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Tenor of the Times: Who’s training music ministers?

Rob Johnson was a tennis pro before becoming worship leader at Fellowship Church in Grapevine. Not the traditional path to music ministry in a Baptist church, to be sure. But Johnson’s journey into ministry resembles that of an increasing number of church musicians who are bypassing traditional seminary training.

Some, like Johnson, are called out by the congregations where they have been serving as lay leaders. Others go to large churches for internships or associate minister of music positions instead of seminary training. Still others concentrate their music education in an undergraduate or master’s degree from a traditional music school at a university rather than a seminary.

Johnson first stepped into the music ministry at Fellowship Church as a member of the praise team. He had been playing tennis in the United States and Europe and teaching tennis to pay the bills. But he always had an interest in music and demonstrated gifts in that area as well.

Eventually, he felt God was moving him away from tennis. “I just made myself available and started really helping out in the ministry,” he recalled. Then he became an intern for the music pastor at Fellowship Church.

He’s been the church’s full-time worship pastor for two and a half years now.

“If you had told me that a few years ago, I would have said, ‘I don’t’ think I can do that,'” he explained.

But he believes his gifts clearly match the needs of Fellowship Church. “The vision God has put in Ed (Young, the pastor) for this church fits the needs that I can bring. When I look at the rest of our staff, I can see how God has moved all these people here for reasons.”

Declining enrollment

Nationwide, enrollment in seminary music programs is declining as churches look to people like Johnson to lead worship music. The Association of Theological Schools, a primary accrediting agency of seminaries, reports an 18 percent drop in master’s degree programs in church music in the last five years.

That is the largest enrollment drop in any area of U.S. theological education. And it’s not the first time. Similar patterns have been recorded for several years.

Not all seminaries are willing to let the new trend leave them flat, however. They are working hard to adapt to changing needs while still teaching the music fundamentals required of academic institutions.

“We are acknowledging that we are in a contemporary context,” said Terry York, director of the church music program at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. “We teach contemporary. But we also teach basics. They’ve got to know Bach and Beethoven, regardless of what CDs are selling right now.”

The same is true at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s School of Church Music, said Dean Benjamin Harlan.

“There are a lot of avenues to get into church music other than going to seminary,” he acknowledged. “We are not the default stop in church music we used to be.”

Changing curriculum

But Southwestern is adapting its training of church musicians more than the average Baptist probably realizes, Harlan said.

“We have some pretty substantive things that have happened in our curriculum today.”

One of those changes is modeling for students a variety of worship styles. “We experience lots of different types of music, something to offend everybody,” he said. “We model it all, and students see that in a healthy way.”

Southwestern also is developing a new master of arts in worship degree. This 45-hour program will offer some traditional theology and music training, along with courses such as creative worship, musical drama in worship, technology in worship and contemporary issues in church music.

Baylor also has taken a new track in church music education, offering a dual degree in church music and theology. The program combines the core of the master of divinity degree with the core of the master of music degree.

York sees this as a first step from modernity to postmodernity. And it’s made possible, he explained, by the unique setting of Truett Seminary residing within a university like Baylor.

“This is allowing us to move beyond where the stand-alone seminaries have been for so long,” he said.

Harlan, meanwhile, contends traditional seminaries also offer distinct advantages with an emphasis on training for ministry as well as music. “We have specific courses in ministry, supervised ministry, congregational worship.”

The strength of Southern Baptists’ seminary-based church music training has been reflected in the strength of churches’ total music programs, Harlan said.

This has allowed Baptist churches to build large age-graded music programs and strong worship experiences, he said. “One reason our congregations were congregations of singing people was from the time our children were old enough, we taught them to sing. We gave them opportunities to express their faith through music.”

New songs

Today, the worship experience of many Baptist churches looks dramatically different than it did in the heyday of seminary church music programs. Large numbers of churches now offer contemporary worship driven by praise teams, instrumental ensembles, soloists, projection screens and pop-music style. Hymns have given way to praise choruses. And organs have been replaced by electronic keyboards and drums.

At Fellowship Church, for example, worship planning taps a combination of creative skills and technical skills.

“I love being a part of the creative side of stuff,” said Johnson, the worship pastor. “One of the trends is not just picking out songs; it’s using the creativity that God gives you to keep the service interesting. As we do it here, our whole idea is to support what (the pastor) is going to be speaking on. We try to bring the congregation to a point where they’re ready to receive the word God has given him.”

Some of this just can’t be learned in seminary, said Don McCall, director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas church music office. “The only way you can learn it is from other people–friends, peers, going to other churches. It’s sort of passed around.”

Sometimes, it seems nightclub experience might be the best preparation for what some pastors want their music leaders to emulate, McCall said. “It’s like a nightclub band sound you’re trying to create.”

Some pastors, driven by a desire for church growth, have difficulty explaining the musical style they want created, he reported.

As an example, he cited a church where he served as interim minister of music: “The pastor said to me, ‘You’re not cutting it.’ I said, ‘Tell me what I need to do to make it happen.’ The pastor said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll know when I feel it.’

“He could not verbalize what he wanted,” McCall said, but quickly added that most church musicians quickly learn they must figure out what the pastor wants in order to survive. “Those ministers of music who have wisdom and natural ability to figure out what the pastor wants to feel can make it happen.”

Best of both worlds

Robert Elkins, music associate at First Baptist Church of Euless, offers a unique perspective on the issue. He was trained in a highly rated commercial music school, Berklee College of Music in Boston, but chose to get a seminary degree afterward.

“I feel like I had the best of both worlds,” he said. “I had the contemporary training and the seminary training.”

And that’s really what today’s ministers of music need, he suggested.

