The Sounds of our Offerings: Achieving Excellence in Church Music has just been published (2011) by the Alban Institute in cooperation with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. The work details a research project involving nine congregations: three Catholic, three Episcopal, and three Presbyterian, located in the Northwest, Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast of the United States. Representing inner-city, suburban, and urban locations and ranging in size from seventy-five to thousands of members, these churches were chosen because of their proximity to the researchers and because they were consistently identified as having “successful” music programs.
Its principal author, Charlotte Kroeker, is executive director of the Church Music Institute in Dallas, TX, and a pianist who has performed throughout the United States, Asia and England, frequently in the context of worship services. Her fellow researchers and co-authors include Annette Conklin (two chapters) and Linda J. Clark (one chapter). The research method is well articulated in the “Preface”: “Each pastor and musician [leader] was interviewed individually, with the researcher using the questions in appendix A. Then the researcher attended worship services to observe the liturgy in action. A second interview with pastor and musician followed, based on the questions in appendix B. We later returned to the interviewees to ask questions about congregational perspectives, listed in appendix C.” The three sets of questions printed in the appendices alone would make the book worth its price for those interested in systematic study of congregational music leadership.
After chapters devoted to each of the nine congregations researched, the work concludes with three chapters summarizing the findings (“Commonalities Across Denominations and Contexts”), dreaming about ideal environments for worship music (“Characteristics of Special Note”) and suggesting courses of action (“Implications for the Future”). As one might expect, there is a strong emphasis upon education: of clergy-musicians, of musician-theologians, and of life-long worship music learners in the congregation. Since so much of the acrimony of the discussion on the Pray Tell blog seems to arise from varying understandings of what “the best” worship is, I found the author’s five statements on striving for “the best” worship music in a particular place and time to be quite helpful:
1. Our best is the accumulated wisdom of the gifted people in our midst.
2. Our best is the accumulated wisdom from the fields of both theology and music.
3. Our best is a congregation equipped to fulfill its task in worship.
4. Our best is the development of a repertoire of music within a congregation that has lasting value over the years, music that provides nourishment for the Christian journey.
5. Our best is the development of leaders of music for the future.
I hope these few reflections will encourage readers of the Pray Tell blog, especially those involved in clerical and/or musical leadership, to put “The Sounds of our Offerings” on their “to read” list. I also hope that this research will encourage others to refine the method and continue the project.