January 26, 2021

Interview: Miguel Ruiz (part one)

Note from CM: Miguel Ruiz is one of our most thoughtful commenters here on IM. When Miguel and his wife were on their way east to take a position in a church on Long Island, he stopped here in Indianapolis and we spent some time talking face to face, something I wish I had a chance to do with so many more of you.

In both of our situations, our post-evangelical journey led us to the Lutheran tradition. Miguel is now Music Minister and Teacher at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Centereach, NY, on Long Island. Miguel’s a busy guy, and I’m happy that he agreed to do an interview with us for Church Music Month.

Today we feature part one.

* * *

Miguel, since you are a regular commenter on Internet Monk, how about if you would start by telling us a little bit about your own personal journey as a Christian and musician, and the part Michael Spencer played in that.

I discovered iMonk at a rather pivotal time in my life, during the process of walking away from my first position in church work out of college, feeling quite embittered and disillusioned. The next experienced lasted twice as long and ended just as bad. At some point you begin to ask questions, like what is it that causes over-churched evangelicals to argue ad infinitum about trivial matters, betray each other in petty power plays, and care so little about working together and reconciliation? As I embarked on a period of Cartesian doubt, I knew something was missing from the picture, or a misplaced focus in the life of the church.

Of course, Jesus was the missing focal point. As I wandered my post-evangelical sojourn in search of a religious home, Spencer’s writing was a constant source of encouragement, enlightenment, and direction. The website served as an online hub and portal to my theological self-education as I tried to nail down where in Mere Christianity I belonged. The community here also served as a sounding board for the things I was learning and a safe place to discuss and exchange ideas without threatening my job security.

As Spencer went through his Calvinist phase, I was very attracted to the God-centeredness of many reformation leaning teachers, and soon came to the conclusion that I would settle with one of the original reformation churches. Thus began my confessional identity search. As I dug through the doctrinal writings of the established church traditions, I begin to find Jesus in places I never thought of before. It didn’t help much that the new management at IM had walked the Wittenberg trail already. I eventually became drawn to the Jesus-shaped spirituality of confessional Lutheranism, and you can read about my reasons for conversion here.

Music guys rarely get their choice of denomination. Most music ministers I know have had to bounce around quite a bit. One day your Methodist, the next you’re Presbyterian. But by God’s grace I was able to find a home and a job in the LCMS very quickly, though it did involve moving from SoCal to Long Island.

Tell us about your music ministry position and what it involves. Do you have a basic theology of worship and music that you work by? How is that theology worked out practically in the life of the congregation’s worship and music?

The church I am serving is a very evangelical congregation of the LCMS. We are a bit different in that we have four “service styles,” but we only have two services. We do them both the exact same each week, but they alternate styles from week to week. This is the first place I’ve been where I can honestly say we do a bit of everything, from folk to chant, CCM, chorales, and metrical psalms. It’s quite a playground for the exploring musician.

Truthfully, though, we only really have one service style, and only the music changes from week to week. One of things I have experimented with here is doing the Divine Service Liturgy, according to the Lutheran Service Book, using non-traditional musical styles. The music in our settings is surprisingly adaptable. So from week to week, our liturgy and musical setting (the ordinary) remains the same, whether we’re singing with an organ or cajon and waldzither. We have about four different bands that rotate to accompany the singing, and between the church and school there are about 3 choirs I direct. This doesn’t leave me too much time to practice my footwork on the organ, a skill this congregation has (very!) generously allowed me to learn on the job. In addition to teaching music at the parish school I also teach a Bible class.

