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A Pastoral Reflection on Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

I've been preparing as a student for a most unique course on "Doctrine for Preaching and Pastoral Care," with Dr. Jonathan Linebaugh at Knox Seminary. It will happen in a few weeks. He has us reading some unconventional (and splendid) material. The course is particularly designed to intersect with my English Reformation tract, as it is attempting to exposit the pastoral heart behind the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Along with a few great theological books, we have been tasked to read novels by George Eliot, Mark Rutherford, Thornton Wilder, and William Inge, and poetry by Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson.

Below is what I would describe as a "pastoral exposition" of a moving poem by Oscar Wilde, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." Do yourself a favor and spend an hour soaking in this poem.

* * * * * * *

Where Souls In Pain Find No Comfort

How can a guilty murderer look toward his day of execution with restful surrender, without guile or self-deception? Oscar Wilde’s answer is, “In Christ.” The “Ballad of Reading Gaol” recounts a prisoner’s observation of another prisoner’s peace and freedom as he approaches the hangman’s noose—the unavoidable consequence for killing his wife in cold “blood and wine.” The convict’s freedom was evident in the prison yard—a “light and gay” bounce to his step, and a wistful gazing at the sky as if to say, with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home.”

The narrator exposits the gracelessness of prison, where “souls in pain” find no comfort—not from the Chaplain, not from the Sheriff, not from the Governor, not from the guards who watch the death-bound murderer weep and pray. The other guilty prisoners look upon him and see their own eventual fate, and they dread it. This dread accounts for the shock they experience as they observe his peace. Their “endless vigil” of anxious prayer the night before the murderer’s execution is contrasted with his deep sleep. And he goes to the gallows a free man, freer than anyone in the prison—including Chaplain, Sheriff, Governor, and guard. The noose is the murderer’s gateway to Paradise.

Hopelessness Leading to Hope

Wilde’s prisoner would agree with Paul Zahl that perhaps the best exterior sign on a church’s door should read “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,”[1] for salvation and freedom only begin at the end of Hope, “in the cave of black despair” (II.3.4). Wilde’s murderer found no freedom until he found no hope in himself and was forced to look out and up. And when he looked up, he found that “only blood can wipe out blood, and only tears can heal.” He found “Christ’s snow-white seal” (V.17.3-4, 6). The doomed prisoner discovered the only thing that would set him free: “the loftiest place is that seat of grace for which all worldlings try” (II.8.1-2). The murderer discovered that, even while he was yet a murderer, Christ died for him (Rom 5:8).

Wilde’s ultimate point, though, has less to do with the murderer and more to do with everyone else (including you and me). After a blunt critique of society and the justice system in Part V, Part VI offers the punchline—we are all the murderer. In the Spirit of Christ in His Sermon on the Mount, Wilde ratchets the bolt of the law, so that none can escape its bind:

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword! (VI.3)

The Futility of Separating Wheat and Tares

Perhaps Wilde would have pastors see that there is very little (really no) good in sorting our congregations into the good and the bad. We are all prisoners. We are all murderers. The only response, then, is grace and comfort to every last one of our parishioners. Wilde initially implies that perhaps no word of grace can exist for prisoners of this sort (and therefore us): “What word of grace in such a place could help a brother’s soul?” (III.6.5-6). But he doubles back on the question toward the end, claiming that the Word about Christ is that word of grace which can help. I translate Wilde’s warning to pastors: that pure and precious word of grace is especially given for preachers to proclaim from pulpits.

Wilde’s indictment of pastors is perhaps most pointed in his few mentions of the Chaplain who, in response to the murderer’s anguish, called twice a day and “left a little tract” (III.3.6). In the end, the Chaplain’s ministry was as cold as the Governor who, instead of seeing a person before him, saw the need to uphold “The Regulations Act,” and the Doctor who, instead of seeing a person before him, felt it better to be clinical about death. This all feels a bit like Jesus’ storied reply to the man's self-justified question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). For pastors, then, we must be careful to not make ministry to all the “prisoners” around us clinical and formulaic. We must see that every last one of us is hurting.

