Time, Song, & The Church: Trying To Answer A Question

When, exactly, would you like me to teach the congregation about singing, Geoff? Which minutes of my 20 hour work-week (in addition to my 40 hour secular job) should I steal for this? When, for that matter, would you like the congregation to take the time to learn to sing? When I have them captive, on Sunday morning, I, the choir, and the musician, do our parts to make it possible that those who are willing to learn songs, do so. But frankly, we are moving toward music as performance out of necessity. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, because there are other ways to include music in worship without asking the congregation itself to be the primary makers of the music – which, by the way, they suck at. – Facebook Comment On “Working With What We Have”

When I was in Seminary, a professor of mine told the following story from his very first appointment, some time in the mid-1950’s, in rural Florida.  He was a University student, working part time at a tiny church with an elderly congregation.  He said they only had about a dozen or so faithful attendees at worship each week.  The congregation did not have a musician, not even someone who could play the piano.  They sang the four – and he was very specific with the number – hymns they knew on a rotating basis, all a capella.  After a while, my professor said, this began to grate on him, even though he had been told “this is the way it’s been for a long time”, both by previous pastors as well as church members.  One week, from the pulpit, he said, “I’ll tell you what.  If I lead you on the piano, can I teach you a new hymn, one a month?”  He said they all looked at one another, kind of shrugged, and agreed.  Sure enough, by the time he left, their repertoir of hymns had increased, and their worship attendance was over 20 a week.  Not an enormous win for the Kingdom, perhaps, but one I’d put in the plus column.

When Lisa took her first appointment, at a small-town church in Virginia, the congregation had yet to purchase the 1988 United Methodist Hymnal.  Lisa was told in no uncertain terms the whole issue was a non-starter.  Not only that, but any attempt to use the newer communion liturgy would be met with resistance, perhaps even hostility.  By the end of her second year, the congregation had the new Hymnals, and Lisa was using both the older, Cranmer-based communion liturgy as well as the liturgies provided by the Hymnal.  There was a member of the congregation who wasn’t happy with the change, but for the rest, it seemed not only a welcome change, but it seemed to lift the congregation’s spirits.

I tell these stories as a way to begin answering the challenge with which I was presented on Facebook to my earlier post.  Titling it “Working With What We Have” was intentional; the original reference point was as a way of challenging notions of some kind of return to something called “traditional” worship.  All the same, the title is all-encompassing.  Clergy and congregations always meet one another with expectations, fears, questions, hopes, and a mixture of reverence and a refusal to accept authority without reason.  Each can frustrate, anger, surprise, bore, and hopefully love the other, perhaps in various combinations, throughout their time together.  A potent weapon in the arsenal in the relationship is the ability of each, as I wrote earlier today, to listen. What St. Paul called discern the Spirit; that is part of the Christian life together.  We test the Spirits of one another, and perhaps the gap between clergy and congregation can shrink as each comes to understand the other.

The response I received on Facebook is a genuine, and honest, alternate view point.  There are only so many hours in the week, and congregations are well-known for asking for more and more from those who wear various titles in the church, from “Pastor” through “Administrative Assistant” to “Music Director”.  Perhaps the church musician is a paid professional instrumentalist, whose sole job is to work with the clergy to select music appropriate both for the Liturgical season, the particular Scriptural passages, and if the clergy are thematic, that fit in with the overall worship “theme” for that Sunday.  Perhaps that same professional instrumentalist is also tasked with being choir director, which requires another whole different level, not only of understanding, but more hours choosing and selecting possible musical selections, learning them, then teaching the choir.  Whether that church musician is a full-time or part-time staff person, there are only so many hours to do these important tasks, including non-office hours, either an evening during the week or Sunday morning before worship, for choir rehearsals.  Then there are the hours of practice that are necessary to keep up one’s ability with any instrument.  If the church musician is part-time, perhaps he or she works another part-time, or even full-time, job.  Perhaps he or she has a family.  What we are left with is a situation in which the bare minimums are met even as the church musician struggles to do the best job possible.

