Tuesday, 17 January 2017

To Clap or Not to Clap--WHEN is the Question!

There it was again. I knew it would happen, but I really couldn’t do anything about it. Besides, who was I to judge what was in someone’s heart?

They probably meant well, but more likely, they weren’t thinking about what they were doing, just functioning on automatic. I felt guilty for wondering if the ringleaders would be there today.

Then I reminded myself that worship was ultimately not about me, nor my carefully laid plans. God’s Spirit could work in people’s hearts no matter what I did or did not do. …Still, I wished our worship services could be different.

One of the delights of my job as Music/Worship Pastor is getting to plan and lead worship services, trying to “create space in which God might act.” I like creating worship segments that flow together meaningfully.

The plan that day was to lead a congregational hymn of praise followed by a Scripture litany from the Psalms, segueing into a meditative choral anthem followed by a pastoral prayer.

The worship segment was flowing smoothly, and the anthem ended on a beautiful pianissimo. The mood was set for the upcoming pastoral prayer.

But—as anticipated--as soon as the last note of the anthem ended, two or three pockets of “church clappers” in the congregation started up, effectively disrupting the flow. Aargh!

Clapping during worship is an issue for many churches. Clapping takes one of two forms: 1. rhythmic clapping, incorporated into music and dance, or 2. random clapping (applause), a universal response to or in anticipation of a pleasant experience.

Applause is found everywhere in secular society: sports events, musical/dramatic arts performances, political/patriotic gatherings, school/civic club meetings, graduations.
Most often, applause conveys one of the following meanings:
            • “That makes me happy!”
            • “I’m excited!”
            • "I enjoyed that!" or
            • ”I want to encourage you!”

Sometimes, applause is enthusiastic, perhaps accompanied by standing and cheering. Or it can be merely “polite”--something the hands do while the rest of the body does something else, like chatting with someone nearby.

Nowadays, applause is heard more frequently in American churches. Whether or not applause is welcome depends on where a congregation’s style of worship falls on a spectrum between informal and formal.

Congregations that prefer formal or contemplative worship experiences—liturgical or Taize--will not appreciate applause during worship services.

Congregations that prefer informal, boisterous, “noisy” worship experiences--contemporary or Pentecostal or African-American—expect to participate with verbal and bodily responses (rhythmic clapping, applause, shouting, swaying, dancing) throughout their worship services.

“Traditional” churches (broadly defined, with worship styles somewhere between formal and informal) are more likely to have issues with applause during worship.

The problem with applause is mostly rooted in a lack of understanding about what constitutes a worship service vs. a secular gathering.

Well-planned worship services are designed to help participants encounter God. They are not civic club or PTA meetings where people gather to be with their friends and enjoy nice, entertaining programs. Just mentioning God’s name a few times does not constitute a worship service.

Congregations are not the same as audiences. Audiences mostly observe (and critique) the “performers” on the platform. Congregations—authentic congregations--actually worship; they are participants in praising God and seeking God’s will for their lives.

Author Terry York says in Rehearsing the Soul: “The words congregation and audience are not interchangeable in a worship setting. We have learned that God is the audience, those in the congregation are the players, and the worship leaders are the prompters. …We play, then, to an audience of one. To perform for one another in the worship setting is to ignore God or reduce God’s place of prominence. …It’s a matter of the heart.”

God is not only the audience; God is also the “star” of the worship service, the reason we’re all gathered in the first place. Any applause should be directed toward God, not talented worship leaders. We are to celebrate the Giver, not the gift.

It’s often easy to tell if a congregation thinks of themselves more as an audience than a gathering of worshipers. From my observation, “church clappers” usually applaud after loud, rousing selections by a musical soloist or group (though some will applaud after all “special” musical selections, loud or soft, as if attending a concert).

“Church clappers” also applaud anytime children or youth do anything “unique” during the service—singing, playing instruments, presenting dramatic readings—mostly to encourage them. But worship services are not school programs, and constant applause for children’s presentations teaches them that they are primarily there to please adults, rather than to offer their creative gifts to God in worship. 

The dead give-away in identifying an audience-minded congregation is that, except for the two examples above, “church clappers” don’t usually applaud for anything else.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard applause after a meaningful litany, a scripture reading, a beautifully-worded prayer, a congregational hymn or a well-crafted sermon—except for a few “stem-winder” sermons at denominational rallies.

Lest I be misunderstood, there is nothing inherently wrong with applause during worship services—there are a few biblical references to people “clapping their hands” as they praised God.

