The Significance of Service Music

“I really enjoyed your prelude this morning.”  For a church musician, there’s seldom a more encouraging comment than this one.  Unfortunately, such statements are often followed by a disturbing question: “What was it?”

What happens when the accompanist’s selections for service music are unknown to the rest of the congregation?  And how can preludes, offertories, and postludes be chosen with care so that God is glorified and his people are edified?  I’ll attempt to address both of these questions, but in order to do so, we must first consider the fundamental role of service music.

The purpose of service music

Background filler?  Virtuosic showpiece?  Thoughtful meditation?  Whatever you expect from a prelude, that’s what you’ll get.  A prelude that functions merely as background music will have little bearing on the worship service, quietly asking to be ignored amidst the hubbub before the start of worship.  On the other end of the spectrum, a showy solo will only distract the congregation from the rest of the service.  Instead, I would submit to you that there is only one valid purpose of the prelude: to prepare the church for worship.

During a conference on Biblical worship (which I’ve previously referenced here on URC Psalmody), Rev. Spencer Aalsburg of the Sioux Falls URC explained the role of the prelude this way:

The prelude is a time to sit and meditate on what’s about to take place in the worship of God, and we prepare for what is going to be the most important hour and a half of the week.…It’s going to involve continued preparation.…This isn’t a time of elevator music, but it’s a work of preparing, meditating on what’s going to happen.  It’s not an opportunity to talk to those around you; we’ll have plenty of time to do that after the service.  This is the time to prepare yourself to meet with the living God who made heaven and earth—this thrice-holy God who has revealed himself in his Word.

As a rule, offertories, postludes, and other service music, though arguably less significant than the prelude, should serve the same general function: complementing the rest of the service.  How, then, should this philosophy of worship affect an accompanist’s musical choices?

Planning service music

If you’ve ever been a regular congregational accompanist, you’ve probably shared this experience: Faced with the need for a last-minute substitution, a sudden alteration in the order of worship, or an unexpectedly late starting time for the service, you’ve been forced to throw together a desperate bunch of music for a prelude.  It’s probably happened to all of us, and it’s something that simply can’t be avoided.

But what happens under the normal circumstances of accompanying worship?  Is our service music just as last-minute, just as disjointed, just as unhelpful to the congregation?  I would contend that in order to help the church prepare for worship properly, all service music must be approached with thought, care, and a good ear.

An extremely important (but often overlooked) implication of this principle is that our service music must be intelligible to the congregation.  One of the Reformation’s most dramatic departures from the Roman Catholic tradition was its rendering of psalms and hymns into the common tongue for the first time in centuries.  Why?  The Reformers realized that church music could only edify the congregation when the listeners realized its true meaning.  In his preface to the Genevan Psalter of 1543, John Calvin states:

As it is a thing much required in Christianity, and one of the most necessary, that every one of the faithful observe and uphold the communion of the Church in his neighborhood, frequenting the assemblies which are held both on Sunday and other days to honor and serve God: so also it is expedient and reasonable that all should know and hear that which is said and done in the temple, thus receiving fruit and edification.

How then can we select service music that is intelligible to our church members?  There are several implications of this teaching, but most importantly, the music we choose should possess clear, definitively Christian lyrics (even if it is not sung), or at the very least an unequivocal Christian significance.

Does this rule proscribe compositions by the great masters, like Bach or Handel, as prelude selections?  I leave that question in your judgment (feel free to respond with your own thoughts on the matter below), but I would submit that in today’s American Reformed worship, the best choices for service music are simple arrangements of psalms and hymns.  This is such an important point that I’ll emphasize it again:

In the worship tradition of the United Reformed Churches in North America, the music that is most intelligible and edifying to congregations is found in the psalm and hymn arrangements of the Psalter Hymnal.

Such a statement may seem counter-intuitive.  How could something as simple as a psalm tune be the most fitting piece for a prelude?  How could the last stanza of number 95 be perfectly sufficient for an offertory?  How could the best postlude consist of something as ordinary as number 36?  The answer, in short, is that when the congregation shares in the significance of the service music, they are edified and God is glorified.

Preparing service music

Of course, we shouldn’t veer too far in the other direction by offering only bland renditions of randomly chosen Psalter Hymnal tunes.  The music should be selected carefully to match the theme of the service and sermon, and played beautifully and musically with thoughtful attention to the words.  By far, these are the most significant steps towards truly God-glorifying service music.

There is, however, one pitfall that can’t always be avoided: Not every congregant will be familiar with every tune in the Psalter Hymnal.  To some, the Genevan tune of Psalm 84 might be just as meaningless as a Beethoven sonata.  Thus, I’d like to conclude this article by sharing a surprisingly simple solution we’ve developed here at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church.

