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The Problem with Church Music


In this wide-ranging interview, Alexander Douglas, principal of the Music and Worship Academy for the South England Conference and professional musician, explains why worship does not equal music, and why something unmusical cannot be spiritual.

Question: You hosted a three-day Worship Leaders' Conference for the South England Conference a few weeks ago, bringing together pastors, elders, praise teams, singers and musicians. How did it go?

Answer: It went very well, all things considered. It was the very first major event for the South England Conference Music Department in this quadrennium and although we did not have as much time to put it together as would have been ideal, we exceeded our target numbers in terms of attendance and received some very useful and very positive feedback that was heart-warming indeed.

No event runs without some hitches but right across the March 18-20 weekend there was a very nice spirit that permeated all of our work together, and the worship services were especially meaningful – an important outcome given the subject matter!

We are planning to make  the Worship Leaders’ Conference an annual event for the rest of the quadrennium, but we want it to be earlier so that the impact can be felt earlier in the year. The SEC Music Director, Mike Johnson, has been increasingly unequivocal in stating that education is the number one priority for the Department, and this was a very auspicious start, for which we praise God.

Conference attendees could choose from a range of sessions, including things like "Basic theology for music and worship ministers" and "Rhythm section skills and musicianship." What were the most popular sessions? What was the main lesson you hoped attendees would take away with them?

This is not such an easy question, as there was a genuine appetite for pretty much everything and Mike and I were glad for that, as we spent a very long time on the program. As principal of the Music and Worship Academy for the Conference, a huge part of the program design fell on my shoulders.

I would not have said that it was the most popular or most important but that rhythm section skills workshop was possibly the most eye-opening of our non-liturgical sessions. My plan for it was that everyone would learn more about how the instruments of the rhythm section (primarily bass and drums, but also the “harmony instruments” – usually piano/keyboards and/or guitar) are supposed to work. There were a number of attendees who expected nothing, but even after we had well and truly overshot our time they did not want the session to end!

Consequently, Mike determined that we need to make practical sessions an even more fundamental part of our Music and Worship Academy programs. The main lesson? That the business of being a music minister and being a musical Levite is not for everyone, and that talent is not synonymous with anointing. So if this really is your calling, you have plenty of work to do – spiritually, musically, technically and theologically.

Victor Masondo from South Africa was the lead facilitator for the conference. How were his skills helpful?

Victor Masondo is one of the best musicians in South Africa and even more capable than I’d realised. His bass guitar playing is truly international class. He has been on a real journey in life, faith and music and has made sacrifices for his people. Being an indigenous black musician in the apartheid era could not have been easy, and he has an intensity about him that resonated with me very strongly.

Victor also made a very strong impact on the attendees and his commitment to excellence in music and faith has led to a big clamor for his return. He was approachable and knowledgeable. It was a blessing for me to get to know him and his wife, Gail Hamilton-Masondo. They both brought something rich to the event just by being who they were – and Victor’s insights in that aforementioned rhythm section skills session were reasonably mind-blowing to the attendees – some of whom were well-trained musicians who knew enough to know that we were really only scratching the surface.

The Music and Worship Academy, host of the conference, is the education arm of the South England Conference's Music Department, and you are its principal. The Academy is described as a "virtual center." Can you tell us more about the Music and Worship Academy and what it does? Are there similar organizations in other conferences?

To the best of my knowledge, there are no other similar organizations in either our union (the British Union Conference) or our division (the Trans-European Division).

There are various music/worship enterprises that have been initiated, but the roots of the Music and Worship Academy come from two main sources. The first – and primary – is the ministry calling and vision of the South England Conference Music Director, who I believe has been uniquely prepared to take the helm at this time. The second is my previous experience as the Advisor for Music and Worship Ministries for the North England Conference, a two-year period that really was the hardest – and also the most formative – of my life.

As far as I was concerned, I was out of music and worship ministry and God was taking me elsewhere to a new season. But it turns out that God has not finished with me yet, and for reasons that you would have to ask the SEC Music Director about, he appointed me as principal of the Music and Worship Academy. Many of the things that I had hoped to do in the North England Conference are now being done in the South England Conference. And because  England is a tiny country, North England Conference members can come to any of our programs if they choose.

That background is important for a genuine understanding of the South England Conference Music and Worship Academy. There are some enormous gaps in the understanding of music, worship, liturgy and ecclesiology in British Adventism (and also in our world church). I am personally very tired of being able to work as a music leader and veteran music educator outside the church walls but have no means or framework to share my best work with my church community. Mike Johnson is tired of church services being “endured” rather than celebrated.

