If we thought the worship wars were over, we were wrong. Music in the church has rightfully become an ongoing conversation with an ever-changing landscape. With a plethora of discussions already had, whether it be on fog machines and strobe lights, hymnals and projected lyrics, traditional versus modern instrumentation, undoubtedly the task of defending the purity of worship in God’s church remains. Whether it’s the proper role of musical worship in the corporate gathering or whose songs we should and shouldn’t sing, there is necessary ground to defend. While we rightfully wage war against all that is heretical, attractional, and profane about music in the church today, there are basic priorities to which music ministries must return, perhaps abandoned in the skirmishes that have diverted our attention. Here are three principles to reorient our focus and priorities back on the local church ministry that happens in the context of music ministry:
1. Focus on the goals of effective music ministry, not just excellent music.
Music has the divinely designed ability to move and inspire us. There is something truly awe-inspiring about the formation of beautiful melodies, harmonies, and rhythms in music that is objectively excellent. It is particularly noteworthy when such excellent music, both ancient and modern, has been found within the local church. While there is no denying the importance of excellent music in the church, is a music ministry’s consistent output of excellent music enough to deem it successful? On its own, would excellent music—if even found in the peak form of flawless performance and state-of-the-art production—be sufficient to have accomplished the goals of a music ministry?
Consider Colossians 3:16–17, a passage that is hardly a robust philosophy of music ministry, but which gives a basic understanding of the goals of corporate worship:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
From these verses, a few simple goals for corporate worship can be formed—that a music ministry should endeavor to lead God’s people to (1) rehearse biblical truth in meaningful and memorable ways, (2) teach and admonish one another in the wisdom of God, and (3) worship God with hearts thankful for who He is and all that He has done. Is accomplishment of these goals aided—even accelerated by—excellent music? Absolutely. But can excellent music, in and of itself, accomplish these goals? Further, does movement toward these goals require excellent music? Certainly not. Indeed, effective music ministry benefits greatly when the quality of the music itself is high, but benefit must not be confused for absolute necessity. In other words, excellence must not be the sole driving force in a church’s music ministry.
Consider the churches around the world that have no orchestral instruments, a dialed-in sound system, or even a dusty set of hymnals. Yet the off-pitch, a cappella singing of God’s people in those churches achieves the goals of corporate worship far more successfully than many assume at first glance. Why? Because Christ is exalted, the Spirit is working, and God is glorified in the hearts of His people. Thus, while excellent music is an effective vehicle for biblical worship, we must beware of measuring success by only assessing the quality, style, or production value of music as the total sign of effectiveness.
Colossians 3:17 shows us what the rest of Scripture also tells us about worship, that true worship is a matter of the heart and includes all of life (Romans 12:1–2), and that God seeks worshipers who worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23–24).
The purest form of worship is worship that occurs in the human heart—not stirred up primarily by excellent music, but by a comprehension of biblical truth that leads to a heart response of worship to God.
Corporate worship, and thus effective music ministry, is a microcosm of the wider reality that is the Christian life. Thus, we should indeed seek to lead the musical aspect of corporate worship as excellently as we possibly can, but we must not let musical perfection be the venomous goal that takes priority over the vertical and horizontal goals of music ministry found in Scripture.
2. Focus on ministry to people, not just the utility of musicians.
Music ministry, like all other ministries in the church, should be a venue in which people are built up in their love for and commitment to the church. Sadly, it is the honest reality in many local churches that music ministry instead puts the cart before the horse in that we use, involve, and even hire musicians before we ever consider their involvement in or posture toward the local church. If the priority driving a music ministry is excellent music (and excellent music requires excellent musicians, no matter the literal and spiritual cost) or perhaps the catchy arrangements and nuanced instrumentation of a worship band (and modern worship sets require lots of practice time and copious amounts of reverb), then a music ministry will bend over backwards to cater to that priority—even at the expense of the very people involved. Week in and week out, significant time and effort is required of people in service to the greater good that is the success of pulling off whatever music is placed in front of them. As a result, many a church musician would likely find his or her primary identity as a worship leader, lead vocalist, or rhythm electric guitarist over and above that of a member of the body of Christ or a living stone in God’s house.
