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Musician as theologian

Musician as theologian

If you ask most people who’s the theologian in a local congregation, they’re more likely than not going to point to the ordained clergy. But that’s just not the whole story according to an article by Mark Gorman posted in the Duke Divinity School Magazine.

Congregational musicians, because of their shared leadership of worship with the clergy, have a responsibility for practical daily theology of most worshiping groups. Making decisions about which hymns to choose, which anthems to pair to specific biblical texts can have as much impact in how those texts are understood by the congregation as anything the preacher says from the pulpit.

And that means that congregations will have to make sure that their musicians have the resources and training they need to accomplish that work.

“In most churches, the musicians are not world-class performers but volunteers or part-time workers, often overworked and underappreciated. In many cases, they are not even affiliated with the denomination of the church they are serving—or are not Christians at all. It would seem unreasonable or unrealistic to add ‘musical theologian’ to their duties, or to ask that before each service they consider how their musical decisions contribute to the theological formation of the congregation.

This line of thought misses the point. Musicians, whether or not they are aware of it, are shaping congregations theologically through their music. Congregations, even if they don’t explicitly know it, are formed theologically by the music of their worship services, just as they are formed by the sermon, the prayers, and the sacraments. Vibrant worship, therefore, requires that both church musicians and the congregations they serve become more sensitive to the theological work of music.

This might mean that a congregation, for example, would pay for its musicians to receive additional training in playing for worship services, or even in theology. While formal seminary study is one way to do this, many groups offer such training. The American Guild of Organists has regular continuing education opportunities. Hampton University offers a one-week workshop each summer for organists and choir directors, as does Westminster Choir College. Arcus also recommends denominational groups, like the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, which offer a broad variety of materials. “

Read the full article here.


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Weiwen Ng

Music = theology.

Not just the lead musician. All of us do theology, whether we realize it or not, the second we enter church and the second we open our mouths to sing.

And the second we leave church.

Clint Davis

Theologian, occasionally. Shaman, always, at least the good ones worth their salt. But nobody wants to admit there are real shamans these days.

And David, my conviction is, as a Director of Music for 10 years now, that you are mistaken. Jesus never preached that feelings are more important than excellence. It is a tale of two ensembles at my parish, one being a choir in the usual sense, the other reflecting your ideas of what “should be”. By my 7th year, I was begged and pleaded to do something about this “joyful noise”, don’t hurt anyone’s feelings ensemble, and even had a few stern discussions in the priest’s office. Attendance continued to shift over to the High Mass with the “good music”, mostly because people’s “ears hurt” when the feel-good ensemble would make their joyful noise. Finally, this choir was asked to disband by the clergy, and within 2-3 weekends, I actually got compliments on the music at the mass that was formerly the preserve of those “singing with gusto”. Never again will I sacrifice excellence for the sake of misplaced feelings. If one really wants to sing, one can sing as a congregant, and with gusto. One doesn’t need a spot in the choir loft to do so.

Donald Schell


One thing that intrigues me about Gorman’s article is the resonance with words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel that Alice Parker offers in her book *Melodious Accord* – Heschel reminds us that the cantor in the synagogue is ‘the master of prayer.’

Bill Dilworth

I agree that music is important and has a profound impact on a parish’s religious life, but somehow “theologian” just doesn’t seem like an apt word choice.

David Justin Lynch

As one who has sung in choirs for many years, my strong conviction is that the Church music program must reflect Christian values of inclusiveness and compassion. No one should have to audition to be in a church choir, and the choral sound should be one that says “participation with gusto” rather than “blend.” And above all, no discrimination – no single gender choirs, and no rejection of male altos or female tenors. The literature should be chosen from all periods and styles, and community members should be encouraged in music and lyrics of their own composition. A Church musician who sees his or her job as a performance platform to enhance their own endeavors is out of place in a Church. Finally, as much of the Mass as possible should be sung. All we need do is consult the psalms for the proper theology of music for the Episcopal Church!

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