William J. Reynolds: Extraordinary Church Musician


Artistic Theologian 2 (2013): 93–102

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MusicDavid W. Music, DMA, is Professor of Church Music at Baylor University, where he has served on the faculty since 2002. He previously taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and California Baptist University, and is a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

If the question were to be asked, “Who was the most influential Southern Baptist church musician in the second half of the twentieth century?” the answer would almost surely be William Jensen Reynolds. Reynolds served in music ministry in almost every conceivable capacity: as part- and full-time minister of music, as denominational leader, and as seminary professor. He was highly sought after as a choral and hymn director, was a prolific composer and arranger, served as a hymnal editor, and was highly regarded as a scholar and writer on hymnological subjects. In many respects, he represented the growth and maturity of church music as a profession and as a medium for worship in the evangelical world.

The present article briefly traces Reynolds’s life and career and draws attention to some of his accomplishments in the field of church music. While church music, denominational life, and indeed the world itself have changed considerably since Reynolds’s time, his achievements provide an example of creativity, hard work, and faithfulness to the task that can serve as a model for church musicians today. ((A much fuller biography and analysis of Reynolds’s work can be found in the author’s William J. Reynolds: Church Musician (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2013).))

Early Life and Education

William J. (Bill) Reynolds was born on April 2, 1920, in Atlantic, Iowa. His father, George W. Reynolds, was an evangelistic singer, and his mother, Ethel (Horn) Reynolds, was an accomplished pianist; both parents had been trained at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Bill’s uncle, Isham Emmanuel (I. E.) Reynolds, like his father, was also an evangelistic singer. Five years before Bill’s birth, I. E. had become the founding director of the Department of Gospel Music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (1915). ((The Department of Gospel Music was eventually renamed the School of Sacred Music (1926) and ultimately the School of Church Music (1957).))

Within a few months of Bill’s birth his father accepted a position as song leader and education director at the First Baptist Church of Altus, Oklahoma. The elder Reynolds spent the remainder of his career as either a local church song leader or an evangelistic singer in Oklahoma and Texas. He was serving the First Baptist Church in Childress, Texas, in 1937, when his son Bill graduated from high school.

Bill matriculated at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, where he studied for two years, followed by a year out of school. After transferring to Southwest Missouri State Teacher’s College (now Missouri State University), he graduated with a B.A. in sociology in 1942. Reynolds immediately entered Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary as a church music student, but with World War II in full swing, he interrupted his education after the fall 1943 semester to enter the United States Maritime Service. He spent nine months in the service—including a trip across the Atlantic in a tanker carrying aviation gasoline—before returning to Fort Worth and completing his Master of Church Music degree, which he received in the summer of 1945.

In the fall after his graduation from Southwestern, Reynolds became a student at North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, at that time one of the few schools in the Southwest that was accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. After the one-year course of study he received his Master of Music in the spring of 1946, completing a thesis on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Le Devin du Village: A Product of the Guerre des Bouffons.

Minister of Music

Following his graduation from North Texas, Reynolds returned to Oklahoma as minister of music and youth at the First Baptist Church of Ardmore. However, he had been at Ardmore for only about four months before he was called to and accepted the position of full-time minister of music at the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. This was the largest Baptist congregation in Oklahoma, and Reynolds served there for eight years under the pastorates of Willis E. Howard and Herschel H. Hobbs. Reynolds was only the second full-time minister of music in the state. ((The first full-time Baptist minister of music in Oklahoma, R. Paul Green, had been serving at Immanuel Baptist Church in Tulsa since September 1945. Full-time in the context of this article means that the person’s responsibilities were only in music, not in a combination position such as Reynolds had held at Ardmore. Reynolds was called to Oklahoma City on January 9, 1947, and began his work there on March 1.))

Reynolds immediately set to work establishing a fully graded music program for the church. In 1950 he established a summer music camp for older children; this was an innovative feature for that time, and it continued throughout his tenure at the church. In addition to the Sunday-by-Sunday music, the Sanctuary Choir presented oratorios, cantatas, and major programs at Easter and other times of the year. The Christmas season usually saw a miscellaneous program presented by all the choirs.