We have limited means and purview, but we are going to push our budget as far as we can and trust in God to lead us. Mike has some wonderfully ambitious aspirations, and I am with him all the way. We’re just starting out, and we’re still embryonic, but we are going to do our best to create teaching and learning opportunities.

Why is it important that worship leaders receive musical training?

It has become a total scourge of a situation that worship = music and vice versa in the minds of so many people. Worship is a more fundamental paradigm than music. One of the ideas I teach is that music is not in any way “essential” to worship. However, the two main constituencies of “music minister” and “worship leader” cause the church very significant problems:

  • Those who are more interested in the mechanics and minutiae of music-making than in the true devotional life that includes Bible study and personal prayer;

  • Those who are actually very faithful to their calling as disciples of Jesus in ways akin to those described above – but who then feel that such faithfulness allows them to sing out of tune, play out of time and still claim the anointing of a music minister or worship leader.

It’s quite a preposterous situation and now essentially endemic. But it is simply impossible for something to be unmusical and still be spiritual; certainly not if you are claiming the anointing of a worship leader! And so, if that is what you do, then you need the best level of musical understanding that you can get. Not necessarily a degree – but you should be looking to understand music as best you can in your context so that you can be the best servant leader of the musicians and singers that God has granted you the privilege of leading.

To be a musician is a privilege – not a right. The same is true of ministry.

You are a professional musician, who started as a jazz pianist and evolved into a choral conductor. I believe classical, jazz and gospel are all key musical genres for you. What are your current projects?

Well, there are things happening in each of those three genres. In classical music, I have a professional engagement as conductor of a chamber choir that rehearses weekly and I am the first conductor in their 140-year history they have allowed to not conduct secular music during the Sabbath. Also, I have kind of refused to conduct any theology in which I don’t believe, which in the professional classical music world has been even more revolutionary than keeping the Sabbath! And with my company, ADM Productions, I am gearing up to undertake a massively significant project that involves performing all 198 sacred cantatas by J.S. Bach over the next 15 years, starting in December 2016. As one of my brothers in music ministry has put it, this is basically an “evangelistic campaign” but using sacred classical music with the podium as a pulpit – which is how I approach all my work as a conductor in classical music.

In jazz, I have quite a story which will have to remain for another occasion, but there is a septet called Saravan that will play the gospel side of jazz, but with “teeth.” I also have a new quartet that will make its debut later this year where we will – by God’s grace – play the landmark spiritual chamber work in the history of jazz: John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. This work is a very serious cry of the heart to God and one of the most doxological things I have ever experienced. There is also a two-tag jazz orchestra project called the Veritas Orchestra (“veritas” is Latin for “truth”), which is dedicated to playing a type of jazz that is intrinsically spiritual.

Gospel music is something I could talk about for a very long time but as things stand, I have a project of my own, the Lifted Voices Choir, who have recently reached the final of a national competition.  Let’s see what happens! And I am working with another gospel choir on an externally-funded outreach project, and that is proving to be very exciting. I have consistently done my best work in gospel music outside the church, and this is going true to form.

You sound very busy! I know that you also have an interest in theology and philosophy how do all of these interests converge?

Five years ago, after a period of intense prayer and serious fasting, a mission statement for my life emerged. Three years later, the bigger vision emerged. They are both as follows:

Personal Vision Statement:

My vision is to understand, promote and inspire true worship to a holy God.

Personal Mission Statement:

My mission is to share Christian faith and the (Seventh-day) Adventist message to the highest standard of my ability using both words and music.

In a sense, you could say that Matthew 22:37 is the guiding text of my life. To love God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind and strength is wonderfully comprehensive and far too big for us – which is why the righteousness of Jesus Christ is indispensable to being able to participate in the divine life. And of course that itself is only possible through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit.

I understand that I am not only to enjoy my status as a redeemed child of God, but that I am to grow in depth and knowledge of who God is. Music has been one of the purest ways in which I have experienced the presence of God. But studying theology was effectively a reconversion experience, and philosophy has become increasingly important as I realize the epistemic limitations of theology. The fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom, but philosophy is itself the love of and pursuit of wisdom.

