Tue. May 18th, 2021

From Fugue to Chorus

By Laura Payne

A brief history of the development of music ministry and the lessons that emerge from its study

Although the Pentecostal message traces its roots to the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts chapter 2, Pentecostal organizations, as a whole, have not yet reached the century mark and thus are still in their infancy when placed in a larger historical context. The “newness” of oneness organizations means that we are sadly lacking a body of historical and philosophical writing. Although there are theological writers that are working quickly to fill in the gap of our church histories and doctrinal papers, many branches of Christian service remain largely unexplored by formal research or study. Most non-theological texts proffered by oneness authors fall into the category of inspirational writing or church self-help books, which provide practical tips in friendly packages.

The ministry of music is one particular vein which remains vastly unexplored. With the prominence given to music in our church structure, I wish to suggest that we are sadly lacking in educational resources and systematic research to guide not only the musician himself, but to also guide pastors and leaders in their decisions regarding the music department. The research I am speaking of needs to go far beyond the instrumental method books that are becoming increasingly popular, and reach into Biblical study and carefully documented histories and research. Without writings of this nature, we will lose our ability to trace our journey and learn from the lessons of the past. This essay will briefly trace the rise of music ministry, offering suggested areas for historical research that exist. Then I will explore several trends that exist in the music ministry of the United Pentecostal church, illuminating some potential points for future discussion.

Historical Development
The development of music ministers, as we currently know them, is a valuable history to investigate and is one that still remains largely unexplored. The following history is sketchy, at best, but serves to lay a foundation for the present climate of music ministry.

In some ways, church organists and choral directors of the Baroque period�such as J.S. Bach�could be considered the early models of music ministry as we know it; these men were employed by a church to provide music and lead choral groups in preparation for the weekly liturgy. Unlike other well-known composers who would follow in the Classical and Romantic periods, Bach’s devotion as a musician was to the church alone.

Bach was from first to last a church musician. At the height of his fame, he left the only secular position he had ever held, as Capellmeister of the court of Prince Leopold. He chose instead an obscure position as Cantor at a church in Leipzig, where he would again be cloistered in his unacclaimed but beloved world of church music.’

It was common for Bach to compose a new chorale each week, the text chosen from a passage that aptly suited the message. Martin Luther and the Reformation had gifted the world with more than a theological revolution; Luther had been a musician with vibrant opinions about music, strongly advocating that hymns should be sung in the vernacular, the language of the people. Bach was among those who took this challenge to heart and composed chorales in the German language.

Congregational singing gradually replaced the more formal performances of the church chorale, worshippers integrated with liturgy, and soon it became the norm for churches to provide hymnbooks for their parishioners. It is important to understand the significance of the hymnbook to the church of the 1800’s. Much like possessing your own copy of the Bible, the hymnbook represented the living nature of the gospel, taken from the hands of the priest or cantor and placed in the eager hands of the layman. It represented a living and breathing gospel. The parishioner no longer needed to remain distant from his God.

However, as a side consequence, the hymnbook eliminated some of the need for the professional choral director. And, as classically trained musicians began writing in genres that were no longer religious, the schism between trained musicians and church musicians began. While certain denominations continued to employ musicians who composed for the Mass or high liturgy, many religious groups did not maintain high standards of music performance in their congregations. In the New World, music education was grossly neglected and a significant number of children in early American settlements received little or no music training. American education as a whole was in a state of disarray, and it was not until 1837 that, through the efforts of Lowell Mason, music education received any attention in public schools.’ While some religious groups cultivated a high level of music performance, such as the Moravians, most religious groups in the New World were operating musically at a level considered far beneath that of European composers writing in the classical tradition.

The nineteenth century saw the advent of the “gospel song,” so named after P.P. Bliss’s hymn book entitled Gospel Songs (1874) and Ira Sankey’s Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs (1875). This musical tradition, which began as Sunday school and Camp Meeting songs, was influenced by popular secular vocal and band music, such as that composed by Steven Foster and John Philip Sousa. The American revivals of the 1800’s, characterized by revivalists such as Dwight Moody, propelled this genre to prominence.’ The wave of camp meetings that sprung up in urban America required a music that was sing able, simple in lyric content, and catchy to the common ear. In the churches that were to give birth to the Pentecostal movement, music was moving farther away from the formal traditions of European choral church music.’

