By Mike Harland
I love singing in church. For more than 25 years, I’ve served as a worship pastor in a number of churches, large and small. I’ve led choirs and worship teams and helped plan worship services for decades.
I do this because I love music. But even more than that, I love Jesus and want to follow His command to make disciples.
That’s the reason I show up for choir rehearsals, spend hours with my pastor planning worship services, and work closely with church musicians around the country. It’s the reason I write songs for worship—I want people to know Jesus and to grow as His disciples.
As church leaders, that’s our first priority.
But it’s easy to lose sight of that goal. As worship pastors, we can get so caught up in what I call the conservatory approach to music ministry that we lose sight of our mission. This approach focuses on musical excellence and developing great choirs, worship teams, orchestras, and bands.
Those are worthy goals, but we run the risk of losing sight of the bigger mission of the church. This can lead to vibrant music programs that are ends in themselves, separated from the rest of the church’s ministries.
Senior pastors also can fall into this trap by focusing solely on preaching and Bible teaching and losing sight of music’s place in church. When this happens, musical worship is no longer seen as a form of disciple-making. Instead, it’s reduced to a warm-up exercise, getting the congregation ready for the sermon.
Often the pastor and the music minister become disconnected rather than part of the same team. They tolerate one another and try to stay out of each other’s way.
Instead of complementing one another, these ministries become separated—the preaching ministry has one purpose, the Bible teaching ministry another, and the worship ministry still another purpose.
If we’re serious about making disciples, we need to understand these ministries are not separate but should work together for one purpose. And that one purpose is discipleship.
Why music ministry matters
The correlation between how people think and what they sing is astounding to examine. In medical and scientific communities, much has been learned about the links between music, memory, attitude, and emotion.
Unique in God’s creation, people are wired to create melody and rhythm and link them to thought and reason. When those come together, something amazing happens in our souls. We are moved to action and stirred to response.
Filmmakers know this—that’s why they put music scores in movies. Even in the age of silent pictures, someone would play a piano in the theater as the movie played.
Educators know this—that’s why we learn the alphabet by singing a song. Parents know this—that’s why we use songs to teach simple skills to our young children.
Church leaders should know this, too. The songs our people sing become the prayers they will pray in their moments of deepest crisis.
The expression of worship from the heart of God’s people turns into songs of worship sung in the congregation, in the waiting room of a hospital, and yes, even at the bedside of believers going home to be with the Lord.
Many people sitting in our pews won’t be able to remember the points of our sermons. But almost all will remember the songs we sing. It can be argued that much of what our people know and believe about God comes from the songs we sing in church.
And notice I said sing and not hear. Hearing these songs fails to produce the same effects as singing them. Because this is true, what we sing and how we sing in church matters a great deal to all of us.
So what does discipleship look like in a healthy worship ministry? I believe it works in three concentric circles.
The first and smallest circle represents those closest to us. We make disciples through worship first by being a worshipping disciple ourselves, through Bible study, private and corporate worship, and leadership in the home with our families in worship.
The second and somewhat bigger circle represents the people we serve with in worship ministry—members of the choir, band, orchestra, technical staff, or worship team that we lead.
In this community of people connected through ministry purpose, we do more than prepare songs and services. We engage our hearts and minds in message and theology. We pray, we sing, and we worship together.
I often tell choirs or teams I lead that God does a work in us before He does a work through us. If we are not a worshipping community, we will not lead our church well in worship.
The third and largest circle represents the congregation of our church. We engage them during the corporate times of worship, where we sing, pray, give, testify, and respond— all to build up and encourage one another and to encounter our King and Lord, Jesus Christ.
All three circles are essential to a vibrant worship ministry that makes disciples.
God gave us the gift of music. With it, we can inform and inspire. We can take truths about God that transform hearts of people and lock those truths into our souls by singing them to each other.
And together we can praise our God with songs of devotion and adoration from the deepest places of our heart, soul, and mind.
MIKE HARLAND (@MikeHarlandLW) is director of Lifeway Worship Resources.