way so that God will be center, then the easiest approach would be to simply get out of the way! Leave the platform. Perform worship music or preach from backstage so that folks are simply looking at the PowerPoint screen or a hymnal. Although this might be a novel idea for a “special” worship service, I don’t think any of the folks who offer up this prayer would suggest that leading worship backstage is a helpful or appropriate idea. There is a reason why they would feel that way. God has called worship leaders to be there. God has called preachers to be there. Getting out of the way is simply not the means by which God has been telling His story since the days of the patriarchs and the prophets.
In the New Testament, the problem of hero worship was running wild. The Church at Corinth was completely lost in the debate of who was “the man.” Some were arguing for Peter. Others were arguing for Paul. Others were arguing for Apollos. In writing his letter to Corinth, Paul does something very interesting. He rebukes the church for divisions among the brothers and sisters and reminds them that none of the believers were baptized in the name of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:13). In doing this, Paul is demonstrating the centrality of Christ which points to his own spirit of humility. Paul is essentially saying, “this isn’t about me or any of the other apostles.” However, what is striking throughout the rest of the letter is how Paul avoids the language of “getting out of the way.” In fact, he goes quite the opposite direction, actually instructing the Corinthians to imitate himself! (1 Corinthians 4:16). To highlight his instruction, he sends Timothy to Corinth so that the Corinthians would be reminded of Paul. Listen carefully to the way Paul words this act of sending Timothy: “That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ…” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Paul takes his calling and leadership so seriously that he wants the Corinthians to be focused on Jesus, but believes a crucial way that can happen is by the Corinthians taking notice of himself. That isn’t pride – that is the call to the ministry of Jesus Christ. It is a terribly glorious burden to carry, but carry it we must.
Consider an article I recently read on being an effective worship leader. Here is the last paragraph of the article (italicized words are my emphasis, bold print is original to the article):
“Above all, I find it extremely important to truly be a vehicle that God can use to touch people who might not have otherwise felt His presence and power. In other words, worship leaders, get out of the way, and let God move.”
I agree with the author’s first sentence. Worship leaders should be a vehicle that God can use to glorify His name. But the best way to be that vehicle is to get out of the way? It simply makes no sense. Again, I understand and appreciate the idea behind the sentiment; ideas of humility and the centrality of Christ. And yet, this is a phrase that sounds much better than it actually is. I would suggest worship leaders think twice before using it.
For me, a better prayer is to acknowledge to God and the congregation that I am incapable of doing justice to the power of the Word, and I often ask God to work His Holy Spirit in the hearts of the congregation despite my own shortcomings. But I want to be there. I want to embrace the terribly glorious burden of example setting. Although I will never arrive, I want to be able to say to my flock “look at my life for an example of what it means to be pursing Christ. Look at my life to see how to depend on the gospel. Look at my life to find so many imperfections that are filled in by the transforming power of the gospel.” In other words, I want to be a pastor who is only concerned with my people seeing Jesus more and more – and by the grace of God, perhaps, just maybe, they can see an example of his life in mine.
But to do that, I have to stay in the race. I can’t get out of the way.