Monday, April 9, 2012

The Music a Church Plays

Recently a close friend sent a link to a video from the NY Times titled "Connecting Music and Gesture." My friend suggested the video was an appropriate analogy to church leadership. I so agree and love the implications.

The metaphor of an orchestra makes more sense to me than the metaphor of a factory a certain pastor years ago used to describe his church. In his business model people were on a conveyor belt and leaders were workers who "ministered" parts so that as they came off the belt each person would be a mature, functioning member of the church, a well-defined product according to the flowchart. The factory church did not sit well with me then. It disgusts me today. In Christ’s story for his Bride, people are subjects, not objects, objects that are used rather than known and listened to.

The metaphor of an orchestra appeals to me because the people are subjects. The conductor represents the leaders of the church, and the musicians are the members. Here are some transcript excerpts from the video where Alan Gilbert of the New York Philharmonic explains the role of the conductor (highlighted sections are mine):

“There is no way to really put your finger on what makes conducting great, even what makes conducting work. Essentially what conducting is about is getting the players to play their best and to be able to use their energy and to access their point of view about the music. There is a connection between the gesture, the physical presence, the aura that a conductor can project, and what the musicians produce.”

“There are lines that exist together and relate to each other in a linear way. So there’s a basic flow that happens, but one thing I was particularly thinking about just now was bringing out different layers…I find that interesting, so it’s not just a monolithic, homogenized texture. It’s a texture that hopefully works well together, but has local features, based on how each individual line moves.”

One of the ways to make your sound better is to make it really obvious that you’re really listening and that it really matters to you what it sounds like. That’s not actually conducting. It’s kind of embodying or representing a kind of aspiration, if you will, and it’s uncanny how that actually can make a difference. As soon as it’s apparent that your ears are open and that you’re interested and you’re following the contour of the sound, then that very contour is affected by that.”

Can you see the beauty of this analogy? My husband did. He wrote a response after watching the video that I want to share with you.

“I understand that thought, being one who appreciates a good conductor when playing in an orchestra.  The reason a conductor is needed in an orchestra is because all the musicians are playing parts that make a whole, and the parts are not their own invention--but those of a higher power, the composer.  The conductor is the interpreter who draws out those voices in the orchestra or choir and maintains the unity and coherence of the whole. 

A church operating with the leader-conductor view would see the church body as the musicians playing parts written on their hearts by the Holy Spirit.  These could be also seen as the spiritual gifts given for the working together of the church as a unified body.  The leader-conductor becomes the interpreter who draws on all those "voices" in the congregation to bring out the grand and unified sound as it was originally intended by the composer, God. 

Unfortunately, some conductors I have played for (generally in middle school years) were band-oriented conductors and knew nothing of string instruments.  As a result, when those conductors were directing the full orchestra the string instruments were rarely the focus of their attention and, as a cellist, I felt neglected.  We played our parts but knew that the conductor was semi-blind to our need for direction and if we played badly it didn't seem to matter.  I remember those times with a feeling of wanting out, wanting something more, wanting to be known.”

Jon goes on to write that he understands why certain groups struggle with their place in the church, including women who are evangelical, boomers who are progressive and youth who have uncomfortable questions. He concluded with this:

[Many] have been chosen to be neglected or relegated to limited roles rather than being known and used as God has primarily gifted them.  Perhaps the [leaders] would do well to think about re-interpreting the script and be better listeners of the congregation they feel that God has asked them to conduct.

Not just the ones who are included determine the texture of a church but also the ones who have been marginalized, whose voices have been silenced. The tapestry may look really good until you look closely at the frayed edges.

Back to our metaphor. The orchestra may sound okay to the untrained ear but to those with discernment, there is something missing. There are sections that are not playing up to their full potential because the conductor is not paying attention or is intentionally ignoring them. The full beauty of the composition is being missed when those sections are not playing the parts that were composed for them. 

And when a musician cannot play to their fullest potential, eventually they quit playing and a part of their soul dies or they find another orchestra because they must play the music in their hearts.


  1. Harriet,
    When sick at home with pneumonia on Easter morning instead of preaching at my church, I stumbled across your blog. This particular blog fit so well with my sermon direction of last Sunday that I used thoughts from it in describing the way a church works. The metaphor of the orchestra (cp Psalm 150) rather than the machine is so helpful. So, thanks for your writing. Jeff MacLurg

    1. Jeff,
      So sorry that you had pneumonia but happy you found my blog! Great to hear from you! I am glad the metaphor worked for you as it did for me. Thanks for commenting. I'd love to hear how you're doing (
      Blessings to you,