By Cantor Paul Soulek, Director of Parish and School Music
St. John Lutheran Church, Seward, Neb.

I love what I do. This may be the understatement of the year. After four years of undergraduate study at Concordia University Nebraska, Seward, Neb., my first call took me across the street to St. John Lutheran Church in Seward. Along with vibrant congregational singing, St. John is a place where a wide variety of musical sounds can be heard. Combinations such as trombone/flute/piano and guitar/bass/organ/handbells have become quite common. With all of this singing, ringing and playing, it may be tempting to become engrossed in the novelty of it all. However, it’s not about the music director, the musicians or even the congregational singing: It’s about Christ and His gifts for His people. Let’s first examine the “why” behind our worship before we examine the “how.”

What is worship? Why do God’s people gather?

Worship is God’s gift to us! Christ’s Church gathers around Word and Sacrament to be forgiven of sins and strengthened for lives of service. Musicians and church music programs do not operate in a vacuum: we are living, breathing confessors of the Church’s teachings. The pattern of the liturgical year is a useful structure for hearing and responding to the Word of God. The worshiping community is actively involved in the liturgy through prayer, hearing the Word, singing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, giving offerings and the like. Instrumentalists serve within this structure and seek to further illuminate the congregation’s sung confession of faith.

First, get organized. Having music selected ahead of time is imperative to the suggestions that follow. While it may possible for experienced musicians to sight-read a hymn concertato or descant on Sunday morning, the average member-musician needs time to practice. I am blessed to serve with pastors who enjoy planning several months in advance. We all participate together in establishing the sermon text, theme and the hymns for the day. Having hymns selected ahead of time affords the opportunity to compose new hymn settings or purchase existing material. If 6-month advanced planning just isn’t possible in your situation, it may be possible to choose one or two hymns or songs for the service ahead of time.

Network – and involve student musicians

It’s always a great idea to support your congregation’s student musicians. Attending band concerts and other musical events in your community also can help you identify musicians to involve in worship. Get to know the area band and choral teachers in area high schools. Offer to accompany their groups. As evidenced in the movie, “Sister Act,” it’s good to “get out into the community and meet the people!” Parochial schools offer excellent opportunities to teach and model what it means to worship together as a Christian community. If your parish is blessed with a parochial school, make sure to involve both the instrumental and vocal groups in worship.

Utilize instrumentalists from your congregation

Most congregation members do not respond to notes in the bulletin, verbal announcements or even the most aesthetically pleasing musician recruitment poster. They respond to a personal invitation to participate! If your spiritual gift is not public relations, you may wish to seek out a volunteer to assist in coordinating musicians to serve in worship. Engage yourself in conversations to better discover the hidden musical talents of those in your congregation and community!

Make the congregation’s song your first priority

Hymns and liturgy are great places to involve your instrumentalists. You may wish to write out the melody line or have your instrumentalists use a four-part hymnal harmonization. An “instant descant” can be realized by taking the tenor or alto line up an octave. Music notation software such as Finale can be incredibly useful in this regard. Beginning instrumentalists may want to start by playing on Psalm refrains or short repeated sections of hymns and liturgies. It’s important to give beginners plenty of encouragement along with accessible music. Baking cookies has proved to be a hit for my musicians!


Natural sound is always best, but a flute or string player is no match for a congregation of 500 singers and a 50-rank pipe organ! In order for the congregation to hear a wonderful descant, amplification may be needed. Use sound systems that contain high quality speakers located near the instrumentalist. Speakers located on opposite ends of the worship space can create pitch problems and should be avoided. It is incredibly important to have a musically-sensitive servant at the mixer controls whenever amplifying instruments. The goal is to augment the instrument’s natural presence in the room. Locate the instrumentalist in a place where the sound can reflect into the room utilizing hard-surfaced floor, wall and ceiling material.

Worshiping Together

Everyone will have their individual tastes in music and we will most likely not be able to please all people. It pains me to see the Body of Christ divided into worshiping communities based on musical style and substance preferences. It’s interesting to note that certain instruments seem to be relegated to one “type” of worship or another. How can we be creative in our efforts to encourage God’s people to worship together? Here are two real life examples.

