Sat. Jun 19th, 2021

The Role of Church Music
N. Lee Orr

I just wanted to tell you, Janice,” Linda began as choir rehearsal finished, “how very much I appreciate the way you and the choir welcomed me when I first visited Mulberry Church last summer. I was having a very difficult time with the divorce, and the house was not selling. I was pretty much a basket case. When I came to church that Sunday and you introduced yourself, it made a big impression. When you invited me to choir rehearsal I was very reluctant, for not only had I not been to church in years, I was so emotional I did not think people wanted to be around me, Why, you didn’t even ask me how well I sang!

“Finally, one Thursday I had a bad day at work, then my daughter called to say she and Mark were separating, and I was at my wit’s end. I hated the thought of another night alone in that dreary apartment, so I changed my clothes and came to rehearsal. And you know what? Within an hour I was actually having a good time! And singing again! And people were enjoying talking to me. Even more, they didn’t ask uncomfortable questions or pressure me to join; they were just glad to see me.

“When you suggested I join some of you for coffee afterwards, it just made my day. And I must say how much I have looked forward to Thursday evenings and Sundays these last months. I want to thank you for your caring and the support from the choir during these last months. Now that I am back on my feet, I can see how much being involved in the choir has helped.”

Linda’s experience demonstrates how the music program in the church can help meet the needs of people. As life has become increasingly complex and stressful, caring communities that help people deal with problems become increasingly vital. Few groups in the church fulfill this better than the choir.

For the church and the church musician, the focus must be on people, not product. While this may sound simple, its implications are far-reaching; in fact, they thoroughly transform the role of the church musician. Now he or she must not only show those in his or her care how to sing more accurately and musically, but how to live more meaningfully and authentically, how to become part of a caring community. If this sounds daunting, it is. But we have no other choice if our music programs are going to prosper in the post-churched culture. No longer do most people come to choir simply because they should, as they have during the last forty years. Today people come to church and choir in search of meaning, purpose, and value, because we can help them on their quest for personal fulfillment.

This quest is the most important factor compelling people to visit churches. Poll-taker Daniel Yankelovich says as many as 80 percent of Americans are caught up in some form of quest,’ be it material or spiritual. Many realize that this quest is a process, a process of discovery and fulfillment, one that can best be realized in relationship with others. Only by participating in a community can the fears of powerlessness, hopelessness, despair, and alienation be overcome.

Participating in a choir is one outstanding way to achieve this, for it provides the structure that allows people to discover their uniqueness and talent, lets them know that they are important, that they can contribute something significant, that when they are absent they are missed; in short, that they matter.

Embracing this new role means that we as church musicians have to adjust our focus; it means that we have to quit worrying about our artistic success and strive for faithfulness. No longer do we judge our accomplishments on just how fine the music sounds, or how many show up for rehearsal. Of course this is important; no one would seriously argue otherwise. But, more important, are we concerned primarily with seeing that those in our charge have been heard, supported, and affirmed?

Have we hung in there when someone was experiencing a difficult divorce, like Linda? Do we aid people on their quest by urging them to be loyal to their faith, rather than by judging them on the quality of their singing?

We can thus stop lecturing about challenge and commitment and start fostering compassion and community. Stressing challenge means that our priorities become accomplishment, goals, external excellence in short, a musical product. This says to people that their feelings and cares are secondary, that they are primarily a means to an end our end. Compassion must be our constant intent, even if we fail to show it at all times. By this, we can offer affirmation, sharing, warmth, and support, enabling to those who come to choir.

We must also abandon insisting that people become more committed. In a churched culture, as Callahan points out, commitment worked well. But commitment only stresses obligations, obligations to our programs, our goals, and our success. Doing this only adds to the burdensome demands that contemporary life already puts on people. It also means that we are subtly saying that the program, the product, of the choir is more important than the persons in the choir. Commitment is the result, not the goal of our work. Only after people have found support, caring, and community will they make a commitment; only when they realize that we as leaders care about them, their fears, their discouragements, and their hopes will they return to choir; only when they know that they have found a place where they are important will they become committed.

Assimilating New Members

The most important way that the music program reaches out to new people is by offering them community and then assimilating them into church membership. In fact, the music program often can draw and integrate new members more easily and completely than any other subgroup of the congregation. Lyle Schaller argues that the music program has “the potential for being the best single means of assimilation of new members. People with little previous participation in church can come to a choir or instrumental rehearsal and experience acceptance and affirmation. The ongoing positive experience can easily lead to more extensive involvement in other parts of church life. Because the music program has few barriers, it can be the best organization in the church for reaching and integrating new people. There are a number of reasons for this.’

