Music Education & Music Ministry

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A good marriage, well matched from the beginning and faithfully attended to as the years go by, will invariably be a multigenerational blessing to the community.  We’ve seen it time and again and the joy of it grows deeper and deeper as if time itself only served to make it stronger.  This is true when young people find each other in the will of God, make holy vows and keep them regardless of the obstacles and unexpected turns on the highways of life they choose or are chosen for them. It works.  It is the primary organizational factor of the human race, just as Jesus Himself declared.

Matthew 19:4-6 NKJV

“Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?  So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

I see this promise as a metaphor for another potential match that is too often ignored in the Family of God and the results are also multigenerational in their loss.  Music ministry, or worship ministry if you prefer, uses music as a primary carrier of both spirit and truth, the fundamental elements of True Worship according, again, to the words of Jesus.

John 4:23-24 NKJV

But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.  God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

In view of this fact, an understanding of music is as essential to the worship leader as the study of anatomy is to the surgeon. Yet, in too many cases, worship leaders attempt to use music as the connector of the Holy Spirit with the People of God without a thorough knowledge of music itself.  This is like a surgeon cutting into a body when he has failed to study anatomy. That worship leader is then dependent upon some musician somewhere on the team who does understand music and how it is made.  This deficiency is a major hindrance to the move of the Holy Spirit in public worship and the transfer of music skill and wisdom from one generation to the next.

Does the Bible speak to musical skill?
Look to the Old Testament and that wonderful historical epoch when King David erected a temporary tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant on Mt. Zion and, in the next generation, his son, King Solomon, built the Temple.  Here I see a parallel universe to our modern epoch, an historical illustration in the use of music: grand choirs and orchestras led the People of God in public worship.  The result?—The glory of the Lord filled the House of God!  Then as now, such worship music had to be led; it didn’t just happen.  Leaders were appointed by the King and this was considered an appointment from heaven.  Why were these leaders chosen from among their peers?  “Because they were skillful,” The Bible says. Here is a condensed version of this history, first from King David’s rule and then from the rule of King Solomon:

1 Chronicles 15:16-23 NKJV

Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy. So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brethren, Asaph the son of Berechiah…Chenaniah, leader of the Levites, was instructor in charge of the music, because he was skillful

1 Chronicles 25:6-7 NKJV

All these were under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord, with cymbals, stringed instruments, and harps, for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the authority of the king. So the number of them, with their brethren who were instructed in the songs of the Lord, all who were skillful, was two hundred and eighty-eight.

It is clear from this history that musical skill was essential to music leadership.  It has always been so.  Skill is the partner of the anointing.  God chooses us, that is, He “anoints” us, selecting us for a life of leadership in music.  Our effectiveness is the product of His power flowing through us. He is the Treasure, and we are the earthen vessel.

2 Corinthian 4:7 NKJV

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.

The power of God flowing through us is shaped by our lives just as liquid contained in a jar takes the shape of the jar.  God calls us but we must prepare for the residence and the flow of His power through us.  I knew of a young lady who, when the pastor moved away, suddenly had to take the place of a pastor’s wife who was an excellent worship pianist.  This lady was a fine singer, but she had never developed her piano skills.  She could only play in the keys of C and F.  She had to learn how to play in more keys if the church was going to continue to worship in the depth they had known.  She was an anointed singer.  The church was still anointed to worship God in spirit and in truth.  Their worship music was still blessed by God but the lack of skill at the piano served to hinder the worship of the church.  When she became more skillful, her lack of skill no longer hampered the worship of the people while her newfound skill facilitated it. What can we learn from this account?

Skill releases anointing. Lack of skill inhibits anointing.

This is what I call the partnership of skill and anointing.  Only God can anoint people to specific tasks, but these anointed ones must then discipline their “earthen vessel” that houses and channels the flow of the power of God.  If we feel a call to lead the music of worship, doesn’t it make sense that we should become skillful in the ways of music? For more the subject of the anointing, see this essay:

The Marvelous Gift of Notation
Music is a part of God’s creation: measured vibrations of a string or a column of air designed to produce the three basic elements of music:

  1. Pitch,
  2. Rhythm, and
  3. Tone.

These things were created by God. They exist in nature. Through the centuries of human history, man has developed the ways and means of cultivating, organizing, preserving, and presenting music. One of the most fertile of all the fields where this cultivation has taken place is the House of Worship in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Music became the facilitator of the heart-felt expressions of God’s Covenant People in both the Old and New Testaments.

