The Majesty Of Music Ministry
By Garth Bolinder, Tom McKee, and John R. Cionca
It is easy for a pastor to be intimidated by the jargon and artistic flair of musicians. Nevertheless, every pastor must be aware that the key to music’s effectiveness in the church is still in his hand. Music can have, indeed must have, a place in the larger ministry of the church. In a culture bombarded with musical sounds around the clock, it is crucial that pastors develop a clear perspective.
But this creates a dilemma for the overbusy minister. As Samuel A. Devan writes, the pastor “. . .is expected to combine the financial acumen of John D. Rockefeller, the spiritual fervor of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the scholarship of Spenger, the organizing ability of a German bureaucrat, the aggressiveness of Napoleon, the smoothness of a politician, the tenderness of a parent, the magnetism of Lloyd George, the manners of Chesterfield, with the literary force of St. Paul, and the evangelistic impetus of John Wesley. It is hardly to be wondered at if occasionally some individual falls a little short of expectations in some of these particulars.”
And he didn’t even mention music! What’s a pastor to do? How can we find time and energy to add yet another area of expertise to our load? I’ve found the following three principles most helpful.
Take a Personal Inventory
The starting point is a personal evaluation of one’s own perspective on music ministry.
Several years ago a young man came up to me and said, “When are we going to sing some ‘Spirit-filled’ songs on Sunday evening?”
When I asked him what he meant (I thought I already knew), he responded, “Well, I was thinking of some of the new praise choruses. They’re the ones the Lord’s using today.”
Indeed! Give me a praise chorus anytime. Sing them over again to me. But don’t forget to throw in some great hymns of the church. Then there’s the Gloria Patri or the Kyrie eleison. An antiphon or two wouldn’t hurt. And what about a Gregorian chant? Just what is the Lord using today, anyway?
Early in my ministry I probably would have enthusiastically agreed with my young friend. Since my own musical tastes were rather limited, it was only natural to use what “felt” good to me. Besides, those new choruses were upbeat, exciting, and they even sounded like some popular songs on the radio. Let’s get relevant, anyway.
In seminary I learned precious little on church music. Though the trend seems to be changing now, few seminaries offered much in the field especially evangelical schools, be-cause of their proper concern for biblical truth. When I asked some pastoral colleagues how much they knew about the development of music in the church, they gave telling responses:
“I never thought about it before.”
“I had enough trouble with church history. Besides, I can’t sing very well.”
“I let my music minister worry about that sort of thing.” “You mean they haven’t always sung the Doxology after the offering?”
Those responses are probably typical for most of us. When it comes to music ministry, we don’t know where we’ve come from and we may not know where we’re going. We just know there has to be something better.
I began to realize the importance of pastoral leadership when I was asked about my philosophy of music ministry. My what? It was then pointed out to me that I was in a rut. That was the beginning of my personal evaluation. It led to a personal growth that is still continuing.
Personal evaluation begins with a series of questions. Though there is no system for grading answers, they help clarify our own personal perspective on music and its ministry in the church.
What styles of music do you most enjoy? When you listen to music at home, in the study or the car, what kinds are most common?
If you choose the hymns for worship, what is your criteria for selection?
If you do not choose the worship hymns, why not?
Do you keep a record of hymn usage in worship? What does the record indicate about your preference?
How many unfamiliar hymns has your congregation sung in the past year?
How well do you know the hymnal you use? Do you study its hymns, their meaning and use?
How often do you meet with your minister of music or choir director, accompanists and/or other musicians and soloists to plan, share your ideas, get theirs, and discuss the direction of the music ministry?
What is your personal church tradition? Are you from a liturgical background, emphasizing more ordered worship, classical music and restrained dignity? Or have you grown up with nonstructured worship, spontaneous songs and choruses (some composed right on the spot), and enthusiastic emotional release? Are you somewhere in the middle?
Think back to times when you have been deeply moved and ministered to by music. What caused this? Was it the music, the musician, the setting, or your own personal involvement and response?
What is your musical experience and/or training?
How important is music to your family, particularly your spouse? What are their tastes?
Honest answers to the above questions will help us get a handle on the opinions, circumstances, and pressures that shape our current perspective on music ministry.
During my first few years in the pastorate, I seemed to choose the ancient Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision” almost every other month. It’s a great hymn but we were singing it into the ground. My wife finally pointed out what was happening, and I began to analyze why.
I remembered the first time I heard that beautiful song. I was in seminary and was going through some severe doubts about my call to ministry and my ability to be of any value if 1 was called. I struggled with this for several months. (Maybe taking Hebrew had something to do with my malaise; I don’t know.)
