By Paul Rumrill
Imagine a music minister writing seven new worship songs each week for his congregation’s services—for years. Now imagine the songs this person writes are recognized as the best biblical worship expressions, both in the current day and throughout all of history. Imagine the rehearsals, Scripture study, and passion for theological grounding behind these kinds of songs. Then beyond writing, this minister also teaches music to many Christian students every week, and with a sizable number of children by two marriages (being widowed at a young age), he is considered a decent family man. The above portrait embodies Johann Sebastian Bach’s ministerial accomplishments during the 1720s.
Among the greatest composers, Bach stands out as a genius profoundly influenced by Christian thought and worship practice. Will Durant calls his works “the Reformation set to music,”1 and Bach himself noted that “in devotional music, God is always at hand with His grace.” 2
Worship leaders today are as diverse as music itself. You could drive through a single town and find one music minister who approaches songs armed with an organ and hymn books while, down the street, another uses electric guitars and video backgrounds for the lyrics. However, whether they lead with acoustic guitars and djembes, banjos and harmonicas, even turntables and disco lights, just about every worship leader can apply principles from Bach’s life to their own ministries. Here are just a few to consider.
Bach studied Scripture and theology passionately. Although Bach never formally studied theology, he was a regular student of the Bible and of great Christian ministers. At his death, Bach’s library consisted of Biblical commentaries, sermon collections, devotional books, hymnbooks, and 15 volumes by Martin Luther. His Bibles were well-worn and well-marked. His Calov Bible has a handwritten comment next to 1 Chronicles 25: “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music.” Bach also commented on Exodus 15, 2 Chronicles 5:12-13, and the Sermon on the Mount.
Bach’s crucifixion studies informed his harmonic and instrumental choices in works that emphasized Christ’s suffering:3 chorales like “O Sacred Head, Thou Wounded,” large works such as the Crucifixus portion of the B Minor Mass and the death of Christ as depicted in St. Matthew’s Passion. Through his musical and textual choices, Bach can be regarded as a Lutheran theologian of high order.
Because our songs, Scripture selections, exhortations, and prayers teach our congregations about God, we need to become worship theologians. Colossians 3:16 acknowledges the teaching ministry found in good church music, and our generation needs to be as conscious of this as Bach’s.
2. Offer the Best
Bach sought to excel in every musical area for God’s glory enthusiastically. From his teen years onward, he sought vocal, instrumental, and compositional excellence. Bach was an undisputed master of the organ and harpsichord and held considerable ability on violin, viola, cello, clavichord, and probable skill on guitar and lute—but it is important to note that he did not start out that way. He was always musically gifted, but never a Mozartean child prodigy; it was through diligent practice that Bach became one of the greatest improvisers of all time. He could improvise over harmonic patterns creatively, and for long periods of time. 4
Many musicians today are strong at improvising and learning music by ear; others are strong in reading the printed page and charts. Blessed is the church whose music minister is strong in both, and determined to excel in each arena for the glory of God.
3. Embrace Variety
Bach learned music-making from a huge variety of musical sources. Bach’s church music incorporated the best of ancient and modern, international and local elements. He was a lifelong learner, investigating French, Italian, and German secular music, hymnology from many times, and dance styles that originated from all over Europe.
Bach copied, transcribed, or arranged dozens of publications by hand. He made long journeys to hear some of the best musicians in Germany. He would often use music from older-style churches, but in doing so transform it into something useful for the needs of his present-day ministry.
Bach’s actions encourage us to borrow from multiple sources of music and metaphor—sacred and secular, regional and global, ancient and modern. We have access to more streams of musical thought than any generation before us, and it is likely that we will need to integrate these concepts into our contemporary ministries in coming years.
4. Serve Locally
Bach relentlessly worked to compose, arrange, and create worship music for his own church’s services. Unlike so many musicians today (even in the Church world), Bach sought to thrive within the local church community more than trying to “go national.” He aimed to “conduct well-regulated church music to the honour of God.” 5
Bach invested an astonishing degree of energy into corporate worship formation. He created one church cantata per week for his local church (St. Thomas of Leipzig) for almost three years; each cantata had five to seven songs that linked to the Scripture messages delivered by the local pastor.
Bach’s remarkable productivity challenges us: how much do we believe in local church ministry? Does our commitment show in our attention to song set creation, arranging, and transitions for our local community?
5. Become a Worship Teacher
Bach actively taught Christian devotion and music-making to his family and the next generation—as part of his weekly responsibilities. Bach wrote hundreds of pieces to teach his family and friends how to make music for God’s glory, undergoing thousands of labor-hours. Four of his children became preeminent musicians of the next generation through his guidance; most of them served Christ.
How committed are we to insuring that the generation after us exceeds us spiritually? Musically? Artistically? Strategically? How committed are we to the teaching component of music ministry? How committed are we to raise up worship leaders of integrity and determination to glorify God in these last days? Bach illustrates many of these by submitting his genius to the cause of Christ—encouraging us to go and do likewise.
Paul Rumrill is an Assistant Professor of Worship and Piano at the Center for Worship at Liberty University. For 12 years he served as a full-time music minister at a multiethnic church in Connecticut. He received his DMA in piano performance from the Eastman School of Music.
1 Kupferberg, Herbert. Basically Bach, 9.
2 Kavanaugh, Patrick. Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, 22.
3 Bach seemed to be particularly interested in Thesis 20 of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation: “He deserves to be called a theologian…who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”
4 In 1747, King Frederick the Great presented him with a difficult melody, and asked him to improvise on it; the old master played a three-voice fugue on it immediately; he later created a six-voice fugue and canon collection from the theme in A Musical Offering.
5 Geiringer, Karl. The Bach Family, 141.