I would still say that it is more than possible, even under a scenario in which the church musician’s time is limited by multiple outside responsibilities, nevertheless to lead a congregation that is willing enough, through all sorts of musical changes.  It’s possible, however, if the clergy, the church musician, and the congregation are together not only in the need for change – perhaps expansion of the music musical repertoire; perhaps the beginning of the use of alternate instrumentation, or contemporary songs – but in the best way to reach the goals all have expressed an interest in reaching.  Working with what we have includes the talents, abilities, hours available, and enthusiasm and understanding of the congregation and clergy together.  Even in a situation in which a church musician, a paid professional, is stretched thin for time due to duties outside the church, a job description as well as help from clergy and the congregation alike can result in positive changes, musically.

As for the move to a more performative musical style as necessary, this isn’t the first time it’s happened in the life of the church.  As the Mass was sung in muttered Latin, the priest’s back to the congregation, the best one could usually hope for is the congregation responding when the altar boy rang the bell.  As musical notation, and therefore the ability for homophomy and polyphony to be experimented with, the Mass moved even further in the direction of performance rather than worship.  The masses of Palestrina, say, or Thomas Tallis, are gorgeous.  They are also impossible even for the clergy of the time to perform properly; thus the original introduction of choirs into worship – to aid the priest in the Mass.

That the Christian Churches are those who sing our faith is a given.  How that’s done has been under dispute since the beginning.  To say that congregations suck at singing, however, is a bit much.  I think this is as much a holdover – or perhaps carryover? – from the secular separation of music from the people as it is a reflection on the musical abilities of a given congregation.  As noted previously, music has become a profession, something those with “the talent” or “gift” of music should do, while others should leave it be.  In Daniel Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music, he tells the story of a friend of his doing research among communities in Lesotho, in southern Africa.  He was invited to sing with them during a community festival, and demurred, insisting he couldn’t sing.  By the parameters we in the West understand things, Levitin agrees; his friend couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  The people in the community in Lesotho, however, were literally unable to understand this person’s answer.  Not singing was no different than not breathing.  Song was as much a part of their understanding of what it was to be human as the flowing of blood.

In some way, we in the West need  to rid ourselves of the ridiculous idea that there is a division between those who do particular tasks well and are therefore deserving of recompense both for their abilities and for performing their social tasks well, and the rest of us who might enjoy such things – say carpentry, or painting – as a pastime without giving thought to receiving pay for it.  This division of labor, particularly when it comes to something with such social salience as music, leaves us in the odd position that there are millions of people who enjoy music, yet insist they cannot perform it in some way or another.  That the ability to read a notated score, for example, is something that separates real musicians from the rest is belied by the past century of popular music; and that’s just one example of how we have created a kind of musical hermeticism that is actually belied by reality.  Much of Dan Levitin’s book discusses how the vast majority of people have various musical abilities, up to and including the ability to recall pitches, keys, and individual notes even without the ability necessarily to name them – something called “perfect pitch”.  Indeed, much of Levitin’s work has led him to an evolutionary theory of musical creation in humans – and in other creatures, too – in which music is, as it were, hard-wired in to our brains.

As someone with near-perfect pitch, I will tell you that listening to people who cannot sing on key can be painful.  All the same, as “John Wesley’s Notes On Singing” insist, we are to sing, and sing lustily, without bawling, but certainly with faith, attentive to volume and pitch, doing the best we can with the abilities we have, joining the congregation’s voice in one harmonious – or as close to harmonious – song that rises to God in praise.  My interest is far less in whether or not the congregation should sing as what it should sing, and why.  These are, I believe, separate matters in some sense.  That we are moving more towards a performative stance in our music in worship is as much necessitated by changes that seem to be happening rapidly with little to no communication between clergy, church musicians, and congregations, as it is the growth and expansion of Contemporary Christian Music as a commercial product, too often sold to congregations with little notice to the banality both of the music as well as the lyrics.  Which is why my personal focus is on teaching people to listen to contemporary popular music with at least one ear open to the possibility not only that there might well be something holy in such a profane vessel, but that such music has a place in our corporate worship.

You may be right, however, that the pendulum swing toward performative liturgies rather than participatory is part and parcel of our times.  Whatever is necessitating the change, it is something that I think goes against one of the earliest injunctions of St. Paul to the first Christian churches – that we are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  We aren’t to have them performed for us.  We aren’t to hand over the reigns of musical decision making either to clerical, theological, or musical elites, but rather the congregation’s song should be, in the words of church music historian Paul Westermeyer, the people’s song.

Maybe this addresses the countervailing view quoted above.  Perhaps not.  It is, nevertheless, the position from which I begin.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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