Church Music for the 21st Century: History, Theology, and Practice
An Interview with Dr. Robert Webber
By Craig Gilbert
(As published in Issue #26 of Christian Sound & Song)
It was cold in the room where we met on the campus of the Institute for Worship Studies, and I asked Dr. Webber if he needed my jacket. He agreed and so we had a conversation while Bob sat across the table wearing a windbreaker from my first alma mater, LSU. Somehow it added a dimension of intimacy, having my mentor and friend warmed by my purple and gold wrap. Our topic of discussion was music in the church, so it was appropriate that we met in a church choir room — robes and folder slots on the walls and chairs on risers in the room. It was a typical church choir room, hosting two people with mutual interests in conversation. But for me this was a good deal more.
I was sitting with Dr. Robert Webber — professor, theologian, worship historian, and noted author of many books about worship — to discuss music in the church for the twenty-first century. He and I have talked together before over meals and casually, but this was the first time we have been able to speak in an interview setting. The reader should note that I attend the Institute for Worship Studies where Dr. Webber is the founder and president, and I have been following his thought process ever since I discovered his book, Worship is a Verb. That simple statement and the book forever changed my approach to worship. While I have spent literally thousands of hours now studying many facets of worship, I had an opportunity to interview Dr. Webber on issues of music, and more specifically, practical advice for the working church music director — which would extend to all readers of Christian Sound & Song.
[In the following body of text, Mr. Gilbert's questions follow "CS&S," while Dr. Webber's comments follow the initials "RW." Quotation marks are foregone to improve legibility.]
CS&S: You have committed a sizeable portion of your life to the study of Christian worship. Looking at music specifically, I was wondering if you could tell us about the "classic" use of music in church worship?
RW: Music has been used in a variety of ways throughout the history of the church, but the classical way of using music and all other arts is as servants of the text. What is important in worship is the text, and the text, of course, is God's story. Music sings that text, and the sounds of music express that text. So you would have a sound to express the crucifixion for example, and another sound to express the Resurrection as well as a variety of sounds that would occur throughout the four-fold pattern, which is the classical pattern of worship.
CS&S: I knew that our music was textually driven. I know we can use phrasing, tempo, volume, and style to support text, but I do not believe I have ever intentionally separated "sound" as its own dimension.
RW: Yeah, sound is a communicator. It communicates feelings of joy, of contrition, sorrow, and fear, for example. I think about the use of music in movies where the sounds of the music support the feelings being seen on the screen. Each of these sounds connects us to a feeling and, if possible, a personal memory of when we felt the same way. Well, we have all of these different sounds in the context of telling God's story.
CS&S: So in your observations of today's use of music in worship at the average American church, how is it different from that classical representation?
RW: Well, in the average evangelical church, which is different from a strictly liturgical church, I think music has been captured by the cultural narrative. This narrative is whatever is popular, whether it is a rock, blues, jazz, or country sound, or even a romantic sound. It seems to me that rather than music serving the text of God's story, music is being used to serve the text of today's culture under the premise that music must connect with people where they are. I think this is problematic because both music and the sound of music are then situated outside the Christian narrative and serve a cultural purpose. Music in many churches, from my perspective, has become the servant of entertainment as opposed to the servant of the gospel message of God's good news.
CS&S: So instead of the sound of our music being associated with an event in God's story, it becomes associated with a secular memory.
RW: Yeah, that is a great way to put it.
CS&S: If I am listening to a rock-based song, for example, I can lose the meaning of the text because I am moved to a separate cultural memory by the sound of the music.
RW: Leading to that cultural memory is what I mean by the music serving the cultural narrative. It is a case of the cultural memory of another text and setting being superimposed over the text and setting where we are participating. I think that if you put sound next to text and the sound does not serve the text, then the sound may dominate the text and the meaning can be lost.
CS&S: You have written extensively on the concept of "Ancient Future Worship." As current church music leaders look to the future of music in worship, how is this concept going to affect us?
