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My Experience With Church Music

Here is the story of my involvement with church music from childhood to the present day... I was raised in a fairly large Lutheran church with a vibrant “traditional” music program, featuring a magnificent sounding pipe organ, youth and adult choirs, handbell choirs, a brass ensemble, and many talented instrumental and vocal soloists. There was even a small “in house” orchestra that would play for Easter, Christmas and other occasions. A typical worship service would include liturgical music, traditional hymns, choral anthems, and sacred classical pieces as offertories or “special music,” along with prelude and postludes played on the organ. My dad sang in the choir and often did solo classical pieces with organ accompaniment. As for me, I sang in the children's choir for a short time in elementary school, but that was the extent of my participation in the music at the church. I was always much more active in school ensembles, in terms of my singing and trumpet playing. As a pianist, there were never opportunities for me to play in church, except for an occasional solo as a prelude, which would usually just be a classical piece on which I was working.

However, I always enjoyed and appreciated the music of the church. I have fond memories of sitting and listening intently to the wonderful organ preludes and postludes, which usually sounded like modern classical pieces. My love of traditional hymns was also developed through my childhood years at that church. I remember “stealing” hymnals many times just to be able to be able to play certain hymns at home on the piano – what joy that brought me! To this day, I still have the two versions of hymnals that were used at the church during that time, and still love creating my own arrangements, not just of those hymns but also those from many other hymnals (I have about 25 of them).

When I went to college in Philadelphia, I ended up attending a church that was similar to the church from which I had just come, not surprisingly. However, it was Presbyterian instead of Lutheran, so many of the liturgical elements were not there. But the hymnody and bent towards classical music certainly were. Again, since my academic life was chock-full of musical activities and ensemble participation (what with being a music major and all), I was not able to participate in the music of the church. But, as before, there really were no opportunities for me to contribute my skills on piano, as all of the music was organ based. During my college career, I did get a chance to take a couple semesters of applied organ (basically just private organ lesson every week). The organ is actually an incredibly difficult instrument, even for pianists, due to the required coordination of hands and feet, the use of multiple manuals, the need for finger-pedaling due to the lack of a sustain pedal, the constant changing of registrations, and, of course, the use of the pedalboard along with the volume pedal. My professor thought I was a natural, though, and encouraged me to consider going on to pursue a master's degree in church music and organ performance. He also tried to convince me to apply for an organist job at his previous church when I was close to graduating. However, I decided to go the jazz route upon graduating, electing to take a full-time time gig playing for a lounge band at a high-end hotel on a Florida beach. Ultimately, the only time I ever played organ professionally was an Easter service, subbing for my professor at his church.

Well, my gig on the beach ended up lasting only about six months, and I returned to Philly not long after to get my master's degree. Of course, I attended the same familiar church from my undergrad years. When I moved to Lancaster after getting my master's, I ended up attending another rather large Presbyterian church that was extremely similar to the one in Philly I loved so much. I would continue attending there even after I moved to York a couple years later – the preaching was that good! Of course, I thought the music was excellent too (and I was very comfortable with the liturgical format and overall theology), but for the third time in my life, I wasn't able to participate in the music because there was a full-time organist, and piano was almost never used. Also, the overall music framework came from the classical tradition, and I had become a jazz musician by trade. Anything I would have done creatively would not have fit the church culture at all, at least with regard to worship services. There was no way I could have even participated in the choir due to my private teaching schedule.

So I continued driving to Lancaster for worship for several years until a personal relationship changed the trajectory of my church life. In my early thirties, when things started getting more serious with the woman I was dating at the time, we decided to begin attending church together. So I tried attending her regular church for a short time and she tried attending mine. The only problem was that hers was an ultra-contemporary independent mega church, which was too much of a culture shock for me, and mine was an ultra-traditional Presbyterian church, which was too much of a culture shock for her. Obviously, music was a big part of the issue regarding worship, and it would have been difficult to find two more opposite churches in terms of the whole “traditional vs. contemporary” debate. So we decided to compromise and find a “neutral” church that would provide a comfortable worship experience for both of us.

