Music and Volunteers: Seeking the “Good”
by Lois D. Martin (May / June 2004 — Volume 20, Number 3)
The author, both a pastor and a musician, shows how pastors and congregational leaders can support their volunteer musicians so that they can provide good leadership to their congregations’ music ministries.
To worship, to come into God’s presence with singing and music, has been an integral aspect of worship as old as Scripture itself. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth,” exclaims the psalmist. “Worship the Lord with gladness, come into his presence with singing” (Psalm 100:1-2).
“Christian worship has employed singing throughout its history to serve the word and to engender a sense of ecstasy in worship,” writes Frank Senn. “[I]n the Western Christian tradition, instruments were introduced into liturgical performance once they no longer evoked association with pagan cults.”1
The issue is not if we should have music, but what music is proper and good. But if the congregation cannot afford to pay professional musicians, how does it provide the church with “good” music? This is a dilemma many pastors and church leaders face. In this article, I explore some possible ways to deal with this dilemma. I also examine what is meant by “good” music for congregational use.
First, let us consider the leader(s) who are providing music on Sunday mornings. If a congregation is having difficulty offering a salary to a professional musician, it is most likely working with volunteer musicians. At best it may be offering part-time compensation for their services. A quick survey of the church musicians in the synod I work in (Upper Susquehanna in north central Pennsylvania) shows that most musicians have had instruction on the piano and are now organists and/or choir directors. Others are school music teachers. A very few are formally trained parish musicians.
When working with volunteers who have limited musical training, first show your gratitude to these volunteers for offering their talents and time to God in worship. It is not a small matter for a person to enter a domain that is both public and open to criticism, and at the same time, work with inadequate or no financial support.
Second, support these musicians, no matter how minimal their training and experience, both by upgrading their technical skills and through further education in the liturgy.
Technical skills. At the very least, the congregation should be encouraged to provide lessons for the musician and provide reimbursement for purchased music.
Also, consider the Leadership Program for Musicians. This program is especially useful for musicians serving in small congregations.
A congregation can also search for a professional church musician in their area and pay that person to provide lessons for its own church musician(s). For example, the Upper Susquehanna Synod supports a “Synod Cantor Program” that brings together local church musicians with professional church musicians for organ lessons. These lessons also include further teaching about the liturgy and liturgical music.
These lessons are given at a reduction of a normal lesson fee that professional organ instructors would charge. The synod underwrites some of the expense; and the local church, where lessons are held, is encouraged to provide most or all of the remaining cost of lessons.
Education in the liturgy. All music in worship is an art form, whether good or poor, and that art contributes to the whole of the liturgical celebration and becomes a piece of the tapestry of worship. By improving the musician’s knowledge of music and liturgy, the congregation will be helping the musician to make the best possible choices of music.
One way to educate the volunteer musician is to invite and encourage the musician to be a member of the Worship and Music Committee or the worship team. When this committee meets to plan worship, it becomes a learning event for the volunteer and for those who are not trained specifically in church music.
Pastors depend on the musician(s) to be liturgical ministers on Sunday morning. When a volunteer is given this responsibility, it is vital for the pastor to maintain high standards of liturgical theology and music in Sunday worship.
A simple prelude or offertory given by one who is not a professional musician can be more appropriate than a piece that is perfectly executed musically but seems disconnected from the liturgy. A musical offering that calls attention to the one performing the music, or to the music itself, can also be a distraction when it is out of step with the focus of the Sunday gathering.
If church musicians, particularly those who select music, act independently of the worship team, it is as if the team has “outsourced” the Sunday music to just a performer.
To learn liturgical theology is to begin a discernment of all that is said and sung in worship. “Primary liturgical theology is the communal meaning of the liturgy exercised by the gathering itself. The assembly uses combinations of words and signs to speak of God.”2 If the musician is not professionally educated in these areas, this is an opportunity for the pastor to begin to teach the musician.
