Wednesday, March 29, 2017

“Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise”

Toward a Sacramental Theology of Congregational Singing
This is an academic paper on congregational singing that has its origins in presentations I made at the Annual Meeting of Theologians of Ohio (TheOh), Trinity Lutheran Seminary and Bexley Seabury, February 22, 2014, and at the City Ministry Spring Conference, Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, April 10, 2015. I have had some requests for copies and so I want to make it available here as my small contribution to the conversation about why singing in church matters. Here is a pdf version of the paper--remember it is worth what you paid for it and please use responsibly!

1.             The Problem
In twenty-first century America, it is difference in musical taste not difference in doctrine that poses the greatest threat to congregational unity. Look up the service times of any large mainline Protestant church and you are likely to find multiple services offered on a Sunday morning. This is nothing new of course, churches have often had two or even three services on a Sunday morning with, for example, a simple service at 8 a.m. and all the stops pulled out for the 11 o’clock service. What is new is offering different services simultaneously. Consider this description from the website of a large Baptist church: "during the 9:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services in the Sanctuary, the worship style is best described as “blended” - singing a mixture of contemporary praise choruses and traditional hymns. . . [There is also] a contemporary service called The Link at 10:30 a.m. in the Fellowship Hall." The Link is ‘a casual worship experience." These worship experiences--with names like The Well, The Crossing, and The Gathering--divide congregations over aesthetics. But this is more than a change in musical taste or a preference for comfortable chairs and jeans over pews and suits: this is the emergence of sub-congregations sharing the same church buildings. Put simply, musical preference is dividing churches.
Can we really think of the separation of the body between the hymns in the sanctuary and the contemporary worship songs in the fellowship hall as a rupture in the body of Christ? Is this not perhaps overstating the case? I do not think so. Even if these two worshipping groups celebrate the Eucharist on the same day--and many do not--they do not gather around a common table and share in the common cup and loaf. Ignatius, the first-century bishop of Antioch, would certainly have thought this a problem. In a letter written to the church in Philadelphia, he insisted that a church should not have separate sittings for the meal. "Be careful then, to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar."[1]
In many Protestant churches today, the greatest symbol of the Church’s unity--the Eucharist--is sundered over song choice and most people are unaware this schism has even happened. One solution would be to convince people that what we sing and with whom we sing is unimportant. To take this line would be to make a terrible mistake. The problem is not that these churches are taking congregational singing more seriously than their Eucharistic identity; it is that they are not taking congregational singing seriously enough. Rightly understood, congregational singing is a sacramental practice of the Church.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Acoustics, Congregational Singing, and Carpet

The Sanctuary at Ashland's First United Methodist Church (AFUMC) certainly looks like it should be a great place for congregational singing. It is a big room with a high pitched wooden roof. But when I sing in the choir it is hard to hear what else is going on. It all feels a bit dead. When I sit out in the pews it is not an encouraging place to sing. When I play guitar as part of an ensemble, I play through the deadness hoping that the people in the sanctuary can hear a blend of the noise the instrumentalists are making.

The problem is--acoustically speaking--the space doesn't give much back. It is hard to hear yourself and it is harder to hear others.

What's the problem? It really shouldn't be this way.

When the congregation announced it was building a new church back in 1957, it had music on its mind. The Times Gazette reported on July 26 that “the chancel will be wide and open with room for 40 choir members on each side.” The sanctuary (including overflow seating in the narthex) “will comfortably seat 740.”

The current organ is particularly grand. Church historian Sidney Boyd recorded that First Methodist bought the “two manual Kimball” from Chicago in 1915. It was so large it completely obscured the stained glass window at the front of the old sanctuary . In 1949, the church spent $10,000 on a new consul separate from the organ so that the organ could be installed in the new church-- that's the equivalent of $100,000 in 2016! (Sidney Boyd, The Story of the First United Methodist Church, 1963).

Clearly the congregation spent huge sums of money so that the church--congregation, the choir, and the organ--would sound awesome.

