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Learning To Lead A New Song

May 27, 2008


By Carl Hoover

Wanted: Church Worship Leader. Applicant must have music degree from accredited college or university; theology degree essential. Must demonstrate knowledge of hymnody, contemporary Christian and world music. Must be able to play piano, organ and other instruments. Must be able to lead traditional choir and praise band. Must have superior negotiating and counseling skills and advanced understanding of new technology. Applicant should also be able to walk on water.


Tim Studstill, director of worship and music for the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), says the job description on the opposite page isn't far from what some churches want in a minister of music these days, with one common addition: They usually want someone who's 20 to 40 years old with the requisite skills. While he doesn't believe there's a shortage of music directors and worship leaders, he notes that a lot of churches are looking for them. "I think what you're seeing is a transitional period right now. Churches are looking at who they are with their worship identity," he says. As congregations shift in their musical tastes and appreciation, church leaders are trying to match worship styles to who's in the pews now--and who the churches would like to see there.

"It used to be all you needed was your Bible and your hymnal. That was how you planned your worship service," says Studstill, himself an experienced music minister. "Those days are gone."

What's needed now is much, much more.

When Dr. Randall Bradley, Baylor professor of church music and director of the Center for Christian Music Studies, thinks of the job skills and training that a church music minister needs for a 21st-century world, his list keeps growing. A broad musical background able to appreciate diverse genres and styles. The ability to lead other musicians in worship, whether in choirs, bands or instrumental ensembles. Theological grounding. Spiritual depth and sensitivity. Savvy with audio/visual technology and computers. People skills. A love for God and music.

Bradley, who also is minister of music at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, says the world of music inside and outside the church has drastically changed over the last few decades. Inside, the phenomenal growth of contemporary Christian music has fostered a generation of believers fully comfortable with pop and rock styles in their expression of faith. Outside, digital technology has made music a part of daily life--an essential part, for many--and exposed listeners to a boggling number of genres and flavors. "Church musicians of the past only needed to speak one musical language. If you had classical music, that was enough," he says. "The truth is, that isn't the truth anymore."

As churches tried to accommodate different musical tastes and traditions in their worship services, fights sometimes broke out between advocates of traditional church music and those favoring contemporary styles. The former felt their music better preserved theology and heritage; the latter argued contemporary music encouraged a more personal, emotional response from believers who found its styles more familiar and accessible.

Music's deep emotional pull means any attempted change could trigger passionate protests, but that same power makes it an essential part of meaningful worship. "Music, because it can be so abstract, is a great way to bring people into the mystery of God," explains Tracie Gray, BA '00, MA '03, MDiv '03, who serves as associate pastor of worship and the arts at Willow Meadows Baptist Church in Houston. "It can bring you into the presence of God, with or without text." With text, it can carry doctrine, personal experience, history and Baptist and Christian tradition, she says.

How, then, to navigate the crucial role of music for a congregation in a new era?

Baylor's Center for Christian Music Studies (CCMS) and the University's church music degree programs offer a "third way," says 24-year-old student John S. Woods. "We can affirm both old and new," explains Woods, who's working as the music minister at First Baptist Church of Hamilton as he's earning a dual master's in music and divinity. "The criteria is not traditional vs. contemporary, but does it stand up biblically? Is it theologically accurate? Is it spiritually encouraging?"

Such a flexible approach necessitates a broader training. The best way to prepare a music minister for his or her future work in God's Kingdom is a well-supplied toolbox of skills, believe Bradley and his CCMS colleagues, Drs. Terry York and David Music.

"Our students need the skills they've always needed--music theory, music history, conducting, knowledge of instruments, knowledge of the voice--and more," says Bradley.

Baylor church music students now must take a semester of guitar in addition to demonstrating proficiency in piano, and they must be conversant in using a computer in worship, such as preparing a multimedia presentation that can integrate video clips, new songs and interpretative dance into a worship service.

Bradley points to two strengths of the Baylor church music program, which has an enrollment of some 40 students: its close relation to and support of the University's internationally known School of Music, and a Truett Seminary degree program that allows graduate students to pursue simultaneous master of music and master of divinity degrees. Gray, who finished the dual degree program, praises it, saying it has rooted her music and arts work in solid Biblical soil.

