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?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Chris Tomlin's Lessons for Worship Leaders

“This is about all of us singing”

On Wednesday, Oct 16, I went to the Q-Arena in Cleveland to hear Chris Tomlin. He is by far the biggest artist in the contemporary Christian Praise & Worship industry. Back in 2006, TIME magazine announced that he was “ the most often sung artist anywhere.” CNN recently backed this claim with their own math:

In 2012, Christian Copyright Licensing International paid out $40 million to artists and musicians, and Tomlin got a healthy slice of that pie. Churches around the world used 128 songs he wrote or co-wrote last year, [Howard] Rachinski [CEO of CCLI] said.CCLI estimates that every Sunday in the United States, between 60,000 and 120,000 churches are singing Tomlin’s songs. By extrapolating that data, Rachinski says, “our best guess would be in the United States on any given Sunday, 20 to 30 million people would be singing Chris Tomlin's songs.”
As the most successful songwriter and worship leader in the church today, a master of his craft, I want to present some of the lessons for church musicians that I drew from watching him work.
1. Being a musician and worship leader is about Congregational Singing
Despite the rock concert aesthetic of Tomlin’s show -- the big stage, light show, massive PA and strange skippy dancing around -- as the words to the first song appeared on the huge video screens, it was obvious that we were expected to sing.  
Talking to Worship Leader magazine about his new album, Tomlin said “songs of worship are meant for community and are meant for the people coming together to sing.”
In a sound bite from a
televised interview on CNN, Tomlin said: “I strive to write [songs] that people can sing, that people want to sing, and that people need to sing.”
2. You need to encourage the congregation to sing
Sing with me!
Many things in the show let us know that we were not singing-along to the songs but that the songs were for us to sing. Throughout the evening Tomlin encouraged us to sing. This should come as no surprise from the man whose biggest hit “How Great is our God” includes the injunction “Sing with me!” in the chorus.
How did he encourage us to sing? Well in a few different ways:
3. You need to choose/write singable songs
Whether you like Tomlin’s style of soft pop/rock anthems, you have to acknowledge he writes a catchy singable chorus. He told CNN “I'm trying to think, how can I form this so that everybody, people who are tone deaf, who can't clap on two and four, how can I form this song so they can sing it, so that it is singable?”
Two days after the concert, the chorus to “Indescribable” is still stuck on constant play in my head.
4. You need to teach them the new songs (and worship God while you do so).
For me the most interesting moment came early in the night. Like in any rock concert, Tomlin played the material from the new album early in the evening. “I promise to you at some point we will sing ‘How Great is Our God’” he says to reassure us.
He then eases into the new song “Lay Me Down” singing the chorus with muted accompaniment.
“I lay me down I’m not my own . . . “
At the end of the chorus he addresses the crowd. “This is a new one so we’ll do it again.” And the band repeats the chorus.
This is a revealing moment. Tomlin clearly understands himself primarily as a song leader. He wants the audience to sing along to every word and he is following the basic rule that when you introduce a new song to a congregation you must teach it to them. The band then ploughed ahead into the Mumford & Sons-y foot stomping guitar strumming number with the congregation singing along lustily.
5. You must make space for singing
Of the sixteen songs Tomlin sang that night, ten were specifically arranged to accommodate and encourage congregational singing. (And three others had intentional audience participation - dancing, waving flags and bouncing balls!)
a) in arrangements
Chris Tomlin’s band is loud and the crashing wall of ringing guitar that kicks in on the choruses of the U2-ish praise rock anthems is overwhelming. (Just listen to the chorus of Awake My Soul, or Whom Shall I fear [God of Angel Armies]).  Even in these full on rock numbers, Tomlin created space in the arrangements for the congregation to hear ourselves and that clearly signaled to us that we were expected and needed to sing.
There was significant dynamic range even in the loudest songs but his most obvious device to get us singing was stopping the band completely. The second song of the night--the Coldplay-esque I Will Follow--had crushing power chords and pounding piano in the chorus but Tomlin inserted an acapella final chorus (immediately followed by a drum solo!).
But singing to this level of noise is not satisfying for a congregation and Tomlin the song-leader knows it.
b) by dropping the volume
Of the sixteen songs in the set, six of them were played by smaller acoustic ensembles (2 acoustic guitars, solo piano, acoustic guitars and cajon) --and these were the moments of greatest singing and emotional connection between artist and audience.
Talking to Worship Leader magazine about the hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns” Tomlin reflects--perhaps unintentionally--on congregational singing and the volume of the band:
‘Hark how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but it’s own.’ It just cannot be written any better than that. When I think about what we’re doing as worship leaders, when we’re bringing a song of praise, a heavenly anthem of praise, it drowns out all music and drowns out all other noise … That’s why there’s so much peace when people come to sing; God drowns out every other competing thing.
I think worship leaders (and church sound engineers) need to ask themselves, ‘Who is being drowned out?’
6. You should love the voice of the Church (more than your own)
It was fascinating that Tomlin, the king of the contemporary praise song, used old hymns, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” and “Amazing Grace,” to create the emotional touchstones of the evening. After leading us in a simple arrangement of “Nothing but the blood,” during which he stepped away from the microphone, Tomlin said “There is no other sound like it on Earth: when the people of God sing the praises of God. It is a special thing.”
In his recent interview with CNN Tomlin reflected on his concert at Madison Square Gardens and his desire to step away from the microphone:
It was just so beautiful, because I feel like it says something. It's not just like, ‘Hey, listen to me sing.’ This is all of us together. I think when you step back from the mic and it is not about you - and yeah, the light may be on you, but this is about all of us singing. This is about a bigger story, it's about a greater story. It's about a greater name than my name. My name is on the ticket, but this is about a greater name.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