1. The role of the choir is narrowly focused.

The mission of the choir has two broad goals: forming a caring community and preparing music for Sunday worship. New members only enhance each of these goals. New people are welcomed and immediately affirmed simply for their attendance. Moreover, the significant “history” of a choir lies largely outside personal histories and results from the community experience of making music, an experience that a new choir member shares from the beginning. The new person immediately joins in and feels a part of an ongoing experience, eliminating any waiting period for assimilation.

2. The choir meets more often than other groups.

Most choirs rehearse at least twice a week, and for extended periods of time. If one adds the time spent together during worship, many choirs share as much as four or five hours together each week. If the unstructured time before and after rehearsal and performance is counted as well, the time adds up. Assimilation is accelerated by the amount of time spent together.

3. New music subgroups are easy to establish.

Starting a new Sunday school class can be difficult. A new subgroup in the music program, however, is rather simple to begin. It can meet any time, and it requires fewer members than a Sunday school class. If a new tenor comes to the choir, he can join the men’s trio, forming a quartet, which can rehearse prior to choir rehearsal or afterwards or on Sunday morning before worship. Moreover, a new quartet does not require a new leader, for the music director can oversee it without adding much time to her schedule. In addition, if the bass is transferred to another city and the quartet ceases singing, there is no serious sense of failure that sometimes accompanies the demise of a Sunday school class.

4. The music program can usually find a job for a new member.

New people in many church groups, such as Sunday school classes, often sit idle for months, and sometimes years, before being asked to participate actively. The music program, on the other hand, can usually find a job for any new member who wants to work. If he or she has a solo voice, rings handbells, plays an instrument, or even enjoys choral library work, he or she can be put immediately to work.

5. The music program values people on their contribution, not status.

Singing together cuts across age, sex, and status. It is often the only place in the church where teenagers can stand alongside seniors, and then interact with them on social occasions. Moreover, singing and playing are two of the most judgment-free endeavors people can engage in. Members whose interpersonal skills are underdeveloped, or who are inordinantly shy, can be genuinely welcomed and affirmed in a choir rehearsal. The self-confidence they gain through singing often can lead to a broader and improved self-image. If an individual’s solo or playing skills are strong, enabling them to perform in worship, they can then gain further positive reinforcement from the larger congregation. Finally, the act of singing and playing together enables one to participate in a large group with few personal risks. Being in a choir thus gives one a deep sense of contributing and belonging.

6. The music program is the best method for assimilating single adults.

Most church groups either actively or subtly revolve around marital status. The single guys in the men’s group are urged to bring dates to spouse nights. The choir is the only place where marital status is functionally irrelevant. Anyone who has experienced a painful divorce or who is single can attest to the relief enjoyed in singing in a choir where discussions about spouse, children, and couples are minimal. Even the many well-intentioned singles groups do not address this issue as well as the music program does. It is rare that singles groups have much real success outside of large churches that can draw on large numbers of people. If a group remains too small, it can easily be viewed as a clique, elitist, or age exclusive. The value of the choir structure lies in its openness to singles of all ages and status.

7. The music program is an effective way to improve one’s musical skills.

There are many opportunities for improving one’s musical skills by participating in the music program. Singing, vocal training, organ and piano performance, instrumental work all of these are involved in making music in church. Even the most minimally talented individual can be coaxed to ring a bell. Teenagers as well can start their music training by playing handbells or tone bells. In addition, few other church activities offer such constant and immediate hands-on activity. Again, participation forges a strong sense of belonging to a specific community. Even more, playing in an instrumental group or singing a solo increases the new person’s visibility to the congregation, thus quickening his or her assimilation into the church.

8. The music program forges strong and enduring bonds between members.

As said earlier, the degree of acceptance in the music ministry may be the highest of all the subgroups of the church. A new person who enthusiastically joins in singing his or her part makes new friends right away. Since most choirs always, appreciate additional help; the affirmative response to a new member is genuine and immediate. Even more, the new musical help adds to the overall sense of accomplishment by the rest of the choir. Thus where a new person in an established Sunday school can be an outsider for years, a new choir member can be one of the group almost immediately.

