Pastors Speak Out on Music and Worship

For this 2007 luncheon discussion, ACM Founder, Vince Treadway, extended a special invitation to pastors so that they could add their perspective to the questions at hand.

Vince Treadway: I’m going to get our discussion going because I know your time is precious. I did ask our pastors who are not here to respond to the questions that you have before you on the sheet that was on your place mat so I’ll start by dealing with the first question. “What is the most important thing, from a pastor’s point of view, to be accomplished by the musicians and worship leaders?” The response that I got from one of our pastors was to focus our hearts and minds on the Lord and His worship. So we’ll start our discussion there, and first I would like to hear from our pastors.

Pastor Matthew Pieters: I think that I would say almost exactly that answer in just different words. Music is a heavenly thing. It is a gift from God that is beautiful and glorious, and I see the role of the musicians and worship leaders, through the beauty and wonder of music, to lead us directly into the throne room of God that we can adore Him. It is very similar to the answer that was given by another pastor. I don’t know which pastor gave that, but I really like it.

Pastor Len Stewart: Well, I can tell you my thoughts. I agree with that, obviously, to lead us in focusing upon the Lord Jesus Christ. I think that along with that, the music leaders and the music in the church should help the worshiper engage in worship, not just to focus on it in his thoughts but to actually focus on the Lord by worshiping with his voice and everything that he is. So I believe that the leadership of music in the worship should help people themselves get involved in singing to the Lord and in offering up their own participation in the music.

I say that because I think we live in a culture where often church is a spectator thing, where the music is wonderful and helps us focus on the Lord, but we are spectators. The big problem before the Reformation was that you came to church, and you were a spectator, and the priests worshiped, and you watched. Sometimes I worry that we drift back into that if it becomes a sacred concert rather than the people themselves really being led into singing with their own voices. I feel that we should help these folks coming to worship to really sing and get involved in the music in worship.

Pastor Stuart Sacks: I think also, in conjunction with these things, all of which are valid, that we need to hear aesthetically excellent music. We should strive to produce the highest quality music that we are capable of producing, and I think that beauty itself is preeminently expressed in the person of God. Something of that beauty will also be conducive in helping us to focus on God more completely. I was speaking to a pastor the other day, and he said, “I am so tired of bad preaching, mediocre preaching, where the pastor really hasn’t spent a lot of time preparing; he hasn’t crafted his message; he’s just doing it.” And I think the same can be said of music. I remember Bob Elmore when I was at Tenth Presbyterian Church and how he, an extraordinary musician, organist, and choir director, would painstakingly work on something as simple as the hymns to be sure that they were being produced with a view to being true to the text and the musical content. So that’s another perspective.

Pastor Matthew Pieters: May I ask a question related to that? Do you see a difference between leading people in worship and actual corporate worship? My question is related to, I guess, the directional focus of our activity. If we are attempting to embrace the congregation to take them somewhere, then we think about the congregation. If we are in the act of worship, then we are, in a sense, selfless in our awareness of the people or even the place. So I’m just wondering about the most important things. Is leading something that we do to get to worship?

Pastor Len Stewart: Along those lines, this is interesting because when you watch somebody worshiping who is truly involved in the worship, a pastor or music leader, and you see how they are taken off in worship, that is an example that brings other people along, you know? You learn by doing; you learn by watching others do it too, and I think that leaders have to be an example before the people of prayer and meditation and exaltation. I think there is the modeling that has to go on like the disciples watching Jesus pray, and they said teach us to pray like that because they saw Him praying in a way they didn’t know how to pray. So I think your point is a very interesting point.

Vince Treadway: Well, it’s a difficult thing. I think that’s an excellent question to ask, and I find it challenging, most of the time, to really worship, because I am thinking about what is coming next and being ready so that there isn’t a big hole of time and making sure I have the right piston pushed, and I’m on the right level of memory, and I’ve got the right anthem up there, so that I’m not really fully engaged in what is going on in terms of the worship aspect. So it’s hard.

Dr. Ron Matthews: I won’t argue that. I want to ask if maybe you are even more engaged because you don’t need an emotional confirmation or a mental confirmation that you are in worship, totally absorbed, and you can’t even think about yourself. Could that be another way to view it so that it is not even about how you, in a sense, respond or feel? I’m just throwing that out as another option because it could be that. I mean we are so subtle in how we can manipulate the experience and interpret the experience as being valid because I felt it or because I’ve thought it, and His Spirit may be something more than that. Therefore, the total preoccupation about serving others, the same thing, the technical, that could be maybe the freest, purest, most abandoned moment in life because you are totally out of yourself. I don’t know. I’m just raising it as a possibility.

