Skip to content

The Stewardship of Church Music:Session 2 - Broken to the Word

What the church does at worship is not fundamentally about music.  Music may figure quite heavily in worship, but music is not the central thing. The central thing at worship is God meeting the people.  If music gets in the way of that encounter, it has overstepped its bounds and tried to take the place of God.  We call this idolatry.  Part of the musician's stewarding role is to guard against this danger.

The author then proceeds to identify music's proper role in worship.

The Stewardship of Church Music

Paul Westermeyer

Session 2 - Broken to the Word

I was once conducting a workshop about church music.  After the session a thoughtful church organist asked, "Can a service be hijacked by music?"  "Yes, of course it can," I replied.  A central responsibility of church musicians as stewards of music is to see that this kind of thing does not happen.  If music is at the center of a congregation's consciousness, it has hijacked worship.  If music obscures the texts we sing or if music gets in the way of what we are doing at worship, something is profoundly askew.  If musicians parade their abilities before worshiping assemblies, they need to confess their sins.

The space a congregation uses for its worship is often quite large.  It serves very well for concerts that choirs and instrumentalists from the church or the community might sponsor.  As part of their hospitality to the world, churches often offer or rent their spaces for such concerts.  That is a good and gracious gesture which serves both the church and the world well.  

But the church's worship services are not concerts.  What the church does at worship is not fundamentally about music.  Music may figure quite heavily in worship, but music is not the central thing. The central thing at worship is God meeting the people.  If music gets in the way of that encounter, it has overstepped its bounds and tried to take the place of God.  We call this idolatry.  Part of the musician's stewarding role is to guard against this danger.

Fortunately, musicians are not left alone to carry out this task.  The church has provided supports for them, strong supports to keep not only musicians but also the clergy and the whole church in their rightful place under God.  These supports are Word and Sacraments, that is, the means of grace by which God chooses to come to us.  In the Word, God addresses us.  In the Sacraments, God dwells with us by means of physical things.  Music is "broken" to Word and sacraments, or, as Gordon Lathrop might say, set next to them, juxtaposed to them, in order to be made new with the rest of the fallen creation.

The church then gathers before God in song around pulpit, font, and table.  The focus is not on the music.  The central players are God and the people, and the central places for their meeting are the ambo (or pulpit) for the Word, the font for Baptism, and the table for the Eucharist.  Of course the church sings when it gathers around these central things.  If it did not, the rocks would cry out.  And, of course, music is an important component in this gathering.  But it is servant, not lord, broken to Word and Sacraments.  

The Word of God
Christians understand the Word of God in a wonderfully rich and multi-valent way.  We often speak of the Bible as the Word of God.  It is, but not in some static sense where the words are themselves the Word or where we get to scoop out of the Bible with our own private opinion whatever few words we choose to use from it in order to prove whatever we want to prove.  Christians do not worship the Bible.  They worship the God whom the Bible reveals.  It is more accurate therefore to say what New Testament scholars like Paul Achtemeier say: the Bible is the Word of God in the sense that it is the witness to the Word.

But the Word of God is more profound than that.  It is the speech God utters.  The first verse of the Gospel of John even drives that speech back into the very being of God.  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  But that is not the end of the matter either.  Fourteen verses later we learn that "the Word became flesh and lived among us."  Christians therefore speak of the Incarnate Word, namely, Jesus Christ, who came among us as one of us to share our common lot.

Christians also speak of hearing this Incarnate Word in connection with preaching.  Ordained clergy are called to preach -- to proclaim -- the Word of God.  This meaning is clear in the church's understanding, but, since its practice is often treated in such a cavalier fashion, it deserves careful explanation.  It means that sermons are not travelogues, they are not about the preacher's spiritual states, they are not cute stories or ethical exhortations, they are not emotional excursions or literary studies, and they are not sales pitches.  Though they require careful study of the Bible, they are not Bible studies.  And though they require sensitive understanding of the culture, they are not cultural studies either.  

