My Vision in the Ministry of Worship and Music
By: Rev. Larry D. Ellis
Worship as God desires it brings us into His presence. We experience Him in communion with us. As Christians, we need to experience both private and corporate worship. However, both expressions of worship must be personal. I believe that worship is a participatory event. Our role in leading worship is to help our congregation experience the presence of God. Toward that end I believe that the vast majority of our worship elective decision should be thematic taken from the sermon text, lessons of the day and/or the liturgical seasons. I want the Sunday morning services to be from the prayer book and styled with dignity and majesty that is pleasing to God. We must be personal but not casual. This distinction is critical. Worship is for fellowship with God not each other.
The largest choir in the church is the congregation. Leading the congregation in exciting hymns is absolutely essential for worship, since praise is much desired by God. Leading congregational singing with the organ is one of my greatest strength musically. The rumor that is being circulated among Christian musicians that the use of the organ in worship is not effective or relevant today is completely untrue. I also find that choral, handbell, brass descants and a cappella singing will add tremendous enthusiasm to congregational singing.
While many choirs learn to sing with musical excellence, which is very important, few musicians take either the congregation or the choir beyond the esthetic level into the spiritual realm. I have long had the habit of passing out the Sunday bulletin at choir rehearsal and we worship even as we rehearse our hymns, service music and choral music for the upcoming services. We are preparing ourselves to be the prompters in corporate worship. I spend a great deal of time personally ministering to those persons who the Lord has led into our worship and music ministry. We share our prayer requests and it is common for me to send out email notes to the choir members during the week to keep them up to date.
I understand the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20 to be the calling of all Christians to lead others into a personal faith in God and to help nurture them into an ongoing personal growth process. This vision of spiritual maturation should be a part of the worship ministry. I feel called not only to the work of music ministry, but to encourage others to develop their gifts in this area as well. My long-term goal is to impact others and impart my personal faith and visions for music and worship to others, that will in time move into similar leadership areas of ministry. I pray for the Lord to provide persons from time to time who could capture our vision and eventually be a missionary to other congregations and thereby enriching the Kingdom of God.
The choir is a major vehicle for incorporating people into the church. We sing many of the great works of choral literature both in the original languages and also in English. The musical excellence of the group is contagious, because we attract people who grow to feel secure singing music that is considered difficult by some. Many of our members learn to read music very well through our teaching and long-term encouragement. Through choral groups I have seen several dozen persons incorporated into the church and many people made serious personal commitments to our Lord. I feel that the ministry of music can become one of the most unifying and incorporating ministries in the church. I also believe that this ministry within the church must be only one of the many critical expressions of ministry from the people of God. Therefore, since people and parishes have limited time as well as other resources, it is imperative that just with all other ministries within the church, all programs should be designed and coordinated to accomplish the overall mission to which a particular parish is called. At times we enjoy the benefit of several paid singers in our choir. These are generally auditioned from interested vocal music majors at a nearby university. Their small stipend assists in their music education expenses and they provide a great musical inspiration and confidence to others singing within their choral section.
Worship of our Lord Jesus Christ has many facets. Under the broad heading of worship, I place more limited areas of ministry. These are such things as music writing, singing or playing music, prayer that has both confession and praise, and teaching and preaching when it takes us into the presence of our Heavenly Father. Since the scriptures say so much about music in particular, I see the ministry of music as one of the primary means for us to worship God. I feel personally called to the music ministry. Music is important in its own right not just because it may be supplemental to any other form of ministry or produce a desired end result.
In I Chronicles 16 we see that God calls specific people to lead play and sing in choirs on behalf of all the brethren. II Chronicles 5 details how the true ministry of music can make God’s presence known in a powerful way. It says that the singers and instrumental musicians played with thanksgiving and praise to the Lord. The glory of the Lord filled the house. It was so great that the priests could not even stand to minister. Music is one of God’s means to make known to us the manifestation of the Glory of God. Lethargic, dull and unimaginative music and music that is poorly performed are some of the greatest obstacles to true corporate worship of God. This is not our experience. I personally find the use of applause completely out of place in corporate worship. One of the greatest strengths of our liturgical style of worship is that almost all of our time together is spent speaking to or listening to God, not drawing attention to our talking to and with one another. Those times are important but not appropriate in worship. In fact they tend to undermine our worship experiences. The scriptures have many commands to praise God with music.
Music can minister to our own spirits in a significant way at those times when the written or spoken word does not seem to minister to us. I will always recall a point in my life, when I was amidst an unimaginable personal crisis. I could not pray; I could not read my bible. I could only listen to a recording of “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” over and over. “Grant us wisdom; grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.” I could almost, but not quite, mouth the words with the tune as tears flowed down my cheeks. It was in that experience that God continually quieted my heart, comforted me and brought me assurance that He would get me through the circumstances.
Genesis says that we are made in God’s image. The very first attribute of God that we see in the scriptures is His creativity. My studies of God’s word have led me to see how God has designed us to express our love for Him and for others through different expressions of creativity. This creativity can be expressed in writing, playing and singing music as well as visual arts and the theater just to name a few areas. When expressed as a response to God, these acts can become expressions of worship. This theology is fundamental to many areas about which I teach. I desire to greatly encourage the creativity and expression of people within the parish when the opportunity presents itself.
I see that music is a language and that today most churches need to be multilingual. I desire to find expression in musical worship in both the classical literature that has proven to be true praise of God through the centuries as well as nineteenth and twentieth century hymns and choral literature. While I support a broad style of music within the Christian community, I believe that it is a serious mistake to stretch the blending of musical styles to attempt to be inclusive of all styles in all situations. As an Episcopalian, I would not support the departure of traditional Episcopal liturgy or Anglican musicology for our principal Sunday morning worship. However, there are venues that can provide for regular expressions of music of varied tastes, particularly with the youth. This should be strongly supported. Because praise and music is important to God, our young children need to experience and learn about it at all ages. A part of our ministry strategy must include our children and youth singing praises to God. I serve as a resource to support those who would nurture this part of our Christian ministry.
I will not dwell on this subject, but having come from the cerebral/cognitive worship environment where the “teaching” was the centerpiece of the “worship” experience, I have found it to be severely lacking. Just as sharing and body life experience, spiritual teaching is very important, but it should not be seen as or substituted for worship. Having memorized much of the scriptures and studied the bible on a personal level for decades, my experience of God was woefully inadequate to meet some of my life traumas. It was in these times that I discovered a missing dimension in my life, the mystery of contemplative fellowship with God and sacramental worship.
The musical style within a particular church will generally be a reflection of personal tastes that are present within that church. I believe as ministers of music, we are stewards of God’s music not curators. We are to equip our musicians and congregations to enjoy and employ a historical style of music and worship traditions. We must guard against short-term fads. We are to stimulate and create opportunities for all to share the gifts of music that God has given to some of us. It is important to have our churches provide a worship environment that stands in contrast to the secular community and banal Las Vegas style delivery that is stripped of the distinctively powerful anointing by God that is described in I Chronicles 16, under the guise of being “too churchy to attract the secular person.” Anytime the worshiper’s attention is drawn more to the performer than to God, the musician has done a great injustice. This user-friendly style of “worship” will eventually be acknowledged for what I believe it is, counterfeit worship.
(I appreciate that some of my thoughts expressed here are controversial. Please let these thoughts stimulate your ideas and contact me and share your thoughts. I look forward to hearing from you.)