Coming to Grips with Contemporary
Music and Technology

“I sure wish we would sing some hymns I know,” John complained to Ruth, the pastor at Walnut Avenue Church, as he entered her office. “I never heard of any of those songs that we sang yesterday. And I thought that with the new hymnal we would be using some of the songs that were more familiar. I just don’t like to sing I f I don’t know the music. We need audio tape systems and recordable compact discs are ready to push the acoustical frontiers even further.

The development of sophisticated playback technology has been only one side of the coin. The last fifteen years have seen the most fantastic improvements in artificially generated sound as well. It is now virtually impossible to decide by listening which of the sounds were synthetically generated and which were recorded live. One composer with a midi synthesizer, reverberators, equalizers, compressors, limiters, mixers, amplifiers, overdubbers, and processing computers can produce an entire album. An ever-decreasing amount of music today both recorded and “live” is performed on traditional instruments.

There is another factor in the development of recorded technology: the presence of music in our lives. During the last ten years it has become possible to listen to music almost everywhere: in the car, on the lake, at the mall, in the bathroom, or even while riding a bike or exercising at the gym. Developments such as the Walkman, micro-tapes, and pocket-size radios have literally filled our days and nights our entire lives with music.

Now we have a virtually unlimited panorama of musical styles, synthetically generated, manipulated, and recorded, played with pristine clarity, and virtually ever present. This situation has wide-ranging implications for how we produce, choose, and perform music in the church.

First, it has largely dissolved the stylistic barrier between sacred music and popular music. The pervasive world of popular music has overflowed these traditional separations. Today we have the numerous secular styles reflected by their “sacred” counterparts. So it is easy to understand why the congregation wants to hear the same music on Sunday morning as it heard on Saturday night.

All of this has been deeply disturbing to most church musicians. Many of them grew up in the fifties and sixties when things were relatively simple and the barriers between sacred and secular music were well-defined. To use a clearly secular style in worship would be unthinkable. This difficulty was compounded by their conservative music training as well, making it even harder to adjust to the changing musical world around them.

For a while, it was possible to keep the musical wolf from the chancel door. With a tip of the hat here to a “pop” style, or singing a new gospel anthem there, the church musician anxiously fulfilled his or her “duty” to the new musical styles. Some church musicians thought that this might work until things slowed down and cleared up. Since there were still enough people in choir and church to keep things going, it seemed as if things would be all right. Thinking this way made it easy to simply retreat behind the chancel rail and pretend that this surging stylistic tide would not build up and rush into the chancel, sweeping away the dam separating the sacred from the secular.

But the tide would not be held back forever. As this stylistic tidal wave grew ever closer, church musicians began furiously filling bags of musical sand to shore up the dam; but it was too late: the styles of popular music had crested and completely soaked the tastes of the congregation, flooding pew, pulpit, and chancel. The swirling musical waters had also washed away much of the congregations’ interest in the styles of traditional choral and solo sacred music. And perhaps this interest may never have been as deep and strong as church musicians thought, or wanted to think; maybe they were never really appreciating the “better” church music of the last thirty years; maybe they just never said much about it. Whatever the reality of the situation had been, by the eighties it had changed.

So what are we to do? First, stop wringing our hands and start raising our voices, for we are free at last. After all these years of stylistic imprisonment we can dismantle the aesthetic Berlin Wall we so energetically erected to keep us safely protected in the chancel. Next, we can rejoice. What seemed like a menacing threat is really an opportunity in disguise. Today the church musician has choices and techniques never before imagined. Rather than running from the new styles we can thoughtfully incorporate them. Just think of the freedom we have gained! And not just stylistic freedom but performance freedom as well. Seeing that all musical styles can be used means that we can draw upon the limitless array of music and styles to bring depth, meaning, and genuine communication with the congregation.

Now that the naughty novelty of jazz combos, guitars, and string basses in the chancel has worn off, we can put aside our elitist fears of contemporary music and consider it on its own terms. For most of us this means broadening our styles of worship music. Some will need to move beyond using only contemporary styles for worship music. Church musicians who use only contemporary styles in worship abdicate their challenge to invest worship with vital and varied music. Unrelieved contemporary style in music not only becomes tiresome and repetitious, but soon drains meaning, vitality, and genuineness from worship. Protests that it is the only way to be relevant ring hollow as well. Relevance becomes unimportant if the music is bland, the text so maudlin as to be meaningless, and the style predictable to the point of banality.