But that’s just the point: they were worshiping God, not applauding each other!

I suspect that God is not delighted with polite applause (where one person starts applauding, then others nearby join in half-heartedly). More likely, God is disappointed at being taken so casually, at having people just go-through-the-motions of so-called “worship” while their thoughts and intentions are focused elsewhere.

Authentic worship puts the spotlight on God, not the worship leaders or congregation.

I am still affected emotionally when I recall two worship experiences where I was pretty certain that applause was for God alone:

One occurred in Georgia years ago during a preschool choir session at church. To introduce a new song to twenty kindergarten children, I asked them--at their level of understanding--to think of some attributes of God.

Soon they were on-a-roll. Momentum built as they eagerly raised their hands, quickly naming good things about God.

Suddenly, the whole group burst into applause. They were cheering God!

Another happened in Kentucky. The Southeast was experiencing a severe drought, and it seemed that the little bit of rain that fell in the area somehow kept skipping over our small town.

For several months, we prayed in desperation as rain clouds passed us by.

Then, during worship one Sunday, just as our pastor was stepping into the pulpit, a huge cloudburst suddenly began pounding on the sanctuary roof. There was an audible gasp from our grateful congregation, followed by spontaneous, heartfelt applause. We were truly praising God!

That’s the kind of worship God wants from us—focused, enthusiastic, grateful and sincere, with or without applause.

Personally, I think a robust “Amen!” is preferable to applause during worship, anyway. The word “amen” is used around fifty times in Scripture, and means “So be it!” or “I agree.” It does not mean “I enjoyed that.”

“Amen!” also is uniquely suited for use in worship services rather than in secular gatherings where an audience applauds performers. Using “Amen!” instead of applause leaves no doubt that the person knows, “I’m in church, where I worship God!”

Whether we applaud, say “Amen!” or just quietly think about God during worship services, only God knows the intentions of our hearts. Our worship will be authentic only to the extent that we focus on God rather than on each other. 

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Saturday, 16 May 2015

It Happened During the Service (You can't just make up stuff like this!)

Those of us who have been "churched" all our lives have undoubtedly witnessed a lot of unintended disruptions to church services. Here are a few from my experience. Enjoy.

· Every July my church produces a children's musical day camp. For each production week the platform area of the sanctuary is transformed into a theater set. We tuck away the pulpit furniture and fixtures, then return them to their normal place after the final performance.

One Sunday just after a production week, the ushers came to the front during the morning service to prepare to collect the offering. I noticed a panicked look on their faces when they suddenly realized the offering plates were not in their usual place. During the prayer, there was a frantic scramble as we searched, then thankfully found the plates tucked away on the floor near the organ.

Whew. All was well….or so I thought.

A minute or so later, there was a loud squeak of surprise from one of our youth sitting in the third pew of the congregation. As she put her offering in the collection plate, she suddenly noticed there were two or three spiders crawling around in it.

· In the early 70s I taught choral music in a South Georgia high school. I was also part-time music minister at a local Baptist church.

The school's music building was a mobile unit located far enough away from the main building that the band director and I couldn't hear the bell ring when classes changed. The clock in the unit was unreliable, so we relied on our wristwatches to keep our classes on time.

One day my wristwatch suddenly quit. I didn't have time to get it fixed right away, so I carried my small, wind-up alarm clock in my purse for a few days. (Those were the dark ages of technology.)

The next Sunday morning I parked my purse at the far left end of the front pew before the service. After conducting the choir anthem, I settled onto the far right end of the same pew to hear the sermon.

A few minutes after the pastor began preaching, a loud ringing noise emanated from the other end of my pew. I gasped as my head jerked left, my eyes riveting on my purse.

The pastor paused; everyone looked around. I was so embarrassed I couldn't move--besides, my purse was too far away to reach discretely. I just slumped in my seat and prayed for the alarm to wind down quickly. Finally, I had to announce, "It's my clock," and we all had a good laugh. (I suppose everyone wondered why I had a clock in my purse in the first place.)

· I'm told that when I was a small child in Mississippi, my mother, who was church organist, arrived late for worship one Sunday. In the midst of the gathering congregation, she hurried down the center aisle towards the organ. Only later did she realize that in her haste to put on her sheer, voile dress that morning, she'd forgotten to put on her slip.

· As a young college student I was singing Haydn's Creation with an oratorio chorus in Louisville's Southern Seminary Chapel.