First Hymnal for Atheists

Thanks to Lori Brandt Hale for sending this my way!

Report from the Field: RUF & Rivers Hill, Oxford, MS

This is the fourth (and final) in a series of blog posts I wrote for the Project on Lived Theology on my two-week lived theology road trip from New Orleans to Memphis. To read more of my posts, click here.
From Jackson I drove north to Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi and a number of my old friends.  That Wednesday evening, I slide in to a pew at the back of the campus chapel for the weekly gathering of the Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). The new chapel building is rapidly filling with conservative white Presbyterian youth. Women  in shorts, makeup and silk-screened T-shirts reading  “Tri Delta Crush Party” and  “Alpha Gamma Delta Swap” pass me as they find their seats. The men are wearing a uniform of baseball caps and check cotton shirts.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Report from the Field: Redeemer Pres, Jackson, MS.

Redeemer Sanctuary
This is the second in a series of blog posts I am writing for the Project on Lived Theology. They are reports and reflections on my two-week lived theology road trip from New Orleans to Memphis. To read the first post “New Orleans and CCDA”, click here.
I crossed the Pontchartrain and drove on up to Jackson, Mississippi, in time to go to Redeemer Presbyterian Church for Sunday morning worship. Redeemer is a fascinating and unlikely congregation. A church in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), its existence is the result of a church split nine years ago in a North Jackson congregation called Trinity Pres. In the 1950s, when Trinity had started, Northside Drive had been a white neighborhood. By 2004, it had “transitioned,” as they say, into an African-American neighborhood. The split in the church may not have been directly about race, but race had played a complicating factor — it was over whether the congregation should stay and work in the neighborhood or move four miles down the road (and across the highway and color line) into a bigger facility.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Report from the Field: The Chattahoochee Musical Convention

photo: John Kelso

On the Saturday preceding the first Sunday in August, I found my way to Wilson's Chapel a few miles south of Carrolton, Georgia for the Chattahoochee Musical Convention. As Wikipedia will tell you, this is "the oldest surviving Sacred Harp musical convention, having been founded in 1852."

I couldn't find much information online other than it took place in August on "First Sunday and Saturday before - Chattahoochee Musical Convention, Wilson Chapel, Southeast of Carrollton GA. Turn left off Hwy A-27 at Cross Plains Rd. to church." So you can imagine my relief when I saw the sign that said "sing" at the entrance to a gravel road. And sing they did!

There were a good number of singers filling the wooden pews in the wood paneled sanctuary of Wilson's chapel. Three window AC units hummed and the ceiling fans whirled signaling just how warm they expected it to get.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Report from the Field: New City Music Conference

I  recently returned from an eleven-day singing tour of the South with my head full of tunes and ideas about congregational singing. This is all part of my semester-long study leave from Ashland University and research for THE BOOK.

When I tell people about the book -- “It’s going to be about congregational singing, church and reconciling communities.”-- I tend to get a polite look of disinterest. It is as if I am saying, “I am writing a book on knitting and theology.”

So it was with great relief that I found that at the New City Music Conference in Chattanooga my sentence-long book proposal was met with understanding and interest.

What is the New City Music Conference? This will take a bit of explanation.

New City is a church founded in Chattanooga in the 1970s by Randy Nabors, a white conservative Presbyterian pastor with assistance from James Ward, a talented young musician. An urban ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America, New City has become the flagship of a small but vibrant multicultural worship movement in this predominantly white and southern denomination. This single congregation has become the hub of the New City Network: a loose connection of urban congregations interested in “cross cultural ministry.” From my observation, this seems to  include congregations that are deliberately trying to be multiracial as well as congregations ministering to particular refugee communities.
The Conference Choir practice with Jim Ward-- New City's
musical godfather--on keys. This is the first time I have sung
gospel music from a score -- it was tricky -- a lot of syncopation
and repeats

These churches have developed an ethos of worship music that attempts to be an authentic expression of the particular congregation’s ethnic sensibilities. Every couple of years, musicians from the New City Network gather together to share their songs and worship together and I was lucky enough to be there this summer.

