To Your Very Good Health: Diagnosing and treating common liturgical maladies

In a culture obsessed with health, it is perhaps too tempting to describe everything in terms of health. But health-related metaphors are easily understood and often are illuminating—the kind of metaphors that communicate well in church newsletters and choir bulletins.

They also have a long history in the Christian tradition. The God of Israel was described as “the Lord who heals you” (Ex. 15:26). Jesus came not for the well, but for the sick (Mark 2:17). Saint Benedict advised that abbots were like “wise physicians” who addressed the spiritual maladies of those in his care (Rule of St. Benedict, chap. 27). Health and disease is one ancient model for thinking about our spiritual lives.

And that goes not just for individuals but for congregations. In fact, “congregational health” is the subject of a spate of recent books and articles. The point of this literature is simply that congregations are habitats for spiritual disease. They need good spiritual hygiene. And for healing, much depends on accurate diagnosis and apt remedies.

Significantly, those of us who work in the area of worship function at one of the most susceptible parts of the churchly anatomy for contracting disease. So join me for a brief brainstorm session about the most typical forms of disease that affect our work.

Diseases of “Liturgical Ends and Means”

Worship is about God’s coming to us through Word and sacrament and our response to God in prayer and praise. At its best, music functions to enable that divine-human encounter to take place. One form of liturgical-musical disease is the cancer that sets in once this connection is lost.

On one end of the spectrum, there is the disease of treating music as merely a means to another end. Here music is viewed only as way of generating an emotional high, a tool to market a congregation to a new clientele, or a means of providing many people the opportunity to participate in worship (a laudable goal, but not the main point of music). In this way of thinking, music is reduced from an art form into a commodity.

On the other end of the spectrum, music becomes an end itself, a little idol that we set up in place of the God who gave it to us. This happens when performances of historical works feel like musical museums, when children’s choirs are treated as a kind of musical ornament to admire, or when congregations condescendingly appropriate global music merely as a way to jazz up a worship service rather than to expand their congregation’s capacity for vicarious sung prayer. It is ever so tempting for our attention during worship and our conversation after worship to focus more on music itself than the God we address through it.

The antidote for diseases of this type is disciplined attention to the deep purposes of worship. Perhaps this best happens through liturgical catechesis—whether in formal education sessions or informal comments in a music rehearsal—that reminds all participants that worship enacts a divine-human encounter and that music serves that encounter.

Diseases of Liturgical Function

The second set of diseases has to do with programming—what music we select to offer at particular points in the liturgy. On one end of the spectrum are churches with the problem of liturgical disintegration, where music has very little to do with the context that surrounds it. Some of us suffer from liturgy that has become simply a laundry list of “good things to do in church” (music being one of them). Here a choir might sing “Kyrie”—but without any sense that this is prayer of lament that demands a response of gospel promise. Others of us choose music we love and then set out on a half-hearted search for a suitable liturgical placement for it. The result is a strangely disconnected worship service in which music feels like an interruption rather than a key component in the liturgy.

On the other end of the spectrum is an obsessiveness with liturgical function that spends more energy appreciating how appropriate a given piece is than actually experiencing it as sung prayer. We might love the way the fourth line of the third stanza of the hymn of the day corresponds with a phrase in the second reading, though that awareness does little for anyone but ourselves. We obsess over liturgical fittingness, but stop our attention there, when what is really needed is attention to the capacity of a congregation to appreciate this fittingness in ways that deepen the experience of worship for ordinary worshipers.

Perhaps the best remedy here is to seek wise counsel from colleagues and mentors. Programming—whether for symphony orchestras, university choirs, or small congregations—is a learned art form. And it is one that almost no one teaches in formal curriculums. In every conference you attend, seek out musical leaders with a sixth sense for what programming choices truly enable worship, study their work, and ask them for their advice.

Diseases of Liturgical Vitality

Some diseases have to do with sustainable energy output. Just as the healthy body needs a manageable blend of exertion and rest, so too the healthy congregation nurtures a kind of sustainable vitality over time.

On one end of the spectrum are congregations whose music program is running on autopilot. The chief problem consists of tiredness and lethargy, a kind of liturgical chronic fatigue syndrome. Even Easter features the same old brass arrangement that has been the default choice for twenty-three years.

On the other end of the spectrum are congregations who run on musical overdrive. Enormous amounts of energy are expended on very large-scale music programs. After Christmas and Easter highs, every choir member is exhausted in ways that deplete music-making for weeks afterward.

Such opposite problems may actually require the same antidote—a kind of deep prayerful rest to re-ignite our musical souls. Perhaps the best therapy is simply to worship with another congregation. Perhaps balanced, grounded rest comes through a retreat or a conference. At minimum, we can at least listen to a favorite musical recording—preferably with the lights out!

Diseases of Malnutrition and Indulgence

Finally, some liturgical-musical diseases have to do with having the basic resources necessary for healthy functioning. On one end of the spectrum are congregations who survive on starvation diets of both financial resources and spiritual substance. In these places, music is the first budget item to be cut in lean times, and the idea of continuing education for church musicians is viewed as foolish. In these places, musicians are shy about providing musical texts with protein-like substance and leading rehearsals that themselves become acts of worship.

On the other end of the spectrum are (at least a few) churches with a kind of overeating syndrome, where the music is so lavish that it takes over. Music is so professionalized that it is nearly impossible for even fairly gifted congregation members to participate. Music is so sumptuous from week to week that the congregation doesn’t have the capacity to absorb it. A kind of bigger-is-better mentality keeps musicians on an endless quest to top the musical high of the previous week.

Here the best antidote might be a simple dietary assessment. Find the most mature members of your congregation (both musicians and nonmusicians) and ask for their assessment of the level of spiritual sustenance that your music program provides. The Spirit distributes the gift of discernment throughout the body of Christ, and those of us charged with leadership must seek it out actively in whomever the Spirit has graced.

The advantage of presenting these ills in terms of a spectrum is that we can see how attempts to respond to a given problem can easily lead to its opposite. As in human physical health so in church life, much depends on maintaining equilibrium. And just as in driving in the icy north, where it is tempting to overcorrect when steering out of a skid, so too it is tempting to overcompensate for one problem by creating another. This happens personally when an overactive and burned-out musician responds by running on autopilot. This also happens in congregations that overcorrect after one musician leaves, replacing a person with one set of problems with another who has the opposite problems.

Finally, let me admit that all of this talk of disease can be mildly depressing. But the point of all diagnosis is, of course, to point to apt and efficient remedies that promise to restore wholeness. Fortunately, in the economy of God’s redemption, congregations are one of the prime arenas for healing. They are places in which God’s Spirit works to heal. Perhaps this happens through a kind of congregational immune system built up through a culture of forgiveness and charity. Perhaps it happens through the prophetic leadership of advocates for musical health. Frequently, it is music itself—in all its evocative freedom and quiet subversive power—that becomes part of the healing process. May God’s Spirit work in your congregation to restore complete vitality and health.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 72 © June 2004 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.