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.