After a bit of searching, we ended up at a small-to-medium sized Presbyterian church close to West York. The music there was what they referred to as “blended,” which was a relatively new concept for me at the time. Actually, looking back, it was what I now refer to as “mixed” rather than “blended” – more on that later. What they did at the time was include some traditional hymns, some current worship songs and some songs that were popular particularly within the denomination and other Reformed churches and college campus ministries (including those of Sovereign Grace and Indelible Grace). As it happened, soon after we began attending that church, I found out that they were in need of both a pianist (since their current one would be moving out of the area) and a music director (since the Assistant Pastor, who was then directing the music, would be planting a daughter church). Finally, I had found an opportunity to serve the Lord with the skills he had blessed me with, and became the part-time music director there, a position which I greatly enjoyed for three years. One of my accomplishments during that time was to transform the overall style of all of their regular hymns, which were done straight out of the hymnal, into a more contemporary style so as to truly blend with all of the more current songs. Essentially, instead of having a mix of “old hymns” and “contemporary songs,” we had an approach to the music that made all songs nearly indistinguishable in terms of style. Everything had a kind of reverent “acoustic folk rock” sound, with varying combinations of piano, guitar, bass, drums, multiple vocalists and occasionally other instrumentalists.

At the conclusion of my time at that church, I attempted to find a full-time position in music ministry but was unable to do so, which was ok because I was extremely busy with a robust private teaching schedule on weekdays and jazz gigs on the weekends. It would be about eight years until I decided to return to active participation in worship music. During that period, I bounced around to a number of different churches, but kept going back to the traditional church in Lancaster that I loved so much because of the vibrant Spirit-filled worship and great preaching there. Still, I continued to research and play worship music on my own, often thinking about the subject and reading about different approaches, always keeping up with what was going in area churches, partly through the worship music my students wanted to learn. But it wouldn't be until Covid hit that I would really reassess my own participation in church music. Since the pandemic severely reduced my teaching and performing schedules, I began to look for other musical opportunities. Although I was really looking for a music director position similar to what I had before, I settled on a pianist position at a wonderful little church in East York, which I held for about a year. Then, because of my need for greater income and a new place to conduct my private teaching practice, I moved on to a pianist/accompanist position at another church in East York, a few miles down the road from where I had been. Less than half a year into that, I found a part-time music director position at a Lutheran church in Camp Hill, which was, oddly enough, right down the road from the church in which I grew up.

This significantly smaller church had separate traditional and contemporary services, although what they were calling contemporary services were not contemporary at all in terms of musical content. Part of why I was hired was to update their approach to contemporary music, although it turned out that the leadership (particularly the pastor) rejected the concept of modernization after six months of attempted changes and ultimately decided to return to the old Maranatha and Vineyard praise choruses they had been doing, along with their obscure Lutheran songs from the 1970s and 80s. However, on a personal level, I found it interesting that I had gone from an upbringing in a purely traditional church to a position of trying to introduce contemporary music to a similar church in the same town three decades later!

The fact that things didn't work out at that church was actually great for me because it allowed me to find my way to a new position as music director at First Baptist Church in York, where I am currently. In many ways, I see my present situation as a return to the work I loved so much when I first became a church music director. It is wonderful to be a part of a church that truly embraces the wide spectrum of worship music music from ancient hymns to very modern songs to showcase both the transcendence and immanence of God. My goal remains the same: to lead the musical aspects of worship in a way that is glorifying to God and meaningful for the congregation; in other words, to prepare and present, along with the rest of the church, a musical offering each Lord's Day that is pleasing our great Creator and Sustainer. As Johann Sebastian Bach used to write on all of his compositions, “Soli Deo gloria” – to God alone be the glory!


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