But it doesn't.

Somehow the sound in the sanctuary, that should be so resonant, is muted and muffled.

The church has tried a number of solutions. A previous choir director area mic'd the choir and positioned monitors in front and to each side of them. After cluttering the front of the church with black boxes and wires, the problem remained unsolved. If the monitors were loud enough to overcome the deadening acoustic at the front of the church and satisfy the singers, then the congregation enjoyed squealing feedback. As an audio engineer explains: "The acoustical conditions of where a choir is will have a direct impact on the choir. You can’t ignore the acoustical environment of where the choir is because it will determine how they sound to each other and therefore how they will perform." In other words, amplification might help but it won't fix the problem.

When my wife took over the choir, we tried an acoustic solution--we ditched the microphones, and the monitors, and the cables and moved people and instruments around. I wrote about the experiment on this blog. It lowered the volume in the sanctuary and helped the congregation hear themselves sing -- but the sense of deadness and having to "push through" didn't go away.

I am not just being an acoustic snob here; this stuff really matters for the worshipping life of a congregation. I have been poking around the internet for the last couple of days and on an organ builder's website I found an excellent explanation of why acoustics matter in church.
Congregational Singing - Individuals want to join in singing if they feel the company of their fellow worshipers. Individuals will not participate if they feel conspicuous and alone. . .
Choirs - Individuals are more likely to join choirs if the room is acoustically suitable for their work. They won’t sing if they can’t be heard. The choir’s effect is greatest when its music sounds best.
Sermon - It is hard to hear a preacher whose energy is absorbed rather than radiated. It is artificial, and finally discouraging, to hear the voice only through loudspeakers. It feels more natural, and our response to the words is greater, if we can hear the natural voice.
The solution is plain, what you need are "solid walls, floor, and ceiling." What you don't want are "padded pew backs, padded walls, drapes, and carpet."

As you can see from the photograph, at AFUMC we have a massive thick and heavy set of drapes hiding the organ pipes and lots and lots of carpet.

Carpet, it turns out, generates amazing amounts of animosity from audio engineers. No superlative is left un-hurled in their attempts to get congregations to understand what a bad idea carpet is. Here are some of my favorites:
"Putting a choir on a carpeted floor is like pulling out their vocal cords." -- Art Noxon “Church Acoustics - Frequently Asked Questions”, Acoustic Sciences Corporation
"Wall-to-wall carpets kill congregational singing . . . As far as the choir area is concerned, I can think of no justifiable reason to have it be carpeted. If you ever expect music to be sung or played from the choir area, the only reason to carpet it is if your congregation's musicians are so bad that you really don't want to hear them." -- Evan Kreider “How to Deaden Acoustics and Seriously Damage Congregational Singing” American Catholic Press
"To sing in an absorbent room is as frustrating as to look at pictures in a room painted black." -- Ross King Co. "Acoustics for Worship Spaces"
And it is not just choirs that shouldn't be put on carpet:
"When a piano is played over carpet it dulls the sound. Try adding an office chair plastic carpet protector under the piano and you'll hear how it brightens up and starts to actually sound like a real wood instrument." -- “Church Acoustics - Frequently Asked Questions”
One of the ways to gauge the acoustics in a space is to measure its reverberation time. Basically that is how long it takes a sound to die away. Your bathroom with its tile, linoleum and mirrors has a long reverberation time and your living room with drapes, carpet and cushions doesn't. That is why you sing in the shower.

