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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Why Skill-based Music Study is Needed in the Seminary Setting

Questions have risen over the past few years as to the necessity of skill-based music study, especially in the seminary setting. Students may come having played keyboard or guitar, or sung in their praise band and at least believe that they function well in that setting. They realize that they need more training, especially in worship studies because that where their interests lie. When they begin to look over what an accredited music degree is going to involve, some decide that it has little or no relevance to what they believe they need and opt for a non-skill based track. While some of these tracks provide a good overview of worship, they are not designed to address the skill-based needs the student might have. The following are some thoughts and considerations that need to be discussed and my desire is not so much criticize the one, but validate the critical need for the other.

1. Students don’t know what they don’t know. Please pardon the obvious in this statement, but let me illustrate. Even for a student that comes with some skilled-based experience, that experience has generally been limited and specific to a local situation. For the student to not continue to develop those skills reveals a belief that those skills will be adequate for future changes that will undoubtedly come. The lack of continued skill development those sets the student up for possible failure in the future.

2. An educational system that is driven solely by student desires will most certainly be lacking. I doubt that many would want to go to a doctor that only took the courses that he or she thought were interesting and wanted to take. The reasoning is that doctors with great knowledge and experience in the field designed the basics of what a doctor needs to know; the specializations follow a foundational program of study. In a similar fashion, there exists foundational course work for skilled-based programs of study from years of research and experience. Some institutions have followed the student-driven model, leaving the students to seek skill development on their own, or failing to get the needed training. Rather then an either/or situation, balance can be achieved in meeting students needs and desires without eliminating the standards by reframing the standards in a contemporary context.

3. Without getting too technical, brain development must also be taken into consideration. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop and that not until the mid-twenties. This part of the brain manages higher functions such as the analysis of future consequences. The dilemma comes when a student fresh out of high school goes to college and is asked to focus on a specific area that will determine his work, income, and livelihood for at least the foreseeable future and the very part of the brain that is responsible for such decisions is not fully developed. Rather than trying to address this dilemma, some institutions cater only to what the student can discern with limited foresight.

4. Students can obtain skill-based education in secular institutions and many that come to our seminaries have attended such institutions. The difference is the context from which the material is taught and the biblical worldview from which the material is presented. For example, music history taught from a biblical worldview can lay the foundation for students to understand much of the contemporary music and music theory can be readily applied to aid in the musical part of worship.

5. Accessibility and affordability are crucial elements of skill-based education.  While financial issues are not the main issue, they remain an integral part of the equation, especially in graduate training.. For the student, the cost for private lessons are added to the tuition; for the institution, maintaining faculty for skill-based education remains one of the most expensive budget items. Some institutions have completely eliminated skill-based programs principally for budget reasons. While this may address one issue, it fails to address the issue of adequate training and preparation for worship leadership. While the “trend” to cut programs has spread, the growing need in churches is for more skilled musicians and skilled-based professors to teach them has grown even greater. Graduate programs such as the DMA are crucial to the skill-based needs in the educational system and especially those based in a biblical worldview. One recourse has been to fill the gap with an adjunct teacher model, so that skill driven education can be maintained. Great care must be taken with this model that those filling the gaps be able to teach out of the biblical worldview, otherwise, the distinctiveness of the biblical context from which the subjects are approached will be lost.

6. After years of multi-venue worship, a growing number of churches are focusing on multi-generational worship and desiring one person who can not only lead a single style-driven worship service but one that is more inclusive that unites the church as a whole. This leader must have the skills to lead and direct some kind of choral group and coordinate youth and children’s musical groups for outreach and to aid in training future leaders. The performer/worship leader model is fading and many churches are looking for someone who can do more than just lead a few songs and look good on Sunday. The development of such skills is beyond the popular week or weekend workshop’s capacity and design, whose strength is disseminating a specific content in a short period of time, not skill development.

As I stated earlier, my goal is to bring this growing crisis to the discussion table. I realize that some may disagree on some, perhaps all of what is presented. I am very grateful for the training I have received at both a Baptist University and two seminaries. After nearly 50 years of ministry [including 20 with the IMB and then 17 years at NOBTS], I believe we are at a critical period in which secular culture, recovery from the worship wars, economic pressures, changes in student population, generational issues, and faulty discipleship in our churches are forming a “perfect storm” that we must address. I pray we may seek God’s wisdom and leadership as we face these days ahead discovering solutions that continue to meet the needs of our churches and students.


