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Whitworth program prepares new church musicians

By Beth Kowal

Whitworth College’s assistant music ministry professor Ben Brody considers music in worship a script for a conversation between God and a congregation.

Ben Brody

“Every church has a script for this dialogue.  Some have traditional liturgies while others are improvised,” he said.

“A balanced dialogue is a give-and-take, a two-way conversation,” said Ben, who considers “worship on earth to be a foretaste of what it will be like to come.” 

Believing worship should extend beyond Sundays to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he teaches a new generation of leaders to extend the conversation started in worship to all of life.

“The music ministry program gives students broad understanding and abilities, so they can lead worship in a variety of churches, thinking on their feet as they plan a church’s music,” he said.

At Whitworth, students earning a degree in music with an emphasis in music ministry begin program requirements in their third year. Graduates can seek careers as worship directors, church musicians or music coordinators.

Courses introduce planning worship, praying with a congregation, leading prayers, writing original music, directing children’s and adult choirs, forming a hand bell choir, coordinating a worship team, inviting soloists and communicating with the pastor.

They also cover theology, history, musical development, spiritual development, culture, community, relationships and technology.  

To help students think about music theologically, Ben teaches both biblical foundations for worship and music techniques.  They learn the history of music by exploring liturgical development from New Testament times to current worship issues.

Students learn a breadth of musical mediums and styles, while pursuing in-depth study of their chosen instruments. 

Because music texts influence a worshipper’s dialogue with God, Ben believes a music director needs to assess a congregation’s needs and know its values in order to reflect those values in music that engages and challenges.

“Discerning the balance between songs that reflect a congregation’s values and songs that challenge the values is one of the tasks the music director faces each week,” he said.

Ben also points out that a music director needs to know how to communicate with the pastor. 

“If a director can think theologically about the music, he or she may be better able to relate to the minister’s values,” he said. “It is essential that the director and the pastor communicate similar values.  Congregations suffer if they fail to communicate with each other.”

Because every congregation and community has its preferences of music and worship styles, there is no one-size-fits-all music program, Ben said.

“We need to see worship as a faithful response to God’s grace.  Our response is not just up to us as worshippers to generate enough emotion to feel we are worshipping.  Christ is our intercessor and perfects our offering of worship, making possible our response to God’s grace,” he said.  “Everything we do is a response to God, so the focus of worship needs to be on God, not on the worshippers. 

“Worship should provide an outlet for adoration, confession, thanksgiving and prayers for the world,” he said.

To help students experience solutions to challenges in diverse congregations, they do a semester internship in a church, working eight hours a week to develop their skills as music directors.

The first class of Whitworth music majors with an emphasis in music ministry graduated last spring.  Three completed the two-year program.  One works as full-time music director at a Presbyterian church in Marysville.  Another is part-time guitarist at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane.  The third is working as part-time minister of music and youth at Covenant United Methodist Church in Spokane.

“Students today ask good questions, hone my thinking and provoke new ideas in me.  They also create new ideas, take initiative and develop confidence as they succeed,” said Ben, who grew up in a musical home.

As a young child, Ben heard his father, a music teacher early in his career, play the piano as he went to sleep.  While in high school, Ben played piano, sang and attended a charismatic church. 

When he came to Whitworth College for a music degree, he found the music different from what he had experienced.  He learned to appreciate both the church’s musical heritage and contemporary worship music. 

During his studies, he played chapel music at church, led Hosanna—a student worship gathering at Whitworth—in worship, sang as a bass soloist for Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ and served for two years as a music director at Knox Presbyterian Church. 

“My goal was to become a college choir director, so I could do what I love, and teach students to do what I love,” said Ben, who is also part-time music director at Colbert Presbyterian Church, where he pursues “helping people to worship Jesus Christ.” 

He chooses, prepares and coordinates the music for the services and leads rehearsals.   The church, which is seven years old, allows for flexibility, freedom and creativity. 

He chooses music compatible with the sermon and seeks a balance in themes of hymns, choir music and contemporary music. 

“The congregation likes to try new music and sings energetically.  Each church adds its unique gifts to worship,” said Ben, who values incorporating members’ gifts.

For example, one group enjoys playing blue-grass music, so much of the worship music has a blue-grass feel to it.

Ben believes churches need to educate members to participate in worship: “Adult, youth and children’s classes can teach congregations musical skills.  When people can read notes, a world of music opens to them, so they can have an active role in communicating with God.”

Ben knows that as churches develop and worship preferences change, people are called to different ways of communicating with God. 

“Churches, like gardens, need constant maintenance as seasons change.  Music programs need to cultivate deep, meaningful connections with God,” he said.  “Everyone can plant seeds, water them and help them make the church grow into a place that nurtures worship 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

For information, call 777-1000.

Beth Kowal is a free-lance writer in Spokane.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - © January 2006