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Music for Worship

By Douglas Brown
Published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 28, 2008
For many church music directors, the planning of music for worship services begins not in the dark recesses of the choir’s music library but in the Bible.  We pore over the scriptural passages appointed or chosen for a given service, searching for keywords and themes that might help us to find worship music that will be both meaningful to the congregation and workable with the musical resources available to us.  At Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, where I am the director of music, worship is saturated with scripture; in addition to the four readings from the Bible heard each week, scripture serves as the basis for calls to worship, affirmations of faith, and prayers.  The congregation’s openness and the skill of the adult choir are great gifts to the music director; while working with the huge variety of texts found in the Revised Common Lectionary, a schedule of readings shared by many churches, I have had the freedom to pursue music from both ordinary and unusual sources.  This pursuit has helped me to understand one of the many purposes that music serves in a church worship service: to enter into a kind of dialogue with the Word, shaping how the Word is understood while allowing the Word to shape how the music is heard.


This back-and-forth relationship between text and music can take form in a number of different ways.  In some choral anthems, the text is drawn from large portions of scripture.  Arvo Pärt’s The Woman with the Alabaster Box takes a full seven minutes to cover eight verses from the Gospel of Matthew, and no section of the text is uttered more than once.  Pärt’s setting forces the listener to hear this extraordinary story in slow motion, savoring the silences after each clause in the text; indeed, it is a reminder that music is one of our primary providers of silence.  In addition, the piece is exceptionally dependent on its text; there is no memorable tune, and the length of each measure is determined by the number of syllables in that part of the story.


The third chapter of Genesis tells the familiar story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.  My search for a musical response to this thorny story led me to Alanis Morissette’s Still, the song that accompanies the final credits of the movie Dogma.  Her profound lyrics begin with an extraordinary series of not-quite-opposites: “I am your brilliance and frustration” and “I am your misfits and your praises.”  The chorus reminds us that we, like Adam and Eve, cannot hide our sins from God: “I see you averting your glances” and “I see you altering history.”  Yet, each chorus ends with “and I love you still.”  As a response to the biblical account of original sin, this intense and exhilarating conversation between human sin and divine love forces the listener to hear the familiar story with fresh ears.  In addition, by inserting an Alanis Morissette song into a “traditional” worship service and accompanying it on the pipe organ, we hear her prophetic and challenging lyrics with the unique ears of a worshipping congregation.


Ginter Park Presbyterian’s short worship series on the book of Job led us to Johannes Brahms’ masterpiece, Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen? (Why is light given to one in misery?).  Brahms set the word “warum” so expressively that the listener does not need to understand German to know that this word means “why”.   Indeed, it is this single word that serves as the piece’s unifying element, its relentless repetition brings Job’s anguish to life.


If Still is the most profound mainstream pop song about God, Kanye West’s Jesus Walks may be the most profound about Jesus.  I had never considered Hip Hop to be a potential genre of worship music for even the most progressive Presbyterian church, but in a worship planning meeting with the Rev. Carla Pratt Keyes, it became clear to both pastor and musician that Jesus Walks had an awful lot to say about the text at hand.  In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus defends the limitlessness of forgiveness and his lack of aversion to society’s most notorious sinners; in Jesus Walks, Kanye West juxtaposes an African American Spiritual with less-than-gentle reminders that Jesus walks with all people, no matter how sinful.  For the worship service, Ms. Keyes quoted sections of West’s lyrics as the choir sang the Spiritual; it was a haunting collision of word and music, one thing altering how another was heard.