  1. Thank you for this concise and timely observation on one of the biggest issues facing protestant sacred music education. I am eighteen months removed from receiving a graduate music degree from one of our seminaries. The term “skill-based music studies” is not one we discussed but its use in your article rang true with me as a descriptor of seminary music education. Both pre and post graduation, I have dwelt on the question of how to acquaint our church bodies with the precious resource that is our seminary music programs. This article is a good step towards accomplishing that and I pray that God will use it to attain your goal of bringing this topic to the discussion table. And, whereas you spoke a lot about and to students in your writing, it strikes me that this discussion really needs most to take place among and between church pastors, laity, and our seminary trustees. To that end, I offer some additional comments on my own experience with “skill-based music studies.”

    A couple of your points in particular struck me. As to the first, "Students don’t know what they don’t know," I can assent a hearty amen. Before taking my first class, the catalog course descriptions led me to believe that we would dive into a lot of topics with which I was already well-versed. A brief exposure to my first course syllabus quickly disabused me of that notion! One of the most frightening things about gaining an education is the elimination of said ignorance. Not that I now know everything, but I am no longer ignorant of what I don’t know (or at least as much)! And that knowledge of what is left to master is daunting. That many, perhaps even a majority, of today’s church music leadership lack this awareness is sobering.

    The second point that struck me, the context of music education from a biblical worldview, could be considered a corollary of the first, in that the sheer existence of this topic is foreign to most Christians. Hardly anyone gives it more thought than whether or not a song has some “jesus-y” lyrics in it. In this area, the 'don’t know what they don’t know syndrome' is pervasive and profound in our churches. I say this not out of judgment of others but from personal experience and change. The impact of this part of my education was the least expected benefit of going back to school while being as much, if not more, valued in my mind as the musical skills gained.

    For those reading this who are unfamiliar with a seminary music program, consider what is involved: students study the traditional secular topics of voice, piano, music theory and history, plus hours and hours of performance practice in large and small instrumental and vocal ensembles performing everything from Palestrina to Bernstein. But, in addition to these topics, a seminary music student takes a large chunk of credit hours in the realms of aesthetics, philosophy, culture, worship (from Moses to Hillsong), hymnology, and, yes, even theology! Students come out of such a program with an awareness of how secular values infiltrate the church through its music, the knowledge that just the opposite was the norm for most of church history (Christian values were inculcated into the culture through church music), and the skills to use music as a formative tool in development of spiritual discipline and Christian character (Col 3:16).

    The challenge for our churches then is this: Is it worthwhile to support and value programs that can develop the leaders who can bring these kinds of skills to the church? I hope and pray that we will determine the answer to be yes.

    1. Robert: Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree with you that this conversation needs to involve leadership in the local church. Unfortunately many times someone is "pressed into service" because no one else is available, but is never encouraged to develop any further.

  2. I’m a testament to this. I desired to study within some worship program in college, but ended up going to a school that only offered a music degree because I went as a student-athlete. I’m so glad and thankful I was led to this school because it ended up being the best thing for me. I received training that I would have never known I needed, and I know feel so much more capable musically to serve in ministry. To supplement the training I would have received in a worship arts program, I tried my best to have as much involvement in worship and music ministry as I could and I believe that this served me very well to learn about what I was seeking to learn in a worship arts program. I’m now pursuing a masters of divinity, and hope to serve in music ministry in a full-time capacity once I finish my schooling, which may not be soon, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to study church music and theology.

  3. Michael: Thank you for your testimony; I praise the Lord for your desire to grow and know Him better as you develop those skills needed in leading other in worship!

  4. This is a thought-provoking article and a welcome one compared to many of the hysterical screeds I often see from other authors on this subject. I'm not sure I'm in entire agreement with you yet, but this is by far the best argument I've seen from your "side," for lack of a better word. Thank you for your thoughtful and gracious approach!

    1. Russell: Thanks for your thoughtful and open reply. I appreciate the great need for worship leadership as hardly a week goes by that I don't receive a call or email from a pastor or church looking for help in this area. Some churches have that out of necessity opt for someone with less than adequate training; I'm not condemning them, that might be the only thing they could have done or they could have had an unfortunate experience with someone with more training. One major point is when a curriculum is determined by those who have little or no training in the area and driven by only what appeals to the immediate desire of the student, then we are headed for a perfect storm of leadership disaster. I have served as a missionary for 20 years and taught in seminary as faculty for another 16. I believe that in less than 5 years we will begin the really see the sad fruit of the choices that have been made.
      Again, thanks for responding; thoughtful responses are a joy to read, even when they don't full agree.