An ever-present challenge through these centuries has been the transfer of music from person to person and from generation to generation.  In the early centuries of Christian worship, as the church was growing throughout the far reaches of the Roman Empire, language barriers and cultural differences hindered these crucial transfers.  Skillful worship leaders began to develop ways of preserving in symbolic language the sounds of their songs.  What we now know as a musical staff with 5 lines and 4 spaces began as a single line.  Tiny symbols were placed on, over, or under the line approximating distances in pitch.  In the beginning these symbols were not called “notes.”  They were called “neumes,” a word derived from the Greek word for “breath,” a reference to the “breath of God,” the life-imparting gift from God to Adam.  Each “neume” was like a portion of the breath of life. Check out my essay on this topic:

In constant use, a system of musical notation came to exist and continued to develop. By the 18th and 19th centuries, it had fully evolved into an elegant and versatile graphic language. Notation enabled huge musical ensembles of singers and players to discover, prepare, and present simple songs or gigantic masterworks involving scores of people in detailed performances of complex music.  Musical notation also preserves the works of the past to keep historic compositions alive and useful.  In short, notation enables the transfer of music from person to person and from generation to generation, and thus, it useful in the music of worship. Notation enables the church to obey the commands of God to “sing and make music” from “generation to generation.”

Psalm 57:7 NIV

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music.

Psalm 79:13 NIV

Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.

Think of it this way: The Bible commands worship that can be shared from person to person and from generation to generation.  The skillful worship leaders since the time of Christ have developed a tool to help us do those very things.  Why are we seeing this influx of non-reading worship leaders when have this efficient and easy-to-use tool, developed in the church, at our disposal?

Music and Pride
One of the great dangers of public ministry is the temptation of pride.  Pride is also a constant threat to those who perform any music on any public stage.  The danger of a pride invasion in our hearts is especially dangerous when the music we make is intended to lead God’s People in worship.  Years ago, I expressed this danger this way:

When a performer succeeds, all eyes are on him or her. When a worship leader succeeds, he or she disappears.

The contrast between these two outcomes is stark indeed.

Another warning comes to us from both James, the Lord’s half-brother, and from the Apostle Peter. These men who knew Jesus personally warn us that,

“God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

(James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV)

I submit to you that the difference between God’s resistance and God’s assistance is also huge.  Worship Teams driven by pride present us with the irony of a stage full of proud singers and players whom God is resisting even as they “sing and make music.” Worship Leaders and worship team members must always be on guard against pride.  It resides in the heart, often skillfully covered up by “humble” behavior.  But be assured that “from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) When there is strife and conflict on the worship team it will eventually be felt and then seen by the congregation.  Leading worship demands total honesty and transparency, if it is to be really “worship in truth.”

What does this have to do with notation?  I have observed that those who have resisted the gift of musical notation often develop a certain brand of spiritual pride in their ability to make music without learning to use notation.  I have heard people state definitively that playing by ear is more spiritual than playing by note.  This is a false spirituality and a self-justifying, prideful position.  If we recognize the historical fact that notation was developed in the church specifically to enable intergenerational worship, we cannot assign devilish pride to its use.  On the contrary, the use of notation is a humbling method that honors the creativity of our forebears in the worship of God.  I believe God’s grace flows in the humble use of this resource. As a bonus, notation makes rehearsals less chaotic and more fun.

What does this have to do with Music Education?
My observation is that many worship ministries today are based on pop music.  The songs are in the various pop music styles as is  the instrumentation as well.  The tech involved is often an imitation of a pop concert in its chosen effects.  It seems many worship leaders make these choices because they want to reach people who listen to pop music.  This is generally done from a sincere desire to engage young people in worship before we lose them to the world. Yet there is a theological danger here that I will address in conclusion of this essay.  Now, I want to point out that there are many more subcultures in any modern/postmodern community than just what is heard on the radio.  In any community with a healthy public school system there are also these cultures:

  • School Marching and Concert Bands,
  • Community Bands,
  • School and Community Choirs,
  • School Drama and Musical Productions, and
  • Community Theatre Companies.