Rather, the preacher studies the Biblical texts, knows the current time and place, and then, modestly but with vitality and insight, speaks words in the hope that they will be heard as the Word of God.  The church calls the preacher to speak God's promise with the expectation that through poor human words we will hear yet again that we are graciously adopted as God's daughters and sons.  Preaching the Word is about all of us (the preacher too) hearing the Word of life and having our vision restored (a helpful image from Bernard of Clairvaux).  
Music in the Service of the Word
To gather around the Word is to encounter the Word with this rich cluster of meaning.  For 2000 years the church has made this gathering around the Word one of the primary features of its worship.  It is what the church does in the first half of its characteristic Word and Table sequence, preceded by gathering from the world and followed by sending into the world.  This sequence (sometimes called the Mass in the West and the Liturgy in the East) disciplines music and helps the musician steward it.

Gathering Music before the Kyrie.  
A typical Sunday service of worship may begin with an instrumental prelude and some singing.  This may be shorter or longer: some organists play for a couple minutes, some fifteen minute mini-recitals or more; some communities sing one hymn, some string many musical pieces together with a band or organ and piano.  This may involve only the musicians who have practiced, it may be that the whole congregation sings, and both groups might be engaged.  However this is organized, it serves as a signal to begin, and it sets a tone for what is to come.  It may be helpful, but it is not central.  It stands at the periphery of the service, a hinge or bridge from the workaday world to a time and space set apart.  Some communities make much of these beginnings, some omit them altogether, and some fall between these extremes.  The musician needs to steward this opening music well by practicing it, but not practicing it to such an extent that the more important parts of the service and their musical needs are forgotten.  

Kyrie eleison and Gloria in Excelsis.  
As the service proceeds, the more important parts become evident.  

The Kyrie eleison, "Lord, have mercy," has been sung at the beginning of the church's services of Word and Table since at least the fourth century, probably much earlier.  Still part of the gathering bridge, it stands there as a cry for help, reminding the worshiper where help is to be found.  It says, "Lord Christ, you are the one who has mercy."  

The Gloria in Excelsis, "Glory to God in the Highest," often follows.  It is the church's elaboration of a couple verses from the Christmas narrative in Luke's gospel.  It moves us farther along the gathering bridge with acclamations of thanks and praise to the "Lord God, heavenly King," and to the Son, who takes away the sin of the world, and to the Holy Spirit "in the glory of God the Father."  

The Gloria gives Trinitarian precision to where help is to be found.  The Kyrie and Gloria require more consideration by the musician than the Prelude and opening hymn, but still not as much as what is to come.  They too can be omitted without destroying the service. Like the other "Ordinary" parts of the service (Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei), the Kyrie and Gloria can be sung by the choir alone on behalf of the congregation.  

Care has to be exercised whenever essentially congregational music is sung by the choir.  The danger is the one the church has often succumbed to, namely, taking away the congregation's actual singing altogether.  The congregation needs to be protected from this danger by the musician's stewardly care.  Part of that protection can actually come from choral settings of these pieces on certain days.  That can highlight the text in significant ways and enliven the singing of the congregation the next Sunday when the congregational version returns.

Prayer of the Day.  
After the greeting, which makes clear in whose name we gather, comes the Prayer of the Day, a short collect which recalls some portion of what God has done and petitions God in relation to that theme.  It is structured to be prayed by one person on behalf of everybody, but occasionally a choir can pray it in a musical setting and give it heightened significance for a certain day.  This has to be done carefully so that the text remains clear and the piece is short enough so as not to destroy the flow of the service, but it is preferable to trying to get a congregation to speak this prayer together.  That destroys meaning and leaves a congregation clueless about the words they have just jumbled, because the prayer is not structured so that spoken communal recitation is possible.  

The readings which come next have generally taken on musical dress.  Even when they are read, especially read well, they are proto-musical.   Reading them, however, has not been the church's normal practice.  For most of the church's history they have been chanted, because singing them allows their proclamatory character to be expressed more clearly.  Especially when there are long readings, like one of the Synoptic Passions on the Sunday of the Passion or the John Passion on Good Friday, singing these texts with more elaborate music by soloists or choirs can help to open up their meaning.  Again, careful stewarding is critical.  Settings have to be chosen that do not obscure the text, they have to fit the time and place, and the music has to be sung in such a way that individual virtuosity is not on display.  

