How can church musicians work with pastors to help ensure that the people of God leave worship services transformed by the Biblical message of the day?
The challenge is to work together, so that the theme or message will be coherently communicated and understood. Whether a congregation has a single part-time musician or a large worship and music staff, collaborative planning involving pastors and musicians will have a positive impact on congregational worship. Musicians, by choosing hymns and worship formats that support the pastor’s sermon, can assure that the Biblical message of the day connects with the people of God in deep and memorable ways.
In my experience, this goal is realized best through a team process. Before the worship team gathers, the pastor has read and studied the text so that initial thoughts have started fermenting in his or her mind. In fact, pastors often select readings and themes months in advance to assure that they have adequate time to study and live with a text. The preacher may also have in mind one or more personal stories that will clarify and illustrate the main theme.
Once the central message is clear, the pastor shares the text and theme for the day with musicians. Serving both as Biblical scholar and preacher, he or she explains how the text affects him or her deeply and personally. The worship and music staff then serves as a sounding board for the pastor’s ideas. Doing this at least one month in advance gives musicians lead-time to select choir, bell choir or special music. At this meeting, the focus always remains on the clarity of the message. Everyone on the team strives to have this message echo through each part of the worship service. Hymns are selected and different worship components weaved together to reinforce the central message and connect it with the lives of the people gathered. In some cases, team members provide feedback again, after a draft of the sermon has been completed, to be sure that the best worship and music choices have been made to support the preacher’s message.
The hymns and liturgies chosen for the day will to communicate the message in a unified way, but they may approach it from different perspectives. The worship that precedes a sermon can be like the rising action in a theater production — it sets up hearts, minds and spirits through song and scripture. The hymns, communion, and prayers that follow the sermon may enthusiastically reinforce the sermon theme or may allow the congregation to reflect on the message, leaving people renewed and prepared to re-enter the world.
By inviting musicians to the table, a pastor creates a team of participant-planners, each bringing their unique perspective to a gathering where all struggle to make the Gospel clear. Sharing the process of sermon feedback and service planning provides the preacher with the benefit and the burden of the planning group’s honest reactions. His or her questions for the congregation after preaching can be tried out in advance. Did the core Gospel message come through? Did each aspect of the service connect the text with common human struggles? Was the message transformational and in a vocabulary that could be understood in one hearing?
This team, a mini-congregation, is inspired as the preacher’s passion for the text becomes visible. When their hearts and minds are engaged, the Spirit works so that the “right” hymns come to mind. Musicians and clergy planning together assure that preludes, choral anthems and special music deeply complement and contribute to the clarity of the message and send the people of God into the world with the Gospel on their lips and in their hearts.
Using their personal gifts harmoniously, the planning team helps the congregation hear one message presented with one voice. Then, we trust the Spirit will work in the lives of those gathered for worship and sent forth to serve.