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WORSHIP: MUSIC, MUSICIANS, AND MONEY

I enjoy speaking to young church planters who are struggling to find out how to have an effective music ministry as part of their worship service. Finding musicians available, skilled, and committed is a very old problem. Nehemiah found this out when he came back to Jerusalem and realized…”that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields.” Nehemiah 13:10

It is a typical conversation in some churches to ask, “should we pay musicians?” Or, “shouldn’t Christian musicians simply volunteer their service as their act of worship?” At first take this sounds spiritual, it implies that the people with the faith and obedience problems are the musicians and not the rest of us for failing to have enough faith and commitment to provide money for them to do what we all want them to do.

The passage in Nehemiah reveals a common sense issue, and that is that people have to make a living, and even if they want to sacrifice they will not be available to a congregation if they have to provide for their families using the skills they have worked years to acquire. In the temple worship either the community brought in tithes to the storehouse so the Levites who were musicians could survive, or the Levites went back to their fields to provide food for their families.

I can hear someone saying, “Yes, but when I was in my former church people shared their musical gifts without being paid.” That of course is the optimum solution, i.e., that a congregation would have skilled musicians who make enough money doing something else, have the time to practice individually and as a group, and freely offer those skills for worship. However, optimum isn’t usual.

I encourage pastors to pray and hope and search for the optimal, but since Sunday comes each week and worship has to be organized (if not produced) then a plan has to be made as to who is going to help with the music, even if under less than optimal conditions. It is possible to worship without music, but the Scriptures (in both the Old and New Testaments) example and encourage singing and instruments in worship. I suppose one could sing Psalms 149 and 150 acapella without irony, but it would be hard for me. One reason the Reformation was helped to explode among the masses was due to congregational singing.

So, I am a supporter of paying musicians. I know of several churches where non-Christians, unbelievers, were hired as band musicians. Those churches were careful however to allow only believers to lead the music, the singing, and the choice of music. The examples I know of made sure such hired musicians attended the full service and came to practice. I have seen some of these band members begin to bring their families over the years they have participated. I am not necessarily advocating this, but making an observation here.

Musical and worship leadership has to be spiritual, or else everything about the worship gets compromised. Musicians need to be pastored, and sometimes evil needs to be confronted. This evil can be in the way musicians interact, conduct themselves in the church service or church organization, or live their lives. They receive this pastoring much more amiably if they are well supported organizationally, emotionally, and financially.

There are of course variations in musical styles, and musical skills. Worship ought to be a place where those growing in a skill have opportunity to learn, share, and participate while we are also encouraged by those who are truly gifted and skilled. Church is a place where the call for an excellent sacrifice is balanced with an honest and sincere one. It corresponds to how much money one gives which is not based on amount but proportion. Many small and financially struggling congregations are thankful to have a person who can peck notes out on a piano, or simply sing acapella, or use tracks. One of my earliest memories of church music was in a small house church where the pastor played the flute, his wife the piano, and a young man played a carpenter’s saw with a bow. I didn’t know much about churches then, or music, so I thought this was normal.

There have been, and are, “worship wars” and those who hate contemporary music. There are those who stress that true worship can only be achieved with the refined skill to play and an ear to appreciate such things as the intricacies of Bach. I actually heard a lecture in a worship service along that line of thinking, and I would have to say such an elitist view of worship is in fact heresy. It is one thing to praise God for the gifts of Bach, this is indeed excellent music, but it is not always intellectually approachable by the common man. All people are called to worship but it is Spirit and Truth that qualifies, and not an education in music appreciation or theory.

Most church planters do what they can to find quality musicians and pursue a musical worship style that is participatory, emotionally meaningful, and theologically sound while led by people of spiritual integrity and musical competence. That package is not always readily at hand. Some preachers will care little about music being “emotionally meaningful” while others don’t pay enough attention to “theologically sound.”

Music is by its very existence emotional, the lyrics and message are always theological. The message is either true, mostly true, confused, or blatantly false. The message in a song can be clumsily stated or starkly clear. There are songs that have a penetrating and even beautiful melody while conveying error. There are many songs that hold great and exact Biblical truth while being stultifyingly boring. Combining musical and artistic settings for truth demands some patience and compromise, such as having drawn out words or filler words like, “oh,” and “ah,” etc. To say every voiced phrase must have a sound theological message puts a straightjacket on the musical line and most of us intuitively understand that.

Every pastor has to be a policemen regarding truth when it comes to what is conveyed in a worship service because that is part of his job. He is not usually a qualified musician and even if he is will be subject to his own culture and tastes. A wise pastor knows when to separate his culture and tastes from his theological opinions and will hopefully humbly interact with musicians when it comes to their area of expertise. He needs to support them when they get attacked by a member or attender who “hates that song” or thought things were too loud, or too slow, too fast, etc.

Church musicians should be able to trust their pastoral leadership and know they are not going to be thrown under the bus each time a song fails either theologically or musically. If a pastor for church politics reasons says, “I hated it too and I don’t know why he (or she) does that,” will probably not have a lot of loyalty coming from his worship team.

So, pastors need to fight for the worship and music budget, pray and search for a spiritually and musically qualified person who can really lead your worship team, listen to them about pay scales, equipment needs, and administrative support. Pastors need to take the responsibility for the finished product. If you don’t like what you are getting than replace your musician, but don’t hang them out to dry. If you have someone who can be an intrinsical part of your ministry team then make sure they are honored, compensated, and rested. Give them a sabbatical of a few months every seven years so they can recover. Send them to training and conferences so they can keep learning.

I confess I had definite ideas about culture, styles, and performance quality and shared those with my worship director. I had such respect for him that I knew he could tell me if I was off base or not, and I would listen. (I hope he thinks I did.) I was immensely honored when he listened to me. I was blessed; we were blessed as a church, and even when our congregation was very poor we had some outstanding music and worship experiences. It caught me up to heaven, made me want to go there, sometimes devastated me before God, and helped me to love going to church.

Not every pastor will have a team like I was given, including a very musical wife. Not every pastor will have not just a piano player, but a singer, a composer, a teacher and developer of young musicians, a humble learner of different cultures, a man willing to use his gifts for evangelism as well as worship settings, and a friend, but I did. His name is James Ward, and I would wish that kind of chemistry and camaraderie for all pastors and chief musicians. Sing a new song to the Lord!

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