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A vision of music education in the church

The following is a distillation of several years of thinking about the role of music education in the church.

There are a number of assertions throughout this article which should be interpreted as policies in nascent form rather than universal mandates for other ministries. It’s a work in progress, so I welcome input from my fellow church musicians and educators.

What is the goal?

The goals of music education are:

1. Redemption. In reality, all education should be redemptive. It should proclaim the gospel through the biblical truth that, in the providence of God, leads to saving faith in the heart of the learner. What does it profit a man if he gains the world of music, but loses his own soul?

2. Worship. The second goal of music education (which follows from the first) is the worship of the Creator. Worship here is two-fold: worship through the mind— understanding the incredible, complex inner workings of music theory that reflect the intricate design of the Creator— but ultimately revealed through faith. Worship is experienced through the senses when the truth of God and His beauty is apprehended by faith. The enjoyment of the profound gift of music that stirs the emotions should ultimately result in thanksgiving to the Creator for His glory.

3. Humble service. For the believing musician, excellence is measured not in greatness, but by usefulness, humility, and faithfulness. “Knowledge makes one proud, but love edifies” (1 Cor. 8:1). Just as with the apostles’ teaching, the goal of music education should be “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). The primary way these qualities will be proved in a musician is in his willingness to serve the body of Christ without regard to his own glory.

Who does it?

What institution can bear the responsibility for successful music education? The secular state has the means, but not the biblical values. It can offer an excellent music education in human terms, but it will not succeed by the metrics that are most important and eternal. The family may have the values, but it may not have the means. Most parents are unable to themselves provide a music education for their children that is full-bodied and equips them to excel.

The church ideally would possess both the values and the means. As an institution, the church is uniquely situated to offer instruction that is:

  • in the church: overseen by the biblically-appointed elders, who provide spiritual wisdom and shepherding to the educational process
  • by the church: all those who provide private or group instruction should be faithful, committed members of the church. The church ought not to solicit outside teachers solely on the basis of their pedagogical skill. Although all teachers must at least hold to a confession of common faith, the oversight of the elders is best accomplished when teachers are directly under the authority of the local church. Such a requirement, although certainly limiting, also ensures that teachers’ lives and conduct are observable by parents and students.
  • to the church: the primary ministry of the teachers is to the families of the church. Some may also choose to broaden their ministry to include professing believers from other churches. But broadening beyond the bounds of the local church can quickly become problematic in terms of shepherding and oversight.
  • for the church: while students may use their musical education for personal enjoyment, professional pursuits, or further education, they should see the most noble end of their musical endeavors as the edification of the Lord’s people, both in the local assembly and in the weekly lives of other believers.

What are its main components?

A comprehensive, realistic vision of music education in the church can be illustrated as follows:

1. Private instruction towards technical mastery. This is the largest and most important component of music education, the core of a student’s training. It can be described as the “what” – the ability to actually participate in the music-making process with competence and skill. Private instruction can be either vocal or instrumental. It requires skilled personal instruction, diligent guided practice, and long-term commitment and focus. For instrumental instruction, students and parents will also need to commit to purchasing instruments of appropriate quality. Students should plan on beginning private instruction at an early age and continuing through their high school years.

2. Music theoryThis first sub-discipline can be described as the “how” — the inner workings of music. A course of instruction in music theory opens up for the student a world of musical understanding that should lead to greater appreciation for music and worship of the Creator. Music theory can be learned through private instruction, self-study (through online resources), or in a classroom, but it is best taught over time in conjunction with private lessons. Students do not necessarily need an in-depth course of study in music theory, but it’s essential that they have some. The equivalent of a year-long high-school course, covering the basics of diatonic functions, should be easily acquired over time if teachers and parents are intentional. Students may benefit from further instruction in counterpoint and tonal form.

3. Aural skills. This second sub-discipline is a close companion to private instruction. It is the cultivation of musical skill in two aspects. Decoding is the ability to hear and make music from the printed score, usually through singing. Encoding is the ability to convey audible music to the printed score through transcription. These dual skills are best taught in the classroom or through private instruction, since they require constant evaluation and correction by the instructor. Just as with theory, aural skills should be able to be cultivated over the course of private instruction.

4. Music history. This third sub-discipline can be described as the “who and when” of music. A study of music history exposes students to some of the greatest cultural treasures of Western civilization. It provides inspiration for further study and practice, pleasure as a listener, and the cultivation of appreciation for artistic nuance and excellence. It also serves an inter-disciplinary function by adding to a student’s understanding of music in its historical context.

5. Theological grounding. This fourth sub-discipline is really the most important, since it alone is what makes music education in the church distinct from its secular counterparts. Theological grounding in the context of music emphasizes two main areas: ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and doxology (the doctrine of praise). But just as the songs of the church should be comprehensively didactic, the theological training of our children should be equally so. This discipline is in some ways organic in the life of a healthy church, but parents and teachers can provide more intentional study through Scripture memorization and weekly devotionals.

What are the roles of all involved?

The church provides oversight, resources, facilities, and opportunities for service.

Teachers provide weekly, skilled instruction. They also model love for Christ, humility, professionalism, and musical excellence through their conduct.

Parents fill a crucial role through guidance and discipline at home. Since most learning takes place through weekly practice in the home, it’s almost impossible for a student to succeed without strong support from parents. They must be willing to embrace the long-term commitment of time, resources, and effort that a course of musical study demands. They provide extracurricular activities that help to inspire and motivate students. And like teachers, parents also model a godly and humble life to their children.

Students are expected to be faithful, humble, and hard-working. Their long-term success depends very little upon their innate talent, and much more upon their willingness to work.