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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Where Do You Want Me To Go From Here?


What, really, is God's will for particular situations? We know his revealed will in the Bible. But his temporal will is different. Supposedly Christians in the Reformed tradition have God's sovereignty sewed up and nicely packaged to include all his will, revealed and secret. But often it is the latter that leaves Christians hopeless, frustrated, or confused. I have developed a list of questions to help find God's direction for a particular situation in my life. It goes like this:

  • Is it lawful? Sinclair Ferguson says God set us free for holiness, not lawlessness.
  • Is it beneficial to me? Is my relationship with Jesus Christ strengthened by it?
  • Is it enslaving? When we cannot be content without it, when we simply must have it, it is no longer liberty we are exercising, but we have become its slave.
  • Is it consistent with Christ's lordship? Can I take Him into it, in good conscience, with me?
  • Is it helpful to others? "So whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved." 1 Cor. 10:31-33
  • Is it consistent with Biblical example? Can I see it mirrored in the Bible?
  • Is it for the glory of God? For that matter am I living to the glory of God?
Altogether, this primer has been a help to me over many years of ministry in music, travel, teaching, and relationships. I hope it may help someone else as well. 

There is a hymn for this pursuit as well:

The task thy wisdom hath assigned
O let me cheerfully fulfill,
In all my works thy presence find,
And prove thy good and perfect will.

Thee may I set at my right hand,
Whose eyes my inmost substance see,
And labor on at thy command,
And offer all my works to thee.

Give me to bear thy easy yoke,
And every moment watch and pray,
And still to things eternal look,
And hasten to thy glorious day.

Charles Wesley

Friday, February 1, 2013

Writing and Performing Music for the Reformed Worship Service

Current Christian music that is loosely termed ‘contemporary’ is really derived from well-tested American pop, light rock, Broadway and musical theatre, or gospel/country styles. These styles all have merit in themselves, and are ideally suited to their original intended audiences. This music was, and is still, rooted in the concept of profit: it must garner its producers the highest possible return on an investment.  Obviously, the use of some of these styles in evangelism and religious television is highly effective. But that begs the question: how does it fit into a Reformed and biblical worldview, or into a biblical service of worship?

Now, for the classically trained musician, there are currently few choices in the church music field. It’s not a large market, especially in conservative and evangelical churches. Further, it is fraught with landmines, often resulting in young musicians stomping out of the church in a huff. Is there another way forward?

A young musician working on a degree in music should be aware of entering into music as a vocation in a church. Perhaps in some cases, that musician has a high calling: a desire to teach average Christians what real music sounds like, and cram it down their throats. Because of the volatile nature of music’s affect on the human psyche, emotions, and spiritual life, no musician need enter music ministry unless they have first of all dispensed with all such notions. 

What we have in the current ‘marketplace’ of music for churches is a widely divergent stylistic spread. Given no clearly available vocational guidelines, composers can easily fall prey to thinking along the lines of two extremes:

1.              High art music that caters to the rather elitist congregant, often confusing ministry with aestheticism.  

2.              Current music that derives heavily from the pop world, so that its major appeal becomes immediate recognition and gratification. 

What is now needed is a generation, a movement inside churches, to reform worship music anew. To do that, Christian composers will need to be ready to 'give an answer for what you believe' at least in terms of vocational convictions. Many of us agree, there are no clearly lined out biblical guidelines. But practically and doctrinally speaking, we need to operate from a principled, biblically acceptable paradigm. 

One such paradigm is offered by Nicholas Wolterstorff, former professor of philosophy at Yale, in his landmark book Art in Action: Towards a Christian Aesthetic.Any composer may derive his own set of tools for achieving what I will call "aesthetic merit." In the case of painters, writers, and sculptors, there are universally held elements of aesthetic merit. Wolterstorff describes them like this:

a.     Unity

b.     Diversity 

c.      Controlled but profound intensity in the pursuit of a and b

Well-formed composers are needed for today's Reformed and biblically orthodox churches. We hunger for a musical life that is not alien to true aesthetic merit. Indeed, once a given composer has mastered his material well enough, he might produce useful (not merely utilitarian) music, without compromising unity or diversity in pursuit of intensity of expression, above.

Indeed, the inexperienced musician who is a candidate for choral director, instrumentalist, worship leader, or a combination of these, must approach his vocational life as a shepherd who is being called into the ministry of calling together, gently prodding, and teaching a flock of ‘sheep.’ That takes months, years, and ultimately a lifetime of humble service.

