Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Congregational Singing: Lightning Rod or Spiritual Discipline?

Whether I felt like it or not, I have been attending Sunday morning worship at a range of different churches for over thirty years. I have sat through inspiring sermons and tedious sermons and sermons that did not even deserve the name. I have been in big churches, small churches, black churches, white churches, charismatic churches and un-charismatic churches, missional churches and "omissional" churches, churches that were thriving and churches that were disintegrating.

My point is that I have seen a lot of church.

One thing I have observed is that when a congregation feels it is struggling, when people feel unhappy with church, it is often expressed as dissatisfaction with the worship music. Worship music becomes a lightning rod for congregational discontent.

If young people are not coming to the church then it must be because of the music.

If I am not feeling inspired during worship, it must be because of the music.

Sean Palmer, a church of Christ minister in Temple, Texas wrote a very interesting piece, "Singing as a Spiritual Discipline" that identifies this very problem. He diagnoses this tendency as an expression of our individualistic approach to our faith.
Our corporate/common singing, regardless of the musical style of our congregation, is still viewed by too many as an individual pursuit. This is odd, because we can’t do corporate singing alone. We just wished the songs were picked and sang as if corporate singing existed for us alone. 
Don’t believe me? Do you know anyone who left their church because of a change in “worship?” In truth, these changes are barely changes in worship. Most churches still celebrate the Eucharist, engage sermons, sing, pray, and – sadly – have announcements. What changes is the singing! And the reason people leave over “worship” is because they no longer “like” the singing…personally.
I would add that discontent strikes at music because that is an area that a congregation believes it can change. A church might be stuck with its pastor, with its aging demographic, with its poor location, with its dwindling finances, with its deficient theology, with its lack of commitment, but it can pick different songs!

Sociologist Gerardo Marti in his study of music in multi-racial churches, observed that in an exercise as fraught as nurturing a multi-racial community in which so many factors are outside the church leaders’ control, the pastor and the elders can control “the construction of participation through worship music” (15). Marti contends that this ability to control the musical content can lead to the mistaken belief that just by playing the right music the right way a church can determine the racial constituency of the congregation — a kind of “play it and they will come” mentality. What he discovered from his research in California was that it is the practice of making the music together, rather than the type of music being made, that actually proved to be most significant.

Perhaps drawing from his background in the Church of Christ where worship music is unaccompanied singing, Sean Palmer comes to a similar but more spiritual-sounding conclusion. His prescription for the problem: the church needs to rediscover congregational singing as a corporate spiritual discipline. Palmer suggests that doing so would have five consequences; I particularly like his first two:
  1. We Wouldn’t Expect Immediate Results. No faithful practitioner of spiritual disciplines expects to walk in, practice a discipline for an hour, and leave humming a tune and tapping their toes. In the realm of spiritual practices we know that the blessing is found in the practice itself. You could practice contemplative prayer for years without any tangible outcome, uplifting feeling, or goosebumps, but you come to love and enjoy practicing the presence of God.
  2. We Could Sing On Behalf Of Others. There are songs I hate, like “Amazing Grace.” I’ve never liked it, but I know “Amazing Grace” is tremendously meaningful for others. A friend recently shared with me the place of the song “Amazing Grace” in the recovery movement. The song means a great deal for members of AA and other recovery groups. Those folks are in my church. As a spiritual discipline, I can sing that song – though I despise it – on their behalf. I sing, therefore, not because it’s efficacious for me, but those around me.
I am reminded again of my favorite John Wesley quote:
“Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.”
 “Directions for Congregational Singing” in Select Hymns, 1761.