I once heard a theologian say about worship, “Get your definition straight, because everything you do is going to flow out of what you understand worship to be.” Precision in this endeavor is no easy task, but the model I am currently working with is this: Worship is proclaiming, receiving, and responding to God’s free gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ. It’s a fairly Lutheran definition. Music has no part in this definition because it is not essential to the equation; you could worship God without it (though Jesus does tend to make people sing). Music is there in worship as a means to an end, and never the end itself. It serves the end of proclaiming Christ and and can also be a vehicle for responding to God’s self-giving in Him. There’s no magical power in the music, but there’s something to be said for the Augustine line, “He who sings prays twice.” I also lean heavily on his idea that if the sound of the singer is more moving than the truth being sung, it would be better not to hear the singer. The music is there to convey, emphasize and interpret text, concept, and message, not distract from them.

Practically, this means I start with the text. Both in the liturgy and song selection, the first decision being made is, “What words are being used?”, and more importantly, “which of God’s words will form the core of our gathering?” I try to keep the voice of God as primary in our assembly, so we start with the lectionary readings (or substitutes) and look for music that emphasizes their themes and our current position in the church year.

For me, song selection is of the utmost importance. As a pastoral musician, the songs I choose are the way in which I “pastor” the congregation I serve. Very few people have the responsibility of literally putting words in other peoples’ mouths. What am I giving them to say? What am I telling them to believe in? Quality songs can serve as tools to help people process their lives and find their place in the context of God’s narrative. Instead of using music to stir up emotions which may or may not be present, I would rather the sung text speak to the emotions people bring with them to worship. What kinds of song do people sing when they’re struggling with emotional pain? Frustrated, betrayed, physically ailing, or on their death bed? Singing good things can encourage in trials, bring emotional healing, inspire hope, and prepare us for death. There’s room for peppy, happy songs, as the Christian life can’t be completely joyless, but I try to emphasize poetry by pastoral theologians over jingles by rock stars. Lex cantate, lex credendi.

Songs edify when they point to Christ, not ourselves, and teach us rightly about God. The songs and words we use in worship have the potential to be a discipling force in our lives. Think about it: the mission of the church is NOT worship, even though missions exist because worship doesn’t. You might say that the whole universe exists to glorify God, but the church is to be about discipling. The “spiritually formative” aspect of worship happens when God’s Word is etched into our psyche through strategic repetition, truths about God are learned and internalized, and God’s people are taught how to pray. How we approach God corporately should give a picture of how we can relate to God individually, so I like to design worship with an eye to helping our church learn to pray.

One of my primary devices is to use as much material from the Lutheran Service Book as I can get away with. For a musician with my aims, having the resources within at my disposal make me a kid in a candy shop. I can’t say enough good things about the musical, theological, and literary beauty and depth of its selections and arrangements. It also happens to be among the most chronologically and culturally diverse collections in the Protestant world. The wealth of resources contained within make it a one stop shop for Christocentric doxology. I don’t anticipate getting bored with it before Concordia Publishing House makes another, but doggone it, I’m gonna try. The clip below is a silly, thrown-together example of how we like to have a little fun with some of its contents.

And generally speaking, I try to avoid songs about fire.


  1. Excellent responses, Miguel! I wish you great joy at Our Savior Lutheran Church. They are fortunate to have you there.

  2. Excellent post! I would echo JoanieD’s sentiments, and say that it’s rare and refreshing to encounter a worship leader who is as thoughtful and eloquent about worship as you are.

    I would say it’s a good idea to avoid songs about fire. And rain. Even though James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is one of my faves.

  3. This is why I love this blog so much. It’s a community. It’s an online community. There are so many people who can relate and talk to each other and nurse each other back to health. And of having hope again. When I read of Miguel’s experience of being embittered and disillusioned that really moved me. The reason why is that it tells me that I am not alone. None of us are…some are trying to figure their way out and move forward. I’m in a deeper hole than many of you. And reading about others finding that hope is encouraging. It is very encouraging.

    Miguel, and Chaplin Mike you just made my morning! 😀 Miguel if you ever make it out to Washington, D.C. the beer is on me!! 😉

    • Eagle
      It is so good to see you back again!

    • We shall! In fact, we’ve been discussing taking some time to ride the train down there and explore. Just let me know how to look you up.