One morning in seminary chapel, we closed with “Be Thou My Vision.” As we sang that lilting Irish melody, I felt the clouds of depression break and a brilliant ray of hope break through. It was as if Jesus was ministering directly to me, using that hymn to heal me of my preoccupation with my own failure. In that very personal moment, my vision was restored and refocused on the goodness, sufficiency, and love of the Lord.
But that doesn’t mean that I should have expected the same of my congregation, especially every other month!
Understanding the subtle yet powerful influence of our own limited personal perspective is a fundamental first step to getting our musical bearings. Next comes an evaluation of our congregation.
Don’t Get Trapped
No two churches are alike. Regardless of proximity or denominational affiliation, they illustrate that God the Creator delights in diversity. Thus, there’s no such thing as “Ninety-nine Sure-fire Methods to Guarantee a Successful Music Ministry or Your Money Back.” Your congregation is unique, which can be either a blessing or a curse depending largely on your attitude.
Here are some pits I’ve fallen into and climbed back out of along the way:
1. Unfairly comparing our music ministry with those of other churches. I said unfairly, because we all compare to some degree. But woe to us if we fall into the trap of thinking our churches are inferior if we don’t have the music that packs ’em in at the church across town.
2. Running ahead of the congregation’s ability to grow. “Let’s be honest: Pastors are called to dream great dreams, to hear great themes. But if we run too fast and push too hard, we may find ourselves leading a lot of singing and singing a lot of solos (much to our chagrin and the church’s).
3. Settling for less than excellence. I didn’t say less than perfection. Perfectionism is a hobgoblin of creativity. But excellence should always be a personal and corporate value. Holy shoddiness is still shoddy. As the apostle Paul concluded his instructions on music ministry to the church at Colossae, he exhorted, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17).
Several years ago I managed to fall into all three of these pits in one horrendous Sunday evening service. I had decided our music was dull. Even though we tried for variety, each week seemed to deepen my felt rut. Perhaps it was because we had a fair number of faithful elderly people at that service. Perhaps I was the problem. I really didn’t know what the source was, but I was determined to do something about it.
After all, why couldn’t we be like those really alive churches with their uninhibited exuberance and excitement? I’d heard they played and sang for hours, and nobody seemed to mind. In fact, people swarmed to their services, especially young people.
So we changed things that night. No more old hymns; only choruses. The guitars and bass seemed to help. But I knew something was wrong when I asked the congregation to link arms and sway as we sang. I could see on their faces they really weren’t too thrilled about acting out their oneness in Christ. They’d be content just to sit and sing quietly about it, then go live it out (which they did) during the week.
My attempt to be upbeat and relevant turned out to be tacky and embarrassing. I had unfairly compared our music to “theirs.” I had grossly outrun the ability of those fine people to change and grow. I had settled for enthusiasm over excellence. It was a rousing failure.
Still, I believe it’s better to attempt something great and fail than to attempt nothing and succeed. For every musical success there are scores of missed notes, discarded manuscripts, and bungled refrains. As any musician (and pastor!) knows, practice and perseverance are great virtues.
Keep Looking for Buried Treasure
Some pits turn into gold mines. Every church has musical assets. Here are some ways to find them:
1. Probe your minister of music or volunteer leader for his/her personal philosophy of music in the church. Find out the history of music in this congregation. What’s been done before? What are we trying to do today? The majority of churches have part-time music ministers, many of whom are faithful and have probably been at the church longer than the pastor. Regard-less of their musical abilities, find out what makes them tick. You’ll not only learn about them, you’ll learn about the church as well.
2. Take a look at your choir music library. This will give you an idea of what the church is used to hearing. It will also reveal the taste of your minister of music and his or her predecessors.
3. Do an inventory of instruments in the church (unless, of course, your tradition does not use them). Find out their condition. What is available besides organ and piano?
4. Make a list of all possible musicians in the church. Who are the soloists? Who should be a soloist but isn’t? Who is a soloist but shouldn’t be? Who plays what instruments? What are the special groups that sing or play? Don’t assume that all the musicians have already surfaced.
One newer member of our church is a young mother who has a fine voice and communicates a beautiful radiance when she sings. Yet she told our minister of music she never sang in a previous church. Why? Probably because nobody took the time to develop a musical talent/gift list and then use it.
5. Pay special attention to accompanists. These dedicated people are usually hidden behind a keyboard. They help the soloists; they support the congregation; but rarely do they get much attention until they hit a wrong note. Get to know them, encourage them, and find more people to help them. Don’t be afraid to pay them. When music purchases and practice times are figured in, most accompanists are excellent bargains.
