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Intersection of Life and Faith

Where Worship & Music Meet

  • 1999 3 Mar
  • COMMENTS
Where Worship & Music Meet
An Online Discussion Regarding Worship And The Christian Musician

Edited by Ralph Sappington, courtesy of %%Christian Musician%% Magazine

For the Christian musician there can be no greater calling than to be involved in the ministry of congregational worship. The worship leader in today's church must be both musician and theologian and should understand that they might well be the first point of contact for the newcomer to their congregation. Christian Musician Magazine poked its head into an on-line discussion group of pastors, worship leaders, theologians and composers and tossed out a few questions that just might make a difference in your life as worship leader, musician and member of the body of Christ. Our contributors included:

Richard Webb is Associate Director of Education and Evangelism - Division for Congregational Ministries - Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Sally Morgenthaler is a best selling author and lecturer and is an accomplished worship leader.

Scott Burnett is a Seattle, WA area worship leader.

Conrad Beaulieu is a lay-pastor at Messiah's East Gate Lutheran Church in St. Paul MN.

Ralph Sappington is Director of Music at American Lutheran Church in Billings, Montana.


CM: What is the process for picking songs for worship?

Richard Webb: Here's a question (and my response) posed to me by a pastor in Chicago who's just starting a worship service designed to be hospitable to the seeker. He asks: "What are guidelines for picking songs for worship that will probably bring in some unchurched who think they are, and may be, believers, and non-believers who may have scorned church in the past, and Seekers?" I think you'll have no trouble at all doing what you need to do. Just remember to keep it in God's hands. It's His Word that's being sent forth and he'll see to it that it reaches its target. That being said, here are three essential guidelines for music to reach people who are not in church: context, Scriptural soundness, and function within the worship service.

1) Context - Before you do anything, you need to know the musical "language" of the people God has called you to reach. What are the two or three major types of music they listen to on the radio? What kind of CD's do they buy? If you don't know this stuff you'll be flying blind in your choices for music. This also goes for ritual style. Make sure you have a sense of how the group you are serving learns and processes spiritual experience. This is crucial in how you design your ritual pattern, lead worship, preach, and even arrange your worship space. But above all, remember this: Doug Murren, former senior pastor of one of East Side Foursquare in suburban Seattle - a very large and effective seeker-friendly congregation - once said, "Nothing is so important that it can't first be done badly."

2) Biblical soundness - This is a no-brainer, or at least it should be. This means that our choice of music reflect the following values. First, that God is understood as the initiator of all experiences of His presence. Second, that we don't have to do anything to get God to love us. Third, that we are called by His love to imitate Jesus in His perspective on life, His compassion for humanity, and His embodiment of the Kingdom of God. This means that our music should be a safe and clear space where truth can be told and God's powerful healing proclaimed. This happens both through His Word in proclamation and His Word in Baptism and the Lord's Supper. And finally, that this worship encounter be a place of radical transformation - again, a gift from God. Essentially it's the Isaiah 6:1-8 thing.

3) Function - This raises questions of how the music works within the worship service. For example, more didactic and doctrinally-oriented music works best when near the message. Music of commitment is often useful right after the message and at the end of the service. Music of praise, adoration, reflection, confession, and renewal works well both at the beginning of worship as well as centered around communion. Often two to four songs in a row help create an effective flow that helps worshipers become more deeply aware of God's presence in the worship service.

CM: Does musical style matter?

Conrad Beaulieu: Yes, if the music style that people have learned to worship God with is not followed the people have a difficult time entering in to true spiritual worship. I have seen this behavior in young and old alike. The style can be changed slowly or at major junctures in people's belief system.

Scott Burnett: We can take our cue from Jesus' use of parables. The truths are transcendent, but the stories are "local" to the context in which he lived. A cure for cancer will be a marvelous thing, but it will require a delivery mechanism to be of any practical use. Style is the delivery mechanism.

CM: Do we say, "there needs to be order to worship," but actually mean, "I need to be in control"?

