Worship Wars6: The Sound of Music, 1
Friday, January 4, 2008– At least since the day Israel watched the Egyptian Army take a plunge in the Red Sea, the Church has been singing. Music, with all its diversity, is a gift from God to man, especially a gift to the Church. Music reflects the creative heart of God and enables man to praise his Creator and Lord in heart, soul, mind and strength. Sadly this wonderful gift of music can also be a source for conflict, error, sin and heresy. In today’s blog I want to tell you about the blessings and struggles we had with music and musicians at the small, elderly, traditional Southern Baptist church where I tried to serve as the bi-vocational pastor 1992-2007. Music was one of the BIG THREE controversial issues we faced in the church along with How To Dress and my Preaching.
When I came to the church there was no music minister, so on my first Sunday guess who got to lead the worship? Now I can sing some, I had sung in a few choirs through the years: various children’s choirs in the churches we attended, my Jr. High School choir, an ensemble at church in my teen years, the college choir at FBC Norman when I was attending OU. But I cannot read one note of music. I can’t keep time even with a Timex. Pitch is something Noah used to seal the ark. But I can generally sing the right tune and sing loudly, so I guess I wasn’t a disaster at leading the congregation’s worship.
On that first Sunday, however, I had planned the songs without consulting my voice. I had us singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” which is not easy to lead for somebody as inexperienced as myself. I dragged that wonderful hymn into next week! It really felt like I was doing a solo, and I had never sung a solo. The congregation loved to sing, but with so many elderly members, the volume did not match their enthusiasm. My own timidity constricted my voicebox. We survived from February to about August or September when we finally hired a new music minister. Periodically I would serve as the worship leader because of not having a music minister and I would eventually get comfortable in that role. I did grow in that area and showed signs of improvement. I absolutely loved planning and leading worship; it is a little taste of heaven, even with as few talents in that area as I have.
There are the inevitable goofs that occur as you lead the singing. Straying off key, missing a note here and there, losing time. My favorite mistake was to skip or repeat a verse by accident. That’s good, I’m not even paying attention in worship and I am the one leading it! Another good one is to have the piano or congregation playing/singing a different song from what I am singing.
One of my favorite things to do with a hymn was to tie the hymn in with a scripture verse, a prayer or to give the history and background of the hymn. I had seen a lot of worship leaders tie in a scripture, a prayer or testimony with songs, but only rarely had I heard a worship leader tie in the history of the hymn. In my first 14 years of pastoring I did this rarely, but in my final year, in a last desperate attempt at rekindling my own enthusiasm, I started researching the hymns and including something just about every worship service. This exercise may not have blessed anyone else in the congregation, I received no yea’s or nay’s either way, but it did light the flame in my heart.
Every week that last year, as my minister of music gave me the list of hymns on Wednesday, I would take 2-3 hours to research the hymns and prepare for worship. I really wish I had done this the whole time and it is something I absolutely miss today. There are several books on the market that provide the background for the hymns and even a lot of the modern worship songs. I would strongly encourage every believer to obtain 1-2 of these books like the Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal :
And if you are a minister, a couple of these kinds of books will be of immediate help in your worship planning and can liven up any worship service.
One of the stories the church members told me early in my pastorate, was about what happened in worship under the previous pastor. The church as I have already described it, was a traditional church in every way, and that means they only use the Baptist Hymnal, piano and organ. No modern music allowed, with the exception of some of the solos that were accompanied by tape (and many did not like that, but tolerated it). In the last couple of years before my arrival there had been an effort by the previous pastor and music minister to change the worship style of the congregation. From the tales of the survivors, it happened sort of like this: one Sunday morning the congregation shows up at church just like always and the music minister has his computer system hooked up to the speakers and he is playing all new worship songs and choruses that nobody knew, that nobody was ready for. The music was loud and a little bit rowdy.
The younger folk loved it, but the older folks were reaching for their nitroglycerin tablets. This sudden change had not been discussed before the church or deacons and led to the dismissal of the music minister, a split in the church that reduced the number down from about 130 to about 65-70 and eventually led the pastor to leave. Those who remained were permanently scarred and the distrust between laymen and clergy deepened. This was one of those traumatic events that can kill a church. Though this church had been in serious decline since about 1968, I am convinced this incident was the mortal wound. My ministry for the next 15 years was essentially performing CPR. This was the immediate background of the church when I came as pastor in 1992. It was a broken, wounded church.
