Sing. Play. Edify.

Artists or servants?

January 1, 2020

Much of my thinking regarding music ministry is occupied with sustainability. By that I mean cultivating a ministry, both personally and communally, that is equipped to be flourishing thirty years from now. I think the music ministry at our church is on that path, but I’ve long wanted to better articulate what it is we’re aiming at.

I’ve come to realize that what church musicians need most is see themselves not as artists, but as servants. I’m not condemning the term “artist” itself, as if it’s somehow inherently pejorative. I’m an artist, and I have many friends who are as well. If you read this post as contra art, you’ve missed my point. What I am saying is that we need to rescue the term “artist” from worldly thinking and return it to its proper place.

Consider this description of music in the temple, from 1 Chronicles 25:

“David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals. The list of those who did the work and of their duties was: Of the sons of Asaph: Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, and Asharelah, sons of Asaph, under the direction of Asaph, who prophesied under the direction of the king. Of Jeduthun, the sons of Jeduthun: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, six, under the direction of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to the Lord. Of Heman, the sons of Heman: Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel and Jerimoth, Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, and Romamti-ezer, Joshbekashah, Mallothi, Hothir, Mahazioth. All these were the sons of Heman the king’s seer, according to the promise of God to exalt him, for God had given Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the kingThe number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to the Lord, all who were skillful, was 288. And they cast lots for their duties, small and great, teacher and pupil alike.” (1 Chronicles 25:1-8, emphases mine)

It’s impossible to overstate the profound simplicity of this narrative. What’s striking here is what’s notably absent. How did Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, and their families feel about the music they were making? Don’t know, doesn’t say. Did they experience a deep sense of fulfillment? Perhaps overwhelming emotions? Were they… artists?

Such questions would almost certainly have sounded odd to these musicians. Here are some differences between artists and servants… and ways in which the former should become the latter.

1. Artists are autonomous; servants are under authority

The narrative in 1 Chronicles 25 begins by telling us that David and his leaders set apart Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun and their families for the service of music. Simply put, these families were told to perform a duty, they trained for that duty, and they did it. The phrase “under the direction [order] of” is used five times. These were men and women under authority.

Our modern conception of those who deal in artistic mediums, even in the church, is more informed by 19th-century Romanticism than by Scripture. Artists don’t take orders from anyone except their own heart, or the “creative voice in their head.” Servants are content to follow orders.

2. Artists pursue self-expression; servants pursue faithfulness

Of course it’s easy to over-simplify this point. Part of what is means to be made in God’s image is that we’re creative beings. Our creativity is God-given… but it must also be God-exalting. “From Him, and [returning back] to Him… are all things” (Romans 11:36). The greatest evil is to fail to return to God the glory that is His, including in the gifts He has given us. “Although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God” (Romans 1:21).

Creativity is good—excellent, in fact. The point is that creativity is not the point. It is not the end for which we strive. “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,” says Paul. “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). Not “creative” or “groundbreaking.”

“I have to create!” says the artist. No, you don’t have to create anything. If God allows you the ability and means to create, get to it. But if God took my hearing tomorrow, would my true identity change a whit? Of course not. I’d still be a servant of Christ… I’d just have to find another way to serve. And when we consider the judgment of works, what should keep us up at night is not, “Was I true to my artistic vision?” but rather, “Was I faithful to Christ?”

3. Artists pursue greatness; servants pursue humility

Does this one need much explanation? “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16). Well, ouch. Your life is short, and when you’re gone, you’ll be forgotten. Even we artists.

If that bothers you, you know what to do. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…” (Luke 18).

4. Artists find fulfillment in their art; servants find fulfillment in their master

One of my pastors, Todd Murray, has wisely said, “One of the tyrannies of false worship is that you’ll never know if your offering was enough to satisfy your god. But our God is completely satisfied with the offering of His Son, and He further tells us, in no uncertain terms, the kinds of offerings that please Him.”

Friends, this can be for you the release of a massive weight. Your art will never satisfy you. The new song grows old, sure as the passing of time. All things turn to dust. But consider the next verse in Psalm 103 that I referenced above, “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him.”

As Bob Kauflin says, “Music is great, but Jesus is greater.” We musicians may nod pensively at that, but we all need to do some internal examination. Because we all are prone to seek satisfaction in the gift rather than the Giver. Don’t look for fulfillment in your art when you’re meant to find it in your Master.

5. Artists are led by their emotions; servants are steadfast

And now we return to the opening point, sustainability. Artists ebb and flow. Creative bursts of genius followed by seasons of angst-ridden lethargy, then excitement, then boredom. Rinse, repeat. Artists will exert their craft if they feel deep feels, and as long as they’re given a pristine set of conditions in which to practice their art.

Servants, by contrast, are steady. I ask again, how did the families of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun feel as they played their instruments and sang? What a pointless question. They served, day after day, “in season and out of season.”

Friends, fellow artists, let’s be servants.