Let Us Preserve the Pulpit (and the Worship Service)

May the final gauntlet thrown down on the Chaplain never be thrown down on us:

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonored grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save. (IV.22)

Let us preserve the pulpit, not for good teaching, good advice, good will, or (God help us) good fun. No, let us preserve the pulpit for Good News. Wilde would tell pastors that graceless preaching is “pitiless and hard,” and leads only to soul-rot (V.11), hastening people to their graves beside which such preaching would neither kneel to pray nor offer its cruciform seal.

Perhaps, then, the Governor, Doctor, Chaplain, and guards can be seen as metaphors of what not to do in the pulpit, and what not to do in pastoral care. We are not ultimately executors of God’s law, clinical diagnosticians of our people’s sickness, tract-tossers of Christian platitudes, and gatekeepers whose sole job is to tow the line of church discipline. We are heralds of a Word of peace to a people nightly tormented by guilt.

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” helps me see that even the most hardened person before me is really “the little frightened child” who “weeps both night and day” (V.5.1-2). God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear.


[1] Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 232.

If You're Interested in Deeply Studying Gospel Centered Worship

If you're like me, thinking about furthering your education in the area of worship studies, you're less interested in flashy admissions campaigns and impressive campus acreage. I want two things: A handful of great professors zeroing in on excellent subject matter.

There's a lot of talk out there about "gospel-centered" this and that, and a lot of people have spilled a lot of digital ink explaining how diluted and convoluted that discussion has become. Such is the fate of "gospel-centered worship." Nevertheless, if I myself were to put flesh on the bones of that phrase, I'd want to do it in a similar spirit to the theology and worship of a particular time and place in history. This time and place has gone under-appreciated, under-mentioned, and under-studied in our typical "gospel-centered worship" discussions. I'm talking about the English Reformation. 

Something special occurred in England in the 1500s as the Reformational streams from Calvin and Luther converged in those Western isles. Two things were happening in the lives and hearts of some key movers and shakers. First, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was rocking their world and radically reorienting the way they saw and thought about everything, from theology to farming. Second, those movers and shakers were in the process of reforming worship around this doctrine, rewriting liturgies through the lens of grace.

In short, sixteenth century England was a distillery for a kind of 200 proof gospel-centered worship. Honestly, the more I read and think about it, the more I want to read and think more about it. 

And this is why I'm going to be switching my doctoral emphasis to the newly-created Theology and Worship of the English Reformation track at Knox Seminary in their modular Doctor of Ministry program. Full disclosure: Knox sits across the street from the church I serve here in Ft. Lauderdale, and many of the professors are now my good friends. That said, I have not been asked, coerced, or bribed into this post. :) It's not propaganda. I believe in the subject-matter. I believe that studying it could unleash a fresh doxological reformation in the church. And I would love it if some of my friends and readers, who may be ready for something like this, would join me in this program.  Here's the track description:

The Theology and Worship of the English Reformation Track is designed to equip those in ministry to understand the doctrinal and liturgical reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The received traditions of Catholic faith and practice were rethought in 16th century Britain along the “evangelical” lines of the Reformation, resulting in a consistent though broad Protestantism lived and expressed through the Book of Common Prayer. The early English evangelicals did find a middle-way of sorts, but not as is often imagined a via media between the Reformation and Rome. Rather, the English Reformation listened to and learned from both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions and attempted to express and embody a Protestantism that could include both (or at least not exclude either).

This track encourages an understanding of the mutuality of theology and worship and considers the complexity of contextualization, as well as the process of learning from the past for the sake of the present.

That last part is what I've found most intriguing about the worship revolution happening during the English Reformation. It was a project in contextualization. And that is so much of what good worship leaders do--wrestle with contextualizing timeless, Spirit-filled truths and traditions for new generations of worshipers.

The four scholars heading up the track are thinkers I can vouch for. I've sat under the teaching of all of them in one way, shape, or form: Ashley Null (the world's leading Thomas Cranmer scholar), Gerald Bray (a walking encyclopedia of church history, but particularly the Reformation), Jonathan Linebaugh (one of the most integrative thinkers I've ever met), and Justin Holcomb (just plain coolness).

So...if any of this is intriguing, take the next step and check out this amazing, one-of-a-kind program. It's built for full-time practitioners (like me) to jump in and out of intensive studies. It's not a "worship degree." I think it might actually be better than that. 


