Back in October of 2012, as Chaplain Mike was doing a month long focus on Church music over at his prominent blog, I was graciously invited to participate in the discussion by answering a few questions. The discussion wound up being two posts, which are featured here as one page. Because this was the largest platform to ever host my writing, I put a good deal of thought into it, and the result expresses my thoughts on music in the church more comprehensively than I had ever taken the time to write before. I include them here as a good summary of my perspective on and philosophy of Christian worship and it's relationship with music. You can find the original posts at:
I hope you enjoy my reflections. We included a video at the end giving an example of what the music of our church looks like to model how these ideas play out in a practical sense.
InternetMonk: Miguel, since you are a regular commenter on Internet Monk, how about if you would start by telling us a little bit about your own personal journey as a Christian and musician, and the part Michael Spencer played in that.
Miguel Ruiz: I discovered iMonk at a rather pivotal time in my life, during the process of walking away from my first position in church work out of college, feeling quite embittered and disillusioned. The next experienced lasted twice as long and ended just as bad. At some point you begin to ask questions, like what is it that causes over-churched evangelicals to argue ad infinitum about trivial matters, betray each other in petty power plays, and care so little about working together and reconciliation? As I embarked on a period of Cartesian doubt, I knew something was missing from the picture, or a misplaced focus in the life of the church.
Of course, Jesus was the missing focal point. As I wandered my post-evangelical sojourn in search of a religious home, Spencer’s writing was a constant source of encouragement, enlightenment, and direction. The website served as an online hub and portal to my theological self-education as I tried to nail down where in Mere Christianity I belonged. The community here also served as a sounding board for the things I was learning and a safe place to discuss and exchange ideas without threatening my job security.
As Spencer went through his Calvinist phase, I was very attracted to the God-centeredness of many reformation leaning teachers, and soon came to the conclusion that I would settle with one of the original reformation churches. Thus began my confessional identity search. As I dug through the doctrinal writings of the established church traditions, I begin to find Jesus in places I never thought of before. It didn’t help much that the new management at IM had walked the Wittenberg trail already. I eventually became drawn to the Jesus-shaped spirituality of confessional Lutheranism, and you can read about my reasons for conversion here.
Music guys rarely get their choice of denomination. Most music ministers I know have had to bounce around quite a bit. One day your Methodist, the next you’re Presbyterian. But by God’s grace I was able to find a home and a job in the LCMS very quickly, though it did involve moving from SoCal to Long Island.
IM: Tell us about your music ministry position and what it involves. Do you have a basic theology of worship and music that you work by? How is that theology worked out practically in the life of the congregation’s worship and music?
MR: The church I am serving is a very evangelical congregation of the LCMS. We are a bit different in that we have four “service styles,” but we only have two services. We do them both the exact same each week, but they alternate styles from week to week. This is the first place I’ve been where I can honestly say we do a bit of everything, from folk to chant, CCM, chorales, and metrical psalms. It’s quite a playground for the exploring musician.
Truthfully, though, we only really have one service style, and only the music changes from week to week. One of things I have experimented with here is doing the Divine Service Liturgy, according to the Lutheran Service Book, using non-traditional musical styles. The music in our settings is surprisingly adaptable. So from week to week, our liturgy and musical setting (the ordinary) remains the same, whether we’re singing with an organ or cajon and waldzither. We have about four different bands that rotate to accompany the singing, and between the church and school there are about 3 choirs I direct. This doesn’t leave me too much time to practice my footwork on the organ, a skill this congregation has (very!) generously allowed me to learn on the job. In addition to teaching music at the parish school I also teach a Bible class.
I once heard a theologian say about worship, “Get your definition straight, because everything you do is going to flow out of what you understand worship to be.” Precision in this endeavor is no easy task, but the model I am currently working with is this: Worship is proclaiming, receiving, and responding to God’s free gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ. It’s a fairly Lutheran definition. Music has no part in this definition because it is not essential to the equation; you could worship God without it (though Jesus does tend to make people sing). Music is there in worship as a means to an end, and never the end itself. It serves the end of proclaiming Christ and and can also be a vehicle for responding to God’s self-giving in Him. There’s no magical power in the music, but there’s something to be said for the Augustine line, “He who sings prays twice.” I also lean heavily on his idea that if the sound of the singer is more moving than the truth being sung, it would be better not to hear the singer. The music is there to convey, emphasize and interpret text, concept, and message, not distract from them.
Practically, this means I start with the text. Both in the liturgy and song selection, the first decision being made is, “What words are being used?”, and more importantly, “which of God’s words will form the core of our gathering?” I try to keep the voice of God as primary in our assembly, so we start with the lectionary readings (or substitutes) and look for music that emphasizes their themes and our current position in the church year.
