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Beyond the Melodies:

Navigating Grief in Worship Leadership

by Major Sheldon Bungay

In my 40+ years of existence, I have never once referred to myself as a “musician.” Sure, I’ve been known to exhibit a few sub-par percussion skills from time to time, but there ends the extent of my music playing abilities. When I consider my upbringing in the musically rich culture of both The Salvation Army and my home Canadian province, I often wonder, “How is it even possible that I could be so musically inept?”

Yet, despite my lack of musical skill, I often find myself in a position of leading others in worship. In my vocation as a Salvation Army officer, I have regularly engaged in the process of planning, practicing, and providing leadership for congregational worship services. Experience has taught me that leading in worship is not just about standing before a group of people and singing my favourite set list. Instead, it is a process that should be steeped in prayer, appropriate to the current liturgical season, applicable to the key message from the preacher, and conscious of important elements like tempo, key, and the musical accompaniment available.

For many years, this was my approach to planning worship experiences. I would prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to guide me in my planning. I would study not just the Scriptures, but also the rich theology found in our song book. I would try to understand the narrative and purpose behind the latest worship hit rapidly spreading through online playlists and congregations around the world, all done to aide me in crafting a meaningful worship experience. For me, each planned order of worship was something worth the extra time and attention to detail, for I truly believed (and still do) that all this work was completed as an offering to the Ultimate Composer, for He is indeed worthy of not just our praise, but our best praise!

While I haven’t wavered too much from this approach over the years, I suggest that in recent days, I have become increasingly aware of another factor that we ought to consider when leading worship. I believe we need to possess a sensitivity to the needs of our people, both the known needs and the unknown. I sometimes wonder if we are we making space in our worship contexts for the various “seasons” of people’s lives? More specifically, are we allowing space in our worship for those who might be grieving?


I acknowledge that grief is probably not the first thing people consider when tasked with planning or leading a worship experience. Grief is something that can be an uncomfortable subject for many. We may be inclined to want to reserve grief only for funerals and memorials and not have it be part of our regularly scheduled worship gatherings. But might I suggest that while I love the fanfare and high energy found in many of our worship contexts, I also know that to the grieving soul, our worship can be a healing balm that soothes the wounded heart. Therefore, we would be wise to be conscious of the truth that we have no idea of the emotional condition and the potential grief each person brings with them each time they enter a space of worship.


General Shaw Clifton once wrote of his own grief experience in worship during the days following the death of his wife:

When Helen died, I found myself simply unable to sing in any setting. I had to let the singing of others touch me instead.


When I first read that extremely transparent and vulnerable statement from our former General, I was immediately thankful not only for his willingness to share that experience so publicly, but also because I knew that his sentiments would resonate with so many others who would read his words.


You see, I have experienced moments in worship when my lips have been singing into a microphone phrases such as, “And all my life you have been faithful, and all my life you have been so, so good,” and as I sing, my eyes fall upon two grieving parents sitting in the middle of the congregation. Their child had recently passed - a series of unfortunate events and difficult choices led to his premature exit from this life. And I watch as they sit there in silence with tears flowing down their cheeks and I wonder to myself, “How are these lyrics of a good and faithful God landing with them today?” I’ve also sung “God, You’re so good, You’re so good to me,” while noticing the young mother staring blankly ahead as she struggles to come to terms with the reality that her husband has left, and she feels like her whole world is crumbling around her. Is she sensing God’s goodness in that moment? Just a few short years ago, I had the unenviable task of trying to lead a Sunday worship service where the congregation had been left in a state of bewilderment due to an extremely unfortunate event. A sea of confused and hurt faces stared back at me as I stumbled to find words of reassurance and comfort, and I confess that my own vocal cords were gripped by grief that day. It is because of these scenarios and others like them that I ask us to consider how we too can make room for the grieving soul to be touched by the voices around them as we plan and lead in worship.


There is no doubt that music is a language that can penetrate through the toughest of barriers and communicate in ways where our own words often fail. I am amazed when I see video clips of family members who live under the heartbreaking challenge of dementia; people who cannot remember the name of their own spouse or children yet can sing along with every lyric of a favourite tune. Babies are soothed by a mother’s lullaby, a favourite song can completely alter one’s mood, and big burly men have turned to puddles as the melody of a certain song floods their memory with images of days gone by. Add to this the reality that some medical professionals and therapists continue to promote the healing benefits of music therapy to address various human needs and ailments, and I hope we will all agree that music is a powerful and helpful gift. As worship leaders, what a privilege it is to use this gift to help others.


I have stated already that we do not always do well to welcome grief into our worship spaces. We have a natural tendency to try and stay positive, to point to the Good News of the Gospel. We want to hurry through any painful realities or emotions of sadness and wrap things up with a neat little bow we call “hope.” With Easter fast approaching, might I say that many of us want to race as quickly through the death of Good Friday, skip over the silence of Saturday, and get to the triumph of Resurrection Sunday as quickly as possible. Yet, for many, they need time and space, sitting in the grief, sitting in the silence, and processing whatever grief journey they might be encountering.  


Author, minister, and grief educator Leanne Friesen shares of her own grief experience following the death of her older sister by pointing to Psalm 137. She explains how when God’s people had been held captive by the Babylonians, they were told by their captors to dance and to sing. But the exile was no time to sing joyous songs or remember the music of Jerusalem that might conjure up memories of better days. They were in no mood to perform and there was no cause for celebration. They were not in the physical or emotional state to sing praise. Instead, they hung their harps in the tree branches and exclaimed, “How can we sing the Lord’s song, while in a foreign land?” Friesen writes,


“This is a psalm of lament. It’s a story that names someone’s pain and suffering and that doesn’t end with things coming all together. The pain sits, heavy and unfinished. This was the type of song I needed when I was grieving. My foreign land was the land of grief, and I had never been there before. I didn’t know how to sing my old happy songs. I needed sad ones.”

Are we making space in our worship for the “sad ones?”

I hope I’m not misinterpreted, and that people think I’m advocating for our worship spaces to always become characterized by mournful sorrows and melancholic droning. We do very much serve a God of hope, and we have reason to dance and sing joyfully. We are encouraged to praise Him with trumpets, cymbals, harps, and flutes (Psalm 150), or with drum kits, bass guitars, keyboards, and even accordions if that’s your thing! But all of this can be done while simultaneously holding space for the mourners, the grievers, and the afflicted who come to our worship contexts seeking comfort or peace amidst life’s challenges.


As we continue to plan, practice, and provide leadership in our various worship contexts, may we possess a sensitivity to the possibility that the music we have chosen to play and the lyrics that will be sung may indeed be the catalyst God’s uses to provide peace, reassurance, and healing for someone who will join us in worship that day. In my opinion, if even one individual is impacted positively, then our efforts are worth it.


No, I am no musician, but I am a servant who has been on the receiving end of comforting moments within worship more times than I can count. I am thankful for the leaders who were sensitive to my needs and the needs of those around me, and through the gift of music, provided space for me to sit in my grief and process my pain.


May we too be willing to offer this beautiful gift of song to others, yes, even the “sad ones!”

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