How One Worship Pastor Prepares for a Performance of Handel’s Messiah

Zac HicksArt and Worship, Worship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Leading TipsLeave a Comment

This Friday, at Coral Ridge, choirs from our church and and school (Westminster Academy) will join some of South Florida’s finest soloists, some of the best players from Miami’s musical scene, and organist Chelsea Chen to perform what will no doubt be a stellar interpretation of G. F. Handel’s Messiah. They will be conducted by Renee Costanzo, director of the choral program at Westminster Academy.

The longer I dabble in this field of “Worship & Arts,” the clearer sense I get of the kinds of things that go into being uniquely called as a worship leader who functions in a pastoral manner. One of my most viral posts ever was my comparison of the difference between a “lead musician” and a “worship pastor.”…and for good reason. New and rising worship leaders are hungry for a model that transcends the relatively thin and non-lasting allure of rock-star-dom (just ask my friend, Stephen Miller). 

Our church’s preparation of Handel’s Messiah has given me a chance to stretch my wings when it comes to be what some call an “Arts Pastor,” and here are three things I have learned and am attempting to do to be pastorally engaged in this moment.

1. A Worship Pastor Can Be a Cheerleader for Artists

When our choir director and choir began preparing for Messiah this Summer, I wanted part of my role to be supporter and encourager. Throughout the journey, I tried to send texts and emails as well as offer words of encouragement to everyone involved. As any artist knows, the emotional, physical, spiritual, and psychological labor and trauma that goes along with engaging, preparing, and presenting a piece of art is off the charts, and the last thing artists need is a whip-cracking dictator reminding them of deadlines and obligations. Part of my job was to attempt to be a pressure-valve operator, releasing angsty expanding gasses of stress with words of affirmation and encouragement. There have been moments along the journey where artists have been at near burn-out, and my job was at least in part to stand in the gap for them, help them solutionize creative ways to relieve their burdens, and even provide emergency-room-style moments of triage and respite.

2. A Worship Pastor Can Intercede for Artists and Encourage Them to Pray as Well

In quiet moments, when my thick skull was broken into by the Holy Spirit, I was reminded to pray for the artists involved and for the audience God would gather. It is so counter-intuitive to hard-working, do-more-try-harder, efficiency-addicted Americans like me to think that our chief work is the surprisingly passive activity of prayer. Yet releasing art-making and art-receiving into the hands of God is one of the most important things we can do.

At the same time, when we started on this journey, I reminded the choir that performing Handel’s Messiah is oddly one of the most opportune moments to reach out to the city with the raw message of the gospel. When else would non-Christians voluntarily submit themselves to a barrage of musical meditations on pure Scriptural texts, hand-picked by the compiler to tell the story of Jesus throughout the whole Bible?  Then, as we were nearing the home stretch of the performance last week, I shot an email to the choir, again reminding them to pray. From personal experience, I know that it actually blesses the artists and the art-making when they themselves pray for all of that. Part of my job, when the artist is a Christian, is to remind them of this sacred joy of their art-making. It’s a perennial problem for us artists that, in the frenzy and fervor of the process, we forget to pray and minimize its importance. The pastor in this moment graciously stands in that gap.

3. A Worship Pastor Can “Spiritually Curate” Artists’ Work for Their Flock and City

Honestly, this has been the most exciting part of this process. I’ve chosen to do something for the performance which I think, though not unheard of, is quite unique. I’ve chosen to attempt to pastorally “curate,” in a non-invasive kind of way, the experience of the art. It started, for me, with some research into Messiah–its context, origins, libretto, and composer–and then engaging in some consulting with people far more experienced than I am. Shortly after procuring Calvin Stapert’s great book, Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People, I sat down for coffee and French pastries with two friends who live in this world of art- and theological-reflection far more than I–Dan Siedell, Art Historian and Residence at the King’s College, NYC, and Jono Linebaugh, Professor of New Testament at Knox Seminary. My simple questions to them were along the lines of, “How do I make the listeners’ experience of Messiah both purposeful for the mission of our church and honoring to the work of art?” Their insights were profound, yet simple. They encouraged me to not turn the experience into an intellectual and historical enterprise of “educating” the people about the piece. Instead, they advised me to do some simple things to help “aim” people’s affections at both the intentions of Handel and his librettist (Charles Jennens) and our church’s mission to “declare and demonstrate the liberating power of the gospel” so that the people would feel, through the art, the story of Jesus.

The fruit of this was to create simple “column notes” in our program which connected to various sections of the libretto, encouraging people with action verbs to “listen for,” to “feel,” to “hear,” to “remember” various aspects of the piece’s music as it connected with the text and their lives.  So, for example:

OVERTURE

The repeated long notes followed by short notes were a Baroque device used to signify the pomp and splendor of a king. Hear His entrance, filled with glory and pain. The overture’s second half summons us to dance to its rhythms, giving a foretaste of the joy Christ will one day bring to His people.

CHORUS (“And He Shall Purify”)

Following the ARIA, the CHORUS is relaxed in tempo and key. Hear how the “purification” is comforting, yet not without pain.

CHORUS (“Surely He Hath Borne”)

Notice how the strings are rhythmic throughout the first section about our griefs and sorrows but contrastingly elongate with the voices in uncomfortable dissonances when the text speaks of His wounding and bruising. Pause over the injustice the Perfect One being punished for our imperfections.

The notes are meant to be simple, so that people don’t tarry too long on them. They are a waymark, a pointer. They are intended to start people on the track so that they listen well with right intentions while not getting bogged down in “artistic analysis.” In this way, I’m trying to “spiritually curate” the art. I have no doubt it could be better, but this is my broken attempt at being faithful to this call in this moment. 

The Hope in All of This

The hope in all of this is not for an “enhanced artistic experience.” It is for people to do what I think the librettist and maybe Handel intended–to provoke awe at the story of the Baby for whom “nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.” It is to promote (in the language of James K. A. Smith) the aiming of our affections toward the ends humanity was created for–adoration of the Son, to the Father, by the Spirit.

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