Category Archives: methodology

Church Music

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My mother-in-law shared an article on Facebook that got me thinking about church music. What she shared was a blog post called “13 Solutions for a Church That Just Won’t Sing,” by Jonathan Aigner, the Director of Music in a United Methodist church. I’ve never heard of Jonathan before; all I know about him is what he wrote on his blog, www.theologyinworship.com, where he says he grew up Southern Baptist, has Bachelor’s and a Master’s degrees in music, as well as Master’s degrees in both theology and educational leadership. In other words, he seems to have some credentials backing what he wrote. And what he wrote was good, even if I don’t agree with some of his proposed solutions.

You really should read Jonathan’s article because I’m going to respond to some of his thoughts and there’s a good chance that something will get lost in translation going from him to me to you. I don’t want to misrepresent him; neither do I want to come across as disagreeing with everything he says. Rather, I want to use his article as a springboard for some of my own thoughts. Briefly, here are his thirteen solutions (all are direct quotes except where italicized):

  1. Teach—how, what, and why to sing.
  2. Dust off the organ console.
  3. Bring the choir back.
  4. Don’t perform.
  5. Get rid of the lead soloist.
  6. Don’t sing so much.
  7. Sing all the time.
  8. Build a resonant sanctuary.
  9. Encourage and support the arts in the community.
  10. Bring the kids back into corporate worship.
  11. Use hymnals.
  12. Make the music worth singing.
  13. Stop doing the same songs over and over and over.

For starters, I agree that churches can teach us how to sing, what to sing, and why to sing. That’s how learned: standing in church between my alto mother and my bass father, I learned to follow the little black dots as they floated up and down the clefs. Those lessons laid the foundation for my three years of clarinet, a year of high school chorus, and four years in a singing and drama club.

But learning to sing—even for the purpose of worshipping and praising God—is not what church is really about, so I’d go a step farther than Jonathan suggests and use music as a teaching tool. After all, many of the great hymns were written, at least in part, to teach about God, not only to praise him. Since music by its very nature tends to stick with us, the songs we sing on Sunday mornings have the potential to stick in our minds far longer than the words of my sermon. We need to tap into that potential.

As for choirs and organs, I agree with Jonathan’s reasoning even if I don’t think his solutions are necessarily the right or even best options. What he wants is instrumentation “able to support sustained, hearty congregational singing” and “a sizable, confident, prepared group” to lead that singing. Both of those goals can be achieved with options other than an organ and a choir, but it takes a skilled and intentional worship leader and team to do so…just as it would demand a skilled organist and choir. I’ve seen—or rather heard—the difference in singing when a well-trained and versatile person is on the piano instead of someone who simply plays the little black notes. No instrument in the world will make an average musician sound great; on the other hand, a truly exceptional musician can make an average instrument do wondrous things.

Having said that, I certainly agree with Jonathan that an organ is a uniquely adept instrument for supporting congregational singing. But that doesn’t apply to every organ; electronic organs can be little more than glamorous synthesizers. A pipe organ, though, is unbelievably versatile, especially at the hands and feet of a well-trained organist. [Full disclosure: I married into a pipe organ family; my father-in-law has been building them for longer than the half-century I have been alive, so I’m just a little biased. That said, if you are at all interested in church music—which you probably are if you have read this far—you owe it to yourself to get in on some good pipe organ concerts.]

Let me take on several of Jonathan’s points together—numbers 3, 4, 5, 11, 12, and 13—and boil them down to this: if you want the congregation to sing, then invite them and allow them to do so. Don’t drown out the congregation with amplified instruments (even a pipe organ) or worship team (even a choir). As Ed Stetzer has written, sing singable songs in singable ways. Follow these ideas and you will probably avoid having your up-front team being performers before an audience. Hymnals can help people sing…if they’re inclined to sing, know how to read music, and are familiar enough to find the song in the time they have to do that. In other words, hymnals might help church people sing. But if you’re trying to help non-church people encounter God, then projecting the words on a screen is a far better choice. (Just be sure your tech people are good enough to stay with the musicians and get the right words on the screen at the right time.)

I may write about worship again another time, but let me close with one more encouragement to read Jonathan’s blog for yourself, and not simply to either argue against or agree with, but to reflect on and impact your own thinking about corporate worship.

Are Local Churches Truly Autonomous?

