Resolving the musical conundrum is essential.
On A Journey

July 16, 2013

Tips on resolving the musical conundrum

By Tom Ehrich

I went to worship on Sunday morning.

Big deal, you say. Well, for me it was a big deal. I usually attend the main service only when the Gospel Choir is singing. It's a long trek across town, and I have to be back at 5:00pm each Sunday for Lifeline.

I went Sunday for one reason: a bluegrass group would be leading a sing-along before worship and "country Baptist" songs throughout.

I was glad I went. During the sing-along, I requested "Softly and tenderly." Another requested "In the garden." When we sang "Abide with me," I remembered the stunning dance-and-vocal sequence at the London Olympics.

We concluded the sing-along with a tear-streaked singing of "We shall overcome."

This is one person's story. Line up 100 faithful Christians, and you'll hear 100 different stories about church music. Nothing is as diverse as our tastes in music -- or as likely to produce disharmony. For every believer whose heart soars at "come home, come home, ye who are weary come home," there is another whose gut clenches. One climbs to heaven on "Lift high the cross," while another gags.

Professional church musicians often consider themselves an embattled species, called to preserve classical hymnody and organ music and to resist all other forms.

The most common source of leadership conflict in a church is a battle over music, often a duel between an entrenched music minister and a new pastor.

Here are six tips on how to address this musical conundrum:

1. If you want to nurture a diverse congregation, you need to offer diversity in music. Music plucks the strings of our hearts. If we don't hear ever music that touches us deeply, why bother with this church?

2. Diversity in music needs to be wide-ranging. It isn't as simple as pipe organs vs. guitars. It's black Gospel music, Hispanic music, contemporary Christian music, "country Baptist" chestnuts, Taize chants, Celtic songs, African call-and-response, as well as the European music that shaped Protestant worship in the postwar era.

3. The music minister, then, needs to be more than an expert in European hymns and organ playing. He or she needs to be an impresario who brings in diverse music leaders, a teacher of unfamiliar music, an enthusiastic presence, affable, as comfortable with a praise song as with an anthem of civil rights.

4. The music minister must leave the organ bench and stand in front of the congregation to lead singing. This will be profoundly uncomfortable for some church musicians, but I think it must happen in spite of their discomfort.

5. Longtime members who resent musical diversity need to get over it. If they want their congregation to have a vibrant future, they need to loosen their grip on music and allow all voices to sing.

6. Clergy must become cheerleaders for diversity in music. Not as a champion against the musical establishment, but as an ally who celebrates musicians' willingness to broaden their range.

Music, of course, is a visible symbol of a deeper reality, namely, a congregation's willingness to sacrifice for the other. If I cannot sing your music, how can I ever love you? If I cannot share in music, how can I ever let go of my wealth, my privileges, my resentments and my fears?

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