We had finally reached the big, dramatic climax of the piece. The choir was singing fortissimo, the instruments were giving it their all and the conductor was gesturing furiously.

Suddenly, a few pages from the very end, the baton slipped out of the conductor's hand, bounced off the high ceiling of the chapel, and landed in the second row of the center pews with a force that would have skewered someone, had they been seated there. He kept on going, but I think even Haydn would have been "surprised" by this ending to his composition.

· A small-town Georgia church I served as minister of music had more than its share of colorful "characters." One of them was a crusty, outspoken, but dearly beloved deacon, the son of a well-known senator.

During one revival service, I was sitting with the choir in the loft; this deacon was sitting against the back wall of the sanctuary.

Midway through the sermon, I glanced up to see several rows of people towards the rear of the sanctuary nearly collapsing with stifled laughter.

Apparently when our nationally-respected guest preacher had made one of his stronger points, the elderly deacon commented loud enough for people around him to hear: "Oh, (expletive), I don't believe that!"

· During a lot of my growing-up years, my family did church-planting in the northeast. My dad was pastor of several small mission churches, and was used to babies whimpering and toddlers walking around during his sermons.

Only one thing came close to unnerving him while he preached--the jingle bell shoelace holders one mom put on her wandering toddler's shoes every Sunday.

· These next three incidents are not exactly humorous, but they certainly are memorable!

            · Standing in the choir loft of a Kentucky church I heard a slight disturbance in the middle of the congregation. The worship leader continued leading the congregational hymn despite the commotion. Eventually, however, it became clear that a church member was having a heart attack, and everything stopped as we focused our attention on her emergency.

            · Similarly, at a different Kentucky church, I was sitting in the congregation, listening to a guest preacher's sermon. Suddenly there was a loud noise in the back of the sanctuary, and the preacher's lapel mic went silent. The sound technician had collapsed onto the soundboard. The service was permanently interrupted as an ambulance crew came and wheeled him down the aisle on a stretcher.

            · During my teen years at a Michigan church, my dad was in charge of a funeral for a young man who had died unexpectedly. As the service was about to begin, the mother was so distraught at her son's death she fainted into the open casket, her upper torso sprawling face-to-face with the deceased.

· When I was a small child, my dad held a student pastorate in rural Mississippi. In addition to preaching and pastoring, he also led the choir and congregational singing on Sunday mornings.

On Sunday evenings the gospel hymns were led by "Mr. Green," an elderly farmer with very questionable musical skills, but a willing spirit. I don't remember ever seeing him wear anything but overalls, even on Sundays.

He also wore ill-fitting dentures that often came loose when he spoke or sang. I was always fascinated by how, several times during each hymn, he would use the upbeat of his conducting pattern to scoop his dentures safely back into his mouth.

· Once, at a beautiful outdoor wedding in Kentucky, I watched as a strong breeze totally blew away the keyboardist's music during an important musical moment. (There's only so much improvising a musician can muster effectively at times like that.)

· One Christmas in Georgia, our sanctuary choir was to present their cantata. The plan was that after the big "ta-da" ending of the music, we would light candles, lower the lights, and everyone would sing carols together by candlelight.

Earlier, I had asked one of our older basses, a husky, tall fellow who usually stood at the end of the top row, to be in charge of turning off lights in the choir loft as the candles were being lit after the cantata. The wall light switch was several rows down and a few more feet away from where he stood.

Apparently he was very anxious about this "very important" responsibility, because during the big climax of the cantata--a page or so from the end--he suddenly broke rank, walked to the wall of the choir loft and put his hand on the light switch. I guess he wanted to be ready early for his big "part."

· In a Georgia church, I was sitting on the platform as my pastor was preaching his Sunday evening sermon. I noticed his young son being silly with another boy in the fourth pew of the congregation.

Repeatedly distracted by the boys' boisterous behavior, my pastor finally stopped his sermon abruptly, glared at his son and announced in his authority voice, "When you're finished, I'll continue."

The boys were mortified, but his son managed to have the last word. Upset, he suddenly jumped up and ran down the aisle towards his mother who was sitting further back, shouting, "I hate you, Daddy!" (Try preaching effectively after that.)

· I didn't actually witness these last two incidents myself, but the sources are two of my good friends:

             · One of my former pastors told me that during one Lottie Moon Offering season at his church in the early 70s there were several plastic "candelabras" displayed adjacent to the choir railing. (Many of you remember those. They were often used for fundraisers, with each glass bulb lighted to represent a certain amount of money that was collected.)