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Very seldom do I venture into the realm of church politics and leadership failures, especially when it involves naming names. I greatly prefer to write about what I’m learning and how theology applies to our everyday lives and I recognize that talking about specific individuals must be done with extreme care if it is to be helpful, hopeful, and grace-filled. Yet the reality is that church politics and leadership do apply to our everyday lives, and they are—or ought to be—rooted in sound theology. We also can and must learn from both the successes and the failures of specific individuals. So here goes….

On Tuesday, October 14, Mark Driscoll resigned as Senior Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. Much has been and will continue to be written about this; unfortunately far too much of that will be unhelpful, lacking grace, and downright caustic. And that’s just from those who call themselves Christians. But Aaron at Blogging Theologically had some good things to say that spurred my own thinking. (Please take some time to read his thoughts, then add to the discussion.) I want to take something Aaron said and (gracefully, I hope) disagree with it. Mars Hill church, Aaron said, needs to evaluate their [leadership] structure. (I agree.)

The model they’ve been running on—with an outside board of accountability—simply doesn’t work, nor is it biblical. If they’re serious about getting healthy, they need to put in place a model of governance where every leader really is one vote at the table, and are held to account. They need to become autonomous churches with elders who are biblically qualified and capable of preaching the Word.

I grew up basically Baptist, and almost exclusively in the Free Church tradition. In those worlds, local churches are viewed as autonomous; that is, they are self-governing, and although they may choose willingly and voluntarily to associate with other like-minded churches through conferences, conventions, or associations—i.e., denomination—they do not sit under the authority of those organizations or the other affiliated churches. The past fifty years has seen a growth in “non-denominational” churches; that is, churches that have taken autonomy one step further by choosing to not affiliate with a denominational organization…even one within the free church tradition. When a local church is substantially healthy, this autonomy can a good thing. The church can make its own decisions on leadership, vision, strategy, and activities without having to submit those to an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. When problems arise, however, autonomous churches are left to struggle on their own, often crumbling under the weight of leadership abuses, failed structures, financial mismanagement, or devastating moral failure.

Aaron’s post over at Blogging Theologically raised two questions for me. First, are outside boards of accountability unbiblical? Second, should churches be autonomous? Aaron’s post seems to suggest that the answer to both of these questions is yes. I would argue not.

Outside Boards of Accountability. Some local church structures rely on boards comprised primarily of men (or men and women) who are not connected to that church in any other way. It is a model learned from the private sector in which corporations are overseen by a board of outside directors. The Microsoft board, for example, includes a college president, the CFO of a food group, the CEO of a credit card company, and the former chairman of a German automaker. There are many advantages of such a structure, not the least of which is an outside perspective that can help a local church keep its eyes on God’s kingdom instead of its own. But is such an external board unbiblical? Certainly not. The apostle Paul was a church planter throughout the Mediterranean region. In each area where he started a church, he also planted a pastor or commissioned some other leader: Timothy, Titus, and Lydia, to name a few. He instructed them to appoint elders (also known as overseers) for those churches, which gives us a clear example to follow: churches need to have local leaders exercising authority. But does that discount the benefit of external authorities? Or, more significantly, does it render external overseers unbiblical? By no means! Paul himself exercised authority over the churches he planted, both by instructing the local leaders to appoint elders and by intervening in matters of practice (e.g., circumcision), doctrine (e.g., the resurrection), and sin (e.g., sexual impurity). Further, Paul and Barnabas, Peter, Silas, and Luke, among others, all seem to have exercised such external authority over the growing number of local churches. This leads to the next question: ought local churches to be autonomous?

Local Church Autonomy. One of many results of the Protestant Reformation was the growth of the Free Church tradition; that is, local churches coming out from under the overbearing authority of The Church (namely, the Roman Catholic Church headquartered in Rome). My roots in the Baptist world plant me firmly in this Free Church tradition. I believe it is good and right…but neither biblical nor unbiblical. There is great freedom in the structure; not only freedom of outside authority (which is what the name truly reflects), but also freedom of movement and vision and strategy. Local churches that are unencumbered hierarchical bureaucracies are far more able to adapt their ministries to the ever-changing needs and cultures in which they exist. When a local church is substantially healthy, autonomy can be a good thing. Yet good things can also have negative side effects. Antibiotics fight infections, but they also reduce the body’s natural infection-fighting abilities, so that a person who has had to take antibiotics for a long period of time actually becomes more susceptible to future infection. In the same way, autonomy can lead to disastrous consequences when a church faces a crisis such as a moral failure, an overbearing pastor, or a leadership power struggle. In these types of circumstances, the church is no longer the doctor but the patient; and the patient is rarely in the best position to either diagnose the problem or prescribe the treatment. This is when an otherwise-autonomous local church must submit itself to others: an external board, the denominational or association leadership, or some other external, biblical source of authority. This is what the Galatian church did when they appointed Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem to settle the circumcision debate (Acts 15).

