Note from CM: Miguel Ruiz is one of our most thoughtful commenters here on IM. When Miguel and his wife were on their way east to take a position in a church on Long Island, he stopped here in Indianapolis and we spent some time talking face to face, something I wish I had a chance to do with so many more of you.
In both of our situations, our post-evangelical journey led us to the Lutheran tradition. Miguel is now Music Minister and Teacher at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Centereach, NY, on Long Island. Miguel’s a busy guy, and I’m happy that he agreed to do an interview with us for Church Music Month.
Today we feature part one.
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Miguel, since you are a regular commenter on Internet Monk, how about if you would start by telling us a little bit about your own personal journey as a Christian and musician, and the part Michael Spencer played in that.
I discovered iMonk at a rather pivotal time in my life, during the process of walking away from my first position in church work out of college, feeling quite embittered and disillusioned. The next experienced lasted twice as long and ended just as bad. At some point you begin to ask questions, like what is it that causes over-churched evangelicals to argue ad infinitum about trivial matters, betray each other in petty power plays, and care so little about working together and reconciliation? As I embarked on a period of Cartesian doubt, I knew something was missing from the picture, or a misplaced focus in the life of the church.
Of course, Jesus was the missing focal point. As I wandered my post-evangelical sojourn in search of a religious home, Spencer’s writing was a constant source of encouragement, enlightenment, and direction. The website served as an online hub and portal to my theological self-education as I tried to nail down where in Mere Christianity I belonged. The community here also served as a sounding board for the things I was learning and a safe place to discuss and exchange ideas without threatening my job security.
As Spencer went through his Calvinist phase, I was very attracted to the God-centeredness of many reformation leaning teachers, and soon came to the conclusion that I would settle with one of the original reformation churches. Thus began my confessional identity search. As I dug through the doctrinal writings of the established church traditions, I begin to find Jesus in places I never thought of before. It didn’t help much that the new management at IM had walked the Wittenberg trail already. I eventually became drawn to the Jesus-shaped spirituality of confessional Lutheranism, and you can read about my reasons for conversion here.
Music guys rarely get their choice of denomination. Most music ministers I know have had to bounce around quite a bit. One day your Methodist, the next you’re Presbyterian. But by God’s grace I was able to find a home and a job in the LCMS very quickly, though it did involve moving from SoCal to Long Island.
Tell us about your music ministry position and what it involves. Do you have a basic theology of worship and music that you work by? How is that theology worked out practically in the life of the congregation’s worship and music?
The church I am serving is a very evangelical congregation of the LCMS. We are a bit different in that we have four “service styles,” but we only have two services. We do them both the exact same each week, but they alternate styles from week to week. This is the first place I’ve been where I can honestly say we do a bit of everything, from folk to chant, CCM, chorales, and metrical psalms. It’s quite a playground for the exploring musician.
Truthfully, though, we only really have one service style, and only the music changes from week to week. One of things I have experimented with here is doing the Divine Service Liturgy, according to the Lutheran Service Book, using non-traditional musical styles. The music in our settings is surprisingly adaptable. So from week to week, our liturgy and musical setting (the ordinary) remains the same, whether we’re singing with an organ or cajon and waldzither. We have about four different bands that rotate to accompany the singing, and between the church and school there are about 3 choirs I direct. This doesn’t leave me too much time to practice my footwork on the organ, a skill this congregation has (very!) generously allowed me to learn on the job. In addition to teaching music at the parish school I also teach a Bible class.
I once heard a theologian say about worship, “Get your definition straight, because everything you do is going to flow out of what you understand worship to be.” Precision in this endeavor is no easy task, but the model I am currently working with is this: Worship is proclaiming, receiving, and responding to God’s free gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ. It’s a fairly Lutheran definition. Music has no part in this definition because it is not essential to the equation; you could worship God without it (though Jesus does tend to make people sing). Music is there in worship as a means to an end, and never the end itself. It serves the end of proclaiming Christ and and can also be a vehicle for responding to God’s self-giving in Him. There’s no magical power in the music, but there’s something to be said for the Augustine line, “He who sings prays twice.” I also lean heavily on his idea that if the sound of the singer is more moving than the truth being sung, it would be better not to hear the singer. The music is there to convey, emphasize and interpret text, concept, and message, not distract from them.
Practically, this means I start with the text. Both in the liturgy and song selection, the first decision being made is, “What words are being used?”, and more importantly, “which of God’s words will form the core of our gathering?” I try to keep the voice of God as primary in our assembly, so we start with the lectionary readings (or substitutes) and look for music that emphasizes their themes and our current position in the church year.
For me, song selection is of the utmost importance. As a pastoral musician, the songs I choose are the way in which I “pastor” the congregation I serve. Very few people have the responsibility of literally putting words in other peoples’ mouths. What am I giving them to say? What am I telling them to believe in? Quality songs can serve as tools to help people process their lives and find their place in the context of God’s narrative. Instead of using music to stir up emotions which may or may not be present, I would rather the sung text speak to the emotions people bring with them to worship. What kinds of song do people sing when they’re struggling with emotional pain? Frustrated, betrayed, physically ailing, or on their death bed? Singing good things can encourage in trials, bring emotional healing, inspire hope, and prepare us for death. There’s room for peppy, happy songs, as the Christian life can’t be completely joyless, but I try to emphasize poetry by pastoral theologians over jingles by rock stars. Lex cantate, lex credendi.
Songs edify when they point to Christ, not ourselves, and teach us rightly about God. The songs and words we use in worship have the potential to be a discipling force in our lives. Think about it: the mission of the church is NOT worship, even though missions exist because worship doesn’t. You might say that the whole universe exists to glorify God, but the church is to be about discipling. The “spiritually formative” aspect of worship happens when God’s Word is etched into our psyche through strategic repetition, truths about God are learned and internalized, and God’s people are taught how to pray. How we approach God corporately should give a picture of how we can relate to God individually, so I like to design worship with an eye to helping our church learn to pray.
One of my primary devices is to use as much material from the Lutheran Service Book as I can get away with. For a musician with my aims, having the resources within at my disposal make me a kid in a candy shop. I can’t say enough good things about the musical, theological, and literary beauty and depth of its selections and arrangements. It also happens to be among the most chronologically and culturally diverse collections in the Protestant world. The wealth of resources contained within make it a one stop shop for Christocentric doxology. I don’t anticipate getting bored with it before Concordia Publishing House makes another, but doggone it, I’m gonna try. The clip below is a silly, thrown-together example of how we like to have a little fun with some of its contents.
And generally speaking, I try to avoid songs about fire.