As worship leaders, we talk a lot about energizing people to worship on Sunday mornings through lyrics, sound, lights and other forms of production.
Those are great conversations to have, but we often miss talking about other aspects of being a worship pastor, like asking the question, what’s our role and responsibility when grief takes hold of our church? How do we lead our community through a season of mourning?
Is it just for pastors, counselors and other people more trained in these fields? How can we as worship leaders take a more active role during this time?
I recorded a podcast and video on this topic with Andrea Hamilton, the worship pastor at Inland Hills Church and what it was like for her to lead her church community through a prolonged season of grief.
What happened last August? For folks who are unfamiliar.
Before Pastor Dave got super sick and went to heaven, he passed the baton to his oldest son, Andrew. He had been on staff here a while, he has an amazing speaking gift, he was already leading a lot through Dave's sickness. It was a pretty seamless transition and they did it well. But Andrew didn't have a ton of time to just chill and grieve because he took over this big church and he was in his 20's.
He was our pastor for two and half years, but the last few months of that time was very hard for him because he started having a lot of physical manifestations of stress, he would get panic attacks. He had a panic attack right before our first Easter service and still came out and preached and people got saved. It was a lot on his shoulders so he had to take a step back.
He went on a sabbatical and he went to a psychiatrist. He got diagnosed with anxiety and depression and he was going to a naturopath as well, doing everything he could. When he came back, we had our highest attendance record ever because everyone was so excited that he was back.
He only was able to preach two Sundays. He was doing a series called Hot Mess, talking about mental illness, telling people about how to get through dark times, but he passed away from suicide on August 24, and it just surprised everybody. We were in shock.
Andrew, he passed on a Saturday, right?
Yeah, he was pronounced on a Saturday. We had church the next day and everyone was going to show up and hear the news.
So what did you do?
We had to tell them. The the feel from a worship standpoint was totally different. We scrapped all of our lighting and songs and people just walked in and there was some mellow music playing in the background, and two of our elders just came on stage and said, "Hey, we don't even know how to say this, but on Friday Andrew took his life." People were shocked, some people gasped in the AM and it was just heartbreaking.
I knew as soon as he was pronounced on Saturday, so I had some time to process, but I got up onstage and still didn’t know what to do. Our elders barely got this out of their mouths and then they walked off-stage and the band is there and everyone was staring at me.
A lot of times us worship leaders feel like we’re not equipped, but God recognizes that. He has been training us and He has been equipping us, and in that moment I realized these people looking at me, not all of them knew how to worship during hard times.
So I said, "Okay, guys here's what we're going to do. We're going to respond to God in our grief and in our pain right now, and if you can find your voice, just sing His name. Just sing to Him, because we're going to worship Him through this season."
That may seem obvious from a worship leader's point of view, but a lot of people were wondering, what are we doing here? So you have to vision cast and say:
Hey, this is the hardest thing we've ever been through as a church and no church should have to go through this, but God is with us and He's still good, and we're going to actually still expect to hear from Him, and for Him to move, and for Him to comfort us in our grief, and we're going to make space for that.
I felt a revival started breaking out that day, at this church. It was a huge breakthrough in our worship culture and we haven't turned back. We're five months later now and people are still humming and worshiping with everything they have and drawing near to God, and feeling the presence of God here, in the most unlikely of circumstances. That day, people gave their life to Jesus because they saw our response. One girl, she was there for the first time. She gave her life to the Lord.
Maybe you're just dealing with some drama or some unfairness that's happened in your own church or some moral failures of people you trusted.
Whatever you're walking through with your church, you need to hold onto that faith that God's actually going to show up in it, and He's always caring about the bride.
Let’s talk about songwriting within this process and the song that came out of this, Making Room. So what's the story?
So yeah, the first couple of weeks after Drew passed away, my staff and I prayed together and we cried together.
I had a co-write coming up and I thought about canceling it. I had never written with this guy before, he does a lot of country. I didn't know much about his writing, I just had it in the books. I thought about cancelling it, but for some reason I didn’t want to.
So I drove to LA. I'm like, "Okay, I feel like I'm supposed to go write and maybe God's just letting me do something I love." It turns out that the guy I co-wrote with is not only a songwriter, he's a pastor, and he has dealt with depression and suicidal ideation, and now does counseling and care for people in LA that are going through this type of stuff.
So we talked a little bit and I just felt safe to express my desire to see our church worship through this season, because if someone at my church chooses to let this tragedy get to them and to stop drawing near to Jesus, it's not going to be good for them. While I wrote, I wondered:
How do I express this sadness and faith in a song? What is it that we can sing together since there aren't a ton of lament songs in our evangelical culture?
I just played on the piano there at his office and it felt like talking about miracles was really important because that's what it's going to take and it’s been a miracle to walk through this, I never would wish it on anyone, but this is miraculous. We have people in our church growing closer to Jesus and amazing things happening here despite what the enemy tried to do.
That phrase in the beginning of the chorus, "We're making room for miracles," unpack that a little more for us.
I feel like God has taught me that He's always ready and willing to show up and to be involved. It's sometimes just on my end that I don't make space for Him, I don't expect the goodness that He wants to give. So I'm learning to look at things in that light, to say,
"God, I don't want to just look at this from my own perspective. You can do things that nobody else can and You're more powerful. You can fix and solve and heal and change and transform, and You can turn everything upside down that it seems is bad, You can bring good out of it. I've seen you do this before."
So creating that idea or perspective change where we're looking for what God is doing. We're not just looking at this event that hurt us, we're also going, "Okay, God wants to move and that's part of it.”
Some final thoughts
I love Andrea’s story because it shows that we can take a more active role in helping people process suffering. We do not and should not have all the answers, but as worship leaders, we’re uniquely able to create a space for people to mourn and also feel God’s comfort and peace.
Andrea has also shown us that worship isn’t just about creating an emotional high or low. It’s a way to communicate with God and it has the potential to bring lasting, eternal change in people’s lives.
The story about the woman who went to Inland Hills for the first time on that Sunday proves that worship is more than just a feeling–she became a Christian because of the faithful worship she saw–not because of any answers the pastors gave or good feelings she felt.
As worship pastors, we need to create an appropriate space for people to feel safe, grieve and patiently expect Jesus to answer. We’re not called to make everything better or make people feel happy. As Andrea said, it’s on God to heal, transform, and respond. The most we can do is acknowledge what we’re feeling and posture our hearts to expect a response from God in His good time.
You know our sorrow, You lived our pain
You’ll bring us joy again
When all seems hopeless that’s when You’re closest
We hear You whispering
That Your love is stronger than our darkest fears
and You’re with us in the night
You can hold our hearts and catch our falling tears
Trade the darkness in for light
We are making room for miracles
Clearing up the ashes for beautiful
There is more to come oh
You’re not close to done so
We are making room for miracles
We are making room for miracles
We’ve come to worship
That’s what we do We’re crying out for You
Not in a hurry to say amen Our praise will never end
So we lift our hands and open up our hearts
Jesus pour Your healing out
Bring revival, bring revival