For me, song selection is of the utmost importance. As a pastoral musician, the songs I choose are the way in which I “pastor” the congregation I serve. Very few people have the responsibility of literally putting words in other peoples’ mouths. What am I giving them to say? What am I telling them to believe in? Quality songs can serve as tools to help people process their lives and find their place in the context of God’s narrative. Instead of using music to stir up emotions which may or may not be present, I would rather the sung text speak to the emotions people bring with them to worship. What kinds of song do people sing when they’re struggling with emotional pain? Frustrated, betrayed, physically ailing, or on their death bed? Singing good things can encourage in trials, bring emotional healing, inspire hope, and prepare us for death. There’s room for peppy, happy songs, as the Christian life can’t be completely joyless, but I try to emphasize poetry by pastoral theologians over jingles by rock stars. Lex cantate, lex credendi.
Songs edify when they point to Christ, not ourselves, and teach us rightly about God. The songs and words we use in worship have the potential to be a discipling force in our lives. Think about it: the mission of the church is NOT worship, even though missions exist because worship doesn’t. You might say that the whole universe exists to glorify God, but the church is to be about discipling. The “spiritually formative” aspect of worship happens when God’s Word is etched into our psyche through strategic repetition, truths about God are learned and internalized, and God’s people are taught how to pray. How we approach God corporately should give a picture of how we can relate to God individually, so I like to design worship with an eye to helping our church learn to pray.
One of my primary devices is to use as much material from the Lutheran Service Book as I can get away with. For a musician with my aims, having the resources within at my disposal make me a kid in a candy shop. I can’t say enough good things about the musical, theological, and literary beauty and depth of its selections and arrangements. It also happens to be among the most chronologically and culturally diverse collections in the Protestant world. The wealth of resources contained within make it a one stop shop for Christocentric doxology. I don’t anticipate getting bored with it before Concordia Publishing House makes another, but doggone it, I’m gonna try. The clip below is a silly, thrown-together example of how we like to have a little fun with some of its contents.
And generally speaking, I try to avoid songs about fire.
IM: You have been involved with both the contemporary evangelical church and the church from a historic tradition. How do they differ with regard to their understanding of the place of music in worship and the Christian life? How has exposure to both affected your perspectives as a church musician?
MR: While serving in Evangelical churches we rarely started planning worship with the text. We chose complete song sets often based on the subjective criteria of the “flow,” or emotional segue between service items. We wanted to start uppity, wind down to meditative before the sermon, and go out on a high note, kind of like an hourglass. I got the idea from a popular Evangelical book which encouraged the design of worship services based on the way it would make participants feel. (This was “planning for depth”.)
The Evangelical tradition seems to have a hard time articulating the distinction between worship and music. Aside from the cliche that “worship” has become a genre of music, when you push for a more substantive explanation, you’ll often hear things like “Worship is our whole life offered to God in obedience.” Feeding the poor and being a good husband are also acts of worship. This is all true, but it doesn’t help at all, because if everything is worship, than nothing is worship. It’s like saying “you’re completely unique and special, just like everybody else.”
The “Glorifying God” explanation route takes you the same place: God is glorified when we love him with our whole hearts and our neighbor as ourselves. This being the summary of the law, the problem is that evangelicals tend to approach worship entirely as law, or an act of obedience, something that we offer up to God. But just as we will never stop sinning, such an offering could never be good enough.
Instead, Jesus offers himself in our place, and gives the perfect worship to the Father that we never could. Because of His work on our behalf, we gather to receive the benefits of the salvation He accomplished on the cross for us. Receiving the gifts of God is the focus of Gospel-centered worship, which is what the traditions of the historic churches were designed to protect and convey.
Another reason music and worship get so inseparably linked is that Evangelicals tend to define worship in terms of experience. This may be due to the overwhelming influence of existential philosophy on post-modern culture (which, ironically, was pioneered by a Lutheran!). They come to church expecting to encounter God, and the means of verifying this encounter tend to be highly subjective, ranging from the shiver in your spine to the emotional rush brought on the the production, whether the message brought you to your knees with conviction or simply if the snake did not bite. (Even John Piper defines worship in terms of experience, and his theology is as far from touchy-feely as it gets!)
The main difference when worshiping in churches from a historic tradition is that they tend to be sacramental. Differing nuances aside, they believe that Christ comes to us in bread and wine whether we have any special experience or not. It’s a simple, objective way of finding God in the whisper rather than the earthquake or hurricane, the regular, not the extraordinary, hence the term “ordinary means of grace.” Any music in this ceremony is simply an adornment, meant to give voice to the gratitude God stirs up in our hearts or as a vehicle for proclaiming His word.