Jack Charles: I wonder, Vince, when I am on vacation and go to church, I sit there and I think I wouldn’t have used that trumpet at that point because it was just a little bit too much, and it overwhelmed him, and he’s playing this too slow or too fast. So I don’t really worship awfully well when I listen to others because I am constantly sitting there having a busman’s holiday and outguessing. And then I’m thinking that’s not why you are here. Pay attention!

The greatest frustration for me is this. Three years ago we lost both pastors at the same time, and the interim said to me, “Music is your spiritual gift, not mine. Take care of everything, liturgy and hymns.” He never, never made any suggestions, not even to his sermon hymns. I wish he would have. But what I soon discovered was that here is this little gang who would like to do all 12 of Martin Luther’s hymns on the Lord’s Prayer, all 12 stanzas, and here is this little group who wants much more contemporary, and here’s this group who wants the old traditional “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” kind of hymns, and here are those who want the English ones. And so I immediately asked for requests and then, in the little column I write every month in the magazine of the church, I said, “You’ll notice that some of the requests weren’t the ones that you would have requested.”

If I were a pastor looking out at my parish, I would wonder sometimes as I would see a certain little group really enthusiastically engaged and some other people saying, “That’s it for me!” Choosing the music is the great frustration when you have such a diversity in a parish.

Vince Treadway: I think we can all say amen to that.

Vince Treadway: Well, let’s go on to question two. How are the most important goals in worship accomplished, that is, focusing our hearts and minds on the Lord by engaging in aesthetically excellent worship? One of our pastors said, “ By moving the hearts and minds of God’s people with good biblical content and forms of music that stir their hearts and emotions.” That’s one viewpoint.

Pastor Matthew Pieters: I think that it is no secret that I come from a younger generation, and the most important characteristic that the younger generation looks for is authenticity. What I find is that authenticity and excellence come head to head way too often. I was listening to someone on the radio who said, “This thing is so important to do that it’s worth doing badly.” And all the hair on the back of my neck and head just bristled, like I was a cat, because that is exactly wrong from my point of view. If anything is worthwhile doing, you should do it with excellence. If you do things sloppily, then no one’s going to care, and hearts won’t be moved. But if you do things with excellence, you can put off people who think that those are the professionals up there playing the music, and we’re listening, and we kind of vicariously get their worship or something.

I think that you best deal with this tension between authenticity and excellence by explaining a little bit, either in written form or in a short explanation. Some of the best things that I’ve seen from musicians were when they said, “ Now this piece is about sin, and sin is not a popular term, but it’s something that we all need to grapple with because we know we all fail deeply and need to be connected to God. So pour out your heart to the Lord as He forgives you for your sin.” And all of a sudden, the whole congregation is going, “So that’s what this piece is about,” and they are led. I think that a brief exhortation or explanation of what the music is about will help alleviate these tensions. That approach has been tremendously helpful for me.

Vince Treadway: Just to touch on that authenticity point that you made– I think authenticity in regard to music means that you do the music as the music should be done, that is, not try to make it something that it isn’t for the sake of placating, but to let it be what it is and in that particular form. Do it with authenticity and excellence. I know in my own case I try to water things down so that perhaps it is less offensive to certain people, and by doing so, it becomes perhaps less offensive to some and more offensive to others because you’re not doing that music the way it really should be done. That is just wrong. That’s one of the things my daughter says, “That’s just wrong, Dad.” So you can’t do certain kinds of music on certain instruments and sing them in a certain way and be authentic. That’s part of this authenticity/excellence thing that we have to consider.

Pastor Matthew Pieters: Actually, I can think of an example that would work really well. I was in a chapel at a Christian college, and there was a medieval piece that was being played. At least it sounded medieval to me, something that Monty Python would play in the background on The Search for the Holy Grail. There was a bassoon, a French horn, and a few others. I think it was a quartet, and they explained where the piece of music came from and how it glorified God, and they played it exactly the way it was composed to be played. So they had that high degree of authenticity and excellence that you are talking about. I was drawn into worship because I understood the piece. I don’t usually listen to that kind of music, but I found myself able to worship God.

Vince Treadway: And on the opposite end of that spectrum would be a praise song done with pipe organ and an operatic voice. It just doesn’t work.

Jack Charles: I’ll tell you what I was thinking with what Matthew said. When I was a very young man, I attended the big Lutheran church in Norristown back in the days when Norristown was a real class act. At the church was a man by the name of John Duddy. You know the name Bradley Duddy; that’s John’s son. Every single week, he put in a little column called “Worship Through Music.” I have done that ever since. Now sometimes weeks and weeks will go by and nobody will say anything, or else somebody will come up and say, “You know, you said he was at that cathedral. I was in that cathedral. I sat down in the pew, and I never felt so close to God, but you brought that feeling back to me because I remembered where he worshiped.” Now just on Palm Sunday, someone who has never commented on the music– I played Richard Purvis– came up to me and said, “You told me to look into the hymnbook and I did and I read the words to the hymn on which that music was based, and in that middle section, that’s so spooky, the hymn says that Christ’s cross shines forth with mystic glow.” So I firmly recommend to musicians that they just put in a little paragraph about the music that they play. The really important thing is that over the years it has helped people see that I see music as a ministry, and I play some pretty austere, unusual compositions.

