Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Singing at the fore

There is an interesting article by Steve Thorngate over at Christian Century. It is a study of four congregations in Chicago that are moving beyond the worship wars. It includes musical samples, so I encourage you it check it out. I was particularly struck by the description of a small Methodist congregation in Rogers Park. Its music director, Mark Bowman believes in congregational singing.

When Bowman leads a song, the congregation follows him readily and ably. Typically he splits the room up by location rather than vocal range. Assisted by other leaders he's trained, Bowman teaches music by rote and quickly produces rich, full part-singing—made all the fuller by the octave doublings of low and high voices.

He is clearly influenced by Jon Bell, both in method and in his understanding of the importance of congregational singing.

That's "what worship is all about," he insists, and it's a practice that excludes no one. With singing at the fore, genre matters less. Bowman laments that "people get hung up on the worship wars—'we do the traditional music; we do the praise music.' That's not the issue. All forms of music have a legitimate place in worship, but neither a blaring organ nor a blaring praise band is conducive to leading singing."
Cohesive programming matters; so does the overall quality of material and execution. But in church music of any style, the values of excellence and inclusion ultimately can't be separated, because whatever one's aesthetic standards, the musical form itself is a participatory one.
"The question," says Bowman, "is this: How do you get the congregation to lift its voice in praise?"
The idea that "with singing at the fore, genre matters less" strikes me as very important and actually corresponds with our experience at Ashland First UMC. I went snooping around on the church's web site and found they organize regular workshops on leading worship. This multi-ethnic congregation is one I'd love to visit.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

All Welcome in the Tenderloin

I had the remarkable experience of worshiping this morning at Glide United Methodist Church in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. This is a church which is, in its own words, "A radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate poverty and marginalization." This welcoming congregation has an extraordinary musical expression of this community of dissimilar people.
Most of the music was led by the Glide Ensemble (the choir) and people stood up and clapped, swayed and some sang along. There was only on song that was meant to be sung by the whole congregation--Leaning on the everlasting arms. It had everyone singing.
I had my camera handy and managed to capture some of the song. I remembered not to sing . . . but forgot not to sway. (So sorry if this makes you feel a little sea sick at the beginning. Enjoy the horns!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints Singing

In this Sunday's service we celebrated All Saints Day (11/1) and Veterans Day (11/11). The first remembers great victory and the second terrible tragedy. It was also communion and I was reminded how when we sing as the saints of God we  "join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven" as the Anglican communion service states.
When we sing God's praises as the people of God we join in song with all who have gone before.
You can hear the congregation singing in the recordings I made this morning (click on the links). I find this sound, this act, this joining our voices "with all the company of heaven" the most moving experience.

How Firm a Foundation/How Deep The Father's Love for Us
The congregation really raises the roof for the second hymn (2:41). I took the first two lines of Townend's first verse and stuck on the first two lines of the third. Ending on "I will boast in Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection" seemed a good way to go into the eucharist.
Be not afraid
We played this during communion. I like the way you can hear the administration of the elements in the foreground. Mary did a great job on her violin. The congregation's voices swelled in the last chorus.
Let Children Hear the Mighty Deeds 
This is Isaac Watts' metrical setting of Psalm 78. We are using the tune DUNLAPS CREEK which we took from Southern Harmony.

Choir of Angels mosaic on the ceiling of the Baptistry of St. John in Florence, Italy (mid 12th century)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More Comments on Volume

I am busy researching contemporary worship music for a paper I am giving at the American Academy of Religion in a couple of weeks time. This currently has me wading through forty years of articles in Christianity Today. I have found a couple of comments that tie in with my own blogging on volume.
In 2009, John Stackhouse (prof. at Regent in Vancouver) wrote an opinion piece called"Memo to Worship Bands: Turn It Down Please!"He makes some good points including a fine whistle stop tour through the history of church music:
By the time church music matured into Palestrina and Co. in the 16th century, it had become too demanding and ornate for ordinary singers. So Christians went to church to listen to a priest and a choir.
The Protestant Reformation yanked musical worship away from the professionals and put it back in the pews. Luther composed hymns with simple (and beautiful) tunes and meters. Calvin insisted on taking lyrics from the Psalms. This was music in which almost anyone could participate. The problem today, to be sure, is rarely elaborate music. We could use a little more artistry, in fact, than we usually get with the simplistic and repetitive musical figures of many contemporary worship songs.
No, the contrast with the Reformation is the modern-day insistence that a few people at the front be the center of attention. We do it by making six band members louder than a room full of people. But a church service isn’t a concert at which an audience sings along with the real performers. Musicians—every one of them, including the singers—are accompanists to the congregation’s praise. They should be mixed loudly enough only to do their job of leading and supporting the congregation. . . But when you are leading us in singing, then lead us in singing. 
You can read the whole article over at Stackhouse's Blog.

I found another ally in Gary Parett (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) who in 2005 wrote 9.5 Theses on Worship. Thesis number 8 included this:
On many Sundays, nowadays, it seems that it does not matter if I sing during worship, for I cannot hear myself even if I do. Nor can I hear the brothers and sisters sitting near me. In fact, we can only hear those few people standing up front with their microphones. . .The Bible commands us to "speak to one another" in songs, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). I find myself longing for such experiences today. I need to hear my sisters and brothers confessing the faith into my ears, and they need to hear me. Surely it is not only the professionals or the gifted who believe the things we are singing. Those who lead us in song must do precisely that—lead us, not replace us or overpower us. Let the amplifiers provide for a volume level loud enough to help us do our job, for it is the congregation, and not the band, that is the true "worship team."
It is reassuring to know that I am not the only white goateed theology professor who has strange ideas about congregational singing!