Scott Burnett: In my opinion, of the many blessings that flow from God's manifest presence, one of the most nourishing is timelessness - the touch of the eternal which sometimes presses in upon us. It's analogous to the therapeutic qualities of water - our muscles can relax in ways we didn't even know they needed to. The thing about linearity is that it aggravates our already clock-enslaved, calendar-driven condition. Most of us come to church having, at least tacitly, surrendered to the pounding, punishing currents of our white-water world all week long. Then, in God's house, the beat goes on... We don't just need more time to worship, we need LESS time IN worship. We need worship that unfolds with an element of risk. Not prefabricated "surprises," but true yieldedness to the One Will.

Interestingly enough, this seems to be quite feasible within the 20 minutes or so that most of us have available on Sunday mornings. I think we make a mistake when we badger our lead pastors for more minutes - we don't need more minutes, we just need more Eternity. And we need more silence. Prophetic silence. I agree that we mustn't micro-manage one another's path to God's living room - especially with neat-and-tidy themes (like some sort of Vegas, virtual mysticism). But I think it's also true that we can and should enjoy together the commonalties of the life of faith; and "themes" can emerge organically from those places of true unity that sometimes occur during worship.

On the questions concerning order versus control: To me, it relates directly to the balancing paradox of grace and boundaries. Grace is like a river, boundaries are its banks. Without banks the river would become a stagnant marsh. God scribes the course of the river. Our problems really begin when we assume that the river must always flow as it always has, and we pour concrete to make sure it does. It's my opinion that the banks need to remain organic, malleable in God's hands. And this is what our worship must be too. Of course we do fear God - and if we don't, we should. Has He ever given any of us reason to believe that He WON'T work in exactly the way we DIDN'T expect? Doesn't He almost always ask of us the thing that will stretch us the most? Joyful, exhilarating, gratifying... but stretching, nonetheless! In addition, I think that part of the calling of a worship leader is to manifest the heart-cry of the people. This can be embarrassing. And another thing: Can we please stop treating the presence of God as though it's a skittish fawn at the edge of a forest, poised to dart off out of view if we so much as crack a twig? I know that we are fragile creatures, easily distracted, and prone to shift our focus away from our Maker - BUT, if God's manifest presence is HIS prerogative, can't we relax in the fact that He can sustain it as long as He likes? And that it can endure crying babies, sneezes, pagers, etc. The Incarnation should prove to us that the Transcendent is not offended by the mundane.

Sally Morgenthaler: Order and control, freedom and the Spirit. The reality of multiple "moments" in our services, multiple ways God touches people versus the "one, defining experience" approach we contemporary planners love to concretize. I'm not advocating worship without order. God does come to us in some sort of form, after all. Hence the Incarnation. And there are things that we do need to be about in worship: exaltation of God for who God is and what God has done, thanks, conviction, repentance, etc. Yet, can we make room for that which we cannot put into words... that for which we cannot plan... that over which we have no control... those cosmic, mystical interactions between worshipers and God that fall outside the realm of intent? Scott, I like very much your water analogies. The river/bank picture seems to speak to the struggle of having a "container" - a form - for that which is so beyond form, yet somehow very much inside it.

Scott Burnett: Sally raised the question of how we perceive God's presence, and what sort of language we use in describing it. It seems like we need to accept the fact that we'll have a fair amount of anthropomorphism in any articulations we choose - it's simply beyond what we can put into words otherwise. Having said that, I think it would be great to hear people's ideas about the presence of God versus the "real presence" or "manifest presence." Is there a difference? To me, there is a difference in the feeling of it, but does that difference occur because of changes in me/us as worshippers? In other words, is it our perception of God's closeness that's changing (due to the yielding of our wills to His will, and our "truths" to His truth), or is God actually pressing in more tangibly?

Conrad Beaulieu: My first impression is that the Holy Spirit is very able to structure and arrange a service in a way that meets not only the real needs of the congregation but also the ministers themselves. The difficulty comes when we have a prescription ready-made and are unable to adapt at service time or during the service. The Holy Spirit should be in control and that means praying to have His mind before and during the service and then the actual times of hearing from Him by the ministers and congregation.

CM: Do you hire musicians or only use volunteers?

Conrad Beaulieu: Only volunteers.

Scott Burnett: Our church has a tradition of using volunteers, but we occasionally hire special elements (bag pipes, for example). We try to cultivate a "servant's heart" attitude, and I have seen that this is a very helpful strategy in building worship team - it can help to weed out ambition.

