To write Christian music, particularly worship music, requires two things: A good musician and a good knowledge of scripture. The best Christian music will have the highest levels of both. The trouble, of course, is getting them both together. A good theologian, but a poor musician, will create good theological texts, set to bald, tepid, irritating music. Just as bad, a great musician who hasn’t taken the time to thoroughly inform himself of who God is and what he wants, will produce great music that is, by varying degrees, less than Christian.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Music, regardless of whatever else it is, is a powerful teaching tool, so the requirements for writing Christian music have at least this in common with the role of elder in the church: a propensity to teach. If you write music, you’re not just expressing thoughts and emotions, you’re instructing those who sing and listen to your songs in the practice of those thoughts and emotions. This is something to engage in very carefully. Being able to plunk out a few notes on a piano doesn’t qualify you to be a musician, so having the common view of a few scriptures doesn’t qualify you to teach. And yet, to be a Christian musician entails that you take on the mantle of a teacher.
And there’s the catch: Either one of these occupations is a lifetime’s work. If you dedicate enough time and energy to become a really good musician, you won’t have the space to become a teacher of Christian doctrine. On the other hand, if you dedicate your life to study, so that you can adequately handle the word of God, you can never become more than a mediocre musician. And yet I believe that God wants great music in the church. The solution is simple though, and very Christian: Humility and cooperation. You can’t do both, but you can emphasize one and find somebody else to trust for the other.
Here’s the tricky part: doctrine, ultimately, has the controlling interest in the church, so the teacher-elder has power, while the musician does not. So if the pastor of a church has a bad ear for music, or doesn’t consider it important, or any number of things, he can chase off good worship leaders. Or a good musician with a smattering of theology decides, for any number of reasons, to persue the authority track, rather than attempt to submit himself in somebody else’s church. Maybe he’s only encountered the weak-music church, and so he’s decided to create a new kind of church that appreciates good music. Maybe he never thought theology was worth that much attention, since everything we need to know has already been published. At any rate, he becomes the pastor of a church that has wonderful music, but is weak on doctrine. Either way, you’re unbalanced: You have good doctrine churches, with poor music, or great music churches with abyssimal music.
Growing up, I honestly expected to become some kind of worship leader. The unfortunate thing is that, while I have a good voice, and a keen sense for music, I’m a weak musician. It’s not that I’m bad at playing, it’s that I don’t practice. Singing I’m good at because I can spontaneously burst into song while I’m dong some other task. But to become good at an instrument, you have to set aside space where you are doing nothing else than practicing your instrument. I simply didn’t.
You might consider this a discipline problem. I don’t really. I’ve discovered from hanging out with musicians that people who are really “called” into music as a profession have this one distinctive trait: they like their instrument so much that when they’re bored, or angry, or frustrated, or if they just can’t think of anything else to do, they practice. Playing their instrument has gone way beyond something that they do because of good self-discipline. It’s become who they are. They are musicians, therefore the majority of their free time is spent playing their instrument.
I have another thing I do when I’m bored or angry or frustrated, or simply at a loss for what to do: I read. I read all day. I could easily spend 10 or 12 hours a day reading, and resent when somebody interrupted me at the end. Turns out, I’m perfect for the teaching end of worship.
Since I’m obviously not a musician, you can guess which end of the spectrum I’m concerned about. To the churches with great music and little teaching, I can only say, “you have got to try out seminary!” But as for me, the teaching-elder has power while the musician does not. I have the responsibility to seek out quality musicians, and conscript them for the kingdom of God, and then to challenge them with sermons that lend themselves easily to be captured by songs.
I had a couple of great examples this summer at SoulFest. There was a day-session with several worship leaders introducing new songs and explaining their background. Leeland had a great song based on the story of Mephibosheth that was inspired by a sermon his pastor had given. The story has been sitting in the text for millennia, but it was the sermon that inspired a young musician to write about it. My guess is that the song, which was a fair interpretation, was an exact rendition of the focus of the sermon. (Be wise, young pastors…)
Secondly, Chris Tomlin shared with us the story of being asked to “do something” with the song “Amazing Grace” for a new film on John Newton by Walden Media. He said it was something like being asked to “do something” (i.e. rewrite) the Gospel of John – you just don’t do that! However, he was able to when, through research, he discovered that there was a significant time delay between when the poem was written and when it was put to music – about 60 years. This kind of unhinges the concept of words and song as a single unit, and freed him up a bit to modernize the melody. Secondly, he discovered that the commonly used last verse wasn’t written by Newton at all, so he freely re-inserted Newton’s original last verse.
But here’s the thing that stuck in my mind: John Newton didn’t become a musician. He became a pastor. And this song was first delivered, not as a song, but merely as a poem in the sermon. I’d like to read the sermon that went along with it. But what falls to me is an awareness of the responsibility of pastors and teachers to *lead worship* by giving people the content to worship with.
To become a truly great musician requires a lot of time. To be a great pastor or theologian, also requires a lot of time. You can’t do both well. If you could, I’d be doing it. But the teaching-elder has the power, and therefore the responsibility to create worship within the people of God. He does this in two ways: first by teaching, by instructing in the attitudes and the actions of worship, by providing the words and the phrases of worship. The teacher has a responsibility to be a poet in the act of teaching. Secondly, by leading, by creating a structure in the community that welcomes and promotes true worship, and by making a space in the community for musicians to do the work of music.
Of course, this also is harder than it looks.