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SBC orchestras prove instrumental in providing ministry opportunities

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In the early 1970s Camp Kirkland pioneered a new field of music ministry in the Southern Baptist Convention when he became a church’s full-time orchestra director. Nearly 30 years later, more than 100 full-time orchestra directors and nearly 70,000 volunteer instrumentalists have joined the ranks.

The church orchestra is once again on the upswing and that’s good news for churches within the SBC, said Mark Johnson, instrumental consultant and editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.

“Instrumental music is a growing, evolving ministry. It reflects what I feel is a growing trend towards the inclusion of more musicians in the worship service,” Johnson said. “Generally, we are moving away from churches [which] only use the piano and organ. Having additional instrumentalists allows more people to be included in ministry.”

In the early days of the church orchestra, Johnson said only mega-churches had instrumental music programs, such as Camp Kirkland’s at First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla.

All that changed in the late 1970s and 1980s when church orchestras flourished. Churches of all sizes began to pioneer instrumental music programs, and many churches created full-time staff positions to accommodate the growing interest in the ministry opportunity.

And while the ministries grew, there was also a challenge — finding instrumental music. “It was a struggle because there was a time when the number of music resources available to church orchestras was more limited. Some groups had to create their own arrangements and play the same music over and over again.”

Now, however, Johnson said there are a large number of instrumental selections available, including hymn books. “Virtually every hymn book has orchestra parts and all the new choral music comes with instrumental arrangements. There are a number of publishers supplying the needs for instrumental musicians and LifeWay is at the forefront of that effort,” Johnson added.

While the future of the church orchestra is looking brighter, Johnson said the biggest challenge facing musicians is to experience growth proportionate to that of the 1970s and 1980s.

According to the Annual Church Profile count, between 65,000 to 70,000 people are members of a church instrumental ensemble and more than 100 directors are employed at SBC churches.

“There was a point several years ago that instrumental music was the fastest-growing facet of music ministry in the SBC,” said Terry McNatt, associate pastor of worship and music at Germantown Baptist Church in Tennessee. “I first started in this back in 1986 and you only saw orchestras in fairly large churches. Now, there are guys starting orchestras in churches with 300 in Sunday school.”

McNatt is also a member of the Metro Instrumental Directors Association, a group that initially started with five members and has grown to 60. “It’s just a time for us to get together and fellowship together,” McNatt said. “It’s a great meeting.”

Orchestras have been a wonderful addition to the worship services at Germantown, McNatt reflected. “The orchestra provides a color and excitement in the music that you cannot replace with any other instrument. You can’t imitate it,” he said.

And while many church orchestras play traditional hymns and worship choruses, McNatt said the church orchestra is also a springboard for the development of praise bands.

“We’ve had guys that we started using as players on Sunday mornings and as they got better we found that we could use them on Sunday night when we worship with a praise band,” McNatt said.

But no matter what style of worship is used in the future, McNatt said he believes that church orchestras will remain a viable worship tool. “And most importantly, you are allowing people to be ministers. The church orchestra is a ministry opportunity.”

No one should know that better than Jeff Cranfill, associate minister of music at Red Bank Baptist Church, Chattanooga, Tenn. Cranfill’s conversion was the result of an invitation to join a church orchestra.

“For me, the church orchestra is what got me to church to begin with. A friend invited me to play in his church orchestra at First Baptist Atlanta and I thought it would be fun,” Cranfill said. It wasn’t long after that invitation that Cranfill accepted Jesus Christ into his life. Eventually, his entire family would be led to the Lord under the ministry of pastor Charles Stanley.

“If nothing else, the church orchestra can minister to those who are lost by bringing them into the group,” he said.

Cranfill’s orchestra ministry at Red Bank includes a sanctuary orchestra as well as a chapel orchestra. The chapel orchestra is primarily for younger players or less-experienced players of any age. “We have mostly teenagers in the chapel orchestra but one of our members is a 60-year-old man who always wanted to play the trombone. So he went out and bought one and now he’s in the chapel orchestra,” Cranfill said.

Rob Thomas, the minister of music and worship at First Baptist Church, Hendersonville, Tenn., said church orchestras are coming into their own. “I think it’s a great time to have a church orchestra,” he said. “These groups are like family. They watch out for one another. They minister to each other.”

Thomas, who directed the orchestra at First Baptist Church Jackson, Miss., for eight years, said church orchestras serve a number of purposes. “Their playing fulfills a need they have to give their gift back to God,” Thomas said.

In addition to orchestras being an outreach tool, Cranfill cites a biblical mandate for worship. “Spiritually speaking, you have to go back to Psalm 150 where it says to praise the Lord. Not to consider it. There is obedience to the Lord here.

“God has given us the ability to communicate emotions through music, and when you use that and let God speak to his people through the song, people are going to be blessed,” Cranfill said.

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes