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.