One of the sites I visited had this information: "A pleasing concert hall might have reverberation that lasts from 1.6 to 1.8 seconds or so (with audience in attendance)." It turns out that Cleveland's Severence Hall's reverberation time is 1.7 secs with a full house. Of course a church's acoustic requirements are different than an auditorium:
An auditorium has only one acoustical function, and that is to project music produced on stage so that the audience can hear it clearly. A room used for worship, on the other hand, has two acoustical functions. The first is identical to that for auditoriums: to project the sound produced by the choir, soloists, instruments, and preacher. The second function is to provide an atmosphere which encourages and supports congregational singing. Both acoustical goals must be met if the building is to be successful for worship.
I love being alive in the age of Google -- I found a site that taught me how to measure reverberation time and suddenly I had enough knowledge to be dangerous. All I needed was my digital recorder, a free piece of software called Room EQ Wizard, a balloon and a pin! I quickly found a willing assistant and we set to bursting balloons all over town.
Drapes, carpets and cushions at AFUMC
Here is what we found:
Screenshot of Room EQ Wizard in action.
With the sanctuary empty, AFUMC has a reverb of 1.453 seconds. Standing at the front (where the musicians are) the reverb drops to 1.367 (my guess is that the reverb time is quite a bit lower on a Sunday morning with the congregation there). 

What does this mean? After scratching my head over some complicated papers by acoustic engineers I found this chart that I could understand.
"What is a desirable reverberation time?" from Georgia State University's Hyper Physics site

So, even empty, by my amateur measurements AFUMC's reverb of 1.453 seconds falls into the "not a desirable place for music" category. And for the musicians at the front the 1.367 seconds of reverb puts us in the least desirable place in the whole sanctuary!

Perhaps my measurements were way off. I took my balloons to the university chapel which I know is a wonderful space in which to sing -- big hall, bare wooden pews, wooden stage.


2.883 seconds

We are in "fuller richer musical sound" territory. I am starting to develop sanctuary envy.


Shiny hard surfaces at CUMC
What can a church like AFUMC with its carpets, drapes and cushions do? The answer lies across town at Christ United Methodist Church. A few years ago they reappointed the front of their sanctuary. Away went the carpet and in came a laminate floor, and tasteful wooden choral risers. I have sung there on a number of occasions -- the choir has a full sound and the congregation sings with gusto.

On Tuesday afternoon I went in with my last two balloons (there had been 20 in the pack from Dollar General).


1.647 seconds

Back at Ashland First, the old worn carpet at the front of the sanctuary is coming out. The new carpet has already been purchased. It will, I am told, blend well with the carpet in the aisle.

It is time for me to say the serenity prayer and hope God will give me the wisdom to know which carpets I cannot change. The problem is that I prefer my serenity with lots of natural reverb.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Singing Advent Before Christmas

The congregation  is ready to start singing Christmas carols but this is still Advent.  The solution this week -- using the lectionary(ish) readings Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-10 -- is to write new verses to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." This is my talented wife Libby Moore Slade's work:

A voice cries in the desert
“For the Lord, prepare the way,
Exalt the valleys, raze the mountains
crooked roads, make straight.
Exalt the valleys, raze the mountains
crooked roads, make straight.
O tidings of comfort and joy
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy

The day the Lord is coming,
he’ll be like refiner’s fire.
Like strongest soap, he’ll cleanse
his people; he shall purify.
Like strongest soap, he’ll cleanse
his people; he shall purify.
O tidings of comfort and joy
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

John calls us to repent:
“The ax is ready at the root.
The tree it must bear fruit or perish.”
What then shall we do?
“The tree it must bear fruit or perish.”
What then shall we do?
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

We’ll turn our hearts to Jesus and
our lives will be restored.
His name it shall be Wonderful,
our Counselor and Lord.
His name it shall be Wonderful,
our Counselor and Lord.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

(c) 2015 E. Slade

Monday, December 15, 2014

"I feel like singing and they need to come help me!"

My friend Shae, who I know from my days in the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir, recently made this post to Facebook. Her daughter is in hospital and is going through a tough time. I wrote to Shae and asked if I could share this on the blog. She wrote back:
Yes sir you most certainly can!! Those are my miracle babies!! The boys are twins and they were born autistic. The doctors told us that they would probably not ever talk or function. They couldn't talk until age 4! They have always been able to sing praises to God tho!! Sarah was born five years later and she completed the sound!! They have been singing in harmony since she was 2!!
This testimony of family and of singing God's praises together moved me to tears. 
It is the sound of community that defeats isolation. 
It is the sound of hope that overcomes despair. 
It is the sound of love that heals the sick.

