The Symphony and the Church

A few weeks ago Gary and I spent a delightful evening at a dinner sponsored by the Yale Club of West Michigan followed by a performance of the Grand Rapids Symphony.  I am very grateful for both of my alma maters, Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and Yale University School of Music and Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.  My education was first-rate, and the professors and organ teachers with whom I studied cared about my personal as well as professional development. 

In the past 35 years, however, I have never once returned to Wittenberg, and the only time I was back at Yale was when Gary and I took our young children on a New England road trip.  Although I make yearly financial contributions to both universities I have never formed a close attachment with either Wittenberg or Yale.  Perhaps it’s because I pursued higher education in order to learn rather than party and spent most of my time in practice rooms or the library.  Or maybe I was so occupied with raising a family and pastoring churches that I neglected to stay in touch with my university friends. 

The impetus for the Yale Club gathering was the opportunity to meet and interact with David Lockington and John Varineau, conductor and associate conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony respectively.  Interestingly, both David and John were students at the Yale School of Music in the late 1970’s when I was there.  I never met either David or John at Yale, however, probably because I was part of the Institute of Sacred Music, which had a specialized curriculum.

With divinity school and music school graduates among those at our table, the dinner conversation was fascinating.  We noted that there is a marked difference between the professional schools and the academic departments at Yale.  The Divinity School and School of Music both prepare students for the practice of ministry and music performance, while the Departments of Religion and Music prepare PhD students for the intellectual rigors of the academy.  John Varineau shared a comment that a colleague at the Yale School of Music once made, “I am not here to study but to practice.”

There are two worlds of graduate study at Yale for music and religion: one professional and practical, the other scholarly and academic, and they rarely mix.  But in the real world they must.  The legacy of John Wesley reminds us of the importance of educated clergy and laity: that both the practical and the academic contribute to vital ministry.

  • Effective clergy develop skills in administration, management, staff supervision, conflict resolution, and communication at the same time as they read widely, engage theology, and keep current with the latest in biblical interpretation.    
  • Vital churches reach out to their members and the world in practical ways that increase spiritual depth and improve quality of life, but their collective faith must be grounded in scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. 

We moved on to a discussion about how orchestras can become sustainable.  It’s a common practice that when budgets are tight in schools and communities, music and the arts are the first to be slashed.  With 5 prominent US orchestras having declared bankruptcy in the past year, we asked how it is that the Grand Rapids Symphony has not only been able to survive but thrive.  It was not surprising that the challenges facing symphonies are similar to other non-profits, including the church.

The Grand Rapids Symphony is a vital, sustainable organization in the Grand Rapids metropolitan area because the symphony works diligently to reflect the community in which it lives.  The foundation of the Grand Rapids Symphony is the offering of a variety of concerts in different styles and locations in order to attract diverse audiences.  These concerts include classic series, pops series, chamber music concerts, outdoor summer pops concerts, and an assortment of other public appearances.

The Grand Rapids Symphony was founded in 1930 and enlisted its first full-time players in 1974, which initiated a period of growth in attendance as well as quality.  Today the Symphony is one of the finest regional orchestras in the country with 59 salaried orchestra members and 30 contract musicians.  Strong community support for the symphony is complemented by an exceptional board, which adopted a strategic plan in 2009 to guide the symphony through tough times.  Budgets, expenses, attendance, and revenue are at or above projections, with concert revenue up 6% last year.  In addition, there is a 23 member Development Committee and a new Marketing Committee which promoted 400 appearances and attracted 100,000 adult concert attendees in 2011. 

  • How does your church reflect the needs of the community in which you are located?
  • Do you have a strategic plan to guide your ministry, or are you still asking the same question every January, “Well, what are we going to do this year?”
  • Are your administrative leaders committed, engaged, and willing to gain new skills in fund development, marketing, and planning?

I am convinced that the primary reason the Grand Rapids Symphony is flourishing is its emphasis on engaging the hearts of children through music.  In 2011 77,000 children were touched by the Grand Rapids Symphony, which takes its role in the education of children very seriously.  There is a 5th grade concert series as well as family concerts at DeVos Performance Hall.  Various ensembles go into the classrooms to teach children how to appreciate music of all genres.  The symphony even offers Mosaic scholarships for African-American and Hispanic students to receive instrumental training and mentorship by Symphony musicians. 

Music and the arts have taken a huge hit in our schools.  In the Grand Rapids Public School system, there is no band or orchestra in 4 of our 5 public high schools, and in the 5th school juniors and seniors are not permitted to participate in band or choir.  As John Varineau so eloquently put it, academic classes like math and science are critical for our children’s education.  However, we are feeling as well as thinking people, and music is our soul and heart.  Our children need as much instruction in matters of the heart as they do in technology, physics, and calculus. 

