What is the relationship between music and mission?
I believe they are closely related. God has given humanity the wondrous ability to create beautiful and powerful music. Throughout the Bible we are instructed to “sing a new song” and to play instruments to God’s glory. During Sunday worship, throughout the church at large, members of the choir and congregation raise their collective voices in song to offer praise, glory and honor to God. Stirring organ music or other instrumental music, along with Word and Sacrament, inspire us to leave our sanctuaries of worship and to go into the world to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to tend the sick and to visit the prisoner. As we sing powerful hymns, we often find a new resolve to help the “least of these.” With music, in the context of a worship service, the Holy Spirit often inspires us to play our respective roles in God’s mission to provide both spiritual and physical sustenance for all of God’s children.
The relationship between music and mission is somewhat less obvious in a concert setting. In our current culture, performance and performers are often the object of worship rather than God. Many individuals have lost the ability to recognize that God provides both the human potential to compose and perform music. God provides the passion and the inspiration for musicians to hone their skills in order to create beauty. Is there a way that we can celebrate God’s gifts of music in a concert venue to achieve concrete mission goals? Can we purposefully and prayerfully create a space in which the community gathers to listen to glorious, God-given music while also being true to our Christ-given mission to help those in need? I am fortunate to be part of a congregation that values musical performance, recognizes music as God’s gift and uses that gift, along with many other gifts, to better the community in which we live.
A little over five years ago, my predecessor as director of music at First Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, Jeff Jones, sought to start a concert series to celebrate God’s gifts of music. He formed a church committee (in good Presbyterian fashion) to explore the best format for a concert series. They envisioned a concert series that would celebrate music and musical performance while also being true to the congregation’s identity and mission statements:
“We are a servant church in the city.”
“The life of the church is the response of faith and obedience to the call of God in Christ. Gathered: We worship and sing, study and pray. We enjoy fellowship together. Forgiven by God, we learn to forgive other people. Sent forth: We serve as leaven, salt and light, to be agents of God’s love in Savannah and the larger world.”
The outcome of the committee’s exploration was a concert series called “music with a mission.” We are now completing our fifth year of the concert series, and organizing and facilitating the concert series each year is a meaningful component of my work as director of music at this church.
This particular concert series serves as an example of how one congregation attempts to be faithful while impacting their community for good and for Christ’s mission.
Planning for each year’s concert series
Each spring the “music with a mission” committee, a group of 6-8 individuals, meets to select musical programs and “mission partners.” We plan four concerts for each season and select four local mission partners who will become the beneficiaries of funds raised at each concert. The mission partners are local nonprofit entities providing vital services in our community.
We attempt to vary the performances offered to include a wide variety of musical styles. Most of the performers are local musicians, but we have also brought in musicians from other cities in the Southeast and from other areas of the country. We have included local college and university choirs and a high school choir from the local public school, Savannah Arts Academy. Adult community choirs and our own church choir have performed in the series. We have invited vocal soloists, an a cappella vocal quartet, a classical guitarist, pianists, organists, baroque chamber music performers, classical chamber music performers and sacred music performers. We have shown a silent movie that was accompanied by organ improvisation to highlight our excellent organ, a work of art in and of itself. We intentionally vary the styles of music included in each concert season in order to demonstrate the wide spectrum of excellent musical offerings available in our community and to encourage broad audience attendance. We are fortunate to have a rich musical environment in our city, including a Grammy award-winning singer, Kurt Ollmann, who volunteers many hours of service each year to contribute his talent, skills and expertise to our series. It is a delight to celebrate the musical, God-given talents that prevail in the community.
The nonprofits that we select each year include organizations that the church actively supports. The church temporarily hosts families facing homelessness on a quarterly basis in partnership with Family Promise, an organization the church supports and was pleased to be able to fund through the concert series. We have also funded Backpack Buddies, a weekend food program for children that are food insecure. Members of our church put together packets of food each week during the school year and distribute them to children needing them each Friday afternoon. Our church has deep affiliations with these groups and our “music with a mission” concert series reinforces how we can serve these families and children.
