Read Part One of our interview with Miguel Ruiz.
In this second part, Miguel shares some insightful words about his own understanding of worship, and how he tries to meet the challenge of both drawing on tradition and ministering to younger generations.
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You have been involved with both the contemporary evangelical church and the church from a historic tradition. How do they differ with regard to their understanding of the place of music in worship and the Christian life? How has exposure to both affected your perspectives as a church musician?
While serving in Evangelical churches we rarely started planning worship with the text. We chose complete song sets often based on the subjective criteria of the “flow,” or emotional segue between service items. We wanted to start uppity, wind down to meditative before the sermon, and go out on a high note, kind of like an hourglass. I got the idea from a popular Evangelical book which encouraged the design of worship services based on the way it would make participants feel. (This was “planning for depth”.)
The Evangelical tradition seems to have a hard time articulating the distinction between worship and music. Aside from the cliche that “worship” has become a genre of music, when you push for a more substantive explanation, you’ll often hear things like “Worship is our whole life offered to God in obedience.” Feeding the poor and being a good husband are also acts of worship. This is all true, but it doesn’t help at all, because if everything is worship, than nothing is worship. It’s like saying “you’re completely unique and special, just like everybody else.”
The “Glorifying God” explanation route takes you the same place: God is glorified when we love him with our whole hearts and our neighbor as ourselves. This being the summary of the law, the problem is that evangelicals tend to approach worship entirely as law, or an act of obedience, something that we offer up to God. But just as we will never stop sinning, such an offering could never be good enough.
Instead, Jesus offers himself in our place, and gives the perfect worship to the Father that we never could. Because of His work on our behalf, we gather to receive the benefits of the salvation He accomplished on the cross for us. Receiving the gifts of God is the focus of Gospel-centered worship, which is what the traditions of the historic churches were designed to protect and convey.
Another reason music and worship get so inseparably linked is that Evangelicals tend to define worship in terms of experience. This may be due to the overwhelming influence of existential philosophy on post-modern culture (which, ironically, was pioneered by a Lutheran!). They come to church expecting to encounter God, and the means of verifying this encounter tend to be highly subjective, ranging from the shiver in your spine to the emotional rush brought on the the production, whether the message brought you to your knees with conviction or simply if the snake did not bite. (Even John Piper defines worship in terms of experience, and his theology is as far from touchy-feely as it gets!)
The main difference when worshiping in churches from a historic tradition is that they tend to be sacramental. Differing nuances aside, they believe that Christ comes to us in bread and wine whether we have any special experience or not. It’s a simple, objective way of finding God in the whisper rather than the earthquake or hurricane, the regular, not the extraordinary, hence the term “ordinary means of grace.” Any music in this ceremony is simply an adornment, meant to give voice to the gratitude God stirs up in our hearts or as a vehicle for proclaiming His word.
The two main things I have gained from my experience in the Evangelical church are; first, a thorough knowledge of the implementation of modern music styles in a worship service. As much as I now prefer more traditional music, in my current position those skills are being put to regular use.
The second thing I have walked away with is a keen awareness of the interaction between music and emotions. I get pretty irritated when I sense that music is being used to manipulate emotions, but at the same time I do not hold that the music of worship should be non-emotional. Going back to my thoughts on the theology of worship, emotion expressed in worship should be a response to revealed truth rather than something manufactured. I use this awareness in my current context as I attempt to create environments of exuberant participation in the new song of the redeemed soul.
You say that, “My desire is to create art that is Biblically faithful, draws from the deep wells of the ancient church, and connects to the next generation.” That sounds like a tall order. Tell us how you are trying to do that in your church and school, how people are receiving it, and what challenges you face in trying to implement your vision.
It’s really more of an ideal than achievable goal. Drawing from the wells of the ancient church is fairly easy; our denomination has done all the work for us and compiled a thorough anthology of it into one handy resource (the Lutheran Service Book). Of course, there’s always room to go beyond the confines of this superb collection in order to unearth some real gems, but there are more riches contained within than any one congregation is likely to ever mine. The great thing about this resource is that it is also rock solid reliable in terms of its Biblical faithfulness.
I’m a major proponent of incorporating the fine arts as much as you can. I don’t buy into this idea that classical music doesn’t speak to people. When Wagner, Pachelbel, and Mendelssohn get dropped from our weddings, I’ll consider the idea. I understand some churches would alienate more people than they befriend by going all classical, but I believe every church has something to gain from aggressively tackling at least some challenging music that requires finesse to pull off. It’s a great way to develop musical skill in any ensemble and expand the thinking, understanding, and technical vocabulary of the volunteer musicians. Plus, I don’t believe the sermon should be the only thing challenging the intellect in the service. It’s ok for the music to do this too, as long as it’s not to the extent that it becomes such a prominent feature that it’s a distraction.
One thing I don’t do, quite emphatically, is chase after what youth culture portrays as “cool” in an effort to appeal to their interests. Even if you can succeed at that, you still loose, especially when they catch on, and they’re getting smarter. Instead of forming the music ministry around what I perceive my desired audience wants to hear, I form it around the gifts and talents that our volunteer musicians bring to the table. I’m a huge proponent of collaborative creativity. I feel the result has been a more authentic and less contrived sound that is an accurate reflection of who we are as a congregation.
My observation is that youth don’t want to feel like you’re trying to sell them something, but they want to know that you genuinely care for them. My approach has always been to try to integrate them into the music life of the church. When they begin to take a bit of ownership over it, they contribute their own significant touch in a way that older people trying to sound like younger people cannot. Developing and seasoned musicians also have plenty to learn from one another, and so having youth through elderly serving alongside one another on the same team always reaps countless benefits. I’ve led music teams which included members from Jr. High through late seventies, with representation from nearly every generation in between. It’s multi-generational or bust with me, because I believe that our worship should bring families together, not split them apart. The young and old need each other in the church, and not just in a musical sense.
Ultimately, connecting with the next generation must be done on a relational level, regardless of what the music sounds like. If you create space in the creative processes to value their input, then the resulting sound will be in a language they can understand. But if I could teach one thing to the young and old alike, it’s to be considerate of others and try to understand how somebody different than you might be more comfortable worshiping, at least in terms of musical style.
Another way I works toward this comes from an observation I had a few years ago: In the tumultuous “worship wars” between generational preferences and theological traditions, quite often there is a lot of talking past one another in our differing camps. One of the way I noticed this happens is that the old people tend to be more interested in their beloved songs. When their sentimental repertoire becomes neglected, they begin to feel neglected. Young folks don’t think that way at all: They throw their own favorites away after a few years. They just don’t want to sing any song in a dull manner. You’d think the perfect compromise would be to play only old hymns and completely rock them out all the time. And in fact, this is a significant percentage of what we do, and it goes over fairly well with nearly everyone. The younger generation needs to know you’re not committed to cramming Baroque down their throats in the name of Jesus, so a little electric guitar with your chorale makes the medicine go down, in the most delightful way.
I don’t operate under the philosophy that church music and worship ought to be exciting all the time, but with all the good stuff we’ve got in 2000 years, I’ll be darned if it doesn’t just happen anyways on a regular basis.