Varineau, who is responsible for the educational and outreach efforts of the orchestra, expressed his philosophy that every child should be able to encounter the symphony at least once a year, not just those children whose parents can afford to take them to DeVos Hall.  Believing that the Grand Rapids Symphony has to fill a bigger niche in music education, Symphony members leave DeVos Hall for much of the week to go where the children are.

Could it be that some of our local churches are struggling because they are disconnected from their communities and have abdicated their responsibility to reach the children?  Frankly, I am alarmed at the lack of Sunday school in many of our churches.  Not only are our own children being short-changed, but we are not effectively reaching out to children in the community who don’t have a church home.  Even confirmation classes for youth are often perfunctory and don’t provide comprehensive religious instruction. 

  • Who will share the love of Jesus with our children, help them discover their core religious identity, and show them how to read the Bible with understanding?
  • Who will teach our children about theology, church history, ethics, spiritual formation, vocation, and other world religions?
  • Who will be an example for our children of grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, compassion, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
  • Who will offer a safe and accepting place for youth to question and doubt, discover their gifts, serve others, enlarge their borders, and be exposed to adult mentors?
  • Who will dialogue with young people about the role that faith can play in the challenges of their everyday life?
  • What would it take for our local churches to commit to encountering every child in their community at least once a year?

Are children and youth found anywhere in your church’s strategic plan? 

The symphony and the church.  The Grand Rapids Symphony is succeeding in tough times because they aren’t waiting for people to come to them.  They are successfully engaging all segments of their community in creative, meaningful, and transformative ways.  Can we say the same for the church?


7 thoughts on “The Symphony and the Church

  1. A related question might be: who do we mean by “children and youth”? Churches have traditionally thought exclusively of “their own” children and youth: the children of their own members. This is a big mistake.

  2. Excellent point Craig. Laurie…Amen to this! Thank you for being a voice for children. If every UM church would truly take your final bullet points to heart, how healthy our denomination would be!

  3. Good thoughts. To carry your first highlighted point a bit further, how do we (the local church) reflect the community we are in? And how do we remain relevant to the community our congregation serves?
    Are all of our church programs and initiatives in harmony with our local congregation? And if not, why not? Do we ask our constituents these questions, or do we assume because we know best, or it has worked somewhere else, that we should forge ahead and let the chips fall where they may?
    If we have learned to exercise caution and diligence when educating foreign missionaries about the local cultures where they will be serving, why do we not pay equal respect to local ‘homeland’ church locales? Does the degree to which we respect our locale contribute to the ‘success’ of our children & youth programs? I think so. To Craig’s point, I have seen churches reach the ‘locals’ effectively when the church listens to and respect the youth in the neighborhood. And not surprisingly, the same works for their parents.
    I’m still learning and asking questions – I hope they are the right ones.

  4. Spot on article of thought this week . By reaching out to the young and questioning minds in our churches and our communitees, we keep ourselves young in thought and conversation. There is room for all range of thought and experience in Gods health and as our children grow in faith so does the health of the Church .

  5. Laurie:

    Somebody sent me the link to this article, otherwise I never would have known about it. What a fantastic article and what a great writer you are. To be honest, I was a little bit worried after the dinner because you were so quiet, I thought that maybe my brash style put you off. Instead, it appears you were doing what so few people do well, listening. You application of the problems we discussed at dinner to the challenges that churches face is, I think, spot on. I sincerely hope that you and I will be able to interact a little bit more from here on out. It is very, very weird that you and I were at Yale together, didn’t know each other, and yet here we are in friendly old Grand Rapids, but have hardly seen each other for the past 30 years.

  6. Dear Laurie,

    The Grand Rapids Symphony shared with me your wonderful, thought-provoking article. Thank you for providing me with a different perspective on the Symphony and the Church and the critical importance of being proactive, connected and involved.

    It was wonderful to meet you and Gary at the Yale evening with the Grand Rapids Symphony. I look forward to future Yale Club events with you, perhaps one on the Church and Community (W. Michigan) with an interfaith theme?

    Laurie, may we share your inspiring article with the Yale alumni who participated in the evening with the Symphony?

    Thank you and best wishes, Tim

  7. Tim, Thank you so much for your kind words. It was an honor to be at the dinner, and I enjoyed the symphony immensely. I would love to be a part of an interfaith event. On another note, Gary just let me know that your mother died several weeks ago. I had not received the news before now. I am so sorry for your loss, Tim, and hope that you and your family carry with you wonderful memories of your mother.
    And John, I am glad that someone sent you a copy of the blog. I hae always been a huge fan of the Grand Rapids Symphony and am even more impressed by the influence you are extending to the children in the GR Metro area. Hopefully, we will find other ways to connect in the future. Laurie

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