We call it “Musical Notes.”  It’s nothing more than a weekly bulletin insert.  What it contains are the lyrics to each of the songs the musicians have selected for prelude, offertory, and postlude, along with an explanation of how they relate to the sermon text.  (I’ve uploaded a sample insert which you can view here.)  As the service music is played, the congregation can follow along and quietly meditate on the texts in their bulletins.  While an innovation like this requires a bit of extra work on the musicians’ part, it’s well worth the added significance it lends to the service music.  Have you discovered similar methods to draw your church’s attention to the selections being played?

The service music in your church may slowly travel a path of minor adjustments and small improvements, but don’t lose heart.  As you work towards this goal, comments like “I really enjoyed your prelude this morning” will begin to take on a new meaning, for each step towards the greater edification of your congregation is one step further in the glorification of God.



5 Responses to “The Significance of Service Music”

  1. 1 James O July 14, 2012 at 10:51 am

    When standing behind a pulpit, there is nothing more rewarding than hearing an offertory or postlude that ties the service together perfectly. I remember one service in which I was exhorting on reliance on God and the pianist played “Cast Thy Burden Upon the Lord” (Psalm 51) by Mendelssohn. It fit so well with the text and added such depth to the service that I was moved to tears.

    Like you said, it takes extra work, but the results are such a blessing. Last time I played for a communion service, I e-mailed my pastor in advance and asked him about his sermon and what he wanted to emphasize in the communion service. Between the two of us, we chose a selection of psalms to play during the distribution of the elements (instead of the typical funereal Passion songs). While I was playing softly, he read selections from those psalms and some of the lyrics of the songs I was playing. The result was such a blessing to us and reportedly to the congregation as well. And all it took was an e-mail!

    Your “Musical Notes” format is such a simple yet brilliant innovation that has potential to really help congregations *use* the service music, instead of just letting it wash over them as “background noise” or overpower them as performance pieces.

    Great thoughts, Michael. I will say, Beethoven sonatas are not meaningless for aesthetic contemplation (and for me to work out my frustrations at the end of a long day), but I agree that they would be out of place in a worship service.

  2. 3 Pamela July 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm


    Thanks for another fine article! How I wish more musicians and ministers contemplated these important matters of music in worship.

    At Christ Reformed we print all pre/off/post text directly into the liturgy. It does makes for a longer bulletin, but it emphasizes that the music is truly a part of the liturgy.

    I agree with you about Psalms and hymns being the best choice for service music. I would like to kindly disagree, though, about the Psalms and hymns needing to be from the blue PH only. There are so many excellent texts and tunes in other Reformed hymnals and Psalters, as well as newly composed Psalms and hymns that haven’t yet made it into any Psalter Hymnal, etc….

    Also, could you clarify what you mean by “simple arrangements”? We as musicians might define “simple” differently than our congregants and/or pastors, so I was just wondering what you had in mind here.


    • 4 Michael Kearney July 14, 2012 at 1:30 pm

      Mrs. Compton,

      I’m so glad you also print the texts of service music in your bulletin! It’s such an easy step, but one that’s so often omitted.

      “There are so many excellent texts and tunes in other Reformed hymnals and Psalters, as well as newly composed psalms and hymns that haven’t yet made it into any Psalter Hymnal.” Absolutely. Perhaps I should have been a bit more clear. When I made the stipulation regarding the blue Psalter Hymnal, what I intended to say was that the psalm and hymn settings used should be familiar to your particular congregation. I assumed that the most familiar psalms and hymns (in general) are from the blue PH, but by all means I would encourage using selections from the Trinity Hymnal or some other songbook–if your congregation knows them. And a very small number of unfamiliar tunes sprinkled here and there in service music aren’t always a bad thing; on occasion, they can actually make the congregation pay more attention to what’s being played!

      “Simple arrangements”? Honestly, I didn’t have anything specific in mind. Some might define “simple” as playing three stanzas of “My Jesus, I Love Thee” exactly as written in the hymnbook. That’s not my definition. I guess I would just try to avoid, for example, some complicated improvisation that overlays multiple psalm tunes and wanders into extravagant keys and harmonies. We want our service music to be beautiful, but accessible. Again, I suppose that will vary from congregation to congregation.

      I confess, I feel a little out of place here–the amateur advising the professional. 😉 I hope these comments are helpful. I most certainly appreciate yours.


  1. 1 “The Organ Portfolio” « URC Psalmody Trackback on August 17, 2012 at 6:10 am

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