Are We Responsible for Musical Literacy in the Church?

I’m getting questions every week now on topics related to worship and music. I wish I had time to answer each one, but I can’t get to them. But thanks so much for writing and assuming I might have an answer to your question. I received this question from Stephen:

What effect do you see the “PowerPoint driven church” and American pop culture having on the musical literacy of your instrumentalists, and potentially on the future of the church? Being a worship pastor in a somewhat “emerging” church (AKA rock band and candles with historic Christianity), I am beginning to see the great need for “reproducing” musicians who are musically literate. For two reasons: 1) efficiency of the ensembles and 2) the legacy of music left to future generations.

I assume when Stephen talks about “musical literacy,” he’s referring to the ability to read notes and understand music theory. If so, I began to ask myself similar questions a few years ago. How much has the musical culture we’re surrounded with negatively affected the musicianship in the church? I found myself in a context that esteemed playing contemporary styles by ear and minimized formal training. We had classical musicians in the church who had few places to serve. We had an abundance of teenagers with God-given gifts who had never been taught how to use their voices wisely. The model of musicianship we continually presented to the church was some form of a rock band – energetic, informal, and spontaneous. Many of the musicians I worked with every week didn’t read music. These factors and more led me to ask, “Are we serving the next generation of musicians?”

I haven’t reached the end of my thinking on this topic (and don’t think I ever will), but I do have some general thoughts that are looming larger in my brain these days. After these, I’ll answer Stephen’s question directly.

1. The church is responsible to train musicians who could potentially serve the corporate worship of the church with their music gifts. It’s been the model since the days of David (1 Chron. 25:5-7). As a music pastor, I don’t feel any responsibility to train someone for a career as a classical pianist or cellist. But I should find ways to train instrumentalists and vocalists who might be part of a music team at a church some day. I don’t want to assume that all our musicians will be trained by the world, although we’ve certainly benefited from that arrangement. What we do to train musicians depends on the styles of music we know and plan to use in the future. It can be as simple as training children to sing properly. Ken Boer, who now oversees music at my church, has started a Music Academy, devoted to helping the next generation develop their musical gifts for the glory of God. It includes choirs, string ensembles, a band, private instruction, and opportunities for performing at recitals. We started it because our kids weren’t being trained musically elsewhere. And to encourage you, it’s something we’ve been talking about and planning this for at least eight years. I had to get out of the way for it to finally happen.

2. Playing by ear and by notes are both valuable skills, that require training and practice. At Covenant Life we’ve tried to nurture a musical culture that doesn’t value one type of musical skill over another. I talked to a pastor once who thought it didn’t take any skill to play contemporary music. I knew he was wrong, just because so many people do it so badly. God made all music to be used for his glory, whether it’s been written down or made up on the spot. We encourage our musicians to be continual learners, always seeking to grow in the skills they’re lacking. If they can’t play be ear, then they should try playing with chord charts. If they can’t read notes, they should pull out a hymnal.

3. Music is a significant, but not foundational, aspect of our heritage. For some reason God chose not to send his Son when it was possible to record music. Can you imagine the kind of worship wars we’d have then? “Jesus would never have played it that slow! This is the melody Paul used, and that’s what I’m sticking with.” God gives every generation new songs, new styles, new expressions, and new ways of bringing glory to Him whose glory never ends. I smile when someone enthusiastically says, “I’m sure we’ll be singing that song in heaven.” Pardon my skepticism, but I think what we’ll be singing in heaven will be far superior to anything we’re singing here. Kind of like the difference between a nursery rhyme and a symphony that’s built on its theme. Plus, as we continue to receive greater revelation about God’s immeasurable riches of grace in Christ, we’ll come up with new songs to sing. It’s great to sing what Christians in previous centuries sang, but it’s not a Scriptural requirement, nor a necessary response to my trusting in Christ’s atoning death for my salvation.