The same is true for those committed only to “better” church music. Since the first wave of zeal for Early Music has passed, it is time to move beyond a musty musicological elitism and open up to the serious musical potential possible in many contemporary styles. Authenticity in worship music does not result from any one musical style, no matter how hallowed by the great masters of the musical past. Let’s face it: many, if not most, of our congregations cannot worship with much of the great sacred art music simply because it no longer is relevant to their musical lives it has become a foreign tongue; and no matter how beautiful and elegant that tongue may have been at one time, for many it has become a dead language.

Today we must be open to all the musical styles available. Only by doing so can we reforge a single worshiping community that embraces those in the chancel, the pew, and the pulpit. Our music must call the worshiper to reconsider what faith means, must present those in the pew with music whose tone and text exalts, excites, and enables. This then is the primary role of the church musician: to be ever diligent in searching for anthems and solos that have quality texts set to tuneful, accessible music, but steadfastly refusing to ever surrender to the maudlin sentimentality found in so much church music simply because it is a quick fix. There are no quick fixes. In fact we need to quit worrying about fixing anything, for this leads us back into worrying about our success, and not our faithfulness.

Fulfilling the Role of the Contemporary
Church MuMcian

There are three things that the contemporary church musician must do. First, remember that there is only one choir in each church that is, the congregation and there is only one repertoire congregational song. The folks up in front are there only to help out and lead those in the congregation. At times during worship the people up front will sing for the congregation; this is an anthem or response. Even so, this music must be an integral part of the entire worship experience. Though this fact is largely philosophical, it is crucial, for it protects us from falling into a separatist, elitist, or popular entertainment mentality. By considering the entire worshiping community as one body congregation, choir, and clergy together it helps us select and focus our music on the basis of how it communicates and compels the theme of a particular Sunday.

Nothing will revitalize our worship faster.

The second thing that the contemporary church musician must do is open himself or herself to new musical styles. For those who have been fairly traditional in their training and repertoire, it means exploring contemporary Christian music. Visit a different music store and buy some new anthems and tapes. See what styles, performances, and texts are currently popular with many in our congregations. There is no faster way to learn about contemporary Christian music. As in any other musical repertory, there are many differences in difficulty and quality. Listening to and playing contemporary Christian music will give you a hands-on introduction. Then you can gradually become comfortable with including more of these styles in your worship music. Just as with any body of music, there is the aesthetically strong and weak, and you simply have to choose the music that has musical integrity and artistic merit.

For the church musician who has performed mainly contemporary music, it means opening up new musical vistas and investigating the traditional choral, solo, and instrumental music of the church. There is good reason that this repertoire is so extensive and so highly regarded it is great music. Granted, much of it is in musical styles unfamiliar to many in our congregations today. However, this only means that, as in contemporary music, it must be carefully selected on grounds of text, appropriateness, and accessibility. This music has considerable power to communicate the gospel and compel the worshiper. In fact, for congregations who have had a steady diet of contemporary church music, a reflective anthem by Mendelssohn or Handel can offer an important element of variety and freshness in worship. Congregations become immune to high, loud, and fast about as quickly as they do to slow, solemn, and serious.

This year attend a different church music workshop. Choose one that focuses more on the traditional artistic church music. Not only will this broaden your repertoire considerably, but it also will show you new choral and playing techniques. Many denominations and universities offer these workshops each year with impressive faculty and reading sessions. Have lunch with a more traditional music friend and ask for separatist, elitist, or popular entertainment mentality. By considering the entire worshiping community as one body congregation, choir, and clergy together it helps us select and focus our music on the basis of how it communicates and compels the theme of a particular Sunday. Nothing will revitalize our worship faster.

The second thing that the contemporary church musician must do is open himself or herself to new musical styles. For those who have been fairly traditional in their training and repertoire, it means exploring contemporary Christian music. Visit a different music store and buy some new anthems and tapes. See what styles, performances, and texts are currently popular with many in our congregations. There is no faster way to learn about contemporary Christian music. As in any other musical repertory, there are many differences in difficulty and quality. Listening to and playing contemporary Christian music will give you a hands-on introduction. Then you can gradually become comfortable with including more of these styles in your worship music. Just as with any body of music, there is the aesthetically strong and weak, and you simply have to choose the music that has musical integrity and artistic merit.

