A word to musicians and pastors

Church musicians walk a delicate line. Many are classically trained. Their tastes might be broad, but at some level, many believe that “serious music” is better than “popular music,” and it is their job to defend musical excellence.

In many congregations, organists and choir directors find that they cannot retain choir members unless they perform certain music, perhaps challenging or ethnically suitable or renewal-oriented. What is meant by “excellent” varies widely, of course, but every congregation I know has some lines dividing “good” music from “bad” music. The church musician ends up being the custodian of that division.

Many worship planning sessions become a tug-of-war between musicians who want people to appreciate good music and pastors who want people to enjoy worship. Musicians cringe when people insist on the same few hymns Sunday after Sunday. Pastors cringe when people stand mute and resentful during music that is unfamiliar or off-putting.

As both a longtime choir singer and a pastor, I don’t know of any simple way to resolve this tug-of-war, except to acknowledge that it exists and to accept the ideal that neither side should “win.”

Both musicians and pastors — and those parishioners who demand that music reflect their tastes — should remember that worship is the work of God’s people. It is neither a battle cry for Bach or against Bach, nor a weapon for or against modernism, nor an occasion to enforce certain standards set by church leaders.

Worship is the entire congregation’s response to God. Some will pray harder than others, some will sing more enthusiastically or confidently than others, some will soak up preaching while others endure it, some will hear nothing and say nothing but will walk away feeling well fed because someone greeted them or they found a safe place to weep. All must find a home.

For musician and clergy alike, the rule should be a variant on the physician’s rule: “First, do no harm.” Music shouldn’t get in the way of anyone’s worship. Music shouldn’t be a victory for one group, defeat for another, or obstacle that says, You aren’t welcome here. People can be taught to sing new hymns or to allow room for other people’s tastes. But they shouldn’t be taught to see music as a dividing line set by God or a determinant of whom God loves.

And remember: worship is not about you.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.