Pastor Len Stewart: What has meant a lot to me is when musicians accompany the singing in the church. For instance, we have handbells. I love handbells whatever they do. But when they accompany us in our singing and we are together, it is not about them performing for us; it’s about us together performing for God. That is far more meaningful to me. There are people in our church who want to sing more, but I think our people need to learn how to worship by watching others do the singing and others doing the music. I don’t know how to get rid of that tension.

Dominic Mattioni: What do you think of applause? I think it’s great encouragement for the young ones, but sometimes they’ll applaud if we have a guest soloist.

Pastor Len Stewart: Well, it necessarily brings attention to what was just done, which often is a performance, even though it might be for the glory of God that we are applauding. I can’t judge. It’s a distraction to me.

Dr. Ron Matthews: In the past I think that for the Church of the Saviour’s Christmas programs, which are always kind of a big community outreach, they would legislate that clapping wouldn’t occur until maybe the end. The only problem with that is there is a certain aesthetic, human response of engagement, for which, it would be really nice to give people discretion. So last year we decided to try it, and in the very beginning Tom Walsh, one of the pastors, did a great job by saying, “There are going to be some pieces where you’ll probably want to clap, and if you’re sensitive to one another and to the moment, you have the freedom to clap. There are other pieces that are going to be more reflective, more introspective, and I would hope that you would have the discretion to know that you don’t have to clap and probably shouldn’t clap.” With that little one-minute thing, part of a general welcome in the framing of the program, it was amazing how sensitive people were. They really did, in fact, think about the music.

Jack Charles: St. Luke’s had a “clapitis” period. At one Church Music Sunday service, after the Cherubs sang a cute little piece, everybody applauded. The Juniors sang another cute little piece and everybody applauded. But the Youth Choir sang something very difficult and very profound, and they really nailed the piece. There was dead silence. The Juniors were devastated, so at the next choir rehearsal I said, “ No, no, no. I think the point was you led the people to worship the Lord, which is what I’ve been telling you is the point of your music.” The next Sunday, though, I stood up and told the congregation exactly what they had done and said, “ If you really want to help my ministry here, when the children are finished singing and they are on their way to Sunday School, would you please tell them that they focused your heart on the Lord.
Don’t applaud. Talk to them individually. That will do far more to get them into the frame of mind that I want them to be in when they sing.” And for the most part, there is not too much more applause at St. Luke’s. Once in a while it breaks forth when the little kids sing by themselves, but, of course, clapping can come back. It’s like cancer as far as I’m concerned.

Vince Treadway: The third question is: What do you think is the greatest challenge in the pastor-musician relationship?

Pastor Matthew Pieters: I was told by a very wise pastor that the two most difficult jobs in the church are the youth pastor and the music director or music pastor. The reason is because everybody has about ten opinions of what needs to be said, and they will go to the pastor over the musician. That creates a tension among the leaders, things can fester, break down, and destroy worship.

Dr. Stuart Sacks: You are really fortunate when you have a pastor who has musical sensitivity. Not all of them do, and I think it’s a sad situation when you get into a place where the pastor says, “I don’t know anything about music; it’s all in your court; you take it; you run with it.” It’s still theoretically, if not actually, the case that there are pastors who are trying to serve the Lord, but they really don’t have an appreciation for music. There is very little in seminary that gives a budding pastor an orientation that would be helpful. I think that perhaps to a greater degree now some courses are being offered in some places. It takes a lot of patience on the part of a musician who is a professional, has studied music all his life, and is trying to bring the best he can to the worship experience.

Dr. Ron Matthews: At the heart of the tension of the American church, which is part of an organism but is also an organization, you have people with business models that also represent political power relationships, and you go to the highest person with whom you can negotiate.

In a church where I was not led to go but had a luncheon with the pastor, this comment was offered: “I don’t know a thing about music, but I know what the people like.” In that one comment, he was essentially saying there was going to be a power relationship there that perhaps would be based on ignorance and popularity. It didn’t seem healthy to me.

In a church where I had the privilege of serving for just about 25 years, there were lots of different age groups. Even though there were competing aesthetic musical interests and all of that, we made a decision among the staff, which was the senior pastor, associate pastor, and myself, that we were just going to sit together and think together and plan the worship together. That meant that I brought them into music, and they brought me into their sermons, and it was fabulous. I talked to Vince about that season of my life where the delight of being able to say that there was no way for people to attack was just wonderful. People would oftentimes come to me and ask, “What did you think of the sermon?” It was so great saying, “That sermon was already preached to me this week during our planning meeting. The pastor gave us a 15-minute synopsis.” People would go to the pastor and say, “Can we do more of this?” He would say, “We plan every service together so if you have ideas, please see Ron. He’s really open to everything.” It was so amazing that there was no way to penetrate the unity, and for whatever that’s worth, if there’s a way to get that, I would say it is worth it.

Pastor Len Stewart: So in order to have that kind of unity, you need to have a philosophy of ministry where you match and where you agree together on the philosophy of the worship and the ministry. That’s something to be worked at. That’s really great.

Vince Treadway: And you plan it together. That is ideal.

Pastor Len Stewart: How much time does it take to do that joint planning session, and when did you do it in the week?

Dr. Ron Matthews: We did it on Tuesday morning. We would take 45 minutes together, and then we found out that we actually liked each other, and we started to include administration in that so we ended up spending a 9:30 to 11:15 block of time Tuesday morning. The opening part of it was devoted to worship planning, prayer, and everything for Sunday. Then we put the administration after that because the tendency is to put administration first. We tried to correct that from the very outset and keep our spiritual focus.

Vince Treadway: How can the pastor/musician relationship be solidified in order to better deal with complaints? Ron, you gave one excellent suggestion. What about the situation where that kind of thing isn’t possible? How can we deal with complaints and solidify our vision and our purpose so that we create this impenetrable, unified ministry?

Jack Charles: An interim, whom I thought was golden, scolded the congregation about triangulation and said, “You really need to speak to the musician first and then, if he gives you a smart answer or you don’t like what he said, come to me or then go to a council member.” That stopped it.

Vince Treadway: In the church that I served previously, someone went to the pastor and said, “Who chooses the hymns in this church? They are the worst hymns I’ve ever heard in my life.” And the pastor said, “ Vince is in his office. Let’s go talk to him right now.” And the person said, “I don’t need to do that.” The pastor replied, “Yes, we do. We are going.” And he physically took the person into my office. That was the end of that problem. The people knew that was going to happen and I, for one, am glad to have people tell me their concerns because it gives me an opportunity to tell them that this hymn wasn’t chosen because I like it necessarily.

I’m sure that most of us here don’t choose our favorites, because if we did, they would be very different – more medieval with smells and bells. But we choose what we think is appropriate and what is going to glorify God, and best set the text and direct people’s hearts to worship. We also consider all the diversity in the congregation and try to hit everything as best we can.

Jack Charles: Perhaps it’s an opportunity for that person to meet with you, and you say, “This is what the lesson was about; this is what I knew the sermon was going to be about; but give me your favorites. I will put them next to my planning book and consider them.” You know us Lutherans, we have this wonderful guide that tells us exactly what the liturgical year is about and what, no doubt, the sermon will be about, so we can plan for six months ahead and pretty much hit the nail on the head with what the pastor’s going to preach about.

Pastor Len Stewart: Well, I think it just has to be that basic commitment that both pastor and musician agree together in a covenant that is communicated: that we will be united, we will work out differences in philosophy, and keep working at it all the time.

Vince Treadway: I have been in past situations where the pastor, clueless about music, gathered all of the worship to himself and would not relinquish any part of it to anybody. It made my job extremely difficult to try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak. I know that there are situations like that now, even among our members in ACM, where they are being forced to do things that they musically do not think work. So any of your thoughts and suggestions about how that might be rectified would be appreciated, I’m sure, by those who deal with that problem.

Pastor Matthew Pieters: I know that God changes people’s hearts, and I’ve seen enough miracles in my own heart, and in the hearts and lives of a lot of people, that I know things can be changed. But a lot of times when people are in those situations, it’s because they have years and years of patterned responses that are ungodly. In response to pain, fear and anxiety they feel the need to hold on, or maybe there are pride issues involved.

I think if anyone were to face a situation like that, the first priority would be to pray for that person and to try to have a conversation that might not address that head on but would develop a relationship and avenue of communication. Whenever I have seen someone that is that aggressive, to simply approach that person, even if you are doing it prayerfully and even humbly, you hit a glass wall and it hurts right here, right on your forehead!

Jack Charles: I worked with one pastor who was bipolar. I figured it out fairly soon because I did crisis intervention SAP with the high school so I had a lot of counseling training and was able to identify problems. He finally, when he left, admitted it to me, but talk about that wall! It had barbs coming out of it. You were scarred if you went there so you just learned you didn’t go there, and nobody in the congregation figured it out because his manic side came out when he stood in front of the congregation, and then the depression hit when he walked away.

Vince Treadway: Well, we’re a little over time. I hope this has been a helpful conversation, and if you are not in the situation where these are big issues, perhaps you can minister to those who don’t have very nice situations. Thank you all for coming today. So why don’t I close in a word of prayer, and then you are welcome to stay and chat as long as you like.