How One Worship Pastor Prepares for a Performance of Handel's Messiah

This Friday, at Coral Ridge, choirs from our church and and school (Westminster Academy) will join some of South Florida's finest soloists, some of the best players from Miami's musical scene, and organist Chelsea Chen to perform what will no doubt be a stellar interpretation of G. F. Handel's Messiah. They will be conducted by Renee Costanzo, director of the choral program at Westminster Academy.

The longer I dabble in this field of "Worship & Arts," the clearer sense I get of the kinds of things that go into being uniquely called as a worship leader who functions in a pastoral manner. One of my most viral posts ever was my comparison of the difference between a "lead musician" and a "worship pastor."...and for good reason. New and rising worship leaders are hungry for a model that transcends the relatively thin and non-lasting allure of rock-star-dom (just ask my friend, Stephen Miller). 

Our church's preparation of Handel's Messiah has given me a chance to stretch my wings when it comes to be what some call an "Arts Pastor," and here are three things I have learned and am attempting to do to be pastorally engaged in this moment.

1. A Worship Pastor Can Be a Cheerleader for Artists

When our choir director and choir began preparing for Messiah this Summer, I wanted part of my role to be supporter and encourager. Throughout the journey, I tried to send texts and emails as well as offer words of encouragement to everyone involved. As any artist knows, the emotional, physical, spiritual, and psychological labor and trauma that goes along with engaging, preparing, and presenting a piece of art is off the charts, and the last thing artists need is a whip-cracking dictator reminding them of deadlines and obligations. Part of my job was to attempt to be a pressure-valve operator, releasing angsty expanding gasses of stress with words of affirmation and encouragement. There have been moments along the journey where artists have been at near burn-out, and my job was at least in part to stand in the gap for them, help them solutionize creative ways to relieve their burdens, and even provide emergency-room-style moments of triage and respite.

2. A Worship Pastor Can Intercede for Artists and Encourage Them to Pray as Well

In quiet moments, when my thick skull was broken into by the Holy Spirit, I was reminded to pray for the artists involved and for the audience God would gather. It is so counter-intuitive to hard-working, do-more-try-harder, efficiency-addicted Americans like me to think that our chief work is the surprisingly passive activity of prayer. Yet releasing art-making and art-receiving into the hands of God is one of the most important things we can do.

At the same time, when we started on this journey, I reminded the choir that performing Handel's Messiah is oddly one of the most opportune moments to reach out to the city with the raw message of the gospel. When else would non-Christians voluntarily submit themselves to a barrage of musical meditations on pure Scriptural texts, hand-picked by the compiler to tell the story of Jesus throughout the whole Bible?  Then, as we were nearing the home stretch of the performance last week, I shot an email to the choir, again reminding them to pray. From personal experience, I know that it actually blesses the artists and the art-making when they themselves pray for all of that. Part of my job, when the artist is a Christian, is to remind them of this sacred joy of their art-making. It's a perennial problem for us artists that, in the frenzy and fervor of the process, we forget to pray and minimize its importance. The pastor in this moment graciously stands in that gap.

3. A Worship Pastor Can "Spiritually Curate" Artists' Work for Their Flock and City

Honestly, this has been the most exciting part of this process. I've chosen to do something for the performance which I think, though not unheard of, is quite unique. I've chosen to attempt to pastorally "curate," in a non-invasive kind of way, the experience of the art. It started, for me, with some research into Messiah--its context, origins, libretto, and composer--and then engaging in some consulting with people far more experienced than I am. Shortly after procuring Calvin Stapert's great book, Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People, I sat down for coffee and French pastries with two friends who live in this world of art- and theological-reflection far more than I--Dan Siedell, Art Historian and Residence at the King's College, NYC, and Jono Linebaugh, Professor of New Testament at Knox Seminary. My simple questions to them were along the lines of, "How do I make the listeners' experience of Messiah both purposeful for the mission of our church and honoring to the work of art?" Their insights were profound, yet simple. They encouraged me to not turn the experience into an intellectual and historical enterprise of "educating" the people about the piece. Instead, they advised me to do some simple things to help "aim" people's affections at both the intentions of Handel and his librettist (Charles Jennens) and our church's mission to "declare and demonstrate the liberating power of the gospel" so that the people would feel, through the art, the story of Jesus.