Needless to say I was warned repeatedly by deacons and members to never stray from the hymnal. Choruses were forbidden. However, the few remaining younger people in the church were telling me a slightly different story. They had loved the change and longed for a worship style to which they could relate. The younger people never ceased asking for change in worship. Thus, there was an increasing tension in the church over music and worship styles. When visitors came to the church, the younger visitors would frequently bring this up and basically let me know that they could not join a church with “old fashioned” worship. In my last couple of years I even had a couple in their sixties tell me that our worship was too old, too slow, and too dead. But, as you will see, just about every effort at changing our worship failed.
One of the wonderful blessings we had in the music department was one of our deacons who was a masterful musician. Bob had a Master’s in Music from Baylor and had retired from the US Air Force band after over 20 years. He had marched in President Kennedy’s funeral procession and had played for several Presidents at the White House. Bob could play just about any instrument, but the flute and piano were his favorites. When I arrived he was the church’s part time organist. By part time I mean not only was he paid only a little bit for his services, but he could only play the organ every other Sunday due to his work schedule. He would not only accompany the congregational singing of hymns, he would play for the prelude, the offertory and postlude as well. In the afternoons at the church I would be working on my evening sermon and Bob would come to the church and practice with the organ or the piano and I would be in heaven listening. His music soothed me, relaxed me and greatly assisted my worship. Even when he would play one line of music over and over to get it perfect I loved it.
Bob had been a very athletic outdoorsman all his life, but by the time I arrived at the church his body had been wrecked by one disease after another. He had survived cancer a couple of times, picked up a blood borne disease from one of his surgeries that required some serious medicines to counter. This led to some other complications which required him to take more meds that led to other complications, etc. But Bob was one of those kind of guys that the Lord sends into your life to encourage you. He was a constant encourager. His example of persevering in serving the Lord with excellence while enduring pain and illness was unmatched by anyone I have ever personally known. He was the consummate gentleman. He was one of the few who actually enjoyed my preaching and “got” what I was trying to do.
But Bob was not well liked nor respected by many in the church. I was told that directly and repeatedly. I cannot figure that one out either. It may have been because he was educated. Bob was one of the few with an education, and he was a perfectionist with a little bit of the musician’s ego. But he was meek and humble in a lot of ways too. He was so good on the piano that he could have played at any one of the big churches in town for a salary. He retired out of the Air Force at the local base and lived in our neighborhood, so he attended the local Baptist church- ours. I think Bob is an example of God giving a church a hidden jewel, and the church not having a clue of how valuable that jewel was.
The first clue I had that Bob was not respected by the church came in my first 3-4 months as pastor in 1992. In one church council meeting a couple of the ladies brought up a request that I start looking for a new church organist. This startled me so I asked if Bob were leaving. The answer was that No, Bob wasn’t leaving, but since he worked another job and could only come to church every other Sunday, he was only filling in until we could get a regular organist. (This should have also given me a clue about the church’s attitude towards bi-vocational ministers…but I was a little slow to pick up on that) Unfortunately, I believed them and agreed to begin looking for an organist. The next week I spoke to Bob and told him the church council wanted me to begin looking for an organist. He agreed and said that he really was a poor organist and it was not his primary instrument and the church deserved an organist who could be there full time. He tendered his resignation.
This whole situation was a total rookie mistake on my part. 1) I should not have believed what the women told me without checking out all the facts and thinking it through. 2) I should not have talked with Bob about it until I had checked out everything. What I ended up doing was going to Southwestern Seminary and inquiring about the availability of church organists. I quickly realized that they are a dying breed, very few churches have an organist anymore, and what we were paying our organist was laughable ($200 a month). I was able to go back to the church council and tell them what I had discovered. The ladies still wanted me to search for a replacement for Bob, but this time I told them that for what we are paying, and looking at how wonderful an organist Bob was, and looking at the church finances, I thought that keeping Bob was the our best option and I am going to ask Bob to rescind his resignation. This was one of the few times that I told this group of ladies what to do and got away with it. Bob agreed to continue playing the organ, and our church received a blessing every two weeks as he played.
It took me a long time to figure out that a lot of the old regulars in the church just did not like Bob and would rather go without an accompanist of his caliber. Out of all the funerals I have done, the only time I have lost it and just broke down was when I was doing Bob’s funeral a couple of years ago at the National Cemetery in Grand Prairie. Heaven’s music got a lot better the day that Jesus called Bob home.
To be contined…