When we elevate the autonomy and independence over mutual submission—whether as individuals or as local churches—we have a recipe for arrogance and failure. We are giving Satan the foothold he needs to forestall the church’s attacks on his fortress. But when we humbly submit to the wisdom of those with a different and broader perspective, we demonstrate the grace and unity that Jesus prayed for and that will draw people into His kingdom.

When is “Innovation” Not Enough … or Too Much?

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For the past year or so, I have been a regular reader of and commenter over at Monday Morning Insight (MMI), a website geared toward innovative church ministry (my description). Todd Rhoades, host of the site, seems to have a good head on his shoulders, a heart for reaching people through the church, and a passion for connecting pastors and church leaders with each other and resources that will help them reach people for God’s kingdom. I have appreciated most of what I’ve seen at MMI, especially the glimpses I’ve gotten into how people are doing church in other parts of the country.

Recently, Outreach magazine named the top innovative churches (which, as is to be expected, are all fairly large ones). A fellow seminary student decried the list – “Can you spot more than three innovative churches on this list???” Lists like this aren’t new. In fact, Elmer Towns wrote a book in 1991 called, 10 Of Today’s Most Innovative Churches: What They’re Doing, How They’re Doing It and How You Can Apply Their Ideas in Your Church. (Actually, it’s the last part of that subtitle that scares me…there are plenty of copycat churches around, and I would venture to say that few of them implement the “innovations” as effectively as the innovators.)
Still, lists like this make me wonder a couple things. First, what constitutes innovation? Does it mean meeting in a bar, as my friend’s church does? Or does it mean, for a hymn-based church, to experiment with using guitars and drums? For one church it may mean starting a homeless ministry, for another it’s an outreach into the porn industry. Certainly there is a degree of relativity to innovation; what is innovate to one person or in one setting will be old hat to another.

The second thing I wonder is, do we sometimes place innovation too high in our priorities? I don’t think Todd Rhoades of MMI or most “innovative” ministry leaders would suggest for a moment that that’s true, in spite of the fact that sometimes it may seem that way. Innovation is simply a fancy word for trying things that may not have been done before (at least in a certain context) in order to reach people for Christ who are not being reached by existing means. So innovation isn’t the goal, but rather the means to an end. We do need to be careful, though, that we don’t hold out innovation – or relevance, or authenticity, or any other of the recent buzzwords – as the key to the world’s salvation…or even as the key to drawing people toward Jesus. That position is still reserved for Jesus Christ himself.

Still, the fact is that we live in an attention-deficit world: sixty seconds is an agonizingly long commercial. We want bullet points, not paragraphs. We want our fast food in 90 seconds or less, and our latte in under a minute. We’re also a Frank Sinatra world; we want it our way: not just coffee, but a venti, triple-shot, extra-hot, no-whip mocha. Paper or plastic, debit or credit, for here or to go, traditional or contemporary, the now or the not yet. Innovation in ministry is necessary to reach this culture, but while innovation breeds innovation, it also breeds more of dissatisfaction with what is and what has been. Soon, innovation won’t be enough; it must be rapid-fire innovation. What’s new on Sunday will be old by Tuesday. Generations are no longer be measured in terms of four decades, but two.

And speaking of mochas, I recently read an interesting quote on one of Starbucks’ “The Way I See It” cups: “In my career I’ve found that ‘thinking outside the box’ works better if I know what’s ‘inside the box.’ In music (as in life) we need to understand our pertinent history … and moving on is so much easier once we know where we’ve been.” (Dave Grusin, award-winning composer and jazz musician) There is a timeless historicity to the Christian faith, and we need to cultivate a knowledge of that, to bring new believers up in that history. Perhaps in so doing, we can offer a firm foundation on which innovation may be built.