Should Musicians Plan Our Worship Services?

By Mark A. Taylor

Here’s why a church should recruit excellent musicians to lead worship: The people we’re serving as well as those we hope to reach are hearing professionally produced music everywhere they go.

Many of them love music, and they listen to “their music” in their car, at the gym, when they walk, and sometimes at work.

Jan13_MT_JNBut even nonmusical people encounter music every day. Music creates the emotion and signals the mood in everything from Star Wars to sitcoms. The most memorable TV and radio ads include music. (I heard an interview the other day with a guy who works full-time composing musical scores for political ads.) Video games play theme music. Music comes at us from gas station pumps and restaurant sound systems. (I visited a chain-restaurant sandwich shop the other day where a man in the corner serenaded the lunchtime crowd accompanied by his amplified guitar. Imagine—live music with tuna salad and tomato soup!)

With all this music in all our worlds, we must pay attention to music quality when we’re using music to worship God.

But here’s a problem with asking excellent musicians to lead worship: Musicians may think music is the best or first or only way for people to get close to God.

At least two musicians I interviewed recently say this just isn’t true.

Tom Harrigan, music minister at the Creek in Indianapolis, told me, “It’s possible to fall in love with the music instead of Christ.”

Harrigan was one of two guests in the latest Beyond the Standard episode, recorded in December. The other was Laura Dingman, whose article, “Storytellers: Worship Beyond Music,” we published in CHRISTIAN STANDARD and online last month.

In that piece, she proposed a template for worship planning that emphasizes telling the gospel story and using a variety of methods to help worshippers encounter God.

“The key word is experience, experiencing God in the moment,” Harrigan said. “We recognize that music isn’t what transforms people.”

The two emphasized the importance of the content in a worship service. Their worship planning never begins with finding the right song, but instead choosing the experiences that will communicate that week’s message.

Dingman mentioned two dangers worship planners must avoid.

The first is in allowing oneself to be formed only by worship music. She said her “deep love” for the disciplines associated with spiritual formation sent her on a journey that transformed her in ways separate from music.

“When we step outside of music and allow other influences to form us, they inform what we do in a fresh and new way,” she said. “This doesn’t mean musicianship isn’t important. But if you’re a good musician, you’re going to be a good musician anyway.”

Another danger: “Many times what we want to push through is our own preference; that’s what we make the case for,” Dingman said. “But you must be more concerned about the people you’re leading than your own preference.”

And these dangers exist no matter what “style” you develop for your worship service. The paid organist and choirmaster planning “high church” services may be just as consumed by her musical experiences and preferences as the guitar-playing rock and roller at The Church of What’s Happening Now.

None of this says we don’t need excellent musicianship on our Sunday-morning platforms. But it does mean that well-produced worship music is not the essence of life-changing worship.

Hear the whole interview with Dingman and Harrigan at

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