“Prepare the Royal Highway” was our congregation’s hymn of the month of December. The triple meter of this hymn led us to “feel” the hymn like a dance. The 7th and 8th grade singers and handbell ringers led the congregation in the hymn. Several members played rhythm instruments in a simple ostinato (repeated) pattern using a tambourine, finger cymbals and claves. The ringers’ handbell setting corresponded to the lead sheet setting (Lutheran Service Book, Guitar Chord edition) that was used for a guitarist and bass player. A soprano saxophone and trumpet played melody and descant settings that were composed for the occasion. This did not happen overnight; it was the product of planning ahead of time, surveying the music and text of the hymn and evaluating the available resources.

“O Church Arise,” a 2005 “hymn/song” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, has become a favorite of our parish. Before it became a favorite, however, it had to be introduced.

Week One: A cantor (leader of the people’s song) sang the piece during the offering.
Week Two: A soprano saxophonist played the melody of the piece for the pre-service.
Week Three: “O Church Arise” was used as the hymn of the day. The adult choir sang the first stanza and the congregation was invited to join the remaining stanzas. A trumpet doubled the melody on stanza two, the soprano sax played on stanza three, and the trumpet and sax played a melody/descant combination for stanza four.

Where did you get the music?

Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc. (CCLI) offers a service called “Song Select.” Lyrics, lead sheets, chord sheets and hymn sheets can be obtained and printed by congregations. You can even transpose the melody line for your instrumentalists! Simple handbell and instrumental descants were realized using the lead sheet as a guide. The organ part was improvised from the lead sheet, but the hymn sheet from CCLI could be used if a printed arrangement was required.

Instrumental ideas

We may hear organs, pianos and brass quartets often in our churches. But what about a snare drum, doumbek or handbells? Here are some ideas to enliven the congregation’s song.

Rhythmic German chorales (Ein Feste Burg) or 19th century American tunes (Marching to Zion) certainly have rhythmic vitality in themselves. Could this rhythmic vitality be emphasized with a tambourine or a snare drum? (You’ll want to make sure the percussion you use does not overpower the song of the congregation.) Cultural percussion instruments (djembe, doumbek, congas, etc.) are often well received. Talk to your local music educator for more ideas.

Since the xylophone is a C instrument, you can ask a budding percussionist to play along on hymns and liturgies right from the hymnal. Many school band programs require their percussion students to start out with a xylophone. The percussive quality of the xylophone stands out from the organ or piano and is useful for introducing new music to the congregation.

I’ve recently enjoyed the creativity of our guitarists in improvising an introduction to “Ebenezer (Thy Strong Word)” with a “Spanish flair” as well as careful finger-plucking on “Jesus Loves Me.” Many new hymnals and worship resources include a guitar chord edition. There may be chord variations between the keyboard accompaniment and guitar chord editions so make sure to rehearse first!

Handbells and Chimes
Don’t leave your bell choirs out of the fun. Handbells and chimes can provide hymn settings, introductions and liturgical descants. By analyzing the chord structure of a hymn harmonization you can probably prepare a handbell setting for your ringers. Published settings also are available. When the handbells are playing, make sure to reduce your organ registration so they may be heard.

Educate, educate, educate!

If your congregation is used to simple organ or piano accompaniments, it may be a shock to hear so much rhythmic and instrumental vitality on hymns. Explain that the added instruments simply help us to better understand the hymn. Emphasize that it’s completely appropriate for God’s people (even instrumentalists) to encourage one another in singing the songs of the faith.

You don’t know it all? No problem!

Use the resident experts in your congregation and community. I am amazed at the willingness of God’s people to share their gifts with others. Have a “jam session” with beginning guitar players. See if your local high school’s band director would be willing to work with your brass and woodwind players. Could a local strings group play for worship? The possibilities are endless, but they start planning and communication. Let your creative juices flow and don’t be afraid to let others help!

We’ve just begun to examine the important role musical instruments can have in our worship. The Good News of the Gospel message has been given to the Church and there are so many ways to illuminate the Word of God through music. Make sure to spend time planning and preparing, and don’t be afraid to try something new. Empower and encourage God’s people to tell of His grace through music in the church!

About Unwrapping the Gifts
Unwrapping the Gifts is a bimonthly publication of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Worship Ministry devoted to providing resources for worship. Everyone involved in planning worship is encouraged to subscribe to the Unwrapping the Gifts RSS feed.

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