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The Church Musician as (Overlooked) Theologian

How the musicians of the church contribute theologically to worship.

brief annotations can be useful tools” to “prime” a congregation eventually to hear these musical subtleties without explanation. Bulletin notes, newsletter articles, or brief spoken introductions during a service can make connections for the congregation between the words they are singing and the music that is being played—or even, in the case of music without congregational participation (e.g., solos, anthems, or instrumental selections), between the music and the sermon, Scripture lessons, or prayers of the day. The church musicians’ ability to guide and teach the congregation in this way reinforces the notion that they contribute theologically to a worship service and not just experientially.

In most churches, the musicians are not world-class performers but volunteers or part-time workers, often overworked and underappreciated. In many cases, they are not even affiliated with the denomination of the church they are serving—or are not Christians at all. It would seem unreasonable or unrealistic to add “musical theologian” to their duties, or to ask that before each service they consider how their musical decisions contribute to the theological formation of the congregation.

This line of thought misses the point. Musicians, whether or not they are aware of it, are shaping congregations theologically through their music. Congregations, even if they don’t explicitly know it, are formed theologically by the music of their worship services, just as they are formed by the sermon, the prayers, and the sacraments. Vibrant worship, therefore, requires that both church musicians and the congregations they serve become more sensitive to the theological work of music.

This might mean that a congregation, for example, would pay for its musicians to receive additional training in playing for worship services, or even in theology. While formal seminary study is one way to do this, many groups offer such training. The American Guild of Organists has regular continuing education opportunities. Hampton University offers a one-week workshop each summer for organists and choir directors, as does Westminster Choir College. Arcus also recommends denominational groups, like the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, which offer a broad variety of materials.

A cooperative relationship between the pastor and musicians is also vital. Too often pastors and musicians see each other as threats or competition in ministry. Instead, whenever possible, pastors and musicians should work together in planning worship services so that musical and nonmusical elements of the service can be theologically integrated. In such a cooperative relationship, the pastor might be able to draw on discussions from worship planning for sermon illustrations or might even incorporate an anthem, hymn, or instrumental selection into the sermon, perhaps with some guidance from the church musicians. This acknowledges the musician’s theological contributions and demonstrates pastoral respect for the musician’s expertise, setting an example for the wider congregation.

Duke Divinity School professor Jeremy Begbie has written about what the church can learn from music as it wrestles with its theology and its practices. If music can have theological implications, then certainly musicians can play theological roles. By acknowledging these roles, churches move toward sustainable practices of vibrant worship. This also changes the discussion about worship music from What do we want? and What do we like? to conversations about Who, as a people, are we? and What do we need to do to be formed as the people God is calling us to be right now? To their delight and surprise, such churches, by the grace of God, may even discover musical answers to their most searching theological questions.