RW: Well I'm not a musician, but I will answer from a worship standpoint. There really isn't an "Ancient Future" sound, except maybe the Taizé music. What I would encourage is an eclectic approach to sound that reflects all of the historical sounds that have been dominant in the history of church music. Rather than trying to develop a singular sound based in a fairly specific period of history, include a plainchant with a spiritual, perhaps a gospel song with a great hymn of faith and so on.
CS&S: So then these sounds can link together and support each other to reflect the history — and future — of church worship, which of course centers on God's story.
CS&S: So then what will be the greatest challenges for music directors choosing music or sounds for worship in, let's say, the next decade?
RW: I think the biggest challenge is probably re-situating our worship. Our worship has become so centered in the culture, both in text and sound. Our texts have become narcissistic and our sounds an accommodation to cultural sounds; each will need to be re-framed in a resurrection of the story of God. We must acknowledge the uniqueness of God's story. So it will be a challenge for the music minister to plan an eclectic approach that honors that unique story, but it will also be a greater challenge to train a congregation to accept the understanding that it is God's story, not our story. However, we want to embrace God's story as it connects to our story, so that we increase the focus on the cosmic story without dropping the personal story. So training a congregation to think that way and then training them to recover the memory of the church through its music, both old and new, can be a daunting endeavor.
CS&S: I was thinking as I was listening to you that music is in a unique position to remind people of the continuity of a long line of worshipers on which our worship is built. It seems we are faced with a past where music served God's story and that story grew the church. It seems that today we look to music to grow the church and it is assumed that the story will keep them there. You are advocating a return to music's original intent, though not by discarding any particular music, but rather simply changing its intention.
RW: Sure, and that takes us back to the original question here. What does that service sound like? The sound serves the story; it does not exist on its own.
CS&S: Our attitudes toward church music have been reflected in the last fifteen or so years in the division of worship by musical style. Do you see us as a church moving away from this categorization and the tensions that it often creates?
RW: No, I do not, and that is a bit discouraging. I think pluralism is the reigning note, and we will continue to see both the traditional and the "modern" approaches to music selection and the services they support. This tension is not denominational, but rather ecumenical; and it will not really change anytime in the near future. But I think a third option based on the principles we have discussed will, and really already has begun to, offer an alternative approach to music and its role in worship.
CS&S: So as music directors absorb this information and are perhaps inspired to lead the way, do you have any advice or encouragement that we can hang our hats on?
RW: I think it is important that music ministers understand that their role in the church has shifted into pastoral ministry in many ways. Musicians are no longer confined to the corner of music, but musicians have stepped out into the world of pastoral ministry. Music ministry, or worship leadership, or whatever you want to call it, is now inclusive of teaching, pastoral and ministerial healing, counseling through music, and so on. It has broadened to the point — and I think that it should broaden — that there is an extraordinary shift that has occurred here and anyone who cowers back saying, "I am just a choir director," will be not be attuned to the kind of shifts occurring in congregations and congregational leadership. What was formally called a music minister is today, really, a full-blown pastor.
CS&S: I have noticed in my own experience that churches that are really trying to change their approach to worship and music have moved from a senior pastor-driven mentality to one of team work between pastors, music leaders, AV and tech people, and so on.
RW: Yes, this is because the senior pastor-driven worship — the CEO model — has run its course. The team model, or servant model, is definitely the model of the future.
CS&S: How can we as music ministers or worship leaders become more knowledgeable about the issues of worship and music, as well as learn practical applications of that information?
RW: Well, the Institute of Worship Studies was founded to answer that specific question. Here we do not attempt to directly help people with their skills in music, but we help to turn them into the pastors that they need to become to serve the changing needs of the church. We give them the biblical, historical, theological, missiological, and cultural tools to be able to reflect and lead broadly, not just as ministers of music, but as pastors of worship. It is our strategic mission; and there must be a need because we have as many students as we can handle, though we are always working to accommodate more.
CS&S: But you are not talking about an academic approach alone, but a professional, guided, supportive experience that is directly applicable to our local situation?
RW: Exactly, and it is also a wonderful experience to spend a week with a hundred other worship leaders in a close community of learning, conversation, worship, and prayer. This program is a reflection of the role that I believe the future music minister/pastor will assume as they lead their congregations.