December 10, 2015
Part of my job as Music Director at St. Paul is to provide a prelude and a postlude each week for Sunday worship. The music I choose for the prelude is generally of a prayerful or contemplative nature and the postlude, while it tends to be more festive, certainly varies depending on the season or the particular Sunday in the church year. I’ve had the privilege over the past couple of years to discuss the role of the prelude and postlude in our worship with our wonderful staff, several colleagues, and many parishioners. For the most part it seems that none of us ever wish to go without the prelude or postlude, but ideas about the role of these musical moments in our worship vary distinctly.

Every set of church staff is different with respect to its beliefs around the purpose of the prelude and postlude, just as each congregation differs with respect to the way that it treats preludes and postludes. Some of my music director friends have been instructed by their supervising pastors to begin the prelude no less than 15 minutes prior to a service while others have been instructed to play no prelude whatsoever. Several churches ask that there be no postlude during Advent or Lent because of the penitential nature of those particular seasons while some enjoy complex and boisterous postludes year-round (and sit attentively through the entirety of each, no matter the length.) I have attended several churches where it is customary to enter the worship space in silence, allowing the prelude to be the only sound that occupies the space, then sit quietly following the service until the completion of the postlude.

Our custom at St. Paul is truly a mixed bag: many of us enter worship in a rather last-minute fashion, greeting our friends and family whole-heartedly with spirit-filled voices while others sit quietly in the pews for several minutes with downcast eyes or hearts lifted in prayer. I would argue that these are both ways to prepare ourselves for worship; they’re just vastly different ways to prepare. Where does the prelude enter each of these scenarios? For some it seems the prelude is background music that fills the space between greetings or provides a backdrop for an extended conversation. For others it fills space in the soul or the mind, maybe quieting the residue from a busy week and making room for the words and music of worship. In many cases, perhaps the prelude is worship. 

The postlude, from my perspective, is really an exciting opportunity to lift up a musical offering to God but also an important moment to comment on a theme from the last hour’s worship service or send the congregation out into the world with a message for the coming week. I tend to think carefully about this music and spend quite a lot of time preparing it. It’s always a nice benefit for members of the congregation to share this moment with me!

What is the prelude to you? What about the postlude? How do you make use of these musical moments during worship? During this season of Advent, we are hoping to access some contemplative time in the sanctuary before worship each Sunday. Before the prelude begins, the singing bowl will be rung several times, calling us to reflection and preparation. We hope this is a meaningful change to our routine and perhaps causes us to think more carefully about the time before and after worship each week.