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Aug 16, 2013 | John Jones*

Music Must be the Work of the People

Mag_Work-of-People1[Diolog Magazine] Have you ever been to a Eucharist where the music touched you so profoundly that you remembered it long after the service was over? Or have you ever experienced a sense of being together with fellow parishioners, when it seemed like everyone in the room was “on the same page?” Where the music seemed to flow around you as much as from you?  Is it any wonder poets describe music as “the language of the soul” and “the universal language of humankind?” (K. Gibran, H.W. Longfellow)


On the other hand, have you ever wondered why some of our sacred music seems more like a foreign language than a universal one? Sometimes we’ve gone from cherishing a tradition that sustains us to preserving a relic of history that burdens us. 


If our music (and perhaps our liturgy) seems empty, then simply changing the musical style won’t resolve the problem. In Scripture, Samuel explains why God has not anointed the older brothers of the soon-to-be-king David: “For the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 NRSV).


How does the idea of “looking on the heart” relate to church music?  Other denominations send their church musicians to seminary before hiring them to work in their churches. We Anglicans often hire church musicians from music conservatories. If someone is a well-trained musician, we presume that our church music will be excellent as well. But conservatories teach musicians how to perform, not how to lead worship. While training is important, Paul offers some advice. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul exhorts us to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who . . . emptied [and] humbled himself.” (Philippians 2:3–8 NRSV)


It is skill and humility that allow the church musician to enhance the worship experience for everyone. We have many musicians who put the congregation’s need to have a meaningful encounter with God above their personal need to show their musical prowess. Humility in this context means that our musicians must carefully select music so the congregation remains engaged. It means having a sense of “where” our people are musically and being sensitive to these questions:  Does the congregation feel connected? Is there understanding about what we’re doing?  


What works in a large urban cathedral may not work in a small rural parish and vice versa. Humility means carefully and gradually introducing new music with patience and kindness. It means playing music in such a way that invites and encourages participation, rather than discouraging it—overwhelming the congregation with the new, the artistic, the “great” music—music that doesn’t sound so great if no one is singing. Like liturgy, our music must be “the work of the people,” that is, an authentic expression of who we are—at this moment­—together before God. And it takes a skillful church musician to read that roadmap. 


Effective church musicians lead us by example. When a church musician comes to worship with a sense of holy expectation and a deep joyfulness, their joy is contagious. The congregation will join with the musicians who are worshiping themselves. As Jesus demonstrated, leadership begins with humility spoken in the language of love. And that’s the language we all understand and long to hear. 


The apostle Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthians that we “are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (12:27). All of us are equally important and necessary to the community. As a church we are challenged to believe it. We are called to make room and help young people find a place to belong.


*Jones is a pen name for an ordained Episcopal priest on the East Coast who is also a church musician. He holds degrees in music performance and theology. John Jones was also the name of an organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the eighteenth century.