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A Year to Remember: Reflection on a study leave

This past year was one of the most invigorating enjoyable, and exhausting years I have spent for a long time. In the March 1997 issue (RW 43:2) T wrote that I was on a partial study leave to deal with a number of questions:

  • What is a healthy balance between the church music of the past and more contemporary expressions of worship?
  • How important are "worship teams" to worship life today?
  • What is a good role for a worship team?
  • How are worship teams best nurtured, developed, and led to take place alongside—rather than replace—traditional organ and choral music?

I knew that reading books and attending conferences would be helpful but not enough. My plan was to work half time in the office; spend about a quarter time as music director at my home church, Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church; and about a quarter time visiting other churches. The timing coincided with needs at my church, so I jumped in.

A Transitional Year at Eastern Avenue

The highlight of the year was my work at Eastern Avenue. Our congregation went through a major self-study (the Congregational Master Plan prepared by the Home Missions agency of the Christian Reformed Church). On the basis of a comprehensive survey involving every aspect of church life, we developed a vision statement and then made plans based on that statement. My contribution was only a small piece of an effort involving many people.

My duties included directing the adult choir; playing the organ for two morning services a month; and coordinating the participation of other organists, pianists, and a wealth of instrumentalists our congregation is blessed with. Someone else coordinated our contemporary ensemble and scheduled musicians for evening services. We wanted to encourage musically talented members of the congregation to offer their gifts in worship in ways that fit in with overall worship planning.

The key to coordinating all those efforts was a weekly Tuesday afternoon meeting of a core group of worship planners—the pastor and (usually) three musicians; two with classical backgrounds and one with more experience and knowledge of the contemporary scene. Plans began with the preaching schedule, outlining themes and/or Scripture passages, which was distributed three or four months in advance. We were on our own for studying that Scripture and then poring over choir music, hymns, contemporary songs, children's songs, and collections of prayers from a variety of hymnals and other resources, including Reformed Worship.

Preparing for those meetings took me at least two hours a week. At issue were not only musical, but also liturgical, theological, and pastoral issues. We wanted every element of the service not only to fit liturgi-cally but also to tie in some way to the Scripture for the day. For every service we tried to include some older familiar hymns as well as newer songs, some filled with content and others simple enough for children, some led by the organ and others by piano or our small ensemble.

It took a few months before we found a good working pattern; after working as a committee of the whole, we gradually arrived at the point where one person—usually the pastor, sometimes myself, eventually others as well—took the lead in considering all the ideas, drafting the service for review by the whole group, and then fine-tuning during the final week. (To request a copy of a newsletter article in which Rev. Mary Antonides explains the process of worship planning for the entire congregation, send an SASE to Reformed Worship, 2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49560 or e-mail us at commered@crcna.org.)

There was certainly enough work for a half-time worship/music director/coordinator. In fact, the position could easily become full time if he or she added the following to the duties described above:

  • Practice the organ and piano regularly, developing skills and repertoire.
  • Attend choral workshops and evaluate the reams of choral music coming off the presses.
  • Attend contemporary worship workshops and evaluate the reams of contemporary songs coming off the presses.
  • Prepare arrangements of instrumental parts so more congregational members can participate.
  • Expend creative energy in composing a descant or an alternative harmonization for a hymn.

The list could go on. But finding one person who could fill such a diverse job description would be very difficult, and last year at Eastern other staffing needs took priority. In a sense I'm disappointed. In another sense, I'm intrigued by the new directions our congregation has taken. It was my hope that spending more concentrated efforts in both worship planning and music leadership would help sort out a direction for future staffing. And indeed, a year later, we have stepped out into some new directions.

Moving from Two to Three Services

For Sunday mornings we stayed with one service, embracing all the diversity in the congregation. The congregational survey indicated deep appreciation for the thematic unity and musical variety involving many different members in the morning service. There was virtually no interest in splitting into distinct morning services.

The survey did indicate a strong desire for more attention to youth ministries. In an unusual decision, our congregation voted to add a second evening service, one geared specifically to youth (grades six through twelve) with more concentrated emphasis on teaching, fellowship, and worship led by our pastor and an ensemble of song leader, keyboard, bass guitar, and drums. A separate vesper service for adults meets at the same time.

For the morning service, different people are involved—and paid—to play the organ or piano and direct the choir. A new part-time worship coordinator is responsible for all the scheduling for the morning and vesper services, including the large number of instrumentalists and the worship team—none of whom are paid. For the youth service, another worship coordinator was hired, along with a keyboard player who could lead us into new directions. The bass player and drummer are volunteers.

The result is a patchwork quilt of part-time music staff that calls forth many in the congregation to offer their musical gifts in the service of worship. That may be the best for now. But what we have are busy people with a high level of commitments elsewhere willing for this year to carve out a niche in their schedules to piece together all the areas that need to be covered. Can this be a long-term solution?

Searching for a New Directions

Relatively few congregations in the Reformed tradition have salaried staff positions in music. Relatively few Reformed congregations have contributed significant church music composers either. Our hymnals and choir libraries and organ books are filled with contributions from Anglican and Lutheran and some evangelical sources. The Reformed tradition has excelled in producing theologians, philosophers, and educators—not composers.

Sometimes I get calls from people who feel called to a church music ministry position. They wonder where they can receive an education and training where not only music but the theology of music and worship are studied from a Reformed perspective. Where can they go to be rooted in the rich and historic tradition of organ and choral music and at the same time be given the kind of tools not only to lead, but also to discern the strengths and weaknesses of new music coming from many different traditions?

Is it possible for one person to be well-enough versed in both historic and contemporary church music that he or she can do both? Perhaps. There are many traditionally traired church musicians who have willingly taken up the challenge and stretched in the past few years. There are others who, for one reason or another, cannot or will not change; they end up frustrated, even bitter, sometimes quitting. There are some churches that make impossible demands of their musicians, or swing on a pendulum in hopes of filling the pews by changing the music— and the music director. There is real pain among career church musicians today.

These questions—and not a little of the pain—will sound very familiar to pastors. The same dynamics for change have created new challenges for the pastorate, but at least pastors have reasonable expectations in pursuing a career as well as a calling. We are finding new meaning in the word leadership, understanding that pastors don't have to "do it all" but can equip others to minister. The same needs to be true of pastoral musicians. One person can't "do it all."

Both pastors and music directors need to model from positions of musical, theological, liturgical, and pastoral strength. Musicians need some theology, and ministers need some education in music, if only to understand the issues that are not so easily separated in worship.

A Very Hopeful New Beginning:
The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship

Neither Reformed seminaries nor college music departments have kept pace with changes in society and pew. But that may begin to change. I'd like to end on a very bright note, with an announcement some of you may already have heard. A new interdisciplinary Institute of Christian Worship has begun its inaugural year at Calvin College and Seminary. Dr. John Witvliet, frequent contributor to Reformed Worship (see p. 11), has just been appointed director of the Institute, with faculty status in the Music Department as well as adjunct faculty status in the Religion Department of the college and at Calvin Theological Seminary. That is just the kind of interdisciplinary approach that provides hope for a more integrated approach to dealing with worship issues. I am tremendously excited and hopeful about the potential for this Institute to provide direction for the future (see p. 46 for more details)

I'm well aware that I haven't answered all the questions raised at the beginning of this editorial. Those questions are enough to keep both Reformed Worship and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship busy for a long time—along with all the pastors and musicians who attempt each week to provide faithful service to God and to their congregations.