The fruit of this was to create simple "column notes" in our program which connected to various sections of the libretto, encouraging people with action verbs to "listen for," to "feel," to "hear," to "remember" various aspects of the piece's music as it connected with the text and their lives.  So, for example:


The repeated long notes followed by short notes were a Baroque device used to signify the pomp and splendor of a king. Hear His entrance, filled with glory and pain. The overture’s second half summons us to dance to its rhythms, giving a foretaste of the joy Christ will one day bring to His people.

CHORUS ("And He Shall Purify")

Following the ARIA, the CHORUS is relaxed in tempo and key. Hear how the “purification” is comforting, yet not without pain.

CHORUS ("Surely He Hath Borne")

Notice how the strings are rhythmic throughout the first section about our griefs and sorrows but contrastingly elongate with the voices in uncomfortable dissonances when the text speaks of His wounding and bruising. Pause over the injustice the Perfect One being punished for our imperfections.

The notes are meant to be simple, so that people don't tarry too long on them. They are a waymark, a pointer. They are intended to start people on the track so that they listen well with right intentions while not getting bogged down in "artistic analysis." In this way, I'm trying to "spiritually curate" the art. I have no doubt it could be better, but this is my broken attempt at being faithful to this call in this moment. 

The Hope in All of This

The hope in all of this is not for an "enhanced artistic experience." It is for people to do what I think the librettist and maybe Handel intended--to provoke awe at the story of the Baby for whom "nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you." It is to promote (in the language of James K. A. Smith) the aiming of our affections toward the ends humanity was created for--adoration of the Son, to the Father, by the Spirit.


From Heaven High - A Christmas Song by Martin Luther

I was turned on to this little gem by my friends, Nick Lannon and Jono Linebaugh, over at Liberate.  Jono gives a brief run-down on the background of this Christmas Carol (one of five) written by Martin Luther.  It was likely that this particular one (which has a part for "angels," "children," and "all") was written for a Christmas pageant in which his own kids would have participated.  I love how it tells the story of Christmas while interacting with and weaving in our own (simple, child-like) response to the profundities of the incarnation.  I set it to a simple, bouncy tune that I think captures the heart of the text.  Listen to it and download it right here. I haven't yet drawn up a lead sheet for it, but below are the lyrics. The older I get, the more I value singing of Christ's story and the less I value singing my own (my own emotions, my own feelings, my own fleeting passions). 

From heaven high I come to earth. I bring you tidings of great mirth.
This mirth is such a wondrous thing that I must tell you all and sing.
A little child for you this morn has from a chosen maid been born.
A little child so tender, sweet, that you should skip upon your feet.

He is the Christ, our God indeed, who saves you all in every need.
He will himself your Savior be. From all wrong doing make you free.
He brings you every one to bliss. The heavenly Father sees to this.
You shall be here with us on high. Here shall you live and never die.

Look now, you children, at the sign, a manger cradle far from fine.
A tiny baby will you see. Upholder of the world is He. 

How glad we’ll be if it is so! With all the shepherds let us go
To see what God for us has done, in sending us his own dear Son.
Look, look, my heart, and let me peek. Whom in the manager do you seek?
Who is that lovely little one? The Baby Jesus, God’s own Son.

Be welcome, Lord; be now our guest. By you poor sinners have been blessed.
In nakedness and cold you lie. How can I thank you – how can I?

O Lord, who made and molded all, how did you come to be so small
Here lies a prince and Lord of all, a king within the donkey’s stall.

And if the world were twice as wide, with gold and precious jewels inside,
Still such a cradle would not do to hold a babe as great as you.

You wanted so to make me know, that you had let all great things go.
You had a place up in the sky; you left it there for such as I.

O dear Lord Jesus, for your head now will I make the softest bed.
The chamber for this bed shall be, within my heart, inside of me.
And I can play the whole day long. I’ll dance and sing for you a song,
A soft and soothing lullaby, so sweet that you will never cry. 

