Pastoral musicians, tending our flocks

Tomorrow is the fourth Sunday of Easter, sometimes known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because the Gospel reading for the day comes from John 10, beginning in verse 11:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. (CEB)

Staying topical, the supporting Psalm for the day is the twenty-third, which reinforces the worship theme of God, through the persons of the Trinity, guiding and protecting his flock.

The leaders of God’s Church are charged through their calling, and often also through ordination, with shepherding duties, acting as agents of the shepherding God. We acknowledge this with the title of “pastor,” which is Latin for “shepherd.” It’s why many church musicians call themselves “pastoral musicians,” as a way of emphasizing that our role as Sunday morning worship leaders is only a part of the greater charge of guiding and protecting God’s flock with and through music.

I’ve been thinking about what it would mean to take the term “pastoral musician” seriously: how can we be shepherds in the church, using music with the intention to guide, engage, challenge, and protect our congregations?

A wonderful example of pastoral musicianship can be seen in the origin of the hymn Christ is Alive, written by Brian Wren and set to the tune TRURO in the United Methodist Hymnal (#318).

C. Michael Hawn relates the history and catalyst for Wren’s writing of this hymn: it was composed for Easter Sunday, 1968. Just 10 days earlier, on April 4, 1968 in Memphis Tennesse, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Wren was the presiding minister on that Easter Sunday, charged with the responsibility of preaching the good news of the resurrection while the world, and the church, was reeling from the devastating news of King’s violent assassination.

Wren writes that “I tried to express an Easter hope out of that terrible event, in words which could be more widely applied, and wrote ‘Christ is alive!’ because our available hymns spoke of Easter as a glorious event long ago, far away, and high above.”

Stanzas one, two, and three celebrate the risen Christ as present with us, and the resurrection as not an historical observance, but a celebration of a current event. Stanza four is the touchstone for the King assassination—the place where Wren brings the resurrection into contact with human suffering as expressed in racism, war, and all of the ways that we hurt and destroy our fellow human beings. This resurrected One “suffers still, yet loves the more” in the midst of the devastation that we bring upon each other. The final stanza comes full circle and refocuses us on the “good news to this and every age.”

In this hymn, Brian Wren demonstrates the pastoral responsibility of the church musician. We are tasked with preaching God’s Word, sharing the good news of Christ’s life, love, and resurrection, and we have the dual responsibility of bringing people to know Christ, and of bringing Christians to a more profound knowledge of their Savior. And yet, we live, and worship, in a hurting world. Just like a shepherd with a flock in pain, by writing the hymn Christ is Alive Wren put the resurrection in a context that made it relevant to a church living through the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination. He gave his congregation a chance to experience the hope of Easter through music– in fact, he challenged them to know the hope of the resurrection despite their pain– all without delegitimizing their very real experience of grief and shock.

Through the music of the church, we can tend to our flock just as Wren did that Easter Sunday in 1968. By meeting our congregation where they are, putting the Good News into a context that’s relevant to a hurting world, we can be effective pastors of our flock, engaging them with Christ’s love and the Gospel message of hope and salvation.

I would challenge my fellow musicians to consider how you might use music in the worship and the life of your church to shepherd your flock. What does it mean for “church musicians” to become “pastoral musicians”?


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