Interview with President Patterson

Learning, teaching, and doing our best in music ministry

By R. Allen Lott

First published in Southwestern News(Summer 2004)

Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson shared his thoughts on various aspects of church music in an interview with R. Allen Lott, professor of music history in the seminary’s School of Church Music. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Q.  What were some important musical experiences and influences of your youth, both inside and outside the church?

Patterson:  First, we had a graduate of Southwestern Seminary, Cliff Baker (MSM 1954), who was our minister of music during all of my growing-up days in First Baptist Church, Beaumont, Texas, where my father was the pastor.  A well-trained musician, Dr. Baker was a great advocate of a total church music program from the cradle to the grave.  As badly as I hated it, my first musical experiences in the church were as a little over-machoed kid standing in a cute little choir robe in a children’s choir.  Although I detested it, there was never a time from then on when I was not in a choir of some kind.  Most of the limited musical abilities I have were a product of Baker’s ministry and the graded-choir program there.

The second influence was my older sister, who is quite an accomplished pianist and organist.  From the time I was seven or eight years old, I listened every Saturday to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast, and she taught me all about the various operas, plots, and composers.  It’s not unusual even until this day for me to draw a sermon illustration from opera.

Then, as I became aware of my Texas roots and more and more a proud Texan, I acquired country-western music as one of my tastes.  As I’ve often commented, it’s the same thing as opera:  it’s all cryin’, lovin’, and leavin’  There is just a slight difference in the musical score.  I developed some taste for it as something uniquely American, primarily, and as a good source of sermon illustrations.

Beyond that, as a youth I did not care too much for a lot of the popular music.  The Beatles left me cold; Elvis I considered to be mostly depraved.  Rock I always rejected, even when I wasn’t living for the Lord like I should.

Q.  It is obvious you love the great hymns of the faith.  What are some of your favorites?

Patterson:  This question could take all day, because I love them all.  Like my dad, I love “Jesus Paid It All,” because I tend to love hymns about the atonement.  Other favorites of mine include “It Is Well with My Soul,” “Like a River Glorious,” “And Can It Be,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and “At the Cross.”  There are many others I love greatly.

I love choruses, too, provided they meet my criteria for a successful contribution to congregational song.  They must be theologically accurate, singable, and memorable. I don’t like those that fail in one of those three categories.  Even though they can be used to accentuate the worship of the people, I think they are poor substitutes for profound hymnody.  If we forfeit our heritage of hymnody, it will be a major loss to the church.

Take “It Is Well with My Soul” as a classic example.  First, it is easily memorable.  Second, it has a fabulous story that lies behind it about confidence in God’s providence.  It’s one of the few hymns that actually focuses on the strategically important doctrine of the providence of God, and about the only one I know that ties it directly to the atonement of Christ.  Verses 2 and 3 are ostensibly the greatest expressions of the doctrine of atonement outside of holy writ.  You couldn’t read anything in a book of systematic theology that would be as compelling.  I like to have people sing it, and then stop and reflect on it for a moment.  What do these verses say?  Incredible!

I keep telling my young preachers that the second greatest source of theological learning in any congregation is the hymnal.  Hardly anybody reads systematic theology, except maybe the pastor, if we’re lucky.

Q.  What are your thoughts on the current direction of music and worship in our Southern Baptist churches?

Patterson:  I would panic if it were not for one thing and that is my experience – living as long as I have lived has some advantages – that there is a certain amount of what’s going on that is merely a trend that is here today and gone tomorrow.  I remember when folk musicals came out and some people wondered whether we would live to escape those things, and, sure enough, they vanished from the scene almost as quickly as they appeared.  So, I think as the popular scene changes, as it is ever changing, so there will be changes in this.  That gives me some hope. 

However, I continue to be gravely concerned about the impact that is being made on churches in terms of the loss of church music programs.  The public schools are culprits in it also in that many public school music programs are now lagging considerably behind, particularly in encouraging young people to pursue stringed instruments other than guitars.  I greatly fear that as that trend comes over into the church we won’t develop youth orchestras, full church orchestras, and graded-choir programs.  Then not only do we lose a significant educational opportunity that we should be concerned about, but, more seriously, we lose the ability for large numbers of people to actively participate in the musical expression of their faith.  I fear that whatever the virtues of the so-called praise teams and praise bands may be, what in effect is happening is the diminution of the number of people that are actively involved in a music program.  That is my greatest single concern.

My other concern is that there is a line between secular and sacred.  I still struggle with where to draw it myself, but I know there is a line somewhere between what is godly and what is worldly.  Yet, when I sit in a service of worship and watch the “Rockettes” praise team on the platform, I frequently know this has been transgressed.

Q.  What can you tell us about the book on worship you are planning?

Patterson:  If I find time to write it, it’s going to be titled The Old Codger’s Guide to Praise and Worship.  It will be designed for people like me who need to be reminded that just because I didn’t grow up with it and I don’t like it doesn’t mean that it is automatically bad.  I think there is a danger for senior citizens like me to mistake our own history and our own tastes for the gospel.  I think there needs to be a warning sounded there, and I think it will be better heard from another old codger.  Then I plan to turn it around also.  I will also identify in no uncertain terms what I believe to be the serious dangers associated with the present craze.  One of the points I will make is that old codgers count, too.  Churches that target a specific age group are practicing a faulty ecclesiology.

Q.  You have admitted that in the past you did not encourage students to pursue music training at the seminary level.  Why was that?

Patterson:  First, I felt that church music had made the opposite mistake in the 50s and 60s.  I thought it was shooting over the heads of the vast majority of the people.  Because of my background, I’ve always loved classical music, but I always had a preacher’s sense that we were missing the people.  So, I wanted not classical but heart music in the churches.  I felt the music divisions of our schools were maybe too attuned to what would be done more professionally with choirs than they were with what should be done with the congregation. 

I also believed that there was a strong emphasis in those days in the music departments – whether this was true or not, it was certainly the popular understanding – that the pastor was basically untutored in musical issues, which was probably accurate, and the minister of music’s duty was to lift the musical taste in the church.  He was encouraged to ignore the pastor and do what he wanted.  I felt that this teaching of rebellion virtually against the pastor and his leadership was extraordinarily dangerous. 

Q.  What has caused you to change your mind about seminary training in music?

Patterson:  You can chalk that up to the praise and worship movement as much as anything else.  It has put me right back in the opposite direction, because I think that the pendulum swing is dangerously in the other direction at the moment.  Not only that, I also sense on the part of our music faculty that none of those features that I described as being reprehensible in former years are here any more, if indeed they ever were.  I sense a spirit of willingness to be more sensitive to the spiritual leadership of the pastor and to minister to the whole congregation.  It also seems to me that they are getting it right in our music schools now:  we have to teach the best music there is, because unless a person can learn to do the best and recognize the best, then he’s not going to be able to do the other well either.  And so I think the reason for doing the best is now what it ought to be. 

Q.  You mentioned the relationship between the pastor and the minister of music, which unfortunately is often a difficult one.  What advice can you give regarding their working relationship?

Patterson:  Pastors need to stop treating the minister of music as an employee and start treating him as a minister.  If I had a minister of music who considered himself an employee, I would get a new one.  If I have a minister of music who considers himself a minister, then I should consider him that also, and I should encourage him in every way, knowing that he brings gifts that I don’t have and that the congregation needs.  I think it’s a two-way street.  The minister of music has to follow the lead of the pastor, to be sure, but he doesn’t need to be run over. He needs to be a partner in the ministry.

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