To God who sent his only Son, be glory, laud, and honor done.
Let all the choir of heaven rejoice, the new ring in with heart and voice.

Words: Martin Luther, 1535, tr. and arr. Roland Bainton, 1948, alt. Zac Hicks, 2013
Music: Zac Hicks, 2013
©2013 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP)




Fighting the Demons of Worship Leader Depression

It's part of our lot in life as artist-types that many of us tend to be built with a wider emotional range than the rest. We feel highs higher, and we feel lows lower.  Great music and great art often come from a deep place of catharsis, and sometimes it's the good kind and sometimes it's the bad kind.  I've been leading worship for over a decade now, and I've come to realize that life cycles of various forms of depression are inevitable and constant. I experience big and small waves of the kind of heavy-spirited apathy and soul-sluggishness. Sometimes, it's a hazy sky that blows by in a few hours or with a good night's sleep.  Other times, it's a heavy cloud that hangs over my heart for much, much longer. I want to offer some thoughts to worship leaders about depression that will hopefully be helpful if and when the times come.

1. Know that depression is normal in our fallen world.

Worship leaders are not exempt from the fall.  The biblical doctrine of total depravity means that no part of the human being is left untouched by the brokenness of sin.  This means that whether depression is spiritual, emotional, psychological, physiological, or chemical, it is certainly a part of what it means to be a "child of Adam." One of the most helpful things to reduce the shock of depression is to realize that most, if not all, human beings experience it.  Depression is one of the fall's many bruises.  

Some of the battle of depression is tied up in being aware that it will happen and when it will happen, as we'll see below.

2. Recognize when depression is "emotionally circumstantial" to the highs and lows of your job.

One of the best combatants to depression is knowing and being ready for the seasons where depression hits in a worship leader's job. Most experienced artists know that after a big event like an art show or performance, there's usually a quite normal crash.  You've invested yourself so heavily in preparation for something, and especially when it is related to artistic expression, your emotions are extremely charged. It's not uncommon to experience such "let down" after peak seasons. I often gird myself up for the weeks after Christmas and Holy Week / Easter. I've learned to expect that I'll doubt whether I'm cut out for my line of work, whether I truly enjoy what I'm doing, and even whether I'm called to this vocation of worship leading. I've learned to anticipate lethargy, a lack of motivation, and just plain old sadness. Sometimes our depression is understandably circumstantial.

3. Depression can be a symptom of not really believing the gospel and clinging to our idolatry.

Depression is sometimes the fruit of a lack of fulfillment. We look to things, people, or circumstances to provide for us the security our soul is searching for. As worship leaders, things can subtly switch over from being engaged in "hearing" the needs and responses of the congregation (good ol' fashioned pastoral work) to seeking their approval (good ol' fashioned idolatry). I can start to wrap my identity around whether or not people liked or were engaged with a worship service I had planned and led. I can begin to enter into the performance race of planning services to satiate my loudest criticizers. I can arrange music so that the musicians I work with will think I'm a respectable artist. I can speak with big theological words so that people will know I'm not just some "dumb rock star." 

The irony of these pursuits is that they can never satisfy. Our idols can never fulfill what they promise, and they never deliver what they demand. The approval I seek, the perfection I aim toward, can only be fully found in who Jesus is and what He's done. This is why depression in this instance (the heavy disappointment of perpetually unmet expectations, dreams, and goals) is fundamentally a gospel issue. Some of us don't realize how beholden we are to the opinions of others, the approval of our fellow brothers and sisters, or the reputation we try to uphold. And our slavish attempts at maintaining those things produces a perpetual depression.

4. Depression can be the work of the enemy.

"Satan," in Hebrew, is actually (contrary to popular belief), not a name but a title.  It means "the accuser." The enemy revels in the business of accusation and discouragement. I've experienced many seasons where, losing sight of God's promises in Christ, I've been bombarded by strong senses of my own failure and inadequacy. Or, I've been sitting under the weight of guilt and shame because of real, horrible things I've thought, said, done, or left undone. It is not that "I am a failure" and "I am a sinner" are really untrue statements. The Bible tells us they are quite true (just read Romans 3). But when those realities weigh on us so heavily that they crush our spirit and become debilitating, it is often the sign that the enemy is at work, clouding the gospel from our sight.  In reality, the above statements are half-truths that become un-truths when the gospel is not present. I am a failure, but Christ is my success. I am a sinner, but Christ is my righteousness. Satan likes to lop off the latter end of those sentences and then tie the former ends around our neck.