The two main things I have gained from my experience in the Evangelical church are; first, a thorough knowledge of the implementation of modern music styles in a worship service. As much as I now prefer more traditional music, in my current position those skills are being put to regular use.
The second thing I have walked away with is a keen awareness of the interaction between music and emotions. I get pretty irritated when I sense that music is being used to manipulate emotions, but at the same time I do not hold that the music of worship should be non-emotional. Going back to my thoughts on the theology of worship, emotion expressed in worship should be a response to revealed truth rather than something manufactured. I use this awareness in my current context as I attempt to create environments of exuberant participation in the new song of the redeemed soul.
IM: You say that, “My desire is to create art that is Biblically faithful, draws from the deep wells of the ancient church, and connects to the next generation.” That sounds like a tall order. Tell us how you are trying to do that in your church and school, how people are receiving it, and what challenges you face in trying to implement your vision.
MR: It’s really more of an ideal than achievable goal. Drawing from the wells of the ancient church is fairly easy; our denomination has done all the work for us and compiled a thorough anthology of it into one handy resource (the Lutheran Service Book). Of course, there’s always room to go beyond the confines of this superb collection in order to unearth some real gems, but there are more riches contained within than any one congregation is likely to ever mine. The great thing about this resource is that it is also rock solid reliable in terms of its Biblical faithfulness.
I’m a major proponent of incorporating the fine arts as much as you can. I don’t buy into this idea that classical music doesn’t speak to people. When Wagner, Pachelbel, and Mendelssohn get dropped from our weddings, I’ll consider the idea. I understand some churches would alienate more people than they befriend by going all classical, but I believe every church has something to gain from aggressively tackling at least some challenging music that requires finesse to pull off. It’s a great way to develop musical skill in any ensemble and expand the thinking, understanding, and technical vocabulary of the volunteer musicians. Plus, I don’t believe the sermon should be the only thing challenging the intellect in the service. It’s ok for the music to do this too, as long as it’s not to the extent that it becomes such a prominent feature that it’s a distraction.
One thing I don’t do, quite emphatically, is chase after what youth culture portrays as “cool” in an effort to appeal to their interests. Even if you can succeed at that, you still loose, especially when they catch on, and they’re getting smarter. Instead of forming the music ministry around what I perceive my desired audience wants to hear, I form it around the gifts and talents that our volunteer musicians bring to the table. I’m a huge proponent of collaborative creativity. I feel the result has been a more authentic and less contrived sound that is an accurate reflection of who we are as a congregation.
My observation is that youth don’t want to feel like you’re trying to sell them something, but they want to know that you genuinely care for them. My approach has always been to try to integrate them into the music life of the church. When they begin to take a bit of ownership over it, they contribute their own significant touch in a way that older people trying to sound like younger people cannot. Developing and seasoned musicians also have plenty to learn from one another, and so having youth through elderly serving alongside one another on the same team always reaps countless benefits. I’ve led music teams which included members from Jr. High through late seventies, with representation from nearly every generation in between. It’s multi-generational or bust with me, because I believe that our worship should bring families together, not split them apart. The young and old need each other in the church, and not just in a musical sense.
Ultimately, connecting with the next generation must be done on a relational level, regardless of what the music sounds like. If you create space in the creative processes to value their input, then the resulting sound will be in a language they can understand. But if I could teach one thing to the young and old alike, it’s to be considerate of others and try to understand how somebody different than you might be more comfortable worshiping, at least in terms of musical style.
Another way I works toward this comes from an observation I had a few years ago: In the tumultuous “worship wars” between generational preferences and theological traditions, quite often there is a lot of talking past one another in our differing camps. One of the way I noticed this happens is that the old people tend to be more interested in their beloved songs. When their sentimental repertoire becomes neglected, they begin to feel neglected. Young folks don’t think that way at all: They throw their own favorites away after a few years. They just don’t want to sing any song in a dull manner. You’d think the perfect compromise would be to play only old hymns and completely rock them out all the time. And in fact, this is a significant percentage of what we do, and it goes over fairly well with nearly everyone. The younger generation needs to know you’re not committed to cramming Baroque down their throats in the name of Jesus, so a little electric guitar with your chorale makes the medicine go down, in the most delightful way.
I don’t operate under the philosophy that church music and worship ought to be exciting all the time, but with all the good stuff we’ve got in 2000 years, I’ll be darned if it doesn’t just happen anyways on a regular basis.