I have the strongest of opinions regarding the way Seventh-day Adventists have understood “philosophy” as both word and discipline, but let us simply say that certain objections of Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre and various others regarding the way we live in religious Christian communities are in fact scarily closer to the minor prophets (for example) than many of us would be willing to countenance. And if one were to add Ellen White to that conversation, things would become explosive, because that lady’s work is so abused by various “conservatives,” “liberals” and “progressives” at times it’s not even funny.

Music is phenomenal. But it is not enough. Theology is fundamental. But it is also not enough. God has to be experienced, not merely studied. He is not an object of knowledge (“God is not in the world; the world is in God” – Emil Brunner). However, is my religious experience a manifestation of the Holy Spirit working supernaturally within the natural in my life; or merely an emotional response to stimuli; or am I mentally deluded? How would I think about that? Those are philosophical issues that are linguistically-conceived and linguistically-dependent, because theology is predicated on the fact that God exists. What if He did not exist? Are we capable of considering that possibility? Because a faith that we are too scared to test is not faith at all. So philosophy is elemental.

The bottom line: all of that mental work needs a counterbalance, where one can think outside of language. As Mahler is reported to have remarked: “Music begins where words end.” I need music for my sanity just as surely as I need language to be able to communicate with God in more specific ways. So I’ve built a set of triangles for my life!

How does your background help you with church music?

Excellent question. At times I have felt that becoming a professional musician was almost the worst thing I could have done for my church life. And the answer to the question includes the fact that sometimes my background does not help me at all – in the sense that our local church music celebrities often live off the “applause” that they receive. So the uncomfortable truth is that I live my Levitical identity much more outside the church than inside.

What, in your opinion, is the state of music in the Adventist church? Is it high-quality? Is it too repetitive? Is it too modern? Not modern enough? What do you think the Adventist church can do to enhance its musical offerings?

I am truly sorry for all those who would be hurt by what I am about to say, but music in global Adventism is a train wreck in many ways. If it is not conceptually bankrupt, it is technically under-powered. If it is technically proficient it is spiritually bereft. If it is spiritually meaningful it is only meaningful to those inside the church, and too inward-looking to affect lives outside the church. (And in that regard, the whole concept of art and the aesthetic has been maligned and impugned by our church, so artists in general are an endangered species.)

We have orchestras and choirs and soloists who often sound very impressive, but how much of our music actually inspires a person to take God more seriously? Inspires a person to greater holiness? Edifies us in ways that force us to think about things – and make necessary changes?

We spend so much time fighting the wrong battles, and so many of our best musicians are simply not the role models they (and we) should be. We don’t need better musicians and singers. We need more consecrated musicians and singers, but the congregations are now audiences who consume worship experiences in worship malls. And since many of our church leaders work on the basis that a successful event is one that the church members approve of and patronize, we are supposed to serve the members – many of whom are not even clear on why they are Adventist.

The Laodicean church does not believe that it has need of anything. God has given us so much as a people, but music in this church is one of my greatest disappointments, and I think it will not improve until persecution. That will be the end of the worship wars!

Has the Adventist church as a whole tried to create music that is too homogenous for its membership? Should congregations in Tanzania be singing the same hymns in the same way as congregations in China, in Russia, in England?

Genesis 11 begins with one language and ends with several. I’ll spare you an ethnomusicology lecture for now, and an anthropology lecture. I will say that I love hymns dearly, but in the same way that we would not insist that a congregation in Tanzania should be fluent with the KJV for salvation, there should be an understanding that music will also vary as language varies.

The Adventist church has fallen prey to a fallacy on this subject that is wholly secular in origin and practice and many have sought to build pseudo-theologies to justify what was never Biblical in the first place. When cultural apropos masquerades as theology, we’re in serious trouble.

What is the music in your local church like?

I will now plead the Fifth Amendment!

If you could offer just one piece of advice to a new music director/worship leader of a church/congregation, what would it be?

Examine yourself, your gifts and your motives every day and prior to every time you step up to lead. If Jesus Christ in human form came and took a seat of the front row on a Sabbath morning when you’re on rota, what would he find as he looked at you and through you?

Alexander Douglas studied classical piano at Trinity College of Music and African Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London University) before completing a Masters degree in jazz piano performance at Kingston University.​ He then returned to SOAS to do a Masters in the anthropology of music and that was the beginning of the journey that eventually led him to theology. He ended up commencing doctoral study in theology at Manchester University where his whole academic journey then changed. Since then he has completed a Masters in (classical) conducting from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (studying with three-time Grammy Award winner Simon Halsey) and is planning to return to his doctorate – this time in philosophical theology – in the fall of 2016.

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