For the church musician who has performed mainly contemporary music, it means opening up new musical vistas and investigating the traditional choral, solo, and instrumental music of the church. There is good reason that this repertoire is so extensive and so highly regarded it is great music. Granted, much of it is in musical styles unfamiliar to many in our congregations today. However, this only means that, as in contemporary music, it must be carefully selected on grounds of text, appropriateness, and accessibility. This music has considerable power to communicate the gospel and compel the worshiper. In fact, for congregations who have had a steady diet of contemporary church music, a reflective anthem by Mendelssohn or Handel can offer an important element of variety and freshness in worship. Congregations become immune to high, loud, and fast about as quickly as they do to slow, solemn, and serious.

This year attend a different church music workshop. Choose one that focuses more on the traditional artistic church music. Not only will this broaden your repertoire considerably, but it also will show you new choral and playing techniques. Many denominations and universities offer these workshops each year with impressive faculty and reading sessions. Have lunch with a more traditional music friend and ask for some musical suggestions. These will go a long way toward giving some new insights.

The third thing that the church musician must do is come to grips with recorded music and technology. Ten years ago its role remained unclear. Today, it is clear that it is here to stay; even more, it shapes our entire aural world. Recorded music, however, is only a technical development, like the piano, the pipe organ, the radio, and computers were at one time. Just as people resisted computers for some years, we must abandon our anxieties about recorded music and, if need be, use it in service of the gospel. It is a tool nothing more, nothing less. The secular world is years ahead of us. Continuing rejection of recorded technology only gives it more power.

Traditional musicians must not think about recorded music and technology as supplanting the current repertoires. Rather, they must see these developments as an enriching addition to the means and music we have been using. Taped accompaniments are like other forms of music; there are good ones and bad ones. Perhaps it takes a little more diligence to find those more suitable for some worship. So be it. It has always been difficult and time-consuming finding useful worship music. This simply becomes another aspect of that task. Yet one is not limited to commercially produced tapes. Nothing prevents us from recording our own. Arranging a hymn for guitar, piano, harp, and flute for your choir becomes an added joy if you can produce the accompaniment for half the live performance costs. You can gather the musicians, have one rehearsal, record it, and save considerable sums of money. The same thing can be done at Christmas with a larger orchestra. Hire the players for one two-hour session. Rehearse the music twice and record it at your tempos, with your changes, and for your choir. When you play the tape during worship, it is your music. This gives you complete stylistic control. It also speaks in a language the congregation understands. They are listening to these sounds every day, all week. When we incorporate these sounds into worship, we fulfill our role as musicians in the mission church of the nineties.

Synthesized music can enrich worship as well. It too is just another tool. It will not supplant the organ. More pipe organs are built today than ever before. Rather, electric keyboards will be used in church to enhance rather than replace traditional ones. Putting a synthesizer on top of the pipe organ can add acoustical possibilities never before heard. Accompanying an anthem on the swell manual with pipes while using a synthesized sound for a solo stop can create a marvelous new sound. And once again, it is completely under your stylistic control. Percussion possibilities open up as well. A gentle drum line from the synthesizer on a youth-choir piece adds a whole different layer of sound. And all of these can be more secure and cheaper than using a percussionist. Likewise, adding a timpani part at the end of a glorious adult anthem can be electrifying.

Of course, we all prefer live instruments each Sunday. But this is not going to happen for most of us. A synthetic addition to our current instruments can address this while giving us more common musical styles with our congregations. We remain free to do whatever music, in whatever style, and however we choose. We simply need to open ourselves up to the unlimited possibilities around us.

As we stand at the threshold of the twenty-first century we have reason to rejoice. The vast possibilities for music in the church lie before us. Everything is available to use in worship. Never before have church musicians possessed such an array of music, materials, and means to present the gospel. Rejecting any one of these on grounds of relevance, elitism, difficulty, or simply ignorance means we have surrendered to the easy, the quick, and the secure. It also means that we have forsaken our role as church musicians. Worship is not a choral performance, and it is not a Saturday-night disco derivative. It is a place where we encounter the gospel of the living Christ; it is holy ground. Let us recommit ourselves to using the best we can find and renewing ourselves again to our calling. To quote Martin Luther as he faced the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

The above article, The Role of Church Music was written by N. Lee Orr. The article was excerpted from the book The Church Music Handbook For Pastors and Musicians.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.

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