6. Look at your music budget and see if it is realistic. Music material costs are up. Seminars and workshops aren’t free. Choir robes need to be cleaned andior replaced. There’s no such thing as discount music ministry.
7. Study the musical climate of your community. Evaluating this can help you better understand congregational opinions and expectations.
8. Begin where you are and grow from there! Both covetous yearning and self-satisfied complacency lead in the same direction: inertia. If the music ministry of your church is going to grow, the pastor must be committed to helping it happen.
One of the steps I’ve taken to expand my comprehension is to do a topical word study on music in the Bible. The usage and meaning of such terms as music, singing, singers, songs, instruments, psalms, and choirs stretched my awareness of the centrality of music in the story of God’s people.
Among the books on music ministry, I recommend Jubilate! Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition by Donald P. Hustad.2 This well-written book provides historical survey, biblical foundations, contemporary music ministry suggestions, and resources for further study.
I’ve also been challenged simply by listening to other people talk about music their feelings, likes and dislikes, dreams and desires. I’ve dug into hymnology using the companion volumes some publishers provide that give short histories of hymns, their composers, and ways to utilize hymns for the good of the church. Naturally, the more I utilize the topical headings of our church’s hymnal, the more my choices are purposeful and informed.
You don’t have a minister of music? Don’t give up there’s hope. Somewhere is a person who can lead your church in this area. Some churches go outside the membership to recruit a music leader. This means providing a salary, even if the work requires only a few hours per week. Such a person usually has some musical background and/or training and can direct the choir, assist in worship leading, maybe even play an instrument. If this person works closely with the pastor, music ministry, can thrive.
But many churches may not be able to afford a hired music minister. What then?
Start looking within the congregation. A treasure may be waiting to be discovered. Our experience is an encouraging example of God’s delightful provision. A little more than ten years ago, Modesto Covenant Church had a struggling choir of about twelve and no one to lead them. Music ministry was a faint diminuendo.
Furthermore, the church was between pastors. However, the retired interim pastor, Rev. C. D. Anderson, saw the need and decided to do something about it. He began to pray for a music minister. He asked several others to pray with him. After a time he decided to ask a rather new member, Lois Larson, if she would be interested.
Though she was a fine soloist with vocal training, she refused, pleading no experience in choral work.
The interim pastor went back to prayer. The more he prayed, the more convinced he became that Lois was the person for the job. He asked again and again. Now both Lois and her husband were praying. Was this a call from the Lord?
Eventually, she accepted the position on a temporary basis. As Lois tells the story, she was so nervous at the first rehearsal she had to stop in the middle because she was sure she was going to faint.
What happened to this tentative, nervous, temporary music minister? Today she directs a music ministry bursting at the seams. The adult choir has seventy committed singers. Excellent soloists, duets, trios, and quartets of every voice lead in worship Sunday after Sunday. Accompanists abound. Lois coordinates a musicale series each year that brings out-standing artists to the church, magnifying our outreach into the community. Perhaps most significant are the children’s and youth choirs Lois oversees. Almost two hundred people from first grade through young adult meet weekly to sing, learn, and worship.
This wonderful story needn’t be unique. The splendid mu-sic ministry we enjoy can be duplicated in churches every-where, regardless of size. A supportive congregation led by a praying pastor committed to music ministry can find and nurture a music minister who will bless both congregation and community.
Martin Luther once said, “We must, of necessity, maintain music in schools. Neither should we ordain young fellows to the office of preaching except they have been well-exercised and practiced in the field of music.”
Luther realized the mighty power of music in the ministry of the gospel. He knew that pastors hold the key to effective music in the churches. His attitude of appreciating and encouraging music may have had as much impact on the Reformation as did his theology. It was certainly evident in the life of a certain music minister in Leipzig.
Music historians tell us that curious letters can be found on many Bach manuscripts: “J.J.” for Jesu juva (“Jesus, help me”) at the beginning, and “S.D.G.” for Soli Deo gloria (“To God alone be the glory”) at the end. In between lies all music ministry.
Throughout his life Bach had to contend with pastors, most of them antagonistic. Imagine what would have happened if they had been supportive.
With Jesus as our Helper, our music ministry can continue to grow so God alone will get the glory.
This article The Majesty Of Music Ministry is excerpted from What Every Pastor Needs To Know About Music, Youth, And Education by Garth Bolinder, Tom McKee, and John R. Cionca