It has been nearly nine years since I’ve had a weekly music-leading responsibility, but I still think about it quite a bit – not the weekly responsibility but the “stuff” of that role. Ministers of music (a term that dates me) are first of all minister to their congregation, but primarily utilize and specialize in things musical to express that ministry. The main tools of a church music leader are the hymns and songs they offer, teach, or sometimes impose on their choirs and the congregation gathered in worship.
I’ve about decided that the music leader can experience any piece of music and deliver it to his/her congregation on three levels. The first level is simply knowing the piece musically and mechanically. At this level the leader can say the all the words, sing the tune, and lead the song appropriately – basic but also “surface.”
Below that plane is a second level – understanding the piece. Here the leader will explore the breadth and depth of a song’s message, its theology, and its value in worship. She might ask questions such as “How does this piece edify the body of Christ?” or “Is music and text well-matched; does the music convey the text well or does it compete with it?” or “Is it singable and worth singing?” Seminary hymnology classes and helping build two hymnals in my ministry were rich, extended sessions in this second level.
The third and deepest level is for the leader to live into the song. For me, this is the great lesson learned and discovery made while Honey was sick and since her death sixteen months ago. Perhaps it took a dark night of the soul to awaken this level in me. But I’m thankful to be continuing to learn it because I experience songs of the faith – primarily the hymns – at a much deeper and more personal level than ever before. Hymns ancient and modern, and especially the Celebrating Grace Hymnal are like discovering a new book of Psalms.
I still lead music out and around these days – this summer most Sundays in three different spots. I won’t say I’m better at it than before, but now “living into it” likely makes me different at it. I try to engage the worshiping congregation at the “living” level.
Consider camping in a hymnal for a spell and work at living into what you find there. Here’s one you might begin with. It’s a hymn and a Psalm – the 84th . Read it aloud several times and claim a line or two for the day.
How lovely, God, how lovely is Your abiding place;
my soul is longing, fainting, to feast upon Your grace.
The sparrow finds a shelter, a place to build her nest;
and so Your temple calls us within its walls to rest.
In Your blest courts to worship, O God, a single day
is better than a thousand if I from You should stray.
I’d rather keep the entrance and claim You as my Lord,
than revel in the riches the ways of sin afford.
A sun and shield forever are You, O God most high;
You shower us with blessings; no good will You deny.
The saints, Your grace receiving, from strength to strength shall go,
and from their lives shall rivers of blessing overflow.
How Lovely, God, How Lovely – words by Arlo D. Duba, 1984 © 1986 Hope Publishing Company