Mercer taps former Southwestern Seminary professor to lead church-music institute - Word&Way

Mercer taps former Southwestern Seminary professor to lead church-music institute

MACON, Ga. (ABP) — David Keith, a professor of church music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for 27 years before retiring in 2006, has been named director of the Townsend-McAfee Institute for Graduate Studies in Church Music at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.

Keith, currently director of music and worship at Brentwood United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., begins his new job Aug. 1. Established in 2006 with a major gift from Tom McAfee, a businessman in Macon, Ga., and his mother, Carolyn Townsend McAfee, the Townsend-McAfee Institute will train church musicians in partnership with Mercer's James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology established in 1994 with a $10 million gift from the same family on Mercer's satellite campus in Atlanta.

The collaboration establishes Mercer as one of the nation's few theology schools providing ministry training for musicians in a seminary setting. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary closed its 65-year-old School of Church Music last year, citing changing trends in church music in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Mercer, meanwhile, strengthened its commitment to hymnody by releasing a new 700-page Celebrating Grace Hymnal, a joint initiative of the Townsend-McAfee Institute of Church Music and Mercer University Press, in March.

Keith said in an interview that there are other Baptist universities with solid church-music programs, but he believes Mercer is one of the few places east of the Mississippi equipped to provide holistic worship training to all ministers of the church.

"We are very excited about the possibilities," Keith said.

Keith said he left Southwestern Seminary quietly after gradually arriving at the conclusion that with the coming of a new administration it was time for him to go. He said ministering in a local-church setting makes him all the more excited about returning to the classroom.

"Having spent these four years at this church will help me," he said. "I'll be a whole lot better teacher than I was at Southwestern. I see things through a different set of eyes now."

At Mercer he will teach alongside three other music professors with a combined experience among the four of them adding up to more than 100 years of church music practice and education.

One of them is John Dickson, who left Southern Seminary's School of Church Music in 2000 noticing that the seminary's shift in 1993 to appeal to more conservative churches disconnected the school from moderate and progressive congregations committed to more formal and traditional worship styles. After teaching conducting eight years at Texas Tech, Dickson became dean of Mercer's Townsend School of Music in 2008.

"I have known David Keith as a colleague for more than 25 years," Dickson said in a press release. "Each of us, through our long tenures at Southwestern and Southern Baptist Theological Seminaries, has shared and shaped the vision of graduate church music through our conducting and teaching. I look forward to working with my colleague as he joins a team of faculty dedicated to the education of pastoral church musicians."

Despite the increased popularity of contemporary worship styles that emphasize praise choruses instead of traditional hymns and favor rock-and-roll praise bands over pipe organs, Keith said he believes there is still a place for seminary-trained music ministers.

"Church music is a ministry," he said. "One of the first things I want to ask students is 'Do you feel called by God?'"

Himself an accomplished conductor who continues to be involved in Forth Worth's cultural life despite leaving Texas by commute, Keith said if a student is interested in music ministry only for the love of music and joy of performing, he or she is going to "be miserable" serving in a local church.

Keith said the moderate and conservative factions that drifted apart in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and 1990s tended toward different tastes and content of worship, but the controversy never had much to do with music.

"When you sing 'Christ the Lord is risen today, alleluia,' you are not arguing whether the hymn is inerrant," he said.

For that reason, he said Mercer's church-music program plans to reach out wider than moderate Baptists. For example, he said, for the first time in several years Mercer plans to be represented at this year's Baptist Church Music Conference — a professional organization for church music ministers, educators and denominational workers that used to meet in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting — which meets June 6-8 in Georgia.

In fact, Keith said the focus is not limited to the Baptist denomination at all. "The Mercer program is not just targeted to Baptists," he said. "It's ecumenical, but we are not going to forget our roots."

Along with directing the institute, Keith will also serve as graduate studies director for the School of Music and as an associate professor teaching in the field of church and choral music.

Keith holds both a master of music and doctor of musical arts degree from Southwestern Seminary. He has taught as an adjunct professor at Belmont University and worked as chorus director for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. He began his teaching career at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.


Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.