The Psalm between the first two (Old Testament and Epistle) readings is one of the central musical components of the service and therefore one of the central concerns of the church musician.  It requires careful stewarding of the musical resources which are available.  The Psalm is in a quite practical sense a break from the readings.  Unless the readings are sung in more elaborate form, this break takes shape as a more musical expression than the one the readings take.  This practical musical break, however, is allied to a profound meaning.  The Psalm texts are the song of the church.  They tell what the church sings about.  They are the ballad of what God has done, the blessing of God by the people for these deeds, the people's thanksgiving, the people's anguish and pain, the highest praise and the deepest despair.  All of this is sung -- expressed in musical form -- with insistent and compelling candor before God.  The Psalms therefore provide the whole story, the context, in which the readings are proclaimed.  The Psalm for a given day tends to narrow the context just a bit so that the theme of the readings gets an even more laser-like proclamatory focus.  

Alleluia and Verse.  
After the Epistle and before the Gospel, an Alleluia joined with a Verse (called the Gospel Acclamation) is sung.  It continues both the Psalm's practical break-like character between readings as well as its more profound meaning, but it pushes the meaning forward toward a more Christocentric frame of reference, usually by means of a brief New Testament quotation.  This frame of reference becomes even more obvious at the reading of the Gospel and the musical acclamations which precede and follow it: "Glory to you, O Lord," and "Praise to you, O Christ."

The Psalm and the Verse can employ a cantor, the congregation, and the choir singly, but a rich variety of combinations that engage both congregation and choir best expresses their nature.  A cantor can sing a psalm alone or in alternation with the congregation, using a psalm tone.  A metrical psalm, which will feel like a strophic hymn, can be used by the congregation alone or with some stanzas sung by a choir.  A choir can sing a setting of a psalm by itself.  A psalm tone can incorporate refrains or antiphons, and different groups or individuals can sing different parts of this mix depending on the relation of the text's structure to its meaning.  For the Verse, the congregation can sing the Alleluia and a choir or cantor the specific Verse for the day, or the congregation or the choir can sing the whole thing alone.  

There are multiple possibilities here, all pregnant with meaning.  They require careful stewarding by the church musician.  The musician needs to analyze the Psalm and Verse, know how they relate to the themes for a given day, figure out what musical resources are available, consider which ones are appropriate for the day, keep everything in balance with the rest of the service, consider musical motifs with their keys and rhythmic structures, possibly compose something new, practice alone and with other musicians, and carry out the music at the proper place in the service in the most musical way possible leaving or not leaving appropriate silences.  This may result in the utmost simplicity or considerable complexity.  The congregational portions, whether simple or complex, need to be congregational because they are generally not rehearsed; the choral portions can be whatever is appropriate and what the choir has time to rehearse.

Hymn of the Day.  
After the sermon, for many traditions, comes yet another important musical event, the Hymn of the Day.  (Some traditions want silence here, which is another way to signal the importance of sounding form -- in this case by its absence -- in relation to the Word.)  This hymn, of all the hymns in the service, requires the most thought.  It should have the most heft because it relates to the narrative and proclamatory thrust of the Word, and it needs to be thoughtfully related to the themes of the day and the nature of the Word that the preacher has sought to deal with.  Like the psalm, it requires the same musical inventory of meaning, resources, fittingness, composition, congregational and choral alternation, practice, and finally performance in the worship service itself.  Unlike the psalm, it has in some places spun not only into alternation between choir and congregation, but into larger proclamatory compositions like concertatos or cantatas.  The cantatas Bach composed for use in Leipzig in the middle of the eighteenth century represent the apex of this development.

The Credo (Nicene Creed).  
Both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds are discussed under Baptism in the next chapter.