As I preached the other week:
The Song became flesh and dwelt among us and the deafening silence could not overcome it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christmas: Singing the Story Together (and free album download)

Last week I had the pleasure of leading the singing and preaching at the Well--a mid-week worship service held in the chapel at Ashland University.  Lights are usually dimmed and guitars and drums are usually cranked up as over 200 students sing contemporary worship songs. Last Thursday night was a bit different -- not only was their usual worship leader replaced by an old(er) religion professor, but I persuaded the sound team to use minimal sound reinforcement (omni-directional mics rather than running instruments directly through the board)--something Red Team has been working with for the last three years. My reason was to place the focus firmly on the singing.  AU's Miller chapel has wonderful acoustics for singing and that's what I wanted. I rehearsed all the musicians once (but not all at the same time!) and we set off!

I have a few observations from the evening:
It is hard to think of Christmas without singing. It may get more commercialized every year, but we know Christmas should involve singing. This connects with my next point . . .
Christmas is about community - you can't really do Christmas on your own. This is odd because we certainly think we can do Easter on our own. No one says, "Poor Dr. Slade, he has no one to spend Easter with this year."  Perhaps the Easter hymn "I come to the garden alone" is responsible. But Christmas, on the other hand is about community. and it is an intergenerational community -- we want the children singing and the grandparents too.
Contemporary Praise & Worship music doesn't satisfy the needs of even the most 'contemporary' congregation. People want to sing the familiar Christmas carols. This is worth thinking about because in many churches there is almost a complete absence of traditional hymnody the rest of the year.  I would hazard a guess that these are some of the reasons:

  1. Folks intuitively know that if you want to sing songs together then you need to sing songs that everyone knows. This requires a repertoire that you repeat.
  2. We want to get in touch with our memories of Christmases past, particularly the Christmases of our childhood. For some reason at Christmas we understand what liturgical scholars insist we should do all the time: connect with the continuity of the church worshipping through the last two millennia.
  3. Christmas carols are nearly all story songs and Christianity is, at its heart, the proclamation of a story: an outrageous and incredibly unlikely story. Interestingly the popular contemporary praise and worship songs do not (as a rule) tell stories, they proclaim emotion (worship, praise, adoration, wonder etc.). But at Christmas we need the story as well.
  4. There are Christmas carols that rejoice in the revelry, feasting and joy that follow on the heals of really good news . . . I would hazard a guess that that is completely absent from any song in the CCLI charts!
One of my students captured a snippet of  us reveling in the good news of the Christmas story - more hootenanny than Hillsong!

Speaking of the CCLI charts -- I did include its #1 song "10,000 Reasons" as it includes a theology of singing that I really like and I knew this congregation of students enjoy singing this song; however, I wanted to include more of the Story in the song for this carol service. My friend Pete Clapham in England helped me out by writing a new verse.
As shepherds heard
The angels singing,
Now we rejoice
And we join with them.
Ten thousand echoes
Of the heavenly choir
Swell to crescendo
“Peace on Earth today!”


Heart & Soul & Voice  

(free download of the bootleg album recorded at the Well, Miller Chapel, Ashland University, Dec 4, 2014)

The Acoustic Band:
Nate Bebout - Guitar, Vocals
Ruth Chilcote - Vocals
Spencer Dolezal - Cajon and Loud Thumping
Jake Ewing - Banjo, Vocals
Jeremy Harrison - Grand Piano
Kaitlynn Jackenheimer - Vocals
Mary Kettering (Red Team) - Violin
Liz Sinchok - Vocals
Libby Slade (Red Team) - Accordion, Vocals
Peter Slade (Red Team) - Songleader, Guitar
Cory Smith - Ukelele, Vocals
Kiara Woods - Vocals
Sadie Zegaric - Vocals

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