            During the announcements at the beginning of the morning service, he was giving the mission offering update. Unfortunately, as he stretched to light the last bulb he somehow lost his balance and fell completely over the rail into the choir loft. (It took a while after that to recover his dignity.)

            · One of my former choir members told me that she was once invited to sing for a friend's funeral. During the service, as she was singing her solo, the apparently very despondent funeral director went into his office and shot himself.. (A couple of snarky comments came to my mind upon hearing that story, but I decided it was safer to remain silent.)

If every minister were to write down all the disruptions we’ve experienced during well-planned church services and submit them to a publisher, there would not be enough ink to print them all—and we would never stop chuckling.

For ministers, disruptions come with the territory—they are part of the fabric of congregational life.

Henri Nouwen once said, “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered the interruptions were my work.”

If worship planners and other ministers look closely at the disruptions that invariably occur, we will discover a treasure trove of unique opportunities for ministry.

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Baptismal Mishaps

Some faith traditions embrace infant baptism. These are memorable occasions for everyone except the child, who is too young to remember anything, and only later knows of the event's significance through photos, stories and certificates.

For Baptists, however, baptisms are always memorable for each candidate as well as family and congregation. Baptists only immerse those who are old enough to have confessed Christ publicly.

Sometimes Baptist baptisms are memorable for all the wrong reasons.

My maternal grandmother's church believed that baptism should take place as soon as possible after one's public decision to follow Jesus. Unfortunately, she chose the middle of winter to walk the aisle.

Her North Carolina church had no baptistry, so they used the local river for baptisms. The pastor broke river ice the day he baptized my grandmother.

The rural Mississippi church my dad pastored when I made a public profession of faith had no baptistry either, but at least they had sense enough to wait until Spring to baptize candidates. When the weather was warm enough, the congregation gathered at a local creek for a Sunday afternoon baptismal service.

After checking the area for snakes and other critters, folks stood on the small bridge overlooking the creek banks where others had assembled near the line of baptismal candidates.

First, everyone sang gospel hymns accompanied by my mother on her accordion. Then the baptizing commenced.

When the service was done the youth swam, swinging out over deeper waters on a tire roped to a tree limb. Country baptisms were always fun events.

The day of my baptism I was seven years old. There were several other candidates, so my dad put me at the front of the line, thinking that since I'd seen other baptisms, I would set an example of proper decorum for everyone. Wrong.

I didn't know how to swim yet and had never had my head entirely underwater. When he dipped me I got strangled and emerged sputtering and crying, generally disrupting the entire service.

Since then, I've seen many other baptismal ceremonies go wrong:

My current pastor once entered the sanctuary baptismal pool too early during the congregational singing, creating large shadow effects as he moved around behind the lighted stained glass window before it was rolled aside for baptism.

On another occasion he was late returning to the worship service after baptism because his waders had leaked, soaking his sock and pants leg.

Another of my pastors was nearly always wet when he returned to the service. Invariably, he rolled up the wrong sleeve of his dress shirt prior to immersing candidates.

On several occasions I've seen short children suddenly "disappear" from the congregation's view because someone forgot to put a stool or cement block in the baptistry for them to stand on.

My dad once lost his balance during a baptism, nearly dropping a morbidly obese candidate.

Several times choir members in the loft have gotten splashed during baptisms. At one church a candidate accidentally sloshed the baptismal waters enough to create a tidal wave, thoroughly soaking the back two rows of the choir.  

At another church the new baptismal robes were discovered--too late--to be extremely opaque when wet.

One winter we discovered during Sunday School that the baptistry water heater was broken. The candidate decided to go ahead with her baptism anyway, since extended family had come for this special occasion. The water was so frigid her teeth chattered as she proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord."

In my former church the opposite happened. The baptism planned for the beginning of the service had to be postponed to the end (after the ushers added ice) because the water was practically boiling. The candidate would've been cooked like a lobster.    

When the heavy velvet baptistry curtains finally opened, a huge cloud of steam rolled out into the sanctuary.

Several years ago a video made the rounds on social media. In it the pastor was shown baptizing candidates, then reaching for a young boy who was next in line.

Rather than taking the pastor's hand and stepping into the baptismal waters, the boy impishly did a cannonball instead.

It took several minutes for the drenched pastor, shaking out his microphone and soggy Bible, to regain any composure.

Sometimes I think God does a belly laugh at some of the