      • If you make it down here shoot CM an email to ask for my contact information.

        • Eagle, your willingness to share is a blessing to me. Please understand, I think most of us here are in some mighty large and dark holes as well, but not all are easy to share or understand. I am absolutley NOT St. Paul or any other saint, but I carry a thorn that will not go away, and here I know I am not alone, even if each of us has a thorn (or cross) that is unique to us and what God needs to teach us….

    • Ditto. This is a great community to be involved in and with. I loved reading this, and getting a greater glimpse at the life and experiences of one of this band of brothers and sisters in Christ.

  4. Well, Miguel, you nailed this one. And I’ll add a fine cigar to a beer if you’re ever near Chicago.

  5. “The music is there to convey, emphasize and interpret text, concept, and message, not distract from them.”

    I love that. Miguel, I always enjoy reading your posts. Your ideas are always well thought through and give me a lot to “chew” on. Great post.

  6. Very few people have the responsibility of literally putting words in other peoples’ mouths. What am I giving them to say? What am I telling them to believe in?

    Excellent thoughts, Miguel. Would that more music/worship leaders would give the same consideration to their music selections each Sunday.

  7. Miguel, how much easier was it to settle on a denomination, church, or worship style while being married? Or was it more difficult? I find myself in the position where I’m becoming more attracted to liturgy, reformational churches, but I have found them to be a very desolate (and a bit lonely) places for a 20 something single man, always surrounded by married families with little children or older saints.

    • This is a big problem, as liturgical churches are older, generally, and younger folks get spread out. Are you near a university? Check out congregations there maybe. For the LCMS at least, I think congregations could do a much better job working with other congregations in their circuit to offer more fellowship opportunities for singles and young adults.

    • I really don’t know what I’d do in your shoes, my wife walked the journey with me and is as happy as I am with our new home. There aren’t a ton of people our age around, though. I’ve known some to attend worship at the church of their choosing, and then go to the local trendy megachurch for networking with peers. Personally, sometimes maybe it’s just better to have your peer group outside the church. My wife has a secular job and values the friendships she has with her co-workers.

      But hang in there, I think more younger people will be headed for the older churches soon when the glam of the show wears off on them. It’s just a hunch, and it will probably vary greatly by region.

      • I think you are correct. My son is a member of a tiny and VERY traditional Anglican parish that just came into communion with Rome (he was raised Roman Catholic). His church has far more “bells and smells” that our semi-modern parish, and he LOVES it!

        Everything old is new again…..

  8. General IM question…when did the switch from the human box to moderation occur? Not complaining, just curious.

  9. Thanks guys! I have found that writing them down is one of the best ways to process my thoughts, and the interaction I get from many of you has really helped me to learn and clarify.

  10. Miguel, I’m curious. You went the LCMS route after your disillusionment with evangelicalism. But the LCMS is the more, err, “evangelical” branch of the Lutheran tradition. Do you find less of the backbiting, trivial arguing, and lack of reconciliation in that particular denomination than you did your evangelical experience? Is that a denominational trait of the LCMS or is it a case of each church being unique?

    • Generally speaking, sacramental churches seem to be less inflammatory in their disputes. Two people will argue and hate each other’s guts, but they’ll stay in the same church and punish each other by worshiping in the pew next to them. Baptists tend to “break up” and start a new church at the drop of a hat. The higher your view of the church, the more reluctant you are to fracture it again.

      As a confessional Lutheran, I’m free to be in the LCMS and not wear the Evangelical label, even though many in the denomination do. LCMS churches can be VERY hit or miss, some being extremely confessional and liturgical and others being extremely trend driven and low church. My congregation tends to be a bit more of the latter, but they’re still steeped in the trappings of the Lutheran tradition enough that it redeems the experience from a lot of the crazy in American entrepreneurial religion. Not all of it, but the presence of the tradition does a ton to reduce the things I found most frustrating while enabling me to enjoy the benefits of our doxological heritage.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        For what it is worth, it is not hard to find ELCA churches that aim for “evangelical” (in the sense of American Evangelical Protestant). The usual result is a watered-down version of Generic Church Growth Protestantism. This is not to be confused with the other characteristic vice of Terminal Niceness, which is a very watered-down version of Liberal Theology.