So, has the PowerPoint driven church and American pop culture affected our musical literacy? Yes. Fewer young people are drawn to pursue more formal methods of music training, and fewer musicians in the church can read notes. But I don’ t think that’s an entirely bad thing. Tens of thousands of churches have sung and continue to sing God’s praise, led by untrained musicians. And their offerings are accepted like everyone else’s – through the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Musicians shouldn’t have to have a music degree to serve the church. And what a joy to see more young people using their musical gifts to glorify God. But, as Stephen points out, if we limit ourselves to the small “pop culture” piece of the musical pie, musical literacy is affected. That has at least two consequences.

The first is a very practical one. Musicians aren’t able to serve as comprehensively. Rehearsals can take longer or are minimized altogether. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. The best musicians, in any style, know that to become better you have to practice, both alone and together. But understanding how music works helps any kind of musician serve the church more faithfully with their gifts. Someone who can read notes and play by ear has more tools to serve others.

The second consequence is more subtle. We’re unable to fully benefit from what others have done. We can listen and learn, but we can’t read and learn. We limit our options. And we almost completely lose the musical riches of the past that were never recorded.

In his outstanding book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Harold Best addresses the issue of downplaying our musical heritage.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with change, there is something wrong with the wholesale rejection of tradition. Christianity is not just new, it is for all time. Christianity is not just contemporary language, it is classic language, time-honored and time-polished expression. Christianity is not just quick news, it is hard news, it is historically validated news, and it is longterm news. (p. 200)

Musical literacy can remind us that our faith is “historically validated” and “longterm,” not merely contemporary and passing. In addressing this topic, a church’s choices will be determined by its resources and maturity. But every leader should seek to develop in their musicians a grateful appreciation for the past and a faith-filled expectancy for what’s still to come. Both require patience, perseverance, and practice.

Let’s benefit from the musical styles and leanings of our culture, without making them the determining factors in how we approach music in the church.

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10 Responses to Are We Responsible for Musical Literacy in the Church?

  1. Kyle November 2, 2007 at 4:07 PM #

    Great post and thank you for your balanced assessment. What I would add to this is that we as musicians and songwriters, especially as it relates to songwriting, need to value “traditional” training, theory, songwriting method. When we have that training and rooting you then are able to go outside those confines with much more success. Simply put, once you know the rules you can brake them with success, but if you are operating out of ignorance it’s a much more difficult path. We should strive for excellence in this. For example, a simple chord progression for a worship song should be an intentional songwriting technique not a unintentional consequence(which becomes the only possible outcome) of our lack of commitment or devotion to our art form.

  2. Wally Joiner November 3, 2007 at 6:46 AM #

    I believe the church has a duty to remember the past, to cherish church history as the history of redemption, and song is a way to simplify and distill it, which will aid our memory of it (Exodus 15, Psalm 68, 78, 104-107, etc). And this would be to fill our mouths with His praises. “I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart; I will tell of all His wonders.” Which wonders? Exclusively my deliverances (which ought not be forgotten)? Are those the only wonders I care to remember? Psalm 78:1-7 lays the duty of remembering His wonders and law (Word) on us, and the rest of the Psalm is a recounting of those wonders to be remembered and how Israel perpetually strayed by forgetting them. Verse 7 connects our confidence in God to knowing His history and obeying His word. No history in view, no confidence in God, no obedience. Read the Psalm. That is the lesson and warning.

    On the musical skill side of the question, a good read is John Piper’s, “Fine and Folk in Worship: Thoughts On Worship And Culture”, . I think the extremities are pure musical muscle and artless angst; serious chops and serious passion. I don’t think we are looking for the middle ground here, but the bandwidth of usefulness between the two extremes. Both fine and folk music are useful but we need wisdom as to when to employ which one. The Piper article informs us here. The fine is more tedious mentally, but being better articulated, has a longer shelf life. The folk is more immediately accessible because more culturally intelligible, but has a generational shelf life. The first alone can lead to cold intellectualism, and the latter can lead to shallowness and emotional burn out. As the Puritans said, we need both light and heat; information and inflammation; knowledge that begets passion.

    So, if the fine is needed, then chops are needed. I think what Ken Boer is doing with the Music Academy is excellent. Edwards said that if a Christian cannot sing then he is in sin. His logic ran thus, “Is it our duty to pray? Do we need to learn to pray? Is it our duty to sing? Do we need to learn to sing?” The answer is, “Yes”, to all four questions, and singing is not mumbling or reading from a hymnal. This is no different than asking, “Is it our duty to bring our children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord? Do we need to learn how to do this?” Yes, two times. So, do we go outside the church to learn how to perform our musical duties? Ideally, “No.” So as churches can serve worshipers by training them in the things necessarily involved in worship (theology, yes, but also the playing of instruments and singing and song-writing), then it should, indeed, must be done.

    … and again, Bob, we must all thank you for helping us here in so many things that pertain to public worship. Thank you!


  3. Michael Cheng November 4, 2007 at 8:21 PM #

    The question of musical heritiage is complex and its variables are numerous, especially if musical heritage is shared within and across dynamic communities based on values, language, expression, etc. I appreciate the forward-looking hope expressed in heavenly worship in the post. The question and its corresponding points also wonderfully address the issue of stewardship (especially points #1 and #2). As able musicians we are responsible to serve, share and train others. I think however if I feel the motivation to pass musical literacy within the church is to herald the banner of music, I can be swayed to replace gospel-centricity, which is the calling of the church. This makes me appreciate point #3 that although music is significant, it is nevertheless not foundational. That being said, serving, sharing and training towards music literacy can also be a general grace that God works through us as able musicians for the good of the community.

  4. Stephen November 5, 2007 at 11:49 AM #

    thanks for answering the question, Bob. Those of us in Louisville can’t wait for your next trip down, whenever that may be.

    Thanks again…

  5. Matthew Westerholm November 9, 2007 at 4:35 PM #

    Perhaps another wrinkle to add to the discussion (which is pretty wrinkly already!) would be this: discern your situation.

    If you church has a high-percentage of home-schooled and church-schooled children, you have a larger responsibility for their complete education that if you have an excellent public school or large Suzuki academy nearby.

    Also, let’s not forget the importance of dreaming in front of our children. I’ll never forget when my youth pastor said to me “God gave you a gift to play piano. He wants you to use it to do great things for Him and His kingdom.”

  6. Bob Kauflin November 9, 2007 at 5:44 PM #


    Excellent point. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  7. Sean Steeves November 12, 2007 at 9:34 PM #

    I am very passionate about the education and of musicians in the church as I am a private piano and brass teacher and church worship leader. I find if very easy to mix these two roles and be a teacher in our church music rehearsals. This is incredibly important. Like Bob said, it is the church’s responsibility to train musicians who have the potential to serve in public worship. For me, education is a lost aspect of not only music and public worship but theology and worship. This is important because I believe that the excellence of our music says something about what we think of God. We all know there is a myriad of reasons to strive for excellent sounding music and we can only make something excellent the best way WE know how. I think this is something that is decided upon from church to church ( I also believe this is a downfall of the
    Protestant nature). There is no real measure of musical excellence for all churches. What we know is what we listen to on the radio and CD’s and this is very deceptive as it digitally manipulated and hard to duplicate live.
    At any rate, music says something about God and God can be described as a loving father in one instance and completely indescribable in the next. So, our music can be diverse. It can speak of God’s ancient ways with deep, passionate hymns or God’s provision in the now of the moment with simple, succinct melodies. We must do this the best way we know how and musical education is an important key to achieving excellent music the public worship.

  8. Everard Huggan July 15, 2011 at 2:11 AM #

    Four years later….aren’t you glad you can read this article and these responses? Wouldn’t it be great if more people could read the music we do in churches?


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