Norman Johnson’s genius has shaped some of today’s best church music.

When a church musician of such stature that he is considered by his peers to be an outstanding role model for the church is stricken with “Lou Gehrig disease” (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS), his loss is felt by the entire church music community. In 1975, Norman Johnson was diagnosed as having this terminal disease, which has no known cause or cure.

Johnson has significantly influenced evangelical church music for over a quarter of a century. During this time, his work has had an impact, although perhaps unrecognized, on nearly every evangelical singer. Characteristically, he disclaims personal glory. “I tried to do what the Lord wanted me to do,” he says.

Since 1963 until his recent retirement, he was senior music editor of Singspiration Music. According to composer Don Wyrtzen, a long-time colleague, Norm probably was the “best music editor evangelical publishing has had.” Publisher Fred Bock credits him with almost singlehandedly establishing a standard of editing excellence for evangelical music publishing.

His editing abilities are legendary. He can look at a composition and analyze it simultaneously on several levels. Says Wyrtzen, “It was said of Norm that he could spot a missing comma from three miles away.”

A prolific choral arranger, Johnson also is an acknowledged authority on hymnody. He helped edit six major hymnals: Crowning Glory Hymnal (1964); Great Hymns of the Faith (1968); The Folk Hymnal (1970); Living Praise (1974); and Praise! (1979). He also helped edit The Covenant Hymnal (1973), widely regarded for its balance and accuracy, and possibly the most error-free hymnal ever published.

As a church musician, Norm combined pastoral love with artistic excellence for the glory of God. For 17 years he was minister of music at the Evangelical Covenant Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His first love always was his church choir. Randy Vader, his associate minister of music for five years and now national sales director for Alexandria Publishing House, considers Johnson’s unique characteristic to be his pastor’s heart combined with his extremely high standards. He loved his people. “I’m the minister of music,” says Norm, “not only a choir director.”

He has little patience with those “who take the easy way out, who lack creativity in programming.” A highly disciplined person, he prepared himself, his people, and his program to the highest degree. Says Vader, “Working with Norm Johnson made grad school seem like a piece of cake.”

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“Music is a fantastic means of reaching into men’s hearts and souls,” Norm says, “but we have abused it and treated it carelessly.” He believes church leaders and musicians must take the ministry of music seriously at every level, from the hiring of personnel to the purchase and scheduling of repertoire and the planning of rehearsals. “You can’t just say, ‘Sing it as if you mean it,’ or ‘Listen to the words as the choir sings.’ The pastor, the minister of music, and the board must treat music with importance and dignity in the service and in the board meetings.”

As both church musician and music editor, he has been able to assess recent developments in church music. He sees little genuine creativity today, and no really new major trends. He believes the church is reevaluating its hymnody, and that many styles and superstars are fading from the scene.

Johnson emphasizes the preservation of our incalculably rich hymnic heritage, yet argues “there must be growth; we must not stagnate. I hope there still will be some experimental hymnody employing nontraditional rhythm and melodies. So far, what little new material that has developed along these lines generally has not been widely accepted.”

A major problem has been the recent practice of contemporary songwriters trying to write both words and music—too often merely to control royalty fees. “Much of the contemporary poetry is really miserable,” he says. “God gives different gifts to different people. A study of great hymnody of the past shows that 991/2 percent of them had a separate author than composer.”

He has a loving, yet objective response to aspiring songwriters who feel that God gave them a song and intended it for the church in general. “God may have given them that song,” he says, “but it doesn’t mean it was for the whole world. It could have been for their own uplift at the moment, or their own circle of friends, or the local church. God can inspire a song for the needs of the moment, but then it accomplishes its work and doesn’t need to be repeated.”

Norm did not plan at first to be a professional musician. Born in Smolan, Kansas, on July 4, 1928, he was raised in a Christian, but nonmusical, home. He started piano lessons when he was eight, walking a half mile to his grandparents’ house to practice since there was no piano at home. Later the family moved to Lindsborg, Kansas, where the strong musical tradition of the community made a strong impression on him. In 1949 he graduated from local Bethany College with a major in English and a minor in organ. However, he dreaded the prospect of teaching high school English, and enrolled in Chicago’s North Park Seminary. While there, he became a staff musician at Moody Bible Institute’s WMBI, and formed a lifelong friendship with another musician from Lindsborg, John W. Peterson.

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While serving as both youth director and organist at a church in Turlock, California, Norm met Lois Solie. They were married in 1954 and subsequently had two children. “God provided the perfect wife to cope with this disease,” he says.

He enrolled in the University of Southern California’s new church music program under Charles Hirt and received his master’s degree in 1958. He is amazed at how God prepared him. “Seminary made me theologically aware; youth work put me on the leading edge; creative writing and literature studied as an English major helped me with grammar, poetic forms, and meters.”

He faithfully tried to pass on what he learned. Don Wyrtzen says, “Norm taught me a lot; I am indebted to him for helping me learn discipline in the careful execution of my own work.”

One of his great concerns is the need for integrity in music ministry. He considers the greatest needs to be: (1) a return to a succinct, quality gospel message—too much contemporary material is so individualistic that it doesn’t relate to the congregation; (2) more variety in the church program, with more music actually addressed to God; and (3) worship with less spectatorism. “The audience still must be God, not man,” he says.

He also insists that practicing church musicians must be ministers. They must “love the people, love the Lord, and love the music.” They also “need to develop all the skills they can, take every opportunity to learn, and make their people work and expand their abilities and understanding.” He believes most colleges provide little preparation in communication and realistic ministry.

Although the progressive neuromuscular deterioration brought on by ALS steadily increases his physical limitations and the corresponding pain, Norman Johnson continues to manifest the graces of a maturing Christian. “I know God is not going to fail me, no matter what horrible circumstances lie ahead. I don’t have to be afraid.” He summarizes his confidence in Christ in the words of his friend John Peterson:

If God should let me there review

The winding paths of earth I knew,

It would be proven clear and true—

Jesus led me all the way.Copyright 1954, John W. Peterson; used by permission.

RICHARD D. DINWIDDIEMr. Dinwiddie is music director and conductor of The Chicago Master Chorale.

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