Music professor retires after 12 years in the Wayland classroom

April 17, 2012

PLAINVIEW -- Robert Black struggled for years trying to decide whether God had called him to work for a church or a school. He wound up doing both in a career that has spanned almost 50 years but will come to an end on May 15 when he retires from his position as associate professor of music and director of church music studies at Wayland Baptist University.

During that time, he has seen a radical shift in the way church music is both taught and practiced and his career is a microcosm of what many churches have gone through as they have faced those changes.

Black has served as an assistant professor at Wayland since August of 2000. He taught as an adjunct professor for four years prior to that while he served as the minister of music at First Baptist Church in Plainview — a position he held for 16 years.

Prior to coming to Plainview, Black, who is a native of Temple, served in a variety of churches in Central Texas and also worked as the music editor for Word Music, Inc., at the time the largest publisher of church music in the world. It was there that Black found himself on the cusp of what would become a revolution in church worship — the advent of contemporary Christian music.

“While I was there, we began to experience the very beginnings of contemporary Christian music, so I was involved with that from the beginning,” he said, pointing out that the genre was tied to the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and he was at Word in the early 1970s.

“Nobody knew what to do with it. It was pretty out on the edge at the time. We saw it as an interesting phenomenon, but not necessarily for mainstream church music,” he continued.

As it turned out, over the course of his career worship in churches across the country was transformed as praise songs which stemmed from contemporary Christian music gained popularity.

The problem was that the more contemporary worship style bumped up against traditional worship, which included hymns that had been in songbooks for generations. Churches struggled with which style of worship to follow with congregations made up of all ages of people. Should they go contemporary, remain traditional or blend their worship services?

The question was one which Black addressed as he began teaching his classes at Wayland. Having been around from the beginning of the movement, he could see both sides.

Black acknowledged that he always had been drawn to church music.

“As a boy, I was fascinated with church and used to pretend to be the music director as my cousins and I would play church,” he said.

He went on to explain that as he got older he learned to play the piano and his home church asked him to be a part of their music program.

“The church bought a little bitty electronic organ and I didn’t know any better than to say “I’ll play it,’ ” he said with a grin.

From there, he found himself with more opportunities to serve.

“What happened was I had some talent and a church, way sooner than they should have, gave me an opportunity to serve. I had two young inexperienced ministers when I was a teenager who encouraged me. That’s why I’m in church music today, I promise,” he said.

Black said he began serving in churches in 1963 when he was 18 and has been doing so ever since.

As an adult, though, he also began teaching at Temple Junior College and realized he enjoyed that as well.

“I liked it and had always wondered if I was supposed to be a teacher or a minister of music. I struggled with that until I was in my mid-40s — until I realized the answer was, ‘yes,’ ” he said.

As he worked his way through that struggle, Black also found himself in the middle of the greater struggle of which direction churches should go with their worship music. Again, he could see both sides of the issue from his work in churches and with Word.

“The Jesus Movement did affect church music, even though we weren’t doing screaming guitars. We saw the advent of the youth musical come into church. A whole generation of young people got turned onto Christian music, maybe for the first time, in a greater way than ever before,” he said.

Still, he could understand the concerns of those who felt that their church’s worship time was becoming little more than a concert, and, he felt that in some ways contemporary Christian music lacked a certain depth.

Thus was formed the question in his mind: “We talk about what is better, Christian music that is kind of baptized or good music (performed) by Christians.”

Ultimately, he drew his own conclusion on the matter.

“Music doesn’t stride up to the front door of the church and throw the doors open and say ‘Here I am.’ Instead, music knocks on the doors of the church and asks, ‘How can I help?’

“If church music dominates, that’s wrong. It is the word of God that leads. The first commandment still applies — ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’ — and that includes the hottest new rock band or the staunchest classical composer,” he said.

It has been that philosophy over the years that he has tried to instill in his students, and as it turns out, that interaction with the students is one of the things he will miss the most as he moves into retirement — that and the relationships he has formed with his fellow faculty members.

“I knew I would enjoy the subject matter. It was really a nice surprise to discover how much I liked the students, and the warm relationship the faculty has with each other,” he said.

Still, he continued, it is time for him and his wife, Martha Jo, a retired elementary reacher, to settle into an environment where they can spend more time with their children, son Clint and daughter Sarah, and their families.

“I hope to continue part-time teaching and music ministry but we wanted to move closer to our children and grandchildren,” he said.