The Stewardship of Church Music
Session 1 - General Considerations
- Author: Paul Westermeyer is a Professor of Church Music at Luther Seminary.
- Updated: 10/23/2006
- Copyright: A joint project by Center for Lifelong Learning and Stewardship in the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.
"Stewards have the responsibility for a gift entrusted to their care. So it is with the church musician. Music is a very powerful gift. Musicians can easily turn it to less than positive ends and betray their trust. They can use it for their own glorification. They can use it to manipulate people. They can use it to amass money or gifts or praise. They can do any number of things which call attention to themselves, to their technical prowess, their skills, or their voices. These temptations are as great, or greater, than those associated with other vocations. Christian teaching tells us that we are called to refuse such temptations. We are to use the gifts with which we have been entrusted for the glory of God and the well-being of others. . ."
The Stewardship of Church Music
By Paul Westermeyer
Session 1. General Considerations
The dictionary defines a steward as one who manages another's property. Like virtually every other vocation in the church, the musician is also a steward in the sense of the dictionary's definition. The musician manages another's property -- actually not only the property of one party, but of two.
Music as God's Gift.
The musical stuff the musician manages belongs first of all to God. It comes from God like the whole creation. Sound is a glorious gift of God, one that Martin Luther could not find enough words to extol. It spills over the creation with delights in a unique way. If you look at the accounts of creation in Genesis, you discover -- surprisingly -- that sound is never mentioned as one of the created things. If you look at the first chapter of the Gospel of John you begin to understand this surprising omission, because there you discover that in the beginning was the Word, that is, sound. Robert Jenson therefore speaks of the Trinity as singing from the very beginning.
This suggests that sound itself issues from the heart of God in the very beginning, which means it flows through yet stands apart from other created things. There are those who have maintained that the whole creation can be regarded as sounding form. Among them are some who espouse modern string theory along with more ancient thinkers who regarded the cosmos as musical spheres spinning in spheres. Whether you agree with them or not, they point to how the human race has appreciated the profound nature of the gift of music. It's not only physical sound that we human beings acknowledge with wonder. It's also something bigger which we perceive behind the sound. And the whole business is a gift of God.
Human Crafting of God's Gift.
Like all the gifts of the Creator, we are called to craft music, too. So we take the raw material of sound, and we form its proportional vibrating relationships into what we call musical compositions. We sing and play these pieces. If we are at all aware of the glories of music and even dimly perceive what the last two paragraphs summarize, we quickly realize that this crafting of sound into music -- and therefore this music we make -- is for the glory of God. That is why composers like J. S. Bach signed their compositions "soli Deo gloria." For Bach that signature was not some pious platitude; it was a confession about reality. That is, music belongs to God, and we who craft and perform it steward it -- or manage it -- for its Creator.
Stewarding the Store House.
There is another party for whom the musician stewards or manages music. Music first of all belongs to God, to be sure, but in a derivative way God gives it to humanity to craft. That means it also belongs to the community of believers we call the church. This possession is no longer simply the raw material of sound by itself any more. It's the whole store house of what composers have crafted from that raw material. A huge array of music has been written for the church. Most of it has been tried and tested for short periods. It did its job for those short periods of time, but it was not found to have staying power. So the church regarded it with gratitude, but then laid it aside. Some music, however, though still written for particular occasions, has been found worth repeating. It has entered the church's store house and memory bank over generations and even centuries. The church musician is the steward of that, too. The church musician stewards the gift of music therefore not only for God, but for the church.
Sorting Out the New.
There is another category of music which the musician may be said to "steward," but in a different way. It does not belong to the church like what's in the store house already, but it may in the future enter that store house. It's all the newly-composed music which is still in the state of being sorted out. Because we are finite beings, we cannot utilize all the music that exists or is currently being composed. There is simply too much even to know about, and human life is too short to try it all even if we could know it all. Some of it needs to be tried, however, because, as Marion Lars Hendrickson has taught us, music for the church is "in Christ." That means no single period or style gets to have an idolatrous hold on us. Music of all periods is welcome and made new in Christ. That includes our period and what we write now or in the future. The church musician is called to steward this new material in the sense of choosing from it what is worth the church's time and effort to try.
This puts musicians to the test. They have to jettison their individual preferences and seek to determine what is best for the whole body of believers.
This element of stewarding is perhaps the musician's most tricky task, especially in an age like ours where any expertise is regarded with suspicion. Expertise is no small matter. It is central to every vocation, to every calling. Good doctors seek to become experts at what doctors needs to know if they are to serve people well. The same is true for good lawyers or good mothers or fathers. That seems obvious enough until you apply it to musicians and their musical vocation. Then things get troublesome, because people generally tend to think they know everything that needs to be known about music, especially in the church. Everybody tends to want his or her musical tastes and preferences to be the control, and musical expertise is therefore regarded as the property of everybody. The power and authority that come with expertise are often regarded with suspicion in our period for many, if not all vocations -- for teachers and governors or doctors and lawyers and most other professions as well.
There is even more suspicion about the church musician's authority, however, since it is easy for people to think they know as much about music as the musician because they know what they like and can quickly decide that's really all that matters.
Since music in the church belongs to the whole church, this is to be expected and in many respects is positive: it suggests a high degree of communal commitment, engagement, and involvement with music. But there is a negative side as well. Everyone in a church cannot select and prepare music. Someone or possibly some group has to be delegated to do this, just like every other task the church undertakes. Even in a group, one person has to be given authority and accountability. Otherwise things are almost guaranteed to come to a standstill. The musician is the person whose vocation brings with it this authority and responsibility. That requires musical study and expertise. It means learning about things like this:
- what music can be sung by a community who does not practice it,
- what music can be sung by a smaller group who rehearses,
- how the two relate,
- how musical motifs with key and rhythmic contrasts function in worship,
- what music is fitting for worship,
- what music is not fitting for worship,
- when and how which music works best at which points in a worship service,
- the Biblical story and the church's confessions,
- what texts express these well,
- what gives these texts compelling communal musical shape and form,
- who are the people who make up the assembly, and
- what are their stylistic capacities, languages, ethnicities, and speech patterns.
The church musician also stewards the music of the church by leading it. That is, not only is "theoretical" knowledge involved in the musician's stewarding of music. So also is the "practical" capacity to make music with the people. This requires practice -- practice in the church in the West primarily as a conductor or organist, though singers and players of other instruments are also part of this picture. Another way to say this might be that the requirement here is not only to study music, but to do it. That means organists have to practice so that their hands and feet will carry out what is needful in such a way that technique is transparent. Other instrumentalists have the same responsibility. Song leaders in traditions where there is no organ or musical instrument have to lead so that they get out of the way. Technique is not to be developed for its own sake. It is developed to make the music flow as well as possible without staring at it, to make music at worship able to happen without struggle.
Congregation and Choir.
So far I have mostly referred to the congregation. It is what might be called the primary choir of the church. As Karl Barth says, the church of necessity sings. It sings, however, not like a choir as we normally define a choir. That is because it is made up of human beings from all walks of life -- mostly of people who are not musicians. These people, not primarily musicians, sing in church without practice.
In our period singing by such people is a profoundly counter-cultural activity. Singing among us happens in few places other than the church. Soloists or professionals sing or play to entertain us in many ways and places, but as a people we sing very little. We even hire people to sing the National Anthem for us at ball games or get waiters and waitresses to sing "Happy Birthday" for us at birthday parties. Singing together is profoundly liberating, to be sure, since to be human is to sing; but the culture around us generally has at best a dim perception of this. Church musicians steward their gift by letting this amazing reality pop open.
The church has realized that choirs who practice can help congregations sing. It has also realized that choirs can practice more complex music beyond the congregation's capacity -- and that this responsibility grows out of the Christian gospel itself which propels the finest art for the glory of God. Note what is happening here: a remarkable alliance of the best possible unrehearsed "folk" art sung by the congregation has been tied to the best possible rehearsed "fine" art sung by a trained group of professionals or amateurs. Part of the church musician's responsibility is to steward these two musical parts of the church's being so that neither one gets the upper hand, but that each serves and enlivens the other.
A Steward's Responsibility
Stewards have the responsibility for a gift entrusted to their care. So it is with the church musician. Music is a very powerful gift. Musicians can easily turn it to less than positive ends and betray their trust. They can use it for their own glorification. They can use it to manipulate people. They can use it to amass money or gifts or praise. They can do any number of things which call attention to themselves, to their technical prowess, their skills, or their voices. These temptations are as great, or greater, than those associated with other vocations. Christian teaching tells us that we are called to refuse such temptations. We are to use the gifts with which we have been entrusted for the glory of God and the well-being of others.
Another way to get at this is by recalling Jesus' parable of the talents. Jesus was not happy with the person who buried the talents he had been given. Jesus expected the talents to be used and increased so that, upon returning, the master could say, "Well-done."
Musicians face this same responsibility. Getting out of the way to use their musical talents for the glory of God on behalf of others does not mean burying their talents. It means developing them in community. Measuring this development is not a matter of how many people are in the choir or in the church (though turning people away for selfish reasons or not graciously inviting them are serious problems for which there is no excuse) or any of the culture's ingrown number games and quantitative measures. It's a question of whether the church is singing -- or, more precisely, whether it is singing with vitality around Word, font, and table. That is the topic of the next two chapters.
1 - What is your experience with musicians and the stewarding of music in the life of the church as you have experienced it? Does your experience relate to what has been said in this chapter? How? Can you give examples or constructive suggestions about this?
2 - How would you define the role of the church musician? What is church music?
3 - Is it true that communal singing by people generally is not a cultural norm and that singing in church is counter-cultural? If you were a church musician and found a resistance to singing among the people you were serving, what would you do about it? Do you sing in church? If not, why not? If so, why?
4 - Do you think musical expertise should be respected by the church? Why or why not? Do you think a church musician should have some authority? Why or why not?
5 - Do you regard music as a gift from God? Is that important? Why or why not?
6 - How would you characterize the distinction between the singing of the congregation and the singing of the choir?
7 - How do you measure the stewarding of music in your church? Is it well-done, poorly-done, so-so? Do you have suggestions about it?
8 - What questions do you have?
A joint project by Center for Lifelong Learning and Stewardship in the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.
To access the other sessions on The Stewardship of Church Music, click on the following:
The Stewardship of Church Music:
Session 2 - Broken to the Word
The Stewardship of Church Music
Session 3 - Broken to the Sacraments