Keep this in mind, too. The accuser hates God's worship. He wants it for himself. So he's going to do anything in his power to rob God of His just due. Worship leaders need to know that they have a big target on their back because they facilitate one of the things the enemy hates most. Sometimes depression is nothing short of spiritual warfare, and the weapons we fight with in that arena aren't of flesh and blood (Eph 6:12). Put on the whole armor of God (which is nothing short of "putting on Christ," as Dr. Jono Linebaugh of Knox Seminary preached not long ago at Coral Ridge), pray fervently with others, and name the darkness for what it is.

5. Depression can be the work of God.

This is the flip side of the previous point. In all truth, God is sovereign over all things, meticulously superintending over every detail of life, working all things to His good I'm one of those who believe that everything, in some sense, is the work of God. But what I mean here is that sometimes God may be walking with us "through the valley of the shadow of death" for His mysterious purposes of His glory and our refinement.

As is often said from the pulpit of Coral Ridge, the law must do its "killing work" before the gospel does its "saving work." There can be no resurrection before death. One must first die before being born again. Sometimes, our dark nights of the soul are, in the words of Sheldon Vanauken, God's "severe mercy" to painfully till the hard soil of our heart so that the Spirit can swoop in and plant the seed of Christ in fertile soil. Coming to the end of ourselves is a prerequisite for the liberating power of Jesus Christ to flood our souls. Some of our depression may be God's gracious work in bringing us to that end.  In this instance, we can certainly pray with David, "Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!" (Psalm 139:23-24).

6. Sometimes we need professional help and even medication. 

This is controversial to some, but not for me. I am married to someone who specializes in marriage and family therapy and who has walked with clients and friends who have greatly benefited from certain types of depression medication. Sometimes, the effects of the fall reach very core levels for us--chemical imbalances, imperfect DNA, predispositions, or even full blown mental illness. I do think that for some forms of depression, the best treatment is to engage the worlds of medicine and therapy, which God has given to us in His common grace.

The above is not meant to be comprehensive, but hopefully these points expose a few angles on the real difficulties that we worship leaders can and do face. What we want to avoid are simple, blanket answers, because the truth is that depression is deep, dark, and multivalent.  "It's all spiritual" is inadequate. "It's all mental" is inadequate. "It's all physiological" is inadequate. May God grant us grace for the journey.


Thoughts on Being a Guest Worship Leader

Jono Linebaugh preaching yesterday at Coral RidgeI was blessed yesterday to do a quick in-and-out trip half-way around the country to worship alongside my brothers and sisters at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.  Their music leader, Mark Miller, is a fabulous musician, a great worship leader, a funny guy, and a friend of mine, and it was a privilege to step into his very big shoes for a Sunday.  He needed a break!  

I'm not sure what percentage of worship leaders get the opportunity to lead in contexts other than their own, but I suspect it is higher than we might think.  If you lead long enough, there inevitably will come times when you're uprooted out of your local congregation and leading somewhere else.  I've now done this enough times where I've seen some regular patterns, and I think I've learned a thing or two.  So, here are 10 thoughts on being a guest worship leader.  Take them for what they're worth!

1. Fight the urge to feel like a celebrity. 

No matter if you're guest leading in a big or small context, they will likely treat you in a way that makes you feel like you're more important than you really are.  They'll put their best foot forward.  They may even take you out to a meal.  Continually check your ego.  Don't go there in your head.

2. Approach the opportunity as a servant.  

One of the best ways to mitigate point 1 is to view your role as coming in to support the ministry team at that church, particularly the worship leader whom you are replacing.  