The Prayer of the Church.  
The intercessions for the church, the world, and those in need move from proclamation to prayer.  They point to an address to God, not to humanity.  They move toward music's use in the second half of the service.  Like all prayer, they can be sung, but are usually spoken.  A reiterated congregational response like, "Hear our prayer," often characterizes them.  Even if spoken, therefore, a musical flow is present which suggests leadership by a cantor or the choir.  If sung, care has to be taken that the response is not too long, which can obscure the prayers themselves.  If sung, it makes most sense for the prayers also to be sung, so that the awkwardness and musical problems of mixing speech and song are avoided.  

Ample silences are important, not only here, but at other places in the service as well.  Responsible stewardship means that musicians and all leaders of the church need to resist the temptation to fill these silences with meaningless sounds, sounds which are fundamentally about leaders' insecurities.  These not only get in the way, but they undo the significance of words and music themselves which need the backdrop of silence to be have meaning.        

Broken to the Word
Music is not only set next to the Word in the first half of the service, but for the central portion with readings its call is to proclaim the Word.  In so doing it is "broken" to the Word, the musician's stewardly task is disciplined, and the community hears the Word.  

Because the relation of music to the Word has been so fecund for the Christian church, a huge supply of music has been composed and is still being composed for the Word portion of the service.  It includes the music for the "Ordinary" parts (Kyrie, Gloria, and Nicene Creed), psalm tones, hymn tunes for hymns that fit the Word service, sequences, graduals, motets, anthems, concertatos, and cantatas.  This whole supply, which in Bach's cantatas includes some of the finest music ever written, is part of the church musician's responsibility to manage well.  

The musician obviously needs help.  The stewardly support and resources of the church as a whole are required.  We'll return to that topic at the end of the next chapter.  At this point it is enough to remember Luther's sense of how to steward priorities.  Music, he said, is more worthy of support than many other things, because, as he also knew, music is next to the Word of God.

1 - What is your experience with musicians and music in relation to the Word of God?  What do you think about music's relation to proclamation?  
How do you define the Word of God?  Can you give examples or constructive suggestions about any of this?

2 - Have you ever experienced a service being hijacked by music?  If so, describe your experience.

3 - How is music used at the beginning of services in your church?  Does it work well, poorly, neither?  Would you modify the practice?  Why?  Why not?  How?    

4 - What is your experience of singing the Psalms?  Is it good, bad, or indifferent?  Have you sung Psalms in a way where the musical form matches their content?  What might that mean?  How does it work?  Have you sung the Psalms at all in church?  If not, why not?  Is singing them worth considering?  Why do some churches never sing the Psalms?

5 - Have you ever heard the readings sung?  Does that seem like a good idea?  Why or why not?  What cultural issues are raised?
How have you experienced the Hymn of the Day?  Has it been different from other hymns?  Should it be different?

6 - Have you ever experienced a choir singing the Prayer of the Day?  Does that seem to you like a good idea?  Why or why not?  What about singing all the intercessions?  Is that a good idea?  Why or why not?

7 - 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:

b>The Stewardship of Music
Session 1. General Considerations

The Stewardship of Church Music
Session 3 - Broken to the Sacraments


Paul Westermeyer is a Professor of Church Music at Luther Seminary.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

previous main next

Stewardship 101 ebook cover

Search all stewardship resources by author, keyword or topic.

Related Articles

Rethinking Stewardship: US Christians and the Riddle of Stingy Giving

Rethinking Stewardship: US Christians and the Riddle of Stingy Giving

This email continues our series based on the Rethinking Stewardship supplement to Word & World This ...

Hymns on Stewardship: Leader’s Guide

Hymns on Stewardship: Leader’s Guide

The guide for those who will lead the three sessions, "Hymns on Stewardship."

Hymns on Stewardship: Leader's ...

Hymns of Stewardship
Lesson Three: Giving

Hymns of Stewardship Lesson Three: Giving

As we learn to steward our lives and the gifts we receive from a gracious God whose giving knows no ending, ...