Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Your music works for you

College Church in Wheaton is in an interim between Senior Pastors. An excellent search committee is working with due diligence, including bringing in people with expertise and experience to shed light on the process, the challenges, and the realities of finding a senior preaching pastor for a large influential independent evangelical church with some interesting latitude in non-essential doctrines and practices. (Now there’s a mouthful and an understatement!)

In a recent report to the church elder council, the search committee chairman related the following comments from one of these wise counselors (who was kept anonymous):
“Your music works for you” – that is, the music of College Church’s gathered worship is not typical and we may not find a pastor who comes from a ministry with similar musical commitments.
And “Will the music in your services be this way 15 years from now?” – the implication being, I gather, that we had better be prepared for change.

Now, I have no idea if the music of College Church presents, or will present, any real obstacle to the willingness of a potential senior pastor candidate. Experience and anecdote suggest that incoming senior pastors routinely exercise direct influence on public worship, especially music. And they are not always able to articulate when they take the position, what that influence might be. Perhaps, to be as positive as possible about it, senior pastors come into position with completely open minds about a church’s music, and only develop their concept of change over time after careful evaluation, thoughtful conversation, and much prayer. No, I think it is unlikely that our given historical and traditional use of music in worship will be a genuine stumbling block to a potential candidate.

But the comments do suggest an understanding of music in the church that needs to be evaluated, exposed, and challenged.
“Your music” – as if the historic hymnody and sacred music of the Church is somehow unique to College Church; as if there is no continuity between the recent and distant past, the very current present, and the near future in regard to the peoples’ song, sung theology. “Your music” – at least as related in the anecdote – has the ring of condescension or accusation.
“Will it be the same 15 years from now” – suggests that only by abandoning the past can a church move credibly into the future. Realistically, only if we insist on keeping our music as a museum piece could it possibly be the same 15 years from now. It is not the same now as it was 12 years ago, when I came into this position. But someone who left the church 13 years ago, coming back, would recognize the same music ministry. The trajectory of the ministry guarantees that. Tradition is handing on, not holding on. We sing newer songs and different choral music … along with older hymns and music that was bought for this choir over 70 years ago. We have abandoned some hymns and sent some octavos to the recycler. We have declined to sing other new songs and refused to purchase some popular choral music. The question about 15 years from now is: “Will the congregational and performed music of our public services still be upward, reverent, joyful, Bible-based and Christ-focused?” If there is nothing different, we will have failed to pass on the tradition. If everything is different, we will have failed by abandoning the riches of the historic, global and ecumenical Church.

One of my interns related a similar comment, from the music pastor of his home church: “Hymns are no longer the music of the church.” There is a world of material in that assertion, which I will try to get at another time. I mention it now because it comes from the same apparent mindset as our pastoral search committee anecdote:
Hymns are no longer the music of the church – They still work for you – But 15 years from now if you are to be a viable church you, too, will have abandoned hymns, sacred classical music, and choirs.

I know that my work in the church will ultimately be judged on the basis of stewardship – in light of this discussion, specifically the stewardship of the history and tradition of the music of the Church and of this church’s gathered worship. Will I hand my successor a carefully curated, protected exhibit of the way evangelicals used to worship? Or a vague blank slate to be filled in with the worship du jour? As a steward, let me pass on a living worship ministry with vibrant ties to the past and growing connections to the future!

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