In addition to his work in the local congregation, Reynolds established and conducted an annual singing of Handel’s Messiah by combined choirs from the Oklahoma County (now Capital) Baptist Association with orchestra. He also led music and his choirs sang for numerous associational and state-wide meetings, including sessions of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and he was active as a music leader for revival meetings and as a vocal soloist for cantatas and oratorios presented by other churches in the state.

One of Reynolds’s “extracurricular” activities during his time at Oklahoma City was serving on the committee for the 1956 Baptist Hymnal. His work on the hymnal committee was far from routine, however. Reynolds either volunteered or was assigned to prepare samples of the texts and tunes to be considered and to gather information about them, tasks he executed with faithfulness. The editor of the hymnal, W. Hines Sims, director of the Church Music Department of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville, consulted often with Reynolds, and the two of them were largely responsible for selecting tune names for the many gospel songs that had come to the committee without titles. ((The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention was renamed LifeWay Christian Resources in 1998. The term “Baptist Sunday School Board” (the name by which the organization was colloquially known) will continue to be used in this article since that was its name during Reynolds’s time there.))

Career at the Baptist Sunday School Board

At one point during the hymnal process Reynolds mentioned to Sims that he wanted to do doctoral work. Sims came back with a suggestion that Reynolds consider coming to work part-time for him and doing his doctoral work at George Peabody College for Teachers. Thus in the spring of 1955 Reynolds resigned from First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, and began doctoral study at Peabody, at the same time becoming a part-time staff editor in the Sunday School Board’s Church Music Department. He moved to full-time status at the Board in 1956. Because of the press of his duties there it would be five more years before he completed his D.Ed., which he ultimately received from Peabody in 1961.

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In his position as an editor Reynolds was not only responsible for the music published by the Church Music Department (particularly in its flagship magazine, The Church Musician, which had been founded in 1950) but for all music published by the Baptist Sunday School Board. Thus, when a song appeared in one of the children’s Sunday school magazines, for example, it had to be selected, written, arranged, or at least approved and edited by Reynolds before publication.

For several reasons, Reynolds himself was called upon to provide much of the music published by the Board. This was one of the expectations of his employment in Nashville: to compose and arrange music to meet the literature needs of the denomination. During this period the number of periodicals published by the Sunday School Board was rapidly growing, which of course increased the demand for music to go in them. Furthermore, prior to the 1950s most Southern Baptist composers—preeminently B. B. McKinney—worked in the field of gospel hymnody. While not turning their back on this heritage, Southern Baptist congregations of the 1950s were beginning to broaden their approach to church music to include hymns and choral literature in other styles, but as yet the denomination boasted relatively few composers who could supply this material. Reynolds—who had been publishing original choral music, arrangements, and hymn tunes since 1950 (including a number of pieces in The Church Musician)—was one of these composers. Thus, between 1956 and 1961, seldom an issue of The Church Musician went by that did not include at least one item—and usually several—by Reynolds. He also provided dozens of songs for the non-musical magazines of the Board and compiled numerous collections of arrangements and original compositions for men’s or women’s voices or other combinations. Many of his pieces in all categories were printed under the thirty-eight pseudonyms he used to conceal his identity as composer, arranger, or author.

After 1961 the number of items by Reynolds that appeared in the Church Music Department’s periodicals dropped off considerably. ((In 1963 music for older children was removed from The Church Musician and placed in a new magazine, The Junior Musician. Magazines for younger children, preschoolers, youth choirs, and various levels of adult choirs followed, and in 1970 the choral music section was dropped from The Church Musician.)) There were several reasons for this: the Department was rapidly expanding, with more composers and arrangers being added to its ranks; the number of qualified Southern Baptist composers outside the Board had increased significantly (thanks in no small part to encouragement by Reynolds and other personnel of the Church Music Department); the large circulation of the Board’s periodicals and active solicitation by Reynolds encouraged both established and fledgling composers from outside the denomination to submit their works for consideration; several other major projects engaged Reynolds’s attention during the early 1960s (completion of his doctoral dissertation, the publication of two books, and the editing of a full-length hymnal); and a promotion he received to Director of Editorial Services in 1963. Reynolds did, of course, continue to compose and arrange music for the Church Music Department’s publications throughout his time at the Board, though on a more limited basis than in the early years.