I sang in Spanish, Swahili, French, and English. 

I had wonderful conversations with many musicians.

I am still processing the experience.

You can find many offerings from the conference over at the New City Music website -- it is well worth exploring.
Here is one sample -- a blues lament written for the conference by Kirk Ward. Kirk (son of James Ward) is a musician at New City Fellowship - University City in St Louis. He has written about this song over on his blog "Worship in the City." The lead sheet is available here.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hymns from School

In this recent piece on NPR,  Brian Eno (Roxy Music and U2 producer) makes a case for the importance of a capella singing. He observes that it has "civilizational benefits" 
When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That's one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
He thinks this is so important that he states,
that if I were asked to redesign the British educational system, I would start by insisting that group singing become a central part of the daily routine. I believe it builds character and, more than anything else, encourages a taste for co-operation with others. This seems to be about the most important thing a school could do for you. 
What is odd is that I grew up in a British educational system that had congregational singing at the start of everyday in our school assemblies--I am sure Brian Eno probably did too. We sang a bunch of Victorian and Edwardian hymns as well as the hymns of the folk revival in the state and private schools I attended.  We had all the militaristic imagery that helped build a bygone empire (Stand Up, Stand up for Jesus, Onward Christian Soldiers) as well as the strange hymns to British nationalism which simultaneously filled Kitchener's Army and seemed to mourn the terrible losses of the First World War (Jerusalem, I Vow to Thee My Country).   We also sang of other people's wars (The Battle Hymn of the Republic) as well as sustained fantasy violence (the hobgoblin and foul fiends of To be a Pilgrim).

We sang of God's creation with Victorian sentimentality (All Things Bright and Beautiful). We observed the sacred and academic year; I particularly remember the advent hymns (O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Hills of the North Rejoice) though Easter was well represented as it fell during the school year (There is a Green Hill Far Away, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross). We asked for forgiveness from our "foolish ways," in Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. And we sang our liberal Protestant concerns in Sydney Carter's When I Needed a Neighbor (were you there?) and for a good work ethic in Lord of All Hopefulness

Many hymns used at school accrued alternative lyrics ranging from silly ("Most highly flavored gravy, Gloria!") to the pornographic (no repeatable examples).

Even if Eno seems unaware that group singing used to be a regular part of the school day, given my passion for group singing and the fact that I am now seeking to research and write on the subject, I would have to agree with him and say this was the most important thing that school did for me.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Let the Fieldwork Begin!

With the end of the school year, I am excited to have a semester of study leave from Ashland University. This is being supplemented by a writing grant from the Virginia Seminar in Lived Theology. All of this means that for the next year I will be hunkering down to research and write a book on congregational singing, church and reconciling communities.

Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts.
This week I have been in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Isaac Wardell, the founder of Bifrost Arts, was kind enough to let me interview him and ask him all kinds of questions about his passion for encouraging congregations to sing. There is a great article about Wardel's work called "Bifrost: Enriching the Church and Engaging the World. . . Through Singing." You can see from the title why I am interested learning more from him. He has written a set of Sunday School materials on corporate worship -- I recommend you download a free copy of his Liturgy, Music and Space

This morning my family attended Trinity Presbyterian Church and heard the fruit of  the congregation's labors. In the resonant modern sanctuary the worship team led the large congregation with its volume set at the acoustic level of the 9ft Baldwin grand piano.

At the service I participated in this morning at Trinity, the connection between the sacramental life of the body and congregation's singing was very strong. We welcomed the newly baptized into the Church with  a cappella singing (Amazing Grace) and as we moved forward to share in the sacrement of the Lord's Supper  the band dropped away again as we sang "I Love You Lord."

In the article about Bifrost I already mentioned, the minister of Trinity Pres, Greg Thompson, reflects on Isaac Wardell's influence and hints at the sacramental character and function of singing. Thompson explains that Wardell is moving the congregation "toward greater congregational engagement, which is to say, lots of people really, really singing. I have been amazed as I have seen everyone from children to Chinese students to Boomer conservatives gathered around not just the same table but around the same songs—and singing.”

Let the fieldwork begin--I will be traveling to Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi over the next few months as well as to churches closer to home in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. I'll keep y'all posted.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Singing makes atheist "church" work

I was interested to read this article in the British newspaper The Guardian about an atheist church service in London. Atheists want community and something to do on a Sunday morning. After experiencing the  service, a couple of curious atheists from High Wycombe told the reporter:

"Some of the things I thought really wouldn't work, like the singing, were really good. Normally I hate singing."
Churches do a lot of what they do "because it works", he notes, "Atheists make a mistake to look at church and throw it all out just because they don't believe in God."
And what did they sing together? "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen and "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder.