Six Things You Can Change Right Now to Improve Your Worship Music.

I know some of you are here: you lead a small membership church, with a long history, a traditional outlook and an aging population of members. You are doing great ministry and reaching out into your communities. You see visitors regularly and have a really fantastic community to share with them. Unfortunately, your music program is suffering.

Maybe the organist plays in a style that went out in 1954. Maybe the number of singers in your choir have shrunk and they are starting to struggle with music which they used to really deliver with zest. Maybe your worship committee is obsessed with making sure the old favorites get plenty of play time, even though you know your congregants are hungering to hear something new. Maybe you have a praise team that is limping along because the charismatic guitarist and lead singer signed a contract with EMI and left for bigger and brighter things. Maybe your church split about 25 years ago because of worship change and now no one has the heart to even “go there.”

Where do you start to make the change?

1. Don’t avoid the problem. Name it. Claim it. Own it. Refuse to make excuses for it.

  • Musicians care about the music. They want to make good music. They deserve to know if they are not making good music. It is a high compliment, actually, to suggest to the musicians that their ministry is so important it is a determining factor in whether or not people stay (and let’s be honest, most musicians already believe this anyway) so don’t be afraid to hold them accountable. Invite your musicians to critically analyze their own performance and ministry.

2. Don’t start from a solution!

  • It is easy to think not only that we know what will fix the problem, but also that people expect us as leaders to have a solution handy. Instead, invite the participants to hear the same problem you hear and engage them in problem-solving. People buy into their own solutions.

3. Start conversations about worship.

  • Guide conversations away from criticism of musical style or criticism of particular groups or people. Focus on worship-what it is about, who it is for, how it works.
  • Conversations include all people involved in decisions and execution of worship. Do not have conversations “behind the backs” of musicians or music leaders. Create open dialogue and listen. This is crucial. Being open and honest about goals and concerns leaves room for people to offer their own solutions and for them to voice their own goals and concerns.
  • Have multiple conversations in multiple settings from multiple points of view. Have a conversation with only the choir. Have one with only the pianist and worship director. Have one with only the altar guild or worship committee. Have one with with only the band members. Have one with only the computer, sound and video operators. Have one with only the children’s music directors. These conversations will expand the pool of problem solvers and diffuse tension about change.
  • Again, all conversations are open-meaning: the fact that such conversations are happening is widely communicated and known. All conversations are in dialogue with one another, even though some conversations will be with specific groups or people.

4. Separate music ministry from worship leadership

  • Music has significant soul and body benefits for people. There are reasons to have bands, choirs and small groups for music-making in a church that do not have to involve weekly worship leadership. If you were to take a therapy approach to music groups and opportunities, could you do a better job creating music which is ability appropriate and which builds community? If you were to take a discipleship approach to music groups and opportunities, could you do a better job creating music which is theologically and liturgically appropriate for your community? If there are other goals besides worship leadership for the music ministry of the church, there can be other markers for success for the people involved in music groups at the church than whether or not worship attendance increases.
  • People involved in the music program of your church have needs that should not be ignored. However, when those needs drive the choice of music and music expression for worship, quality, vitality, relevance and impact can all suffer. Think about expanding the ways people can participate in music throughout the life of the church, so that worship leadership is not the sole contribution of the music ministry.

5. Get your leaders the education they need.  

  • So many worship leaders are volunteers with a talent. I once accompanied a choir whose director did not know the difference between a time signature and a tempo. She was a leader with a warm heart, passion, love for Christ and a great ear for music, but she was never going to be able to grow that choir without some more music education.
  • If the band or choir do not sound good, it may not be because of a lack of overall talent. It may simply be because their leader does not actually know how to help them. For instance, if you have an aging choir, there are some fairly standard techniques for working with those voices which the director, fresh out of college, may never have learned.* Don’t be afraid to send your leaders, paid or volunteer, to professional training events, workshops, seminars or to specialized classes and schools.

6. Tread lightly, but firmly.

  • Agents and managers make big money for a reason: we musicians have brittle egos. Creative expression is vulnerability. The art we offer is a part of ourselves. We are quite protective of it. If ever love needs to be your token, it is when you are talking music with musicians. Be generous in affirming the real competencies and acknowledging the true gifts which your musicians and leadership are lending. Make sure they can hear you are not attacking them personally when you raise concerns about music. 
  • Make sure to check your own biases at the door. It is OK if you honestly do not like the way an organ sounds or if you inwardly cringe to the lyrics of As the Deer. It is quite destructive, however, when leaders allow those personal preferences to drive worship change. Assessing the quality and appropriateness of music used for ministry is something you have to be able to separate from personal preference. Doing so will help you be able to firmly and honestly communicate why a change must be made.