In short, the artistic groups within our communities are many and varied.  If church leaders choose only to frame public worship in the shape and sound of pop music, they are missing some powerful opportunities to share the Gospel. The often overlooked blessing music education affords is the careful training of young people to sing and play at high levels of skill—all at no cost to the church!  Such a deal!  Here is my heart-felt appeal to young instrumentalists:

  • Your private teacher can teach you to play your horn,
  • Your band director can teach you to play with others,
  • But only by playing the Lord’s music can you learn to play with the anointing.

My prayer is that their worship leader will be wise enough and skillful enough to engage them in the ministry of worship music.

Music Ministry and Music Education
Since music ministry can be seen as a branch of music education, it makes sense to structure our music, and all of our creative ministries, according to some of these other cultural communities within the community at large. Our worship music ministry must expand to become a diverse and detailed Worship Arts Ministry.

When I was a teenager seeking the will of God for my life, I felt a call to music leadership in the church as well as a call to be a school band director.  However, I was also called to preach. (see: I tried my best to honor the conventional wisdom in my branch of the church—The Assemblies of God—to attend Bible college if your were called to preach.  However, the Lord had placed two callings on my life: music and preaching.  Through a series of miraculous events, I landed at a small state college to study music education.  I would develop my preaching skills through correspondence study.  Years later when I began my ministry as a “Minister of Music,” I found that I was better prepared than many of my peers who had gone to Bible colleges to lead all the worship artists of the church because I was trained as a music educator.   My Bachelor of Music Education degree had delivered to me a deep understanding of music theory, of vocal and instrumental technique, of musical forms, of the rules of composition and arranging, of choral and instrumental conducting, and even the basics of music theatre.  I identified the BME as a license to become a professional musician.  Years later I took my training to the next level with a Master of Music Education degree.

Your Story
Ok. That’s my story and I realize that yours might be quite different.  I want to make two applications from my history:

  1. If you are young and you feel God calling to lead worship, go for the music education degree. So much of what you will learn will be so useful to you as you lead the musicians God sends to you.  You will also be able to be a part of the community of music teachers or to play in community bands or to sing in community choirs.  As a card-carrying member of this tribe, you will find rewarding friendships and your very own mission field.
  2. If you have felt the call to lead worship later in life and college is not an option for you, this is most likely because you sing or play at a high level of skill. If your skill set does not include reading notation, please discipline yourself to learn how it is done.  Notation is your best friend and it is your connection to the people you lead.  Don’t listen to the lies of the devil saying you can’t learn—you can!  God has given you the talent—the Treasure has been installed in your heart to do this work—now work on your earthen vessel!  Guess what—it ain’t hard to learn to read music!  It is a graphic language.  Short notes look short and long notes look long.  High notes look high and low notes look low.  Thick harmony looks thick and thin harmony looks thin.  Lead sheets are a good place to start.  Don’t just look at the words, follow the tune up and down and all around.

An Errant Theology of Worship

As I promised near the beginning, there is today a serious error at work in the hearts of so many leaders in our churches.  They approach public worship from this idea:

“Worship is a church growth tool.”

It is usually expressed in terms of “doing this music to reach these people.”  The result is music selection and presentation based on what we think people want to hear.  This is not worship in truth.  In all of scripture there is only one function for the music of worship—to minister to the Lord!  My life verse is one of the places where this is stated so clearly:


Psalm 29:1-2 NKJV

Give unto the Lord, O you mighty ones, Give unto the Lord glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name; Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

The Apostle Peter tells how to do this:

1 Peter 2:9 NKJV

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;


We must shift our emphasis from ministering to people to ministering to the Lord.  We must see the true purpose of our music is to “give unto the Lord the Glory due His name.” Let this be the standard by which we judge our music: “Is this the glory due His name?” When we do, He is enthroned upon our praise as He inhabits our praise (Ps 22:3)  and He minsters to people.  In this context we can shape our worship ministries by a higher, more inclusive, and more joyful context of a return to worship music as described in the Bible—large ensembles of singers and players.  Where would we find these people?  Now, what was the name of that high school?

Semper Reformanda!

Stephen Phifer

© 2023 by Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Music Education & Music Ministry

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