Even “Lead Musicians” Have a Pastoral Impact Whether They Know it or Not

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral MinistryLeave a Comment

Methodist camp meeting (1839)Under-appreciated by us worship leaders is the role of music in the shepherding of our emotions. Sure, plenty of ink has been spilt blasting some worship leaders for using music as a tool for emotional manipulation (and this cuts both ways in the traditional and modern spectrum). But rarely has that kind of manipulation been identified as the dark underbelly of a very positive and inevitable pastoral enterprise–music as an emotional shepherd. 

The Church has a love-hate relationship with human emotion. Perhaps it’s in our American psyche because of some of the trauma, joy, fear, and excitement of periods like the Second Great Awakening. Thinkers back then, like Jonathan Edwards, were on to something with all their talk of “affections.” They knew it wasn’t all hype. They recognized the wholeness–the Shalom–of a human being’s constitution. They knew that the same parts of us that make up our “center of feeling” weren’t so much to be squelched or tamed for the sake of piety. Instead, they insisted that our emotions needed to be rightly aimed and shepherded. Modern thinkers like James K. A. Smith get at this when they speak of the “habit-forming” nature of worship (see Desiring the Kingdom).

All this leads us to how pastors tend to think about “lead musicians.” Some churches, by the leading of the Spirit I believe, have created a staff structure where a lead musician (a kind of artist in residence) is overseen by a pastor/elder in the planning and leading of worship. I’ve seen this setup work well in many, many contexts. However, the overseeing pastors need to recognize something. They cannot think that all they need to do is oversee the theological content and not the music. It’s not enough to say, “As long as I give my music guy or gal good parameters about the lyrics to the songs that we sing, I can leave the rest up to him or her.” The reason it’s not enough is that irrespective of lyrics music has a shaping role on people, particularly on our emotions. 

This is not a call for pastors to micro-manage the creative process. It’s not a call for pastors to tell their lead musicians what to play and how to play it.  (That would be exhaustingly unproductive on so many levels.) Rather, it’s a call for pastors to have open dialogues with their musicians about how music guides people emotionally through the worship service. In my years of experience working with professional musicians in a variety of worship contexts, I have seen how this can be a blind spot for gifted and talented lead musicians, music directors, and arrangers. Lead musicians can be incredibly attuned to the emotion of a given piece of music (in fact, the best ones always are), but they might still simultaneously be uniformed about what emotion is right for what liturgical moment, which is something a pastor is (or at least should be) aware of.

The question is not whether our worship services have music which is or is not emotionally charged. All music, at some capacity, shepherds our emotions in one direction or another. The question is to what end are those emotions being guided? I talked about all this in a previous post on the worship leader as emotional shepherd, but I was reminded yet again how important this is when I read a larger section of Martin Luther’s oft-quoted thoughts about music. I leave you with him:

Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and a governess of those human emotions [Luther used the Latin afectuum here, where we get the word “affections”]–to pass over the animals–which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found–at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate–and who could number all those masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?–what more effective means than music could you find? The Holy Ghost himself honors her as an instrument for his proper work when in his Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her his gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha [II Kings 3:15]. On the other hand, she serves to cast out Satan, the instigator of all sins, as is shown in Saul, the king of Israel [I Sam 16:23].*

*Martin Luther, “Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae Iucundae,” in Luther’s Works (Vol. 53): Liturgy & Hymns, ed. Ulrich S. Leupold (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 323.

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