Faith

Who Are You, Really?

One of the neat things about my life is that I am relatively free to attend worship whenever and wherever I want. I am constantly curious about how other groups of people worship.  I am always on the lookout for something new, different, deep, beautiful, exciting, liberating, inclusive, expansive, and transformative.  Specifically, I want to know how Christianity lives in different places, so that I can bring those experiences back to my own worship home.

So, here’s the thing.  In order to decide what church to attend, I do what many people do.  I searched the internet for churches in my town.  I scanned their sites for worship times and locations.  I also looked at faith statements, staff configurations, activities and events in an effort to get a feel for their identities.  This is what I learned:

There wasn’t anything new, different, deep, beautiful, exciting, liberating, expansive or transformative going on.  Instead, I saw a rather universal and monolithic Christian presence expressed through many websites.

Though each church promised,“We are Different,”  they didn’t express difference.*  Each church wanted me to know I was welcome.  They all wanted me to know I can wear whatever I want to church.  They also wanted to make sure I knew what kind of music to expect-because God-forbid  I enter a worship service expecting guitars and find myself surrounded by hymn-singers led by a belching organ at the front of the church.

Some churches had columns.  Some churches had carpet.  All of them were going to share something “relevant” from the Bible, and each church had a charter mission to love everyone and to have special consideration for the poor with an emphasis on service.  In some ways, it is comforting to know that Christianity has a skeleton; that its bones are shared by all denominations: welcoming, loving, serving, Bible-educated, family-friendly and engaged in the material betterment of “the poor.”  Let me say, however, that the United Way, minus the Bible-educating part, has a pretty similar skeleton.

After surfing those sites, I chose not to go anywhere else for worship that morning; not because of anything offensive, difficult, or challenging that they had shown me, but instead by a conviction that I wasn’t likely to experience anything different at all; by a conviction that my faith in Jesus Christ, my belief in the Gospel and my experience of the Holy would not be uniquely enriched by worshipping in any of these communities.

I don’t go to worship to predict the message.  I tend to expect a challenge to my understanding.  Honestly, I have worn shorts and jeans into very proper churches, and no one has ever given me the evil eye strong enough to make me decide to go home and change because of shame.  I don’t care about those things.  I want to know whether I am likely to experience a filling of my soul.  I want to know whether God is likely to show up.  I want to know whether this is a congregation of people so committed to Christ, they cannot hold themselves in.  I want to know whether this is the kind of place where not everyone will feel comfortable or welcome.

Are you Dutch Protestants still worshipping in gender-segregated pews?  Are you Quakers, sitting in silence, waiting for God to speak?  Are you United Methodists, known for picketing outside the local casino in moral opposition to gambling?

And let me get to the point-if our Christian identities across the spectrum are so similar as to be indistinguishable, we are participating in the worst kind of segregation there is: the blind separation of human being from human being by cultural markers of race, social status, gender, education, age, material wealth, and location. If the message from our Lutheran pulpits,  the worship from our Vineyard stages, the mission of our Ladies’ Aid Societies, and the prayers from the lips of our congregants are not central statements of our identity, our difference within the wider Christian community, we are only in different buildings, with different hymn books, divided along lines of personal preference and our level of tolerance for differences of opinion in doctrine, politics and lifestyle.

God is bigger than that.  Religion is more important than that.  Salvation is more evident than that.

*It would be dishonest not to mention Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, whose website expressed a Christian identity that is clearly different from the rest.

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