Church Musicians: Get Out Of The Way

When a church focuses on sin, they focus on what the church is not called to be.  When they focus on forgiveness, mercy, grace and compassion, they focus on what the church is called to be.   Where can we learn this if not from the pulpit?  Our music.

A friend of mine was hired to oversee a large music program at a church with about 2,000 families.  One of the groups in the church which he didn’t have authority over was the folk group.  This group consisted of several singers who sang back up to a soloist.  The soloist was a very active wedding singer and the drummer in her band was also the drummer for the folk group.  They also had a saxophone player who improvised a blizzard of 64th notes on every song.

The “audience” loved the music.  The music was alive, vibrant and energetic.  Everyone clapped along, it was very entertaining, they listened and they loved it.  Each and every Mass was a concert of the highest caliber.  The new priest noted that nobody at that Mass was singing, they just listened.  Many people, especially musicians, would not be alarmed at this as long as the people were happy but, the sweetest sound a pastoral musician can hear is that of a congregation singing while fully and actively participating in the liturgy, not just listening.

If you were to attend the ritual of a birthday party for someone you cared about and right before you were all to sing the song Happy Birthday, someone hijacked the singing by doing a campy, over the top or stylized version of the song, the focus would be on the singer/performer, not the person celebrating the birthday.  Liturgy is much the same.  The congregation participates in the ritual by singing and if a band does it “to” them, the congregation doesn’t need to do their part as the “actors” of the liturgy, it is done for them and they are the “audience.”  In the theater model, God should be the audience and the congregation the actors.   The musicians would assume the role of prompter.

In my friend’s church, the sax player was asked to play only the melody so that his torrent of notes didn’t get in the way of the congregation’s  participation but he replied that the priest was trying to stifle his creativity.  Therein is the confusion.  The liturgy and music is not about the musicians.  It is about the people.  Musicians are not there to do the work of the people, they are there to support the participation of the people.  If we need to show off our musical ability, there are bars for that.

Why Singing Is So Important:  Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.
There is an old African saying that “We are the stories that we tell.”  We are what we believe and stories are the foundation of our identity.  There is a saying among pastoral musicians that “We are what we sing.”  That is why singing in church is so important.   Singing scripture gives us the opportunity to enflesh the Word.  Singing is not only “praying twice,” but combining scripture with melody and rhythm further helps to get it in our brain, heart, sinew and soul.  I think it is interesting that medical science calls breathing “respiration.”  The root of respiration is SPIRIT – re-spir-ation.  We re-spir-ate,  take in Spirit.  Singing oxygenates our blood and brains with spirit.

If I were on an airplane and it hit turbulence, I might think of a psalm text I have sung hundreds of times (Psalm 27) “The Lord is my Light and my Salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?”  If life is throwing me curve-balls, I may remember the scripture from Psalm 42, “Why do I mourn and toil within when it is mine to hope in God?”  If your memory is like mine, I can’t remember a name I just heard but I can recite hundreds of lyrics.

Consider the gay teenager who is thinking about suicide, might he think deeply when he sings the words “Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your Name?” from the song “The Summons,” or what about the person filled with hate and prejudice when he sings “See the face of Christ revealed in every person standing at your side,” from “We Remember.”

Our songs and hymns are a treasure trove of philosophy, scripture and poetry which has the power to change and transform life and, singing it is one powerful way to quickly and lastingly get it into our bones, sinew and brains.  If we are distracted by musical proficiency, performance and technical artistry, the moment of being in the moment may pass us by.

Musicians, back off from the mike, let the people sing, carpet living rooms not churches, and revel in the sound of their congregation.

Musicians don’t know what they don’t know and it is the churches fault for not hiring pastoral musicians or not educating and training the ones they do hire to be pastoral.  It may be appealing to hire a young person with an advanced degree, who can play or direct well and build a quality music program, but does a church want a quality music program or a congregation lusting for justice, conversion, proclamation, respiration or community?  Many music programs are like a Texas longhorn; a point here, a point there, but a whole lot of bull in between.

People are changing, society is changing, churches must change, too.  People no longer look to the church for social activity or entertainment.  They thirst and hunger for something more, something the church isn’t giving them.  More than entertainment, they want a sense of sacred, they  thirst for simplicity and a relationship with God.  They can only grow by facing and navigating the difficulty of life – together.  That takes an apostolic church rather than an entertaining one.  Instead of feeling still and empty the way the eye of a hurricane must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding action – which is where real life is at.  Every condition of our lives, good or bad, wonderful or horrible, is merely the support system for the journey.  There are always people who wish to deny us our humanity but if we tell our stories, there will always be someone who wishes to restore it.   Any church which has a focus on sin, they focus what the church is not called to be.

Additionally, music ministry is a parish wide ministry, a community wide ministry, not a Mass time centered ministry.   This is not to say that musicians need to put all their feelings into their music.  Musicians should not be burdened with the responsibility of expressing themselves and demonstrate how much the music and God means to them.  That is important but whatever gift you have, it has to be used to support what the music and Word itself is saying, not inflict a personal view on it.   Feelings should not be injected into music as if through a syringe.  You can find that in a lot of churches and it can be distracting.  Musicians must learn to PROCLAIM the word, not interpret it. Leave interpretation to the Holy Spirit.

To the church who is afraid to forgo entertainment in favor of liturgy, consider the media; they only write about the sinners, crime and the scandals, but that’s normal, because a tree that falls makes more noise than a forest that grows.  That church needs to have faith.

My friend in the opening story, after they disbanded their folk group who refused to modify the entertainment model of ministry, there was a flurry of nasty emails, all the folk group left the church and the church even lost members who supported the folk group.  Two years later after creating a more pastoral music program, they have tripled the number of people they had lost.  One of the long time members said, where once he knew all the faces he encountered during the passing of the peace, today he is met with many and new faces.  That is something to sing about for a congregation doesn’t sing because they’re happy; they’re happy because they sing.


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