*For a great article on that subject: An Interview with Anton Armstrong

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How You Can Build a Better Peace

 

 

I thought I would start 2016 with a list of single steps any one of us can take towards building a better peace.

1. Quit watching the news.

Whether you get your news online, from the TV, out of a local newspaper or via NPR on the morning commute, just turn it off. You don’t need to listen to it or watch it. The really big things are beyond your control anyway, and the vast majority of your day really doesn’t need to have an opinion on most of what you get from the news. (Seriously, you already know who you intend to vote for in the next election, and no amount of amazing punditry is going to change your mind.) If you can’t quit cold turkey, I suggest limiting your exposure to “the news” to 1 single source (newspaper, TV station, or online blog) and to only allow yourself two 15 minute sessions with it a day. Try it for 28 days and see whether you feel better or worse. 

2. Pay attention to your metaphors.

If you stop and pay attention to what you both say and hear, you might be surprised to discover how many violent metaphors American English uses: “That doughnut sure hit the spot.” “Our project is right on target.” “I always aim for the highest goal.” “Shoot me an email, and I will tackle it right away.” It might be interesting to simply record the violent images and metaphors you hear during a coffee break. I have also found it to be really challenging to monitor my own speech and intentionally choose away from a violent image or metaphor.

3. Speak up for the humanness of people.

Speak up for the humanness of groups and the humanness behind actions when others refer to them as evil. By acknowledging that those we most fear and whose actions we most abhor are human beings, we admit the depth of our own capacity for wrongdoing.  When the rhetoric is high on your facebook feed, simply remind folks of their shared humanity with the Democrats or Anglicans who drive them crazy.

This practice is particularly important to me, as in my identity as a Christian I find that demonizing other people gives me an excuse to avoid my responsibility to express mercy, offer grace, and expect redemption. It also allows me to live in the illusion that there is no hope for reconciliation. For me, not speaking up for another’s humanness is extremely damaging to both my faith and my soul. 

4. Pray for someone you actually don’t like.

This is great because no one has to know you are doing it. It can be just between you and Divinity. In whatever way it is meaningful to you, pray for a person who gets under your skin a little bit. Don’t focus on an enemy or even try to tell yourself that you want there to be a good relationship with the person. Simply pray for their well-being. 

5. Take someone who scares the hell out of you to lunch.

You remember when Shane L. Windmeyer went to a football game with Dan Cathy? Or remember when Bob Vander Plaats and Donna Red Wing met for coffee in Urbandale? Like that. Meet in a public place. Pay for the meal. Listen more than you talk.

6. Volunteer.

You don’t need the news to encounter violence in your community. All you have to do is slip under the fences surrounding your life.

  • Volunteer as victim advocate for the court system or with your local domestic violence and sexual assault service center.
  • Find out what it would take to be a Stephen Minister for the local police department.
  • Provide some sort of ongoing assistance for a family with a member in prison. Contact Women@the Well to find out how.
  • Deliver care packages to those working in the ER at 2:00 in the morning.
  • Eat one meal a month at a soup kitchen and get to know someone there.

7. Lead a book or movie conversation group.

What are some of the topics which seem to divide people around you? Find a movie or a book which addresses those topics and lead a discussion group. I recommend The Color Purple (Alice Walker), The Milagro Beanfield War (John Nichols), Mi Familia, Fruitvale Station, Indian Killer (Sherman Alexie) and The Faith Club (Ranya Idliby) The United Methodist Church provides many materials to help people lead these kinds of groups:

8. Read Fieldnotes on the Compassionate Life by Marc Ian Barasch.

9. Form an intervention group.

Gather a group of other peacemakers. Get trained in intervention, and attend school events, community meetings, and sports competitions together. Notice the gatherings of people where bullying often occurs, and practice stepping up. Not sure where to start? Look into Soulforce, the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center or contact Alan Feirer at Group Dynamic 

10. Join a singing group.

Not a rock band. Not a talent show. Not a competition like The Voice, or America’s Got Talent. Join a singing group. Singing in a group has significant physical and psychological benefits. Socially, group singing (or drumming, or dancing, or playing instruments) is a great way to play cooperatively with other people. It builds connection, social awareness and cultural competency.

As you enter into 2016, I hope this list gives you one or two ideas for ways you can cultivate peace. If you are already an experienced producer of peace, I would love to hear your best practices.