3. See how you can, even briefly, bless the local church, staff, and pastors while you're there.

Because I was already acquainted with some of the congregants and staff members of Coral Ridge, I had the opportunity to ask them the "How are you really doing?" kinds of questions.  I wanted them to know that I wanted to support the worship and work of their local assembly.  I kept mental lists of conversations I'd had, who I could be praying for, and how.  One of the other things I did that I think I'll replicate in the future is before our Sunday morning music rehearsal started, I passed out 3 x 5 cards to all the ensemble members and asked them to write down one thing that I could pray for Mark (the worship leader I was substituting for).  That was a good move.  I learned a lot, and it will give me ongoing things to pray for in the weeks and months ahead.

4. Use it as an opportunity to learn how to do your job better at home.

Guest worship leading has been one of the places that have benefited my own home ministry immensely, because it pulls me out of my context, lifts my head, and let's me see "another way" of doing things.  I was really impressed with some of the ways Coral Ridge organized the back end of preparing their worship services, and I picked up a few tips on everything from service planning, to how to mic a banjo, to how to structure your tech-volunteer team.  It actually exposed some areas that I think I'm deficient in my administrative leadership.

5. Even as you're being yourself, conform more to how they do things than to how you do things.

If you think of yourself too much like a celebrity, you'll be tempted to think, "The way I do things is just fine (or better), and I'm awesome enough...they'll conform to me."  But if you stretch the music team or the congregation with too many new and unfamiliar things, you'll likely lose them and miss the whole point of why we all gathered to worship.  So here I'm thinking of everything from song arrangement to ensemble setup and positioning to the structure/liturgy of the service.  Also, as much as is possible (I don't think I did the best job of this), find out how the instrumentalists/vocalists you're leading are used to being led.  Are they expecting you to dictate a lot of arrangement detail?  Are they expecting to have a fair amount of freedom in improvisation?  You're only there for a week or two, and to try to force your leadership ethos on them would only stifle, not help, the creative process.

6. Exegete the congregation and context as best as you can.

Figure out what the "worship ethos" of that local congregation is.  Are they active-body worshipers?  Are they more cerebral?  Are they used to explicit, overt liturgical elements, or are they used to a lot more informal worship style?  Check out samples of services from the previous weeks.  If they have a database of some kind, expose yourself to the repertoire that they're used to singing.  Get to know their "worship vocabulary."  Even if you don't fully jive with the way they do things, the structure of the service, or the songs they select, it's important to understand the way they do things well.  Otherwise, your leadership will likely be a resounding gong.

7. Pick just a few spots to interject some of yourself.

On the flip side of 5, I think it's important to lead in a way that is true to who you are.  I don't mean "show yourself off."  I mean that you should allow some of your passions and convictions about worship to shine through in a way that will edify and strengthen the body of believers in new ways.  So in the service-planning, find a strategic spot or point where you might choose to do something a little different.  Perhaps it's a different song or song-arrangement.  Perhaps it's a liturgical element or a type of prayer.  Perhaps it's something that you would say before the call to worship...stuff like that.

8. Practice extra hard.

The times where I've failed to do this, it's come back to bite me.  There are so many x-factors that are out of your control that you want to mitigate the ones that are in your control.  Know your music and arrangements backwards and forwards.  Rehearse not only the individual songs and elements but rehearse the whole thing.  Work through transitions again and again in your head.  Process, or even write down, what you're going to say when you're supposed to speak.  Almost like practicing an instrument, I've found that practicing this stuff is better done in small chunks multiple times a day than in one big chunk the day before.  The same amount of time, distributed evenly over many days, wears stuff into your brain in a better way than cramming at the end.  You want to be able to lead the service as "instinctually" as possible.

9. Be ready for surprises.

Anytime I've been in a guest-leading context, there have been surprises--things I've missed because I wasn't paying attention or details that were never brought to my attention.  Either way, they will happen.  Try to be flexible and quick on your feet in dealing with the x-factors.  One of the big marks of maturity of leaders are their ability to handle precisely these things.  There may be technological aspects that you weren't expecting (maybe no one told you that they don't have any floor monitors, only in-ears), or there may be other aspects of the worship service that you were supposed to lead that you weren't really clued into (like saying specific things in the welcome or makings small announcements here or there).  Try your best to handle them with skill and grace.

10. Be perpetually gracious, thankful, and appreciative.

Go above and beyond to thank everyone you're working with and to thank the folks who brought you out for the opportunity.