As Christians, worship is something we do daily. It is seen in the ways we interact with people with Christ-like character. It is seen in the way we look around at the beautiful creation and thank the Creator for it. When we work, whether we are changing diapers, cooking dinner, folding laundry, flipping burgers, performing surgery, whatever it is, we do it “as unto the Lord” and in so doing we are worshiping him. A musician has this same responsibility in their weekday work, to practice hard and to strive for excellence to the glory of God, just like any other profession. As music teachers we recognize the responsibility of teaching well. We are told that pastors and teachers in the church are held accountable for what they teach on a spiritual level, but I think a similar accountability applies to school teachers and music teachers. We are responsible for what our students learn and we strive to do it excellently and with integrity.
The church musician has a unique role. Beyond the personal excellence required of any work or profession, music has been offered as a part of corporate worship at least since the time of the tabernacle. (There is mention of musicians as early as Genesis 4:21 where we read about Jubal who was the father of all who played the harp and flute and various other instruments, depending on which translation you read.) In contrast, a doctor who may be God-honoring in his weekday work, does not go to church on Sunday and offer up surgeries to the Lord. A church musician uses the same skills during the week that are offered up to the Lord in a special way on Sunday. We have to look at the vocational and corporate worship roles of the Christian musician separately. As with any vocation we expect excellence from the Christian musician during the week, but what does it mean on Sunday?
Church musicians are not called to perform for the congregation, but to bring an excellent musical offering to God, and it is their responsibility to lead the congregation into corporate worship with them. This requires skill, the level and style of which will vary depending on each unique situation. If the church is full of professional classically trained musicians, then maybe Bach cantatas are God-honoring. If the church has many guitar players, drummers, and singers of varying degrees of musical training, then a strong band-leader may be in order. It’s not about style, it’s about musical excellence to the glory of God. And just because a person has a heart for worship and is excellent at leading a band does not necessarily mean that they should try to get the group to do cantatas. All that would mean for the leader and the group is a promotion to mediocrity. We have to know our gifts and talents and excel at them. Let the singers sing, let the instrumentalists play, let the composers compose and in the end each skill complements the others and we have an excellent musical offering to our God.
So, if corporate musical worship is an offering to God, where does the role of evangelism come in? Many churches use Christian contemporary music as a way to make the gospel accessible to non-believers or young people who may be able to relate to the musical style better than, say, hymns. That is fine, but still the point of music in church is not primarily to evangelize. When music in church witnesses to the glory of God it is because it can be so easily seen that the musicians and church as a whole find it important to offer their best to God. It is in the excellence of the offering that an outsider can see that we are thoroughly committed to the one to whom we are offering. In contrast, if the offering is mediocre, is it evident that we are committed to the one to whom we are offering? Or, to ask the question more strongly, if the offering is mediocre on a regular basis, ARE we committed to the one to whom we are offering?
Dr. Harold Best, Dean Emeritus of Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, wrote at length about this subject in his book Music Through the Eyes of Faith. “[There is] an ever-present temptation to validate a body of music according to its effectiveness in ministry. This is as wrong for Christians as offering a blemished animal was for the Jews (Deuteronomy 15:21). Any concept of ministry that knowingly excludes quality runs contrary to the Scriptures. From the design of the tabernacle to that of the temple—including information about the rigorous training of the temple musicians—through the apostle Paul’s instructions concerning decency, order, and excellence, and clear on into the description of the new heavens and the new earth, there is no hint anywhere in the Scriptures that mediocrity is excused in the name of service and ministry.”
So, on a practical level, what is excellence in church music? We know that as humans we can never play or sing perfectly. Even if we hit every note and every rhythm, is there perfect dynamic or nuance? Dr. Best describes excellence as “being better today than I was yesterday”. When we bring our offering of musical worship to God we are responsible to continue to strive for excellence. When I was at Wheaton he would insist that no one use the phrase “practice makes perfect” and that instead we say “practice makes excellent”. On a personal note, if I am choosing what to play for communion and on Saturday evening I can’t get the notes or double stops in tune, I should choose something else to play, or play it in a way that is easier for me so that it is an excellent and pleasing offering to my Lord. I shouldn’t try to go up an octave on that last verse if the result is mediocrity.
What is happening to church music in our culture? Well, the same thing that is happening to any music in our culture. Music is no longer emphasized in school, if it is taught at all. Many children now, Christian and non-Christian alike, grow up with little or no musical training. Culturally, it’s a shame. Biblically, it’s unacceptable. If we are to continue the God-ordained practice of corporate musical worship that has been in practice at least since the time of the tabernacle, we must train up our children to be excellent musicians so they can offer excellent music to their King. In generations past, this was less of an issue. Children learned music in school and Christian children could then incorporate it into their worship. If the schools are dropping the ball on music education, the church has to pick it up and run with it. Not only is it essential to God-glorifying corporate worship, but through the excellence of Christian musical offering we bear witness to our culture that God matters and is worthy of this most excellent offering. We must not let mediocrity seep into our corporate worship. We must continue to strive for excellence in our weekly musical offering to the glory of God.
In summary, the essential roles of the church musician are to offer an excellent and pleasing musical offering to God, witness to his greatness through the excellence in the offering, and train up the children of the church to continue to do the same.