In the 1970s Reynolds turned to a new (for him) type of composition, the multi-movement major work. His first piece in this vein, Ichthus, was written in 1971 on a commission from the First Baptist Church of Nashville, of which he was a member. This was followed by two works designed to support Southern Baptist evangelistic emphases, Reaching People (1972) and Bold Mission (1977). All three were published by the Church Music Department.

Reynolds was also active in composing hymn tunes. Some of these were written as theme songs for various Baptist meetings, such as his 1958 tune MCNEELY (“New Life for You,” words by Edwin McNeely) for a Sunday school emphasis and his 1968 DENNY (“One World, One Lord, One Witness,” words by Ed Seabough) for the seventh Baptist Youth World Conference in Berne, Switzerland. ((Both of these tunes were originally published without titles; the names were subsequently assigned to them in Baptist Hymnal 1975.)) Baptist Hymnal 1975 contained fourteen tunes attributed wholly or in part to Reynolds. ((This figure does not include tunes published under pseudonyms, nor does it count several arrangements of spirituals and folk hymns that were printed anonymously.)) Ironically, the hymn by Reynolds that has been most widely sung, “Share His Love,” for which he wrote both the words and the tune SULLIVAN, did not begin as a hymn but as a choral piece in his musical Reaching People; the hymn version was apparently made for Baptist Hymnal 1975. ((“Share His Love” has also appeared in Baptist Hymnal 1991, Baptist Hymnal 2008, and Celebrating Grace (2010), as well as in collections from several other denominational and non-denominational publishing houses.))

In all, Reynolds’s published compositions totaled more than 700 works. ((Reynolds’s own manuscript listing of “The Published Music of William Jensen Reynolds 1952–2001” (70) gives the total as 733, but this apparently includes the books and liner notes for recordings he wrote and the hymnals he edited. On the other hand, the bibliography excludes several items that appeared in (or were accepted by) The Church Musician before Reynolds began work at the Baptist Sunday School Board (these appear on p. 78 of the listing). Furthermore, the catalog contains several omissions and duplications. While the exact number of his published works cannot be established with complete confidence, what is certain is that he was a prolific composer of church music in a variety of genres.)) This was a remarkable accomplishment, especially considering the many administrative duties he had; the writing he did for the scholarly and denominational press; and the numerous workshop and conference, guest conducting, and revival music leadership activities in which he was engaged. ((Reynolds’s compositional output diminished considerably during his service on the faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, when he turned his attention more fully to other activities, especially to scholarship in church music.))

In addition to his own compositions, of course, Reynolds was heavily involved in accepting and editing the music of other composers. Two special features of his time as editor in the Church Music Department were the issuing of the first cantatas brought out by the Sunday School Board, Claude Almand’s The Resurrection Story (1959) and Robert Graham’s Dawn of Redeeming Grace (1960), and the publication of Good News (1967), a self-described “Christian Folk-Musical” by Bob Oldenburg, Billy Ray Hearn, and Cecil McGee. The last-named piece was one of the earliest published sacred works that sought to capture the attention of young people by using the same sort of pop-folk-rock style that they heard on the radio. ((At least this is mainly true for Protestants. Ray Repp’s folk-style album Mass for Young Americans was released in 1965 and spawned a whole genre of such music among Roman Catholics, including Peter Scholte’s “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” (1968). There had, of course, been previous attempts to mine popular music styles for use in the church: compositions by the British Church Light Music Group of the 1950s incorporated Broadway and big band elements, and various experiments were tried with “sacred jazz” during the 1960s, culminating with Duke Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts (1965, 1968, 1973). Good News reflected a contemporary popular idiom to a greater extent, though its style was more similar to the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Kingston Trio, and Joan Baez that had been fashionable about five years earlier than to the acid rock that was current at the time of its publication. Good News was also conservative in being designed for performance by a youth choir rather than a pop/rock band or folk ensemble.)) The spectacular success of Good News gave rise to a flood of similar works for youth choir, and ultimately to musicals for children and for adults as well.

