What we are doing anyway?

Reflecting on the role of the church musician…I see myself as a musican – one who practices the art and craft of music – for the glory of the Father. I’m not there to show off. My purpose is different.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the role of music in the ministry of the church. Music is primarily seen as a performance art but performance really has no place in worship. After all, the main purpose of the worship is to adore and connect with God, not to show off.

That said, music is a powerful force. Weaving together words, rhyme, meter, and harmonics is an art form that exists in every culture. Music, even through the many permutations that exist in the world, is a constant. The spiritual, sometimes tribal, draw that music effects on us varies from individual to individual, but  some deaf people can still feel the vibrations.

Church music functions in several different ways. First and foremost, congregational music in worship is about the worship. This does not change whether a church prefers southern gospel, sacred harp, traditional hymnody, contemporary praise music, or any combination. It adds a point where the congregants can and should offer praises to God Almighty. It’s about the joyful noise that the psalmist David described.

Second, music has also been a teaching tool in the church particularly in societies where literacy is not the norm or for preliterate children. This occurs for several reasons. The frequency of hymn repetition usually means that the hymns are heard more often than a specific passage of scripture. The patterns of strict rhyme and meter with frequent repetition make memorization very easy, and sometimes even unintentional as anyone who has ever had a song stuck in his head can attest. The hymns of any given church are usually screened by the powers that publish to ensure that the hymns are consistent with the doctrines of that particular denomination.

Third, in liturgical churches, there are chants, prayers, hymns, and psalms that are regularly sung as part of congregational worship and longer pieces that are chanted or sung on special occasions. These are also part of worship. The plainsong of chant done well musically parallels the text and augments it making it more interesting to hear than to be read to.

Fourth, special instrumental music – preludes, postludes, offertories, etc. – offer time for quiet contemplation. Congregants should take the time to enjoy the art form, but to use the sounds and melodies to help center their minds for contemplation and prepare themselves for what is to come next in the service.

Fifth, special vocal music – choirs, ensembles, individual singers with or without accompaniment offers the advantages of a presented text (the lyrics) with the opportunity to allow the congregation time to contemplate that text. This type of music is the most problematic for most churches. It requires the most work since it means that multiple musicians – some of whom must have some training and skill – have to work together to choose appropriate music, practice, teach musical skills to those who want to learn and participate in groups, come to agreement on how the musical score should be interpreted, or even write or arrange the music desired. Depending on the complexity of the piece and the skill level of the musicians, music presented in this fashion may take months to prepare. And while it is the most demanding, it is also one of the most rewarding personally. I love to sing in groups both large and small because I love the interplay between different sounding voices and instruments. I love the way a good score can bring emphasis to the text. I love the way that music can reach into your head unexpectedly and grab your attention. I love that when I don’t have the words of my own I can still have a song in my heart to speak to God or to others about Him.

Unfortunately, it is easy to see church musicians as “performers” since that is what we see in secular music. I don’t think of myself as a performer. I see myself as a musican – one who practices the art and craft of music – for the glory of the Father. I’m not there to show off. My purpose is different. I desire no applause (praise should be reserved for the Savior), although an occasional acknowledgement of hard work is appreciated. And sometimes the tendency to see church music as a performing art diminishes the ability to fully appreciate it’s power to move people spiritually in worship. For me, it’s just part of who I am. It is how I serve, how I worship, and how I can share God’s love.

Debbie Warden
King of Peace Episcopal Church
Kingsland, GA


2 Responses to “What we are doing anyway?”

  1. Jim Nord says:

    Nicely said, Debbie!

    Jim Nord, Organist/Choirmaster
    Good Shepherd, Augusta

    • debbiewarden says:

      Thanks, Jim, and Welcome!

      This is a topic I wrestle with regularly since I am a “so-prah-no” and come fully equipped with all the required personality. 🙂