What Is Your Philosophy of Worship and Music?

by Tim Shaw

Anyone who has interviewed for a church music position knows some questions are almost guaranteed to be asked: “How do you motivate volunteers? What style of music is your favorite? What does the ideal relationship between clergy and church musician look like? How do you feel about choir robes?” Tough questions, but not too difficult to answer. There is that one dreaded question, though, which is seemingly impossible to answer: “What is your philosophy of worship and music?” Whether you have been asked this question directly or not, you do have a philosophy that manifests itself in how you practice church music. Spending some time developing—even writing out—your own philosophy of worship and music is a valuable exercise that can have a direct, positive impact on your music ministry. Try this on your own, or together as a worship/music committee.

Here is a two-step approach I have used to develop my philosophy of worship and music. First, I answer the fundamental question, “What is worship?” One of my favorite biblical passages is Exodus 15:1-21, which describes the Israelites’ impromptu worship after crossing the Red Sea. We read first the Song of Moses, and then we read the Song of Miriam, who quotes her brother’s song. From this passage, five foundational principles of worship emerge:

  1. Worship is focused on (or directed toward) God; it is not focused on us.
  2. Worship is communal. In worship, women and men, children and adults, recount the shared salvation experience of God’s people.
  3. Worship is participatory; it is not simply a performance of one or a few.
  4. Worship is language-based and culturally intelligible.
  5. Worship is didactic. Worshipers of all ages are both instructed and edified by worshiping God.

Each point could be fleshed out further, and more could be drawn from this passage, of course. But, this five-part description of worship helps to lay the groundwork for my second step. Now I answer the more practical question, “How do you choose music for worship services?” Here is my ten-part approach to this issue (in no particular order!):

  1. All texts sung in worship should reflect the theology of the local church. (Denominational hymnals—and their supplemental resources—are an invaluable help in this regard.)
  2. Music used in worship should be rooted in the historic Church’s vast repertoire of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, springing forth into new expressions from the present day.
  3. Musical selections should fit the season of the liturgical year and should relate to the scripture readings, sermon theme, and other elements of the worship service.
  4. Each musical selection should be well-suited to its position in the worship service (prelude, opening hymn, offertory, closing song, etc.).
  5. Music used in worship should be culturally intelligible.
  6. Musical selections should be within the performing capabilities of those performing them. (However, there is always room for growth!)
  7. Music used in worship should foster participation by the assembly—familiarity, performance style, key/range, tempo, and dynamic threshold are critical factors to consider when preparing corporate worship music.
  8. The entirety of music used in a worship service should, ideally, exhibit both variety (of key, tempo, mood, instrumentation, etc.) and continuity (nothing should seem jarring or out of place).
  9. In all musical selections, text and music should be well-suited for each other. (Metrical indexes can help church musicians find more suitable tunes when necessary.)
  10. Not all music need be language-based. Instrumental music free of any textual association can be an effective means of grace to God’s people.

What would you add from your own philosophy of worship and music? Share your comments below!

Posted on Feb 8, 2016 9:30:43 AM
Filed Under: Assembly Song, Filed Under: Hymnody, Filed Under: Choral Techniques and Repertoire, Filed Under: Planning, Filed Under: Potpourri,

Tim Shaw

Written by Tim Shaw

Timothy Shaw was born and raised in idyllic Keene, New Hampshire. He studied theology and music (theory, history, composition, piano) in college and graduate school, and he has enjoyed a multi-faceted career as a composer, professor, music engraver, private teacher, author, and church musician. As a clinician and scholar, he has presented workshops, academic papers, hymn festivals, music reading sessions, and master classes at numerous conferences, churches, universities, and music societies throughout the United States. As a composer, he is the recipient of the 2019 ALCM Raabe Prize for Excellence in Sacred Composition. He has written extensively for the church and is published by Augsburg Fortress, Beckenhorst, Choristers Guild, Concordia, Fred Bock, Hope, MorningStar Music, Neil A. Kjos, and Shawnee Press. He also composes on commission, and he has written for David Kim (Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster), Anne Martindale-Williams (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal cellist), and Abington Presbyterian Church (Abington, Pennsylvania), among others. Find compositions by Tim Shaw in the Augsburg Fortress Catalog or in Prelude Music Planner