“A lot of church music today is along the same genre as pop, rock and jazz,” Elkins said. So his experience as a jazz musician “really helped me” in preparing for contemporary church music leadership.

While a student at Southwestern Seminary, Elkins played in a jazz ensemble that modeled contemporary worship styles.

Even though he learned modern music styles before arriving at seminary, the seminary experience was necessary to complete his education, he said.

“I felt the need for training in church music, choral techniques and vocal training, the hymnology, the history of church music.”

Having seen both sides of the street, he realizes seminaries are adapting to current needs–but slowly.

“Seminaries are getting better at it, but they have been slow in introducing (contemporary) styles. I’ve heard today a lot of pastors in the big churches won’t even hire somebody out of seminary because they want to go the contemporary route.”

And Elkins said he noticed “some frustration in some of my colleagues while I was at seminary in just not feeling like there’s much help in how to do contemporary worship. There’s a great need for that.”

He agreed with McCall that “a lot of my colleagues have to learn from each other what works best, how to make a worship service flow, how to work with a rhythm section.”

Networking

It’s ironic, then, that the best place to build collegial relationships that last a lifetime may be in seminary.

Jon Hollan, minister of music at Hampton Road Baptist Church in Dallas, entered music ministry with an undergraduate degree from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. He chose not to attend seminary because he didn’t feel called to seminary, he said.

Hollan has been leading church worship since he was 16, serving several Texas Baptist churches and later leading a touring ensemble from Mary Hardin-Baylor.

As far as doing his work effectively, he doesn’t regret not going to seminary, he said. He believes the education he received at Mary Hardin-Baylor prepared him well. But he does wonder if theseminary experience would have provided a greater network of support.

“There are a lot of times I feel at a loss not necessarily for how to do my job, but how to be in touch with colleagues and peers who have been to seminary,” Hollan said. “It’s the networking side of it.”

Whether seminary trained or not, networking is a key to staying current on church music styles and practices, insisted McCall, the BGCT’s church music leader.

This role increasingly is filled by commercial music companies that produce elaborate workshops each year, he said. At these workshops, professional groups demonstrate the latest music with a kind of glamour and pizzazz that cannot easily be reproduced in the typical Baptist church.

What’s contemporary?

Herein lies one of the biggest hurdles highly structured seminary music programs face in staying current. What’s contemporary today may be passé tomorrow.

“We’ve seen a great change in the landscape in our Southern Baptist churches, and I would be the first one to say it’s going to change again,” Harlan said.

While some might see that as an impossible moving target, Harlan sees it as an indication of the need to teach basic skills for a lifetime of ministry.

“Any educator worth his salt realizes seminary education is not where all the training happens,” he explained. “Learning is a lifelong discipline. All we can do is give a student the tools to go out and spend a lifetime learning.”

York echoed this sentiment, noting that training church musicians has become “incredibly more complex.”

“In a three-year time frame, we have to teach them all the foundational elements of music, church music, then church music today and then how to discern whether it’s fad or trend.”

On top of that, the seminary must prepare students to walk out the door and into churches that may not look anything alike.

“I love what I do, but every day I come to work, I feel the weight on my shoulders of how in the world can we get these students in three years prepared to live until they’re 65 in such a diverse and ever-changing worship and music setting,” York said. “It’s a challenge far bigger than me.”

Music meets politics

In the Southern Baptist context, that challenge has been compounded by the political and theological climate of the last 20 years, added John Dickson, professor of conducting at Texas Tech University and minister of music at Second Baptist Church of Lubbock.

Before moving back to Texas two years ago, Dickson taught conducting at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s School of Church Music in Louisville, Ky. He witnessed the influence of that seminary music school shift dramatically at the convergence of national worship trends and Baptist politics.

Moderate Baptist churches tend to be more in the market today for classically trained church musicians, while more conservative churches tend to gravitate toward contemporary music styles, he noted. As Southern Seminary shifted its focus in 1993 to appeal to more conservative churches, it lost connection with the moderate churches that had supported the church music school.

“That’s where all the (SBC) seminaries have gotten themselves in this no-man’s land,” Dickson said. “They are no longer attractive to the moderate churches that would require a classically trained church musician. And the conservative churches they are attractive to don’t see the need for seminary-trained church musicians.”

The long-term problem created by this shift is that many large and prominent Baptist churches still offer traditional or blended worship and desire classically trained music leaders, he said. “I don’t know 10 years from now where they’re going to find the people to fill those staff positions.”

One answer, Dickson believes, may be from universities like Baylor or even Texas Tech.

“Two of my conducting students here at Tech want to be ministers of music,” he said. “They are doing graduate degrees in choral conducting. I am mentoring them in a variety of ways outside the conducting lessons, trying to help them with my experience.”

Where’s the ministry?

The thing that’s most likely to be lost in all these shifting trends is an emphasis on church music as ministry, York warned.

“Ministry is getting the short end of the stick,” he said. “Just music performance and practicality is what churches are looking for today.”

Yet the church is best served by a music program that emphasizes both performance and ministry, York suggested. “In ministry, you’re concerned about the process. In producing only, you’re concerned about the final product only.”

Harlan agreed and suggested that church musicians who do not value their role as ministers will not last long-term.

“The guy who’s a business major at Tarleton State University but plays the guitar and wants to be a worship leader, he’s not going to last 10 years out,” Harlan predicted.

What seminaries must do is provide the life-learning skills ministers of music need and help them learn to contextualize, Harland said.

Some of the best ministers of music in Texas Baptist churches today are seminary graduates who have stayed current, he said. “They’ve been able to go out and contextualize.”

Mark Wingfield is managing editor of the Baptist Standard, from which this article was reprinted with permission.