Like so many worship leaders who have found themselves thrust into leading worship, I had other aspirations. To be honest, I haven't alway loved making music. I mean, I'm guess I'm good at music, but I was much more interested in architecture and design growing up. But it was my mom's dream for the world to "hear my gift". So at 16, I went on tour with the Continental Singers. It was during that time I surrendered my abilities to the Lord. Even though I was now going in the right direction, it was still all about me. Like my mom, I began to feel like I had something to offer that the world needed to hear and God had gifted me to deliver it. Wow, just saying that sounds so egotistical right now.
So off to school I went to study music at Liberty University. I had seen the The Sounds of Liberty sing on television and knew that was going to be my connection to the world. What I realized when I got there is that there were a lot of other people God had "gifted", too. I soon began to realize I was just an averagely-gifted musician with visions of grandeur. Slowly, my need to be "used" and "seen" faded into a music education degree so I would have something to fall back on if my Nashville career didn't pan out.
Going into my third year, I made some big mistakes and, other than when I committed my life to Jesus, it was one of the first times God got a hold of my heart and told me to stop aspiring to be recognized. It's one of the deadliest traps artists can fall into. So after sitting out a semester, I went back and auditioned for the Sounds of Liberty for a third time. This time was different. My heart was in a better place and when I went to audition, the director asked me where I had been for the last three years. I told him I had auditioned previously but he did not remember me. I believe God had shut his ears because He knew I wasn't ready.
So my last year and a half at Liberty was spent performing, traveling, and recording as a member of the Sounds of Liberty. While God had begun to work on my heart, He still had a long way to go. I still had a complete misunderstanding of what worship was and how God viewed me and my gift. During that time, I met my wife-to-be and we decided to get married the semester before my student teaching. I couldn't be on the Sounds and be married at the same time so Dr. Falwell decided to hire me as a paid soloist for televised services until I graduated. Little did I realize that my last performance with the Sounds would result in severe laryngitis the week before I got married.
I assumed that the loss of my voice was temporary and I would be able to speak and sing again just in time for my new singing gig and my semester of teaching. But not only did my voice not come back, it left me for seven months. I had to teach, sing and try to interview for jobs without a voice that, due to my need to speak, couldn't heal. In the beginning, it wasn't a big deal, but after about three weeks I started to get very frustrated. I started to question why God would allow my voice to go at such an important time in my life.
Then one Sunday morning that spring, God got a hold of my heart again and during corporate worship, spoke truth into my heart that I have never forgotten. I believe He spoke into me at that moment to prepare me for what He had planned for my life all along. While attempting to lift up my voice during corporate worship (which I shouldn't have been doing anyway), my heart was deeply aching because nothing was coming out. I wondered how I was supposed to worship God without a voice. I wondered how God could love me and use me if I couldn't sing. Then, just as clear as anything, God revealed two things to me in that moment. He said:
"Cliff, I don't love you because you can make music. I love you simply because your my child, whether you can sing or not! And I can still use you even without your voice."
Up until that point, my identity had been wrapped up in my voice; my ability to make music. My singing voice was who I was. It was what I was known for. It was my worship. In that moment, I was willing for God to take my voice permanently, knowing that it wasn't who I was. It was a gift and He could choose to use it for His glory or not. My desire to pursue being "known" or "heard" began to fade and I was willing to allow God to be my promoter if He saw fit.
God also revealed this,
"Cliff, you can still worship me without your instrument. You can still worship without your ability to sing. Your voice is not your song. I'll hear it because you worship me with your heart."
I can't begin to tell you how profound that truth was to me. It was like a whole new world opened up and I began to understand what worship truly was. What I didn't realize is how this truth He had spoken to me would be a truth I would have the opportunity to speak into hundreds of other people later on.
Even after that experience, God still had work to do. I still had aspirations of being known. I wasn't pursuing it, but I was secretly hoping God would bring a great opportunity across my path to make it happen. So after teaching music in a Christian school for five years, I decided to step out in faith and see what God had for me, my wife and our brand new son. It's amazing how God orchestrates things when we exercise our faith in Him. Three weeks after I told my principal I was resigning, the worship pastor at our church announced he was resigning. As the music teacher in the Christian school, they asked me to fill in as interim until they could find a replacement. Mind you, I had no formal training in leading worship or running a church music program of any kind. I knew how to "perform"and "minister", but not lead worship. So for the next four months, I stumbled my way through learning how to create and lead corporate worship experiences. It was BAD! But somehow, miraculously, God saw fit to lay on the church leadership's hearts to hire me as their next Worship Pastor. I was lost! So I began to soak up everything I could about worship and attended every conference I could. God began to grow me in ways I had never known. It was painful and awesome all at the same time.
Then it started...I began to see participants in our worship ministry who were struggling with the same identity issues I had dealt with a few years earlier. There were those whose identity was completely wrapped up in their gifting; those who thought the ability to make music was synonymous with worship. It was then I began to realize that all God had brought me through and all He had taught me was to prepare me to shepherd these very people He had put under my leadership.
So if you ask me why every worship leader should lose their ability to make music, it's because it allows them to let go of trying to be recognized, feel like music is their only expression of worship, and prepares them to deal with people like me...self-promoting, identity-misplaced, worship-confused artists who need someone to speak loving truth into their souls and grow into the worshipers and worship leaders God intended them to be.