      • Very true about the wide variety of LCMS churches. You can find folks in the LCMS who deny the historicity of Genesis, and others who insist on geocentrism, who both work together as “confessionals” because they prefer the liturgy. Meanwhile, the “missional” LCMS church down the street has rock bands and watches Rob Bell videos.

        Generally, The LCMS is still pretty close to its rural and ethnically German roots, and unlike other conservative Lutheran groups, it had no history of pietism or revivalism, until very recently, when some churches started to adopt church growth methods in response to lack of growth.

        Part of the LCMS’s reputation for fundamentalism comes from the Seminex battle when its seminary quit in the 70s to start a new, more liberal synod, after they were pressured to hold closer to Biblical inerrancy. The leaders of that group had a lot of influence in starting the ELCA, and loved to paint the LCMS as a bunch of extremists. But on the ground, so to speak, you wouldn’t find LCMS teaching as any more conservative than Catholic or Orthodox teaching on hot-button issues, and most members and pastors are not concerned about who you vote for or believe about evolution (though it’s different for pastors).

        • Richard Hershberger says

          “Part of the LCMS’s reputation for fundamentalism comes from the Seminex battle when its seminary quit in the 70s to start a new, more liberal synod, after they were pressured to hold closer to Biblical inerrancy.”

          Yeah, purging your liberal wing can have that effect on your reputation.

          • Jaroslav Pelikan said that the ELCA were Lutherans turned Methodists and that the LCMS were Lutherans turned Baptists…

          • Richard Hershberger says

            “Jaroslav Pelikan said that the ELCA were Lutherans turned Methodists and that the LCMS were Lutherans turned Baptists…”

            This is about as true as any stereotype, which is to say that it is sometimes true, but nothing like always. My experience with LCMS on the ground, including one stint as a member of an LCMS church, is quite unlike the impression one gets online. To some extent this is the widespread unfortunate effect of internet discussion. To some extent it is LCMS members (and to a different extent clergy) ignoring official teachings and keeping their heads down.

          • I think most in the LCMS and the liberal side of the ELCA are fairly happy with how things turned out and to go their own way, which are really very different ways.

            There’s no reason in Lutheranism to stay in a church you seriously disagree with. We should strive for unity, but true unity, not a institutional unity. So for Lutherans, if we find ourselves in serious disagreement, there’s no reason to go about pointlessly agitating and offending, rather than to move on to a more doctrinally compatible congregation. Unity exists from doctrinal agreement, not membership as in Rome, which is why we spend so much time arguing doctrine.

            The problem now is for those in the middle, who don’t fully agree with the mainline liberal path taken by the ELCA, but for whatever reason, won’t consider the LCMS (mainly women’s ordination). There are a host of moderate fellowships in between the LCMS and ELCA, for people to pick from though.

    • Thanks to all of you, and not just today, in broadening my understanding of different faith expressions. As a child, I knew that there were Catholics, Jews, and Prostestants……period.

      In college, I learned a great deal more in a mandatory comparative world religion class [Final exam: “Tell me everything you know about Buddism”—-remembered 36 years later!] And I caught on to the Baptist-Lutheren-Methodist type of divisions, with no clarity at all on what the differences were.

      Here, thanks to I-monk fellow seekers, I have an actual working idea of similarities and differences, so I can speak to other Christians and have some idea where they are coming from theologically and personally. Best of all….no little blue booklet with a final exam!

  11. Miguel

    I always enjoy reading your comments. And your thoughts today on worship are quite thoughtful and helpful. Thanks.