We also select organizations that members of our own congregation are affiliated with. Many of our church members serve on boards of local nonprofits, taking to heart their Christian responsibilities to serve others. Just as we vary the types of musical performances each season, we also vary the types of nonprofit organizations each year in order to provide both funding for and awareness of the wide spectrum of needs in the community. We have partnered with food banks and soup kitchens. We have supported homeless shelters, mental health providers and educational organizations. We have partnered with organizations who offer support for families of hospitalized children, and with those who offer support for victims of brain injury. “Music with a mission” has partnered with organizations who offer services for the elderly and with those who offer hospice care. We have partnered with a prison ministry that also serves released prisoners, greatly reducing recidivism in our community. We have partnered with organizations who support victims of domestic violence. We have supported our local Habitat for Humanity in its mission to provide affordable home ownership. Disadvantaged youth have benefited from programs that serve their needs. It has been an eye-opening experience to realize how many vital support organizations exist in our community and it has been fulfilling to become a partner with those organizations.
Funding the music and funding the mission partners
One of the goals of “music with a mission” is to provide the concerts free of charge and open to the public. There are many expensive concerts in our city, and we wish to offer all in our community an opportunity to hear beautiful music, regardless of their ability to purchase tickets. In August each year, we ask our congregation and interested members of the community to fund our concert series. We have raised enough money each year to fund the concerts themselves. However, additional money is needed to pay honorariums to the performers, as well as to provide for travel expenses for those coming in from out of town. We also incur expenses to produce concert posters, brochures and other advertising for the series. Each year about 50 individuals and/or couples become sponsors of our concert series. They are eager to contribute in a meaningful way to the community, enabling us to offer the beauty of music to the community.
At each of the four annual concerts, we seek to raise both funding and awareness for the selected mission partner. In our concert advertising, which includes local newspaper articles, posters and brochures, we highlight the value of the mission partner and the good work they are achieving. At the concert, during an intermission from the musical presentation, a representative from the mission partner’s organization speaks about their work and the effect of that work in Savannah. Following the words about the work of their organization, we collect an offering for the nonprofit organization. Fortunately, members of the community and members of the church have given generously at each concert in support. The offering collected at each concert is a testament to the concern of the community for the mission partner’s work and for their desire to become a partner in that mission.
Benefits of “music with a mission”
In the five years since the concert series started, we have raised funding for 20 different nonprofits in Savannah. In addition to the monetary benefit received by the mission partners to further their work in our community, I have heard of several individuals who have been inspired to volunteer with a nonprofit that they felt could benefit from the individual’s skill sets or passions. An increased community awareness has resulted in increased community and church involvement. I believe that the concerts themselves have been a tool of the Holy Spirit to inspire many to seek ways to help others.
While Savannah has many artistic opportunities, most concerts are ticketed events with a high cost to attend. Many members of our community do not have access to quality musical performances because they cannot afford them. This includes senior citizens on fixed incomes, students with limited budgets and others who have only enough resources to afford basic necessities. Our concerts offer an opportunity for community members to gather and enjoy each other’s company, while enjoying the beauty of the concerts. People of diverse backgrounds come together to enjoy music while also learning of community needs that may be different from their own needs.
The performers themselves have a passion to share their God-given talents and to contribute beauty to our community. Many have devoted years of training and work to hone their talents and skills. The concerts give them an opportunity to share their life’s passion: God’s gift of music. It has been my observation that in this setting, their aim is not to boost their own egos or fame, but rather to spread the beauty, joy, comfort and inspiration that music can provide. Their gifts are warmly celebrated and appreciated by all those who gather. Additionally, several of the performers themselves have donated to the mission partner the honorarium that we paid to them. They, in effect, gave their musical gifts for the benefit of the community while also monetarily supporting important work in the community.
“Music with a mission” has provided opportunities to raise funding and awareness of great needs in our community, supplementing the existing mission work of the church. Both worship and mission occur outside of the confines of the traditional worship service, yet in a worshipful space and time. Our community gathers to celebrate beauty, to be inspired by music and to work together in a combined effort to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to tend the sick and to visit the prisoner. Members of our congregation welcome those of other faiths, of varying socioeconomic status and of diverse interests into a common love for God’s beautiful music. Together, we celebrate music, become aware of community needs and work to improve the lives of others. To God be the glory!
Anne McNair serves as director of music at First Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia. She is also president of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians.