Film / Book Reviews

Be more sensitive to church musicians’ needs

May 2003    

The Heart of the Artist
Author: Rory Noland
Publisher: Zondervan, 1999

HAVE you ever wondered about giving an appropriate gift to your choir director, organist, pianist, or any member of your church choir music ministry team? I strongly recommend The Heart of the Artist, a book written for artistes by an artiste, Rory Noland, a founding member and Music Director of Willow Creek Community Church in the United States.

Written with passion and conviction that come from personal experience, Noland deals head-on with issues that every person in an arts ministry faces, including “Servanthood Versus Stardom”, “Excellence Versus Perfectionism”, “Handling Criticism”, “Jealousy and Envy”, “Managing Your Emotions”, “The Artist and Sin’, and “The Spiritual Disciplines of the Artist”.

In the Preface, Noland shares his three wishes: first, that the day will come when the church will stop alienating artistes and start nurturing artistes and giving them a safe place to grow and become the people God wants them to be; second, that the church will be more sensitive to the needs of artistes; and third, that all artistes will love the church and be growing in godly character and integrity.

Each chapter begins with a notable quotation and a scenario that illustrates the focus of that chapter. True to its “artistic” content or style, each chapter ends with poetry by the author after some probing questions for self-reflection, group discussion and personal action.

What would you do if you had to choose between a highly talented musician who is not very spiritual and a deeply spiritual musician who is not very talented? This has been a dilemma the church has been in with artistes for a long time.

As a church musician for more than 20 years, I have struggled with the imbalance or extreme views and situation regarding music in the church. Musical excellence and spirituality seem to be at odds with each other.

On the one hand, we have musicians who insist on high musical standards to the neglect of spiritual or ministry concerns. One talented choral director once told me that he would not conduct his church choir because he felt that the members were not committed to musical excellence.

On the other hand, we have people who totally disregard musical standards in the church and believe that what matters is only your “heart” or desire to serve. Recently, a pastor told me that the low musical standards of his church choir did not bother him at all as he felt that they have the “right attitude to serve”. He was contented as long as the choir was “cooperative” with him, and he felt there was no need to encourage the choir to improve musically.

I wondered how serving God with “low musical standards” could be compatible with a “right attitude to serve”? Are we not supposed to give God our best, both spiritually and musically? Noland cites the example of Bezalel (Exodus 35: 30-31), an artiste who was highly talented and godly, filled with the power or spirit of God.

Artistes who are highly talented and deeply spiritual are what the church must nurture and desperately needs. That is the biblical standard we must work towards. Let us not deceive ourselves and dishonour God by emphasising one to the exclusion of the other.

In the chapter on “Servanthood Versus Stardom”, Noland lists three barriers to true servanthood: an attitude of superiority — thinking that we are better than others — selfish ulterior motives and confidence in our own giftedness. Servanthood starts with humility, moving from self-centeredness to God-centeredness.

“True humility means having an accurate view of ourselves, thinking we are no more or less than we are. We must know our strengths. We must know our weaknesses. We must know what we’re good at, and accept what we’re not good at.” It means not only humbling ourselves before God and others, but also dying to our desire to be the greatest!

“Excellence versus Perfectionism” is a complex but very real issue artistes struggle with. Noland describes a perfectionist as one who tends to maximise the negative and minimise the positive, one who is guilty of black-and-white thinking – something is either all good or all bad, one whose self-esteem is based on performance instead of identity, or one who often sets high, unrealistic expectations. He views “perfectionism” as being the evil twin of excellence. He further clarifies that while perfectionism is destructive and man-centred, pursuing excellence is constructive and God-honouring.

We are challenged to pursue excellence, meaning to do our best with what we have to the glory of God. It does not glorify God to remain mediocre! It is time for our church to get out of complacency and not comfort ourselves with statements like “it’s good enough for the church”.

I encourage pastors and church leaders to read The Heart of the Artist for two reasons: first, to have a better understanding of the make-up and struggles of your church musicians; and two, to reflect on similar issues and problems you may encounter in your area of ministry and relationships.

The Heart of the Artist is available on loan to members of the Methodist School of Music Library/Church Music Resource Centre. The book is also on sale at MSM at $20.80 (inclusive of GST).

Mary Y. T. Gan is the founding Principal of the Methodist School of Music.


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