So how do we revive the ecclesiological heart of music ministry? We must take a hard, honest look at what structural or functional aspects of a music ministry might be taking priority over the church’s basic responsibilities to evangelize, disciple, and equip people. To avoid “having to go acoustic” for a few weeks, does a seemingly urgent need for a drummer take precedent over what would normally be a case for encouraging that same person to attend the church regularly or get involved in discipleship? Is the length of band rehearsal affecting musicians’ ability to minister well to their families, or the frequency of service opportunities detrimental to consistent involvement in a neighborhood fellowship group? It is easy to fall into the headhunt for musicians, trading pastoral priorities for that of a talent scout. Is basic local church function being sacrificed at the altar of a “perfect” music ministry?
Whether it be the creative demands of the desired instrumentation for a certain week, the high level of commitment needed from volunteer musicians, or the pressure and expectations of production quality placed on the audio-visual team, we must beware of the professionalization of music ministry that can so easily place a strain on the spiritual well-being of all involved. The “people” aspect of music ministry is best anchored by an emphasis not only on the musical abilities of the individuals involved, but by instilling the same simple standards set for other ministry responsibilities in the church, whether it be that of nursery workers or the senior pastor. Music ministry suffers when it is allowed to be the exception to the biblical convictions we so carefully apply to other ministries in the church, because it affirms those nonchalantly involved yet musically gifted among us instead of challenging them. Music has been and can be a gateway into the church for deeper friendships and discipleship opportunities, but green-room-only involvement ought not be the institution it has become in the church.
If as local churches we are developing an overall philosophy of ministry firmly rooted in Scripture, priorities like sitting under the preaching of God’s Word, church membership, and involvement in discipleship ought to be especially pertinent to those involved in helping lead the corporate gathering. A church’s music ministry must constantly be pressing these ecclesiological commitments on its musicians. The fact that creative people are drawn to exhibit their musical talents in a way that often supersedes their commitment to the body of Christ should cause us not to constantly push the envelope in ways that are beyond the means of the local church, but to instead seek to build a modest team of musicians who exhibit a love for our Savior with their lives even better than they do with their music.
3. Focus on developing good worship leaders, not just filling the position.
In churches that rightly regard the preaching of the Word of God highly, establishing and equipping good leadership in music ministry is often of relatively low importance. It is a sad reality that the “music guy” is practically a trope for inevitable ministry failure and that biblically minded, humble, and musically talented worship leaders are a rare breed. Yet somehow within preaching-first churches, the development of music ministry leaders plays second fiddle to other more “urgent” and overtly spiritual pastoral priorities in the church.
To begin with, music ministry leaders tend to be selected for far more pragmatic reasons than we would like to admit. In many churches, the baseline requirements for a music minister are entirely musical in nature: the individual with the best classical music pedigree, ability to lead a choir, and a preference for hymnals, Bach, and Brahms. In other cases, pastors choose the first person they can find enrolled in the systematic theology class who owns a Taylor guitar and has a willingness to do their musical bidding—inevitably, the guy who is perpetually a potential seminarian. However he is chosen, the music ministry leader is then tasked with simply taking care of the musical needs of the corporate worship service, often isolated from any meaningful connection as to the pastoral direction of the church other than next Sunday’s theme or a special request for the closing song.
To expository preachers, music ministry and music ministry leaders can tend to be in the “set it and forget it” category—that is, of course, until there is a quirky lyric in the new song or yet another request to upgrade expensive gear that makes it to the pastor’s desk. Yet in many ways, music ministry leaders face temptations and struggles similar to those of preachers—dealing with the preparation and pride of ministering up front on a weekly basis, juggling ministry responsibilities with other time commitments, and learning to lead people effectively.
What music ministers and worship leaders need most is to be consistently mentored and equipped by their pastors. Whether it’s a seasoned music minister or a guitar-toting worship leader, pastors would do well to make significant and intentional investment in music ministry leaders’ development as spiritual leaders, both in the sphere of music ministry and in other areas of life. They need personal discipleship and accountability just like everyone else in the church, and they need to be challenged to be an integral part of the church’s 2 Timothy 2:2 endeavor of being entrusted with biblical truth and faithfully entrusting it to others. For pastors, regular time spent with the worship leader to discuss ministry, express appreciation, and keep watch over his soul is time well spent.
If there’s anything to be learned from the resurgence of the worship wars, it’s that music in the church can be an attraction or distraction far more controversial than necessary. Amidst the battles worth fighting, we must keep our feet firmly planted in the local church ministry of music ministry. If we carefully chose and discipled godly, gifted leaders who consistently picked beautiful, truth-filled tunes, arranged them in engaging ways, and partnered with a ministry team of musicians to whom excellence is a humble, Godward pursuit, we might be more successful in our pursuit of true, Colossians 3 worship.