Or put another way: When the going get's tough the church gets singing (together)!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Showers and Sanctuaries

David Neff has some good words to say about congregational singing in an article over at Christianity Today. He is affirms what many of us know, that congregational singing is a central practice of the church. He offers this good advice:
Allow people to listen to themselves and their neighbors. Our voices should not be overwhelmed by the band or pipe organ. Some of the best congregational singing is a cappella, because unaccompanied singing lets us attend to the voices of our neighbors. In addition, our voices shouldn't be muted by dead acoustics. We are all tempted to sing in a tiled shower. Conversely, nothing discourages singing like an acoustically dry, carpeted worship space with low ceilings and padded pews

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hymns & Friends

Church musician and fellow traveller Wendell Kimbrough has posted his new album Hymns & Friends over on bandcamp -- you can stream the whole thing and even pre-order your own copy. Wendell is the musician at the Church of the Advent in Washington D.C.
I love what he says about the hymns he has recorded:
I have heard 20-something young professionals and retired grandparents sing these songs with equal love and enthusiasm.
The hymns on this album also transcend musical styles. Their basic components—text, melody, and harmony—are so well built that they can be led by choirs and pipe organs or by guitars, bass, and drums. When sung in the Spirit’s power, they can shake the walls of cathedrals or bring a living room full of people to a foot-stomping crescendo.
Now that's what I am talking about!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Getty's tips on Congregational Singing

Contemporary Hymn writer Keith Getty offers some advice on congregational singing in a blog post Five Ways to Improve Congregational Singing. He has just returned from a tour that involved meetings with pastors and worship leaders. Reflecting on this he makes the observation that I myself have made and that never fails to amaze me:
In each of those leadership events, I posed the question, “What are the things you ask yourself on Monday morning, in reviewing Sunday’s services?” Generally, the responses centered around production values, stylistic issues, people management, pleasing the pastor, or finishing the service on time. I do not recall that any one asked, “How did the congregation sing?”
It seems curious that in a generation that has produced innumerable conferences, articles, blogs, and even university degree programs on “worship,” the topic of congregational singing hasn’t been raised more often.
He then offers his five suggestions--check them out for yourself. He concludes with this suggestion:
Why not in 2014 begin the Monday morning review by asking, “How did the congregation sing?” and, “How can we help them do it better?"
Good questions Keith!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: "It sounds so good when you all join in."

Singing "If I Had a Hammer" at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963.
I woke up this morning to the news that Pete Seeger had died.  He is, perhaps the biggest influence on me as a singer and leader of songs.  If you have time, I recommend you watch the documentary film Pete Seeger: The Power of Songit is a tribute to his life and will inspire you to song and action.

As I bounced around the internet watching YouTube clips, I found this example of the song he made ubiquitous: Michael, Row the Boat Ashore. Just watch the joy in Seeger's face when the audience really starts singing and he can step away from the microphone and join with them as their voices resound off the walls.

I found myself reworking In paradisum from the requiem mass. It is my prayer for Pete Seeger: 

Pete, may singing angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs join the song and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May the choirs of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have harmonious rest.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Matt Redman and the theology of '10,000 Reasons'

We are preparing to introduce Matt Redman’s song “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” to our congregation this Sunday. This song is number one in the CCLI charts which means it is currently being sung in more churches than any other contemporary praise song (it also won two Grammies back in February)--so we are a little behind the times here a Ashland First United Methodist!
"10,000 Reasons" has a satisfyingly singable chorus echoing the familiar and often sung opening words of Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord, O my soul." The verses are less singable: the melody is not as strong as the chorus and contains irregular syncopation to accommodate the lyrics. This will not be a problem for Redman fans as they will have it memorized from the recording but it will be tricky for the uninitiated.
Redman and his Swedish co-writer Jonas Myrin, as Redman explained, have written a song “about the many, many reasons there are to worship God.” The second verse, drawing inspiration from Psalm 30, claims there are “ten thousand reasons” to sing God’s praises.  The number ten thousand is familiar to practically anyone who has ever drawn breath to sing in church. It is from the "ten thousand years" in the last verse of “Amazing Grace” (a verse not in John Newton’s original hymn) and Redman explicitly quotes it in his final verse. He acknowledges giving “a nod to the old hymn” in an interview about the hit song.
So my first impression was that here is a singable song with some familiar words: this is a good formula for congregational singing.
There is, however, something much more theologically profound going on in this hymn than Redman alludes to in his interviews or in his downloadable devotional guide to the song.
Consider the opening lines of the first verse:  
The sun comes up, it's a new day dawning
It's time to sing Your song again
The singer is not claiming it is time to sing my song of praise to God again: the singer is addressing God and declaring his or her intention to sing "Your song."  What is God’s song that we are supposed to be singing?