Church Music, Congregational Life, and Theological Education in Harmony: Toward a New Approach for Musical Advocacy

By Witvliet, John D. | The American Organist, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Church Music, Congregational Life, and Theological Education in Harmony: Toward a New Approach for Musical Advocacy


Witvliet, John D., The American Organist


A plenary address given at the October 2005 AGO symposium on church music and theological education held at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas.

The prophetic voice

It is a dangerous move to name a church music conference "the prophetic voice." Prophets, after all, say things like "away with your songs" and "I detest your pious offerings."1 Verses like these from Isaiah or Amos are typically not theme verses for our church choirs or music committees.

Prophets denounce the disintegration of conviction and practice, the disconnection of prayer and justice. Prophets hate anything that displaces God from the center of our devotion, even if it does make music. Prophets know that our greatest temptation to idolatry often comes not from things far away from the worship of God, but rather from the things closest to it. In the words of Abraham Heschel, what the ancient prophets attacked "was supremely venerable: a sphere unmistakably holy, a spirituality that had form and substance, that was concrete and inspiring, an atmosphere overwhelming the believer-pageantry, scenery, mystery, spectacle, fragrance, song, and exaltation."2 It all sounds rather like a good worship conference! In short, the prophetic voice interrogates what most of us spend our life promoting.

Fortunately, the prophet's role is more than that of criticism. To use Walter Breuggemann's evocative phrase, prophets not only engage in "criticism and the embrace of pathos" but also offer "prophetic energizing and the emergence of amazement."3 The prophetic word always calls us back to a vibrant vision of a God-centered abundant life that reconnects all the disparate strands of our lives into a tight-knit fabric of faithfulness. Prophets know that the most profound alleluias are those that resonate against the backdrop of lives marked by integrity and hospitality. As Heschel takes pains to point out, most prophets actually don't hate music and liturgy. What they love and call us to is seamless integrity between worship and life.

One of the ways to picture this seamlessness is through a musical metaphor. While in prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer developed a remarkably vivid and evocative image of the Christian life as polyphony, in which our love for God "provides a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint." As Bonhoeffer suggested, "where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits."4 Here is an image that speaks to the prophetic concern for integrity of worship and life and offers those of us who make music some "prophetic energizing and the emergence of amazement." It is an image, to mix metaphors, with which we musicians can resonate.

Changing the question

Reflecting on the words of the ancient prophets and on Bonhoeffer's image has led me to ask some very different questions than I originally planned to explore here. When I accepted the invitation to address the topic of music and theological education, I imagined that my goal would be to ask how we might protect the endangered species of music in theological education. This approach to advocacy would have focused on music in itself. It would have produced yet another address that preaches to the choir about the importance of church music. It would have complained about all those obtuse people out there who can't see the importance of church music and won't fund it.

But today, the questions I want to raise are not "how can music claim its rightful place" nor "how big can we build our musical barns and silos?" Rather, I want to ask how we musicians can more intentionally be of service to our congregations and schools. How can we more genuinely give ourselves away? How can we move from "silo" thinking to "honeycomb" thinking-from thinking and working in isolation to thinking and working in collaboration? How can we see our work as profoundly interrelated with other aspects of both congregational life and theological education? …

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