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W. Hines Sims retired as director of the Church Music Department in 1970, and Reynolds was named to succeed him in the position in the spring of 1971. This appointment, of course, not only increased his administrative responsibilities but gave him even greater visibility both inside and outside the Southern Baptist Convention. Indeed, his service in this capacity came to symbolize the tremendous strides that were being made in Southern Baptist church music during that era, when enrolments in church music programs were expanding exponentially, churches were calling full-time music ministers on an unprecedented scale, and music programs were becoming more sophisticated and central in the church’s life. However, he was much more than a mere symbol of these developments, for many of them were due in large part to his example and initiative.

One of Reynolds’s most important achievements as director of the Church Music Department was the compilation and publication of Baptist Hymnal 1975. He was well qualified to lead this task, having served as an important member of the committee for the previous Baptist Hymnal (1956), compiled a “trade hymnal” for the Church Music Department (Christian Praise, 1964), and become widely recognized as a hymnologist (see below). Reynolds served as general editor and chair of the hymnal committee, which included sixty-eight persons drawn from different walks of Baptist life; he was also chair of the New Materials Subcommittee.

Baptist Hymnal 1975 was an important book for a number of reasons: it introduced several classic hymns that had not been found in earlier Baptist hymnals (such as “For All the Saints” with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s SINE NOMINE), included many texts and tunes by living or recently-deceased Southern Baptist writers (Eva B. Lloyd’s “Come, All Christians, Be Committed”), and provided examples of then-recent popular hymnody (the anonymous chorus “Alleluia,” Bill and Gloria Gaither’s “Because He Lives,” and Kurt Kaiser’s “Pass It On”). In many respects, Baptist Hymnal 1975 can be said to have brought Southern Baptist hymnody up to date. ((As Reynolds himself often said, except for the hymns of B. B. McKinney, the 1956 Baptist Hymnal was essentially a nineteenth-century book, and even in the case of McKinney the style was still that of the nineteenth century. Some of the material in the 1975 book was too much of its time to last (for example, the hymns about space exploration), some was ill-chosen (substituting the tune KOHOUTEK for CHRISTMAS SONG with the text “There’s a Song in the Air”), and the boards and binding of the book did not stand up well to heavy use. Nevertheless, the book was widely used and brought many previously unfamiliar items into the mainstream of Southern Baptist congregational song.))

A related area of Reynolds’s tenure as director of the Church Music Department was the growth of his reputation as a song leader. His direction of congregational singing for fifteen consecutive years at meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention; the interesting and varied ways he led singing in the worship services and hymn festivals for the annual Church Music Weeks at the Baptist conference centers at Ridgecrest, North Carolina, and Glorieta, New Mexico; and the hymnal dedication events after the publication of Baptist Hymnal 1975 showed many Baptists the potential and power of congregational song if presented in an appropriate and convincing manner. Reynolds’s technique exhibited an effective blend of strong, decisive leadership and spontaneity that brought out the best in singing congregations. His ability to lead large groups in singing was unmatched in his generation.

Reynolds remained as director of the Church Music Department at the Baptist Sunday School Board for nine years before being forced to retire from his duties there in late 1979. The reasons for his mandatory retirement are not entirely clear, but were a result of internal issues at the Board rather than with his reputation outside the Board as a Christian leader, hymn director and scholar, and musician. ((Or, it should be added, because of any moral failure.)) During his tenure as director of the Church Music Department he had taken a position that was already greatly esteemed and brought it—and Southern Baptist church music along with it—to ever higher planes of respect and admiration.