But it's not just programs. The Center brings to Baylor people who provide a wealth of diverse experiences, career paths, spiritual insight and real-world practicality. The Hearn Innovators in Christian Music Series, which evolved from the 2002 and 2004 Hearn Symposia on Christian Music, puts Baylor students in direct contact with those who create, direct or shape church music in creative ways. The series, named after Baylor alum and Sparrow Corp. founder Billy Ray Hearn, BA '54, brings presenters to campus for three-day residencies, during which time they lecture, share meals with students and interact with them personally. In the fall of 2007, contemporary Irish hymn writers Keith and Krysten Getty shared their experiences with students through the Hearn series. This spring, ethnomusicologist Roberta King came to Baylor.

The Northcutt Lectures, funded through an endowment given by class of 1958 alums LeGrande and Cassandra Northcutt, has brought leading church music scholars to Baylor's School of Music. Since its establishment in 1985, the lecture series has drawn a Who's Who of church music to campus, including hymnist Jane Marshall, conductor Robert Shaw, composer Alice Parker, children's music educator Helen Kemp, and professors Donald Hustad and Paul Manz.

"We felt that church music should be a part of the Baylor music program," says Cassandra Northcutt, who is also on the board of the CCMS. "In order to do that, we figured it would be good to bring in some of the leading church musicians across the country to lecture to the students and share with them the importance of music in churches and theology that can be taught through church music."

The Baylor Association of Church Musicians adds to the mix of church music professionals, scholars and artists who share their insights and perspectives with music ministers in training.

"Our students gain valuable insight and grow as we bring these outside people to Baylor," Bradley explains. "If a church music student spends four years at Baylor, he or she will come in contact with a huge percentage of the most important names in Christian music."

The Center offers resources and ideas for church musicians and ministers of music, as well. In its seventh year, the Alleluia! Conference offers four days of workshops and addresses in church choral music, children's choirs, worship leadership and musical performance. Joining the CCMS in organizing and supporting the conference are the BGCT, Choristers Guild, Jubilate! and the national youth choir organization YouthCUE.

The Center's faculty of Bradley, York and Music are active scholars as well, publishing books on worship trends, American hymnody and contemporary church music.

Providing guidance and fresh ideas for the Center is a diverse 24-person advisory board whose members include Christian music publishers, songwriters, performers, scholars, church musicians, pastors, ministers and laypersons. One of those advisors, Christian music publisher Don Cason, BEd '76, shows how real world opportunities can change college plans. Cason studied music education at Baylor in the 1970s, intending on a career as a church minister of music. His work at Word Music, a Waco-based powerhouse in the growing field of contemporary Christian music, took him instead into music publishing. In a notable 28-year career with Word, he oversaw all print music publication, worked with such songwriters as Michael W. Smith and Wayne Watson, and served as Word Music president. Cason recently left Word to create his own publishing company, ClearCall Music. "What I thought of as a niche was as much an opportunity to serve as a music minister," he reflects. "I'm pleased Baylor is making moves to be attentive to meet the needs of future church musicians."

The advisory board, faculty and students involved in the Center have an ambitious vision for what the CCMS is becoming. "Christian music needs a place where musicians and worship leaders can come together to share ideas and be inspired while discussing important issues regarding the role of Christian music in the world," says Bradley. "Baylor is emerging as a leader in this field."

Established in 1984 with a modest endowment, Bradley says the CCMS really needs to build on that endowment to fulfill its potential. The University is looking for funding that would support a director as well as individual program areas within the Center.

The focus of all the education and training opportunities, however, is still the person. Churches shopping for the fanciest, trendiest resumés need to remember that, says Studstill. "A lot of churches overlook someone who can fit in the culture of their church for someone who can do a particular style. But styles change. Where does your leisure suit go when it goes out of style?" he asks.

Bradley would agree, believing the end result of a diverse musical, ministerial education is doing God's work through music as the Spirit leads--and a congregation needs. That is precisely the type of education that Baylor's Center for Christian Music Studies is equipped to provide. What Baylor music ministry student Woods termed the "third way" may simply be an ability and willingness to employ a broad musical palette in moving believers to a deeper understanding of God.

Recently, Woods taught his rural Texas congregation a Swahili praise chorus, "Mwamba ni Yesu"--"Jesus is the Rock." The African song wasn't a case of a young minister showing off his knowledge. Rather, there was a meaningful congregational connection: Woods and his wife Lindsay had traveled to Kenya on a mission project sponsored by Baylor's University Missions and the CCMS. During that time, their Hamilton church prayed for and supported them; now, thanks to a music minister trained to embrace broader horizons, those church members could receive back from African Christians sharing with fellow believers across the globe.

As Woods says, "Nothing unites us as believers like common songs in Christ."

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