Musical service in the true Church begins always with one concept: it’s not about you at all. It’s about the sheep, and your calling to nurture them in true, saving faith. Don’t even think of entering into this ministry if you have first of all neglected the core of your calling. Get in touch with God, and get in the middle of the sheep, hear how they express themselves, and be a student of their habits. Once you get a good picture of what they like or do not like, go pray about them, and your choices and how they might affect them. Spend months or years preparing technically, so you can write truly well crafted music, which may qualify as meritorious. Then you will have contributed to the nurture of the sheep. Along the way, you may be rewarded. Or you may be ignored and rejected. Get ready for either.

Whether it is working in maintenance, administration, teaching children, playing an instrument, or singing, we are called to serve the God of the universe with our hands open, ready to receive his direction. In a way, musicians have an advantage, however. We bring something that is immediately arresting and even refreshing to the dreary world of work-weary, suffering Christians who come weekly for worship and the sacraments. We bring a song with aesthetic merit based on our assessment of the spiritual condition of the sheep. Hopefully they hum along their way, a song that encourages them to go into the office or factory for another week. That is the reason we are in God’s presence in his sanctuary, to give the song, gently lead it, and nurture the singers who take it along the way. We can do nothing greater if we simply do that.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Not A Spiritual Commodity

1. Music in Worship

In this section you will find a series of articles written by Pastor Balthrop discussing some particular distinctives of corporate worship at Redeemer Reformed Church. Popular humanism defines man as homo sapiens, thinking man, but we believe that God created man primarily as a worshipper: homo adorans. As such, Redeemer places a high premium on worship of the Triune God. It is our hope that these articles will assist you in becoming better acquainted with who we are and why we do what we do.

Music in Worship 

Before plunging into the topic of music in church, we need to start with a firm idea of what church is (and, by extension, what it isn’t). I’d like to go on the record for stating that the church is not a vendor of religious goods and services. We should not think of all the churches in our town as so many stores at the mall where you can choose which one will cater to your needs. Church is exactly the opposite! Church is where you go to find satisfaction in denying yourself. You shouldn’t come to church to have your preferences met but to have your preferences changed. Church is where you should assume that your natural inclinations are wrong but will be set right.

I don’t tell you this to step on your toes (well, not entirely!), but to help you understand that when we think of the music used in worship the defining rule is not what you like or prefer. When you buy CDs, choose your radio station, or organize your Ipod playlist, your preference is the guiding force because these are all consumer products whose function is to please. Music in worship has an altogether different purpose.

From childhood on, we simmer in this consumer-geared world such that our whole worldview is molded to make us good consumers. If we don’t like what we buy, we return it. If we want to be wise consumers, we read the reviews of the product. If the product doesn’t live up to what was advertised, we complain. Sadly, this has shaped our expectations for church as well. Perhaps worse is that there is no shortage of consumers who have started churches that are out there vying for your business. They foster this unbiblical state of affairs.

Whenever a church sets out to accommodate to personal preferences instead of desiring to amend personal preferences, the church will be compromised. No doubt it is an extraordinary challenge to convince people that worship music is not the same as consumer music, but to simply be carried along on the current of popular opinion is not the church’s place.

Our philosophy on worship music is fourfold. We believe that corporate music should be:

doctrinally dense (God cares about content.)
aesthetically rich (God cares about beauty.)
communally held (In order for worship to be corporate, we want people to know a lot of it by heart).
historically representative (Older and newer songs will need to pass the first three criteria).
This works out to be fewer hymns and Psalms overall (probably 150-200) which means that we (and our children) can sing without a great deal of new material every week. These are selected by trained people who are qualified to evaluate (1) if the tune is accessible to both older and younger people, (2) if it fits the attitude of the text, and (3) whether it is representative of Protestant history.

We find that this gives us the opportunity to practice denying ourselves while promoting unity in the church. There will be times when we will sing a song that you don’t enjoy, but we hope that you can happily stand next to your brothers and sisters in Christ and help them sing a song they enjoy (just like they’ll do for you with a song you enjoy but they don’t). This won’t make us a big church of consumers, but we’re okay with that. We’d rather be a church described as the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God.

The next article in these series is Liturgy in Worship (Why We Have a Formal Worship Service).
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