In the end, the activity of discernment is a tool, a means to a higher end, a way of helping us become, through the Spirit’s power, “pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the flory and praise of God.” May we yearn for and cultivate this gift, and then see it bear fruit in worship that is God-honoring, Christ-centered, and Spirit-inspired. – John D. Witvliet, “The Virtue of Liturgical Discernment”, in Charlotte Kroeker, ed., Music in Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy, p. 97
Few things are more true than the reality that church politics, especially local church politics, are a nasty business. People invest so much of themselves in their local congregations that attempts to change can be met with a vehemence, even violence, that can be surprising to those viewing events from the outside. Add to this the reality that most clergy and church lay persons are bad at politics, and we have the perfect set of ingredients for potential destruction. It is John D. Witvliet’s intent in this essay to press for discernment as a theological virtue practiced at the local and denominational level when considering the multiplicity of choices churches face when it comes to making choices for music for worship.
Among the things he writes that flies in the face of far too much alleged received wisdom is his insistence that decision making is a community process. Only when the whole congregation is involved can discernment be properly recognized as a virtue of the Spirit’s work. We so often hear laments about ideas or plans that are arrived at or prepared by committee work. Yet, how many of these consensus-driven plans or ideas fair far better than those that are the product of individuals pushing particular agendas without consultation, without consideration of the views and opinions of others, and most of all without communal prayer? I would far prefer greater inclusion of more voices to the imposition of the views of a few, no matter how expert they may be.
Of course, there are limits to the efficacy of discernment, properly considered. When considered alongside the realities of church politics, it is always best to have allies, to work from positions of strength, and to be willing to compromise whenever possible to include as many voices as possible without discarding whatever larger goals a community in search of a proper balance in their music ministry might be.
All the same, as a general rule, Witvliet’s ideas and proposals, particularly on the necessity of plurality of voices working through issues, trying to do what is best to serve the needs of the whole congregation, are an important yet neglected part of the process of being a church. Of course, there will always be those persons and voices that are either negative on any proposed change; those persons and voices that will embrace any change whatsoever; and those voices that will remain silent, for a variety of stated reasons. All any persons in positions of authority in a local church can ever do is encourage and entice as many persons become involved in such discussions, and work as best they can with the results.
That guiding light of these essays is that church music always be at the service of the liturgy of the congregation, the on-going segregation of “traditional” hymnody, the ever-expanding library of “praise & worship” music, and other forms of music including hip-hop, ethnic musics, and even jazz-inspired, rock-inspired, and other musical styles becomes more and more difficult to sustain. The only reason for its ongoing practice is the time-worn phrase, “This is the way it’s always been”. This excuse is no excuse at a time of changing demographics, the explosion of musical styles that interpenetrate one another, influence one another, and seek to be in service to the God of Jesus Christ. The only way to burst through the barriers to music truly serving the liturgical needs of the local congregation is the courage, vision, and humility to seek ways to incorporate the best choices theologically, pastorally, and that enhance the worship experience rather than interfere with it. That ours is a multicultural, multiracial society with more choices than ever when it comes to musical styles, there is no real reason to exclude anything from potentially serving the needs of the congregation and its worship except fear, inertia, and calcified tradition. Working to discern what is best, that is what we are called to do as Christians about all things. Why not the music we use to enhance our worship experience as a community as well?