Pentecostal Music

Those individuals who transitioned from other denominations into Pentecost in the early 1900’s carried with them the simple repetitive refrains of the gospel hymn, having already left well behind the formal structure of liturgical music. Most selections that exist in Pentecostal hymnbooks, including the current hymnbook of the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI), Sing Unto the Lord, are not historically classified as hymns, but are rather part of the broad genre of “gospel songs.”

The UPCI took this genre, fueled with the working of the Holy Spirit, and built a musical climate comprised of rote singing, spontaneous by nature, known for its passion and enthusiasm, and generally unapologetic for its lack of musical training. There are exceptions that existed; one should consider the picture portraying a large church orchestra from the 1930’s that was displayed until recently in the halls of Calvary Apostolic Church on Greenwood Avenue in Columbus, Ohio.’ Or the well-developed choral and instrumental program of the 1950’s and 1960’s led by Wendell C. Gleason while teaching at the Apostolic Bible Institute, St. Paul, Minnesota. His program included a school orchestra as well as an outstanding brass ensemble and choir.

It was not until the 1970’s and 80’s that the idea of hired music ministers began to take root in UPCI churches. The offering of quality music programs at UPCI endorsed Bible Colleges had much to do with building credibility towards music as a viable ministry, worthy of remuneration. A natural partnership sprang up between churches across the country and those Bible Schools offering music education. It became common for pastors to look towards the yearly crop of graduates for qualified choir directors, piano players and music ministers. Although the majority of churches are still not able to employ a full-time music director, most pastors are of the mindset that the music department is important and that talented personnel are to be coveted.

Historical Insights

There are several valuable observations that emerge from this brief summary of the development of music ministry in the Pentecostal movement. The many trails of historical music research that remain yet untouched by Oneness Pentecostal writers become quickly evident. Consider the following three historical research avenues, emerging from the dialog above, that beg to be explored:

The first launching point for further research would be to catalogue the repertoire of gospel songs carried into the early Pentecostal organizations. What songs easily became part of our formative repertoire, and what songs, if any, were rejected for theological or stylistic reasons? Which hymnbooks were adopted by early Oneness Pentecostals? What songs were chosen by the compilers and why?

Although I have, of late, heard various people use the term “Pentecostal music,” to refer to a style of music that is free-spirited, hand-clapping or foot-stomping in nature, and slightly southern-gospel oriented, it is my opinion that we do not possess a unique repertoire of music exclusive to our movement or even to Oneness theology. Instead, Pentecostal music has always been an eclectic collection of repertoire drawing from a multitude of sources. Greater research regarding our repertoire as a whole would prove valuable.

Generally, our movement is sadly lacking in demographic studies that explore trends and statistics in our churches. There are a multitude of demographic
studies that would be of benefit to the music ministry. These include research into the level of education of music ministers, pastor preference surveys to increase awareness between pastors and music ministers, and demographic studies on those involved in local church leadership.
A third point of research that emerges from this brief history is the need to gather written histories of great musicians that have been part of Oneness organizations throughout the 20`h century. The musical legacy of men such as Wendell C. Gleason in our movement remains largely undocumented. Consider Cleveland M. Becton, a dynamic classically-trained piano player in his day, who continues to play for congregations before beginning his sermon. Then there is the story of Jean Urshan who was once asked to participate in a radio talent show, which she rejected to dedicate her voice to the Lord.’ These are stories that need to be recaptured before they are lost forever to time. What about the histories of those musicians such as Dottie Rambo who started their musical journey within the ranks of our fellowship? What lessons do their lives offer to young music ministers today? Can we learn from the past and stem the tide of gifted musicians who abandon their Oneness heritage? What are we doing wrong? What are we doing right? The lessons of our past offer valuable insight as we pursue ministry in this contemporary culture.

Philosophical Insights

There are several philosophical points that emerge from our historical reflections. The first is that music has been and will continue to be closely tied to theology. Luther saw vernacular singing as an imperative part of moving from mere religiosity to genuine faith. The great Methodist Awakening that led to early Pentecostal experiences encouraged the writings of sing able tunes with repetitious melodies to accompany outdoor camp revivals. The pastor who fails to work hand-in-hand with his music ministry is cutting off a viable expression of his theology!