Ralph Sappington: I agree with Scott we need to cultivate a "servant's heart" attitude, but the church should be a place where musicians called by God can be ministers of the Gospel and the church needs to heed the admonition that "a worker is worthy of their wages." (I Cor. 3: 7-9.) I have many musicians who donate their gifts out of their abundance and others who we are blessed to be able to help pursue their talents.

CM: How can a small congregation make it happen?

Conrad Beaulieu: We make it happen by having a good worship leader on guitar, a couple good vocalists and a keyboardist. We do miss a percussionist to keep everyone together.

Richard Webb: This one is EXTREMELY important to be talking about. Up to now the praise tradition required the resources of at least a moderately-resourced congregation in a relatively large metro area.

Ralph Sappington: There are people in your community, no matter the size, that have been waiting for the invitation to be part of a music ministry. To find them you must exit the front door of your church and go into your community and find them. Just ask, the worst thing that will happen is someone might say "no".

Scott Burnett: Don't despise the day of small beginnings. In some senses, we're all "small" - small in comparison to our own visions. Thankfully, God gives us vision that is beyond what we can currently attain; it's a dynamic that calls us forward. We just have to remember to begin the journey with one step (Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time). The trick here is to NOT surrender to discouragement.

CM: Should solos and special music be limited in favor of large group/congregational songs?

Conrad Beaulieu: I think both have their place. Solos and special music can be very uplifting and bring people to a good place prior to a message or start a service off well.

Ralph Sappington: I use special music only in very rare occasions. I want the congregation to be a part of worship and not to be intimidated by the soloist.

Scott Burnett: In my opinion, our culture is so sensitized to spectating that we must aggressively help one another to avoid that posture in worship. I believe that solos and special music can have an important place within non-spectating worship, but it requires a fair degree of maturity on the part of the congregation, as well as some instruction from the leadership. I tell my players that a guitar solo in the middle of a worship set is tantamount to speaking out in a strange tongue: it can be appropriate (in fact, it can be EXACTLY the right thing), but don't take it lightly and don't do it if it isn't flowing from the Holy Spirit.

CM: How important is a staff worship leader position?

Conrad Beaulieu: This would be important to us if we had a larger congregation.

Scott Burnett: It's as important as worship itself is to any given congregation. It might take years for such a position becomes a paid position, however.

Richard Webb: Also important. Another related question would be: What should be the role of a worship leader either as paid or volunteer staff?

CM: What is the future of the traditional church choir?

Conrad Beaulieu: Our worship team AND the congregation is the choir. I feel left out when the traditional choir sings.

Scott Burnett: Who can say what stylistic twists and turns await us on this road - particularly after we cross the great Millennial Divide? Right now, the traditional church choir is less than relevant, for the most part, but it would be foolish to say that it will never be relevant again.

CM: Where in Scripture do we find guides for Biblical worship?

Richard Webb: For me the baseline for Scriptural worship is Isaiah 6:1-8 and I Corinthians 14:1-33a. Worship happens when we, like Isaiah, become aware of God's presence in such a way that our eyes are opened to the truth about ourselves, our neighbor and God.

This happens in two ways: our illusions and vested interests are stripped away by God's reality-creating presence, and we encounter the burning coal of Christ's saving and forgiving love. Most importantly, this is not a head-trip, but a transformative encounter with the living God to which we can only respond, "Here am I, send me!"

I also believe that, according to I Cor. 14, worship must be done with clarity. The worshiper, seeker and believer alike, should be able to comprehend that is happening ritually, musically and homiletically. Confusion is not a virtue. That means we need to be alert to the cultural contexts of our worshipers. And that means a LOT of listening. But chiefly, Biblical worship is forged only through study and meditation on the Scriptures and deep expectant prayer - personal and communal. Recently I've noticed that God keeps connecting me up with Vineyard people. I'm learning from them that God really is on the move and actually wants to make us into something new. According to Scripture, God desires to "demonstrate" the Kingdom of God in our midst, not just have us talk about it. I've not worked that through completely but I think it means a whole lot more that just communicating ideas regarding the Gospel. It's way beyond that. It means the worship leader's job is to "make the way straight" for the revelation of God's presence and power in our midst.



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