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Deep Personal Convictions about Corporate Worship

An interview with Matthew Westerholm


Matthew Westerholm has seen it all in church music. And God has used all the encounters of his years in music ministry to shape his God-centered, Christ-exalting views of corporate worship today.

In this interview, Westerholm discusses how God has grown him as a church leader. Westerholm serves as associate professor of church music and worship and is executive director for the Institute for Biblical Worship at SBTS.


Jared Kennedy

When did you first become interested in music? Who were the strong musical influences in your life early on?

Matthew Westerholm

Music has always mystified me. It probably began standing in church on Sunday morning between a dad who sang tenor and a mom who sang alto. I’d listen and wonder, “What is this magic harmony thing that I’m hearing?” Then, in high school, our youth worship leader discipled me and also dropped me into the deep end with piano. Instead of making chord charts, he would photocopy the over- heads and put them in front of me. In rehearsal, he’d call out the chords as he sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “We Bow Down” by Twila Paris, and I’d try to write them down furiously. He helped me learn to hear and see music. I also had a great band director in high school. He was Roman Catholic, but he respected my faith. He could see the way Christian faith motivated excellence in music, and he pushed me. He let me take an independent study where he sent me in a room with a keyboard and a sequencer and let me explore. You know, “Here’s a sandbox. Go make some castles.” Having him encourage my creativity was super important.


When did you sense a call to church music?


I went to Trinity College in Chicago as a music performance major. While I was there, I got hired by some churches in the Chicagoland area to play piano for their new contemporary worship services. I did that initially to help pay my way through school. But in the process, I met worship team members who were more excited about sneaking a Metallica riff into the prelude than they were about the glory of God.

I also met worship pastors who had a dysfunctional relationship with their senior pastor. So, during the sermon, the band would go back to the “green room” instead of sitting under the Word. It broke my heart in a profound way. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. I talked to an amazing and wise young lady—who is now my wife—and she had me figured out. She said, “This is what you should do with your life. You should do church music.” The Lord used her and those circumstances to open me up to his call and also to give me deep personal convictions about corporate worship.


In your time as a worship pastor, what are some of the pitfalls you’ve seen churches fall into?


In my early days in ministry, I served in a very attractional, franchise-style, multi-site church. That environment shaped my heart in ways I didn’t like. In that context, it was assumed that we should be doing identical services at all of our church’s locations. I was designing services that could be put in a box and sent anywhere: Just open it up, and do a service that will bless God’s people. Designing those services seemed like a personal honor. But, over time, I began to see this was the opposite of what I wanted to do. Through that experience, I discovered I’m a Baptist. I believe in the autonomy of the local church, and the importance of contextualized ministry.


You serve as the executive director of the Institute for Biblical Worship. What are your hopes and dreams for the Institute?


The Institute for Biblical Worship is the outward facing arm of our Department of Biblical Worship. Our plan is for the Institute to be a place where local church leaders go when they’re look- ing for reviews of new church music or when they’re asking questions about corporate worship. Worship leaders have questions: Is it okay to use music from a different theological tradition? Should we employ more liturgical practices? More revivalist practices? The Institute won’t prescribe what your church should do; we don’t want to commend a particular system of practices or a particular ethos for every service.

As a Baptist, I believe biblical worship is a call to contextualized worship. We obviously must include what the Bible commands for our worship services, and we must do so with great joy. But the Bible also prescribes and describes a great variety in local church practice. I believe it’s the Institute’s job to help local church leaders navigate that variety by providing the best thinking and the best conversation on these subjects.

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