No one goes to church and thinks, “I sure hope the worship will be dull and uninspiring!” People desire vibrant worship. Whether it’s the communal practices of Taizé or Iona, the anthems that resound in cathedrals, the gospel choir who brings the congregation to their feet, or the strum of guitars with a praise song, it’s clear that music has a central role in establishing worship.
Unfortunately, discussions about the relationship between music and worship have mostly been one-dimensional, focusing on the music itself, from style (traditional or contemporary) to instrumentation (guitar vs. organ). If churches hope to sustain practices of vibrant worship, the scope of the conversation must include not only church music but also church musicians.
This conversation requires us to think about how the church musician is also a theologian. This might come as a surprise. If we associate “theologian” with anyone in a congregation, it is usually the pastor or other ordained staff. Applying that term to our church musicians can seem like a stretch, especially when many church musicians lack the formal theological education clergy receive through master’s of divinity programs.
Part of the problem may lie in how we think about theology. If theology is mostly dried ink for a dusty classroom, then we may never learn to see musicians as theologians. But if one of the purposes—indeed, the chief purpose—of theology is doxology (the praise of God), then it is easier to see how the church musician does function as a practical theologian, complementing the theological role of the pastor. As David Arcus, adjunct associate professor of sacred music and Divinity School organist, told me recently, “Clearly, our tasks [of being musicians or pastors] are different. But we all share in the general responsibility of facilitating the praise of God.”
Arcus, an excellent conversation partner for thinking about the role of the musician in the life of the church, regrets “the loss of [understanding] the church musician as a professional leader, teacher, and visionary among ministerial staffs.” When he notes that both clergy and musicians share a responsibility for the doxology of the church, he speaks not only as someone who accompanies hundreds of services each year on campus but also as someone of deep and sincere Christian faith.
The shared responsibility means many of the unremarkable, mundane activities of church musicians have real theological import. When I asked Arcus about the factors he considered in leading a hymn, only one stood out as explicitly theological: the liturgical season. The others were straightforward musical considerations, ranging from the size of the organ to dynamics to the presence or absence of a choir. But as musical considerations in the context of and for the purpose of the worship of God, they were musical factors with theological overtones. Playing the organ too softly during a hymn can deprive the congregation of its confidence to participate in acts of worship. Playing the organ too loudly can drown out the congregation and imply that their participation is unimportant. This communicates the theologically impoverished idea that worship is only for the leaders.
This is only one example, and we could doubtless think of dozens of other musical decisions made by organists, contemporary ensemble members, or gospel choir directors, decisions that form the worship life of churches, a distinctly theological activity. But the theological role of the church musician is not limited to purely musical activities.
For instance, consider what happens when a musician accompanies a song. She or he is, on the one hand, concerned with musical factors: how loud to play, how fast to play, whether the congregation needs extra help in order to sing well, and so on. On the other hand, she or he hopefully has noticed textual issues, such as whether the mood of the words is celebratory or plaintive, penitent or joyful. Furthermore, the musician may also have considered how some textual element could be communicated in the music, perhaps by changing a chord to highlight a particular word or by playing louder or softer on a stanza. In other words, the musician is trying to communicate the theology of the song through the music itself. It is a complicated endeavor, and it requires the musician to be sensitive to the communication of theological ideas.
Some might protest that this level of subtlety is too obscure for the average person to discern during worship, but the subtlety is actually another opportunity for musicians to demonstrate their theological role. Arcus has suggested that “occasional, 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.