Several resources are available that are easy to comprehend and that the pastor and musician are able to use together. I recommend:
- Principles for Worship, Renewing Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2002)
- Te Deum: The Church and Music, Paul Westermeyer (Fortress, 1998)
- Open Questions in Worship, ed. Gordon Lathrop, eight-volume set (Augsburg, 1997)
- Sound Decisions, Dori Erwin Collins, Scott C. Weidler (Augsburg Fortress, 1997)
- Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, Marva J. Dawn (Eerdmans, 1995)
- Worship Come to Its Senses, Don E. Saliers (Abingdon, 1996).
Allowing the musician to select the music does not necessarily lead to “worship wars” if the pastor and musician have an open and working partnership. In his book Te Deum, Paul Westermeyer writes about partnership in the selection of music. Using an illustration of picking an anthem, he makes clear that the pastor and musician may make musical judgments from different perspectives, one theological, the other musical.3
The musician may also select music based on local theological understanding and “tradition.” There are churches in the ELCA where the local tradition has embraced music that seems only to reflect the surrounding dominant culture. Christian radio has influenced what is heard and is integrated into the ears, hearts, and minds of those who listen. When assessing any kind of music associated with the faith, the question will remain whether these forms of Christian music can adequately support the theology which we express as we gather to worship through Word and sacrament.
Inherent in the question of providing good music is a deeper question of just what constitutes “good”music? The current explosion of new church music, including praise choruses, music written in the style of current popular idioms, music from other cultures around the world, and new compositions from educated music professionals offers many choices to church musicians. New compositions, as well as hymns and tunes from other denominations, stand alongside and even compete for usage and popularity with music from one’s own tradition.
Indeed, the question is “What is good music?” When our conversations on music selection for worship turn from disagreement into outright nastiness and turf fights, then we have taken our vision away from the purpose and gift of music in worship. “The faith of a community comes to life in its musicmaking. In music, the faith and life of a people take flesh.”4
Over the past 38 years as both musician and pastor, I have witnessed the persistent frustration about music and worship in churches where there is not a unified understanding of the role of music in worship. Frequently the fight arises over a nebulous category called “contemporary music” which is pitted against the traditional, centuries-old hymnody that is part of a particular heritage.
I consider this practice of placing the music of our tradition against music that is newly evolving as a phenomenon that stifles congregational growth and limits our understanding of the power music plays in our theological understanding of worship. If we use our theology of worship as a measure, all texts and tunes must be evaluated on the basis of how the music serves our worship. Does it enhance and enrich the worship; does it indeed carry the weight of lex orandi, lex credendi?
It is my hope that the categorization of music into opposing camps will fade away. All music can be executed well or poorly. After worshipping recently at a nearby church at a service that was dubbed “the contemporary service, ”I was saddened that such a distinction had been made. The music chosen was appropriate for the church year and the congregation and was extremely well done. The music raised the worship experience to a theologically rich level.
Church music does not exist in isolation, by itself, or for itself. Neither does the musician. Our churches, pastors, councils, and congregations must give appropriate attention to the musicians; musicians, in turn, must give attention to how they serve as liturgical leaders. Musicians are truly part of the ministry team, and they must give appropriate time and attention to their ministry.
Objective four of the current evangelism strategy of the ELCA states: “Increase awareness of the interrelatedness between vibrant worship, evangelism, and discipleship. Synods and the churchwide organization will model and develop strategies to assist congregations in increasing a healthy partnership among the ministries of worship, evangelism and discipleship.”5
As partners, pastors will have a primary responsibility at the local level to seek the very best in worship and music for its musicians and congregations, and to access resources within synod and churchwide ministries, seminaries, and related bodies of higher education that can help to offer vibrant theologically based worship.
- Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997), pp. 16-17.
- Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), p. 5; emphasis added.
- Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church and Music (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), pp. 2-3.
- Ibid., p. 5.
- “Sharing Faith in a New Century: A Vision for Evangelism in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” adopted by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 13, 2003, p. 10.
Lois D. Martin is a pastor at Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. She is also chairperson of the Upper Susquehanna Synod’s Worship and Music Committee.