Career at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Immediately after his release from the Sunday School Board, Reynolds was offered a one-year appointment in the School of Church Music at Southwestern Seminary as a sabbatical replacement. By the spring of the next year the value of having Reynolds at the seminary was evident to all, and he was named to the permanent faculty as an Associate Professor in 1981, followed in 1986 by a promotion to full professor. In 1994 he was further honored by receiving the title of Distinguished Professor. The courses he taught regularly included Introduction to Church Music (a course designed for theology and religious education students), and the Master of Music courses Hymnology I (a basic introduction to the subject) and Hymnology II (a more in-depth seminar); he also taught the doctoral seminar in Hymnology.

In addition to teaching his regular classes, Reynolds supervised or served as second reader for a number of theses and dissertations, taught in the Oxford Study Program and the seminary’s extension centers in Oklahoma City and Houston, gave special Founder’s Day and opening convocation addresses, served as a narrator for Oratorio Chorus presentations, and led the music for special emphasis weeks such as the seminary revival. He also instituted and directed hymn and carol sings for seminary chapel services each year, and founded an annual Sacred Harp sing on the campus. Moreover, Reynolds was instrumental in acquiring two important hymnal collections for the seminary library, the George C. Stebbins Memorial Collection (previously housed at Washington National Cathedral) and his own extensive collection of hymnals and hymnological items.

Reynolds retired from the seminary in 1998, though he continued to teach in an adjunctive role until 2000. In 2004, Reynolds and his wife, Mary Lou, returned to Nashville, where he passed away on March 28, 2009.

A Legacy of Scholarship

One aspect of Reynolds’s work that was consistent throughout his life and career was his scholarship in hymnology. As part of his invitation for Reynolds to come to work in the Church Music Department at the Baptist Sunday School Board, W. Hines Sims promised him that he could write the companion for the 1956 Baptist Hymnal. He spent the eight years after publication of the hymnal working on this book, which was published in 1964 under the title Hymns of Our Faith: A Handbook for the Baptist Hymnal, the first companion ever written for a Southern Baptist hymnal. The volume was also notable for its coverage of gospel song writers (which were largely ignored in many denominational hymnals and companions of the time) and for its organization separating discussions of authors and composers from those of texts and tunes.

In the meantime, Reynolds had completed his D.Ed. degree at Peabody. In exploring potential topics for his doctoral dissertation he had discovered that no suitable textbook existed for use in college and seminary courses in hymnology. Such books on hymnody as were available tended to deal only with texts or tunes (but not both) or to be comprised of unfounded legends and “hymn stories.” Thus, with the approval of his committee, Reynolds chose to prepare a prototype of a hymnology textbook for college and seminary courses. This document, “Sources for College Teaching of Christian Hymnody” was completed in 1961. Reynolds sent a copy to an editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston in New York, who forwarded it to an outside reader for evaluation. The reader readily endorsed the manuscript, and after slight revisions, the work was issued in 1963 as A Survey of Christian Hymnody, the first book published specifically as a text for courses in hymnology. The volume became a standard resource for this purpose and continues in use to the present day in a revised version. ((The second edition, revised by Milburn Price, was published in 1978 under the title A Joyful Sound: Christian Hymnody. The third edition, updated by Reynolds and Price, appeared from Hope Publishing Company in 1987 under the original (1963) title. The fourth (1999) and fifth (2010) editions, also from Hope, were adapted by Milburn Price and David W. Music.))

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The publication of Baptist Hymnal 1975 naturally called for a new hymnal companion, and once again Reynolds was the one to provide this. Companion to Baptist Hymnal was released in 1976, following the same basic format as his handbook for the 1956 book. The 1976 companion was particularly significant for providing information on the many contemporary Baptist authors and composers who were represented in Baptist Hymnal 1975. To this point, Reynolds is the only person to have authored published companions for two different hymnals.

Baptist Hymnal 1975 was superseded by a new denominational collection, The Baptist Hymnal, in 1991. The significant growth in hymnological scholarship among Southern Baptists—a growth that Reynolds himself had done much to model and foster—led to the companion for this book, Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal (1992), being compiled by a team of writers rather than solely by Reynolds. Reynolds, of course, was an important part of this team, providing the historical preface on Baptist hymnody (as he had done for the previous companions) as well as information on many specific hymns and writers. The book continued to follow the organizational plan he had developed for Hymns of Our Faith and Companion to Baptist Hymnal; furthermore, the contributions of other writers often depended heavily upon the work Reynolds had done in his earlier companions.

Standing somewhat apart from the companions and the textbook was Congregational Singing (1975), which set forth some of Reynolds’s unique ideas regarding the leadership and performance of congregational song. Reynolds was an acknowledged master of hymn leading, and having these ideas in book form was a boon to many congregational song directors.

The books mentioned thus far were intended primarily for students or professional ministers and scholars, but Reynolds did not neglect laypersons in his writing about hymnody. His short book Christ and the Carols (1967) presented compelling stories of this important genre of Christian song for the lay reader, while the much longer Songs of Glory (1990) did the same for a wider body of literature.

Toward the end of his career Reynolds prepared histories of two important Baptist musical institutions. The title of The Cross & the Lyre: The Story of the School of Church Music, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas (1994) is self-explanatory. Reynolds, of course, was a graduate of the school and at the time of writing the book was a member of the faculty there. His work in the seminary archives and his natural story-telling ability made this volume both accurate and a pleasure to read, especially for those who were or had been associated with the school. Heritage of Praise: The Story of the Church Music Department of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (1996) traced the fifty-year history of denominational church music in the state in which he had been raised and begun his career.

In addition to the books named above and several minor separate publications, Reynolds also contributed frequently to the denominational and scholarly press. Between his first (1950) and last known (2006) articles ((“A Letter to My Pastor: The Easter Music,” The Church Musician 1 (December 1950): 25–26; “Women Hymn Writers and Hymn Tune Composers in the Baptist Hymnal, 1991,” Baptist History and Heritage 41 (Winter 2006): 114–18.)) were fifty-six years that saw him publish dozens of essays and reviews in The Hymn, The Church Musician, Baptist History and Heritage, The Quarterly Review, Southwestern Journal of Theology, and many other periodicals.

Reynolds was the recipient of many honors during his lifetime, including a Music Alumnus award from North Texas State University (1972), a Distinguished Alumnus award from Southwestern Seminary (1975), and Distinguished Service awards from the School of Church Music at Southwestern Seminary (1991) and the Baptist History and Heritage Society (2003; the only time this award has been bestowed upon a musician). The Southern Baptist Church Music Conference presented Reynolds with the first W. Hines Sims award in 1971. He was chosen as president of the Hymn Society of America during a critical time in the organization’s history (1979–1980), and was subsequently named a Fellow of the Hymn Society (1992). ((The Hymn Society of America had been renamed the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 1991.)) He also received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (1999) in recognition of his many compositions and arrangements. Upon his retirement from Southwestern he was presented with a festschrift of essays that had been compiled in his honor by former students, faculty colleagues, and hymnological scholars. ((We’ll Shout and Sing Hosanna: Essays on Church Music in Honor of William J. Reynolds, ed. David W. Music (Fort Worth: School of Church Music, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1998).)) These tributes merely formalized the respect in which Reynolds was held by church musicians, educators, historians, and others who were involved with the world of religious music.


William J. Reynolds was a man of unusual and varied gifts. There were almost certainly people who were as good or as prolific composers of church music as he was but did not exhibit his level of scholarship. There were undoubtedly others who were fine scholars but had little skill in leading congregational singing or choirs. Some may have approached his facility in directing singing congregations but could not write an anthem or larger musical work. Reynolds joined all these and other abilities with a strong personality that commanded attention and respect into a unique combination of leadership, creativity, and scholarship.

But beyond his natural and cultivated abilities, one characteristic feature of Reynolds that made him successful was his capacity for sheer hard work. Considering that many of the activities for which he is best remembered were mostly “extracurricular” (in the sense that they were not necessarily required by the jobs that he held), the magnitude of Reynolds’s endeavors takes on new significance. He gave his best effort to everything to which he turned his hand, and he demanded as much or more of himself as he did of other people. And in this there is a lesson for all who seek to teach, write about, compose, or lead people in the Lord’s song.