Worship

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

Social Justice

Be Not Conformed. Be Transformed

Often, a church can think too small when it comes to music.  Unlike a community choir, the church  has to prepare lots of different music every week.  It doesn’t get months of practice with auditioned singers. It usually gets one too-short rehearsal on Wednesday night with a group of brave people willing to say, “I think I can.”  That makes the church musician get very practical.  Rather than having a library full of multicultural and historical literature from which to browse, the church musician is often given a Scripture reference and a hymn book or filing cabinet full of music that has been purchased by the church and performed by the choir (or bells or praise band) before.

Unfortunately, that rush to prepare and present music that works often leaves a church’s musical expression rather anemic and often dated.  At a recent conference, N. Graham Standish suggested that real Christianity happens when a church can shift from the functional to the formational.  I see this in the music of many churches.  We get so caught up in making sure worship will work (function), we never get around to making sure worship has an impact (formation).

As Christians, one of our central ideas is one of transformation.  We expect to encounter the Divine and we expect that encounter will change us in some fundamental way.  If you read an interview with any conductor or teacher of music, you will hear an echo of this idea: music has the ability to change us in fundamental ways. In other words, both Christianity and music cause change in form, appearance or structure (transformation).  Their very natures kind of contradict the idea of reproducibility.

Let me tell you the story of a piece of music and a small, Midwestern church.  I was working atFirst Christian Church (DOC) in Ames, IA as the choir director and music planner.   A common theological theme at that church is environmentalism. Weekly worship planning often included some lament that there weren’t a wide variety of songs about creation care in our hymnal, and in scouring the internet and other resources, I began to think that the only Christians to have ever responded to our complex human relationships with the planet were Maltbie Babcock and Eleanor Farjeon.

Enter Paul Winter.  In my time there, several people had pointed me toward a hymn called “The Blue Green Hills of Earth.”  A musician tracked down a Unitarian Universalist hymnal and we added this song to our repertoire of congregation music.  Then a member of my choir gave me a cd of Missa Gaia(Earth Mass), compiled by Paul Winter from work he did at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York with his group the Winter Consort.  I took it home and listened.  I was struck by a few things:  1).  The choir parts were very singable-they were the kind of four part harmony that my choir was capable of producing.  2) The music was modern.  It used a lot of jazz harmony and technique as well as some interesting global rhythms. 3) It was a sacred piece of music with a message that matched my church’s concern.  4) There were not enough singers in my choir to sing all of the parts.

I began to plot and ponder, and a concert was born.  We worked for months to gather enough musicians and singers.  We invited Mary Swander, Poet Laureate of Iowa, to present readings.  We included a local children’s chorus under the direction of Dr. Sylvia Munson.  We pushed ourselves to advertise the concert as widely as we could-beyond the bulletin and word of mouth within the church community.  We even went so far as to purchase a large yard sign so drivers going by the church could see what we were doing.  The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill happened, and we had a real reason to respond.   We decided to make this a free concert to the community and to gather donations for Gulf Coast clean up efforts.

In a church with a rudimentary sound system, basic lighting and no screen, we were able to pull together a visual presentation, record a DVD and provide visual interest using levels, plants, and baskets.  We had no funding from the church budget, so we paid for this concert through support of community members, calling in favors from friends, and the amazing generosity of top-notch presenters and technicians who offered their services free or at a ridiculously low rate.  We worked our church connections to recruit singers from other choirs, and we asked people from the community, Christian or not, to come and sing.

We performed our concert, and it was a great success.  The turnout was large, the music went well, and people donated generously to the Audubon Society.  I would have been pleased if that were all we saw from that project, but there was and is more.  The music we strove so passionately to hammer out, entered us.  Every time someone mentions St. Francis of Assisi, I begin to hum “All praise be yours through brother sun.”  Whenever I participate in an act of repentance, I hear the tritone intervals of wolves howling as children sing “Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us.”  Whenever Christ is called the Lamb, I hear the harp seals singing the “Agnus Dei” movement, animals as helpless and white as newborn sheep.

I remember the faith my church had: to do something it had never done before; to learn music that is not in its Chalice Hymnal; to express its belief not just within its own walls but outside on the streets of its town.

I remember the growth my singers had: giving more than a Wednesday night to rehearsals; trying out rhythms and harmonies that were HARD; learning to rely on themselves individually to carry difficult parts and to take leadership.  I remember the fruit that bore in worship: as songs that used to be hard became easier and as a new engagement with the meanings of lyrics and musical expression started to show up.

I remember love.  It is hard not to find common ground with people beside whom you have struggled and accomplished.  We cancelled and rescheduled.  We used carpentry skills we didn’t know we had.  We cared for babies and singers who became ill.  We bore with one another’s crazy schedules and the toll that took on rehearsal numbers, and when it came right down to it, everyone involved stepped up and offered themselves to the possibility of criticism and ridicule.

We worked together and we relied on one another and in the end, we spoke truth and love to the community.  Despite emails that called us Marxists, Communists, Anti-Christian, and Evil;  despite a perception from some church-goers that we weren’t singing Christian ideas; despite a discomfort with music that was untried and new, we finally expressed the church’s understanding of Christ to a world that needed to hear.

If you find that your church’s music is somehow lacking in Spiritual vitality, I suggest thinking bigger.  Think past Sunday morning.  Think outside the size of your praise band or budget.  Think around the limitations imposed by words like “appropriate,” “well-known,” and “easy to sing.”  Think across and into another denomination’s hymnody.  Dare I suggest thinking yourself into another faith’s literature?  Think about including secular music in the process of developing worship opportunities.  Not every week, and not all the time.  Just sometimes, try to “let” something happen in your music ministry, rather than “making” it happen, and see what transformations might be born.