  12. David Cornwell says

    Miguel, thanks for your contributions here. Whatever you say is with careful forethought (well maybe not when it comes to Wesleyan theology!) and I always pay attention to it. I’m very glad for young musicians such as you. It bodes well for the future of the church.

    And– I’m kidding about Wesely. Say what you wish!

    Looking forward to more.

    • Wesley may be my favorite punching bag when it comes to the doctrine of sanctification, but I really haven’t read enough of his own words to criticize him with any authority. However, I have learned a lot from UMC writers and musicians on the topic of worship.

  13. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    You said that the footwork on the organ was something you have been learning on the job. How much organ experience/skill do you have in general prior to getting the job? It seems it’s HARD to find organists, though keyboard/piano folk are a lot easier.

    • My bachelor’s in music was very diversified but most closely resembled a piano performance degree with an emphasis in evangelical church music. So my piano skills were sharp enough to make adaption possible. But I had very little organ experience before starting. I understood their operation and ranking, and all the Bach I had learned worked very well on it, but the learning curb was steeper than I thought. I’ve been able to devote much more time to it my second year, and I really enjoy the instrument. I’m looking forward to some more advanced rep and working toward AGO certification by the summer.

      Generally speaking, I’d encourage churches to hire pianists willing to convert, because there doesn’t seem to be a large pool of up and coming students mastering the instrument. Many pianists would be glad to make the switch given the opportunity, there’s just so much you can do with it.

  14. Miguel
    Thank you for this wonderful post.

  15. Where in SoCal are you from?

    I left OC 8 years ago to take the post I’m currently at.

  16. Wow, small world – I went to junior high at OSNAS in the first few years after it was started, and worked as a janitor unofficially on my off hours with my dad to help lower the tuition.

    If you’re in the mood for really good, down home style cooking, take hawkins ave south past portion. Before you hit the LIE, a little place called BLDs will be on the left. It’s a bit of a family business, they don’t advertise, but they’re a hidden treasure, a real diner in a land of tasty italian-greek restaurants called diners.

  17. Wow Miguel, we’re speechless – but then again, you have always been good with expressing your thougts, even if it was way over our heads! By the way, where is Holtville?

    mom & dad

  18. Miguel,

    As you know we don’t always agree. 🙂

    So I wanted to know that I really did appreciate your post today.

    Though our musical styles and choice of music might be quite different, theologically I am very much in agreement with all that you wrote.

    I would highlight the sections that I particularly liked, but then I would be copying most of the post!

    One thing that I would like to re-emphasize is that planning a worship service takes a lot of time to do it well. I did it for a good part of 25 years. Most weeks in took 7-8 hours in planning and practice to get ready for Sunday morning. This seems to mirror your experience as well.

  19. I like the video. Real people making real music, lifting real praise.

  20. Great video, but only in America will you find churches rich enough to pay a “music director” or whatever you call it.

    As the pastor of a small congregation in Europe this war between trendy worship music and highbrow liturgicalism basically flies over my head…

    • Actually, the vocation of professional church musician dates to well before the Reformation and was quite common in Europe. The only difference is, they used to work in the field of art song and were closely linked with academics. The re-emergence in the popularity of congregational singing brought in an element of folk song, and the invention of the recording industry turned it into popular song. The church has always been an outlet for professional musicians and artists, but now it’s becoming a platform for would-be “worship stars” and the musically illiterate. I would like to see a return to more of the former.

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

        I agree. There should be a way for the church to be an outlet for professional musicians without diminishing the importance of congregational singing.

        Incidentally, in the parts of Europe in which there are state churches, are organists/choirmasters/etc. employees of the parish or of the state? How do such things work?

  21. Miguel,

    Thanks for letting us know more about your life. You rock, bro!!


  22. Hey, Miguel, if you want to move further east to another Our Saviour Lutheran Church, drop me a line!

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