The hunger of each generation for revival and spiritual renewal easily manifests itself through music. Skepticism and concern for “where music is heading now” is not a new cry. But we must acknowledge that many of the great spiritual awakenings that led to the Pentecostal outpouring of the early 20th century were accompanied by distinct changes in musical style! I am not advocating radical music for the sake of musical style alone, but I believe that we cannot afford to squelch the cry for revival and spiritual renewal when it exists. We must listen beyond genre alone and encourage those who are seeking a deeper experience with God.

Trends in Performance Style

Only by looking at church music as it has progressed over the past 300 years do we see larger trends in performance style. Although our current musical climate is perhaps more removed in its harmonic structures and voicing from the formal choral traditions of Bach and other classical composers, in many ways we have come full circle in our desire for musical complexity. I would suggest that music has become increasingly intricate in the past twenty years. The implementation of jazz harmonies into the gospel song has created a repertoire that far surpasses the early gospel hymns in structural complexity. Furthermore, as our movement has matured so have the standards for performance been raised.

This is an important point for leaders in our movement to grasp. The level of “acceptable craftsmanship” has greatly increased. Musicians must be able to perform at a higher level of proficiency in order to meet an acceptable standard for a church today. No longer are we content with musicians who “plunk out” the I, IV and V chord on the grand piano. Instead, musicians must be well-versed in rhythmic motives, be able to handle increasingly complex syncopations and be able to play with a band. Technology is becoming a common part of our weekly services, and musicians must learn how to incorporate sequences, drum loops and electronic instruments through MIDI. We have come to a strange crossroads of complexity, far from the days where everyone in the church was invited to open their hymnbook and proceed to the platform to sing in the “choir.”
I am a huge advocate of progress, and I appreciate the higher standard of excellence that has been promoted in our musicians. However, the danger of this trend is that many of our traditional musicians no longer feel that they have something to offer the local church, and feel intimidated by the skill of the new generation. Young musicians are now mentored by other young musicians, instead of receiving apprenticeship from older musicians of the church.

Pastors, in their desire to have “the best music in town,” are propagating this trend, without giving thought to the long-term implications for their local church. A significant number of young musicians are offered levels of great responsibility, often “snatched up” by pastors before they even complete any formal musical training. Lack of training does not bode well for our future. While young musicians may have keen awareness of the contemporary pulse of music culture, their lack of training brings with it several potentially destructive consequences:

1. Young people who have not been properly mentored will not demonstrate adequate spiritual leadership that is necessary to create a vital and sustained music program. Music ministry is ordained by God as part of the Levitical priesthood. It is a high calling that should not be entered into lightly.

2. Young musicians often lack people skills. Most musicians do not realize that music ministry is 80% about people and only 20% about music! Wisdom to make accurate decisions towards ministry matters comes only through experience and careful mentoring.

3. Musicians who are not formally trained are not equipped to serve as educators on a local level, because they have not been exposed to adequate models of music education. If a church wishes to build a long-term, healthy program that continues to refresh itself there must be systematic training at all levels, beginning with the youngest children of the church.

4. Musicians who are placed in levels of responsibility for their talent alone often become absorbed with their own performance and stylistic preferences, and isolate other musical genres that would bless the local congregation.

These four points are intended to highlight some of the weaknesses that can exist when a young musician is given a level of high responsibility based on talent alone. Solutions to these issues include supporting educational opportunities for young musicians, creating mentoring relationships between older music directors and younger leaders, as well as finding room for traditional musicians to guide young musicians on the local church level. A pastor should carefully evaluate the social, spiritual, and educational gifts of any person placed in leadership over the music department.

The greatest philosophical question that we must address is to examine the music ministry and determine if we are effectively reaching our world for the cause of Christ. The United Pentecostal Church International, which I mention simply to represent one Oneness organization, has approximately three million members worldwide and one million in the United States. Furthermore, growing populations of what once were considered minorities are changing the demographics of our churches in America. These statistics should be closely evaluated by the music ministry and pastors who are providing vision to the music department. Sadly, we have few music ministers who have developed a global perspective for their music. It bears further research to explore what types of musical genres should be used to facilitate powerful ministry on a global level.

It is my hope and prayer that the historical points of interest and philosophical topics presented in this paper will not be seen as a statement of finality in any one area, but will simply be the beginning of greater dialogue and writing concerning music ministry. May our vision increase as we draw from the strength of yesterday and accept the challenges of tomorrow. It is my desire to see the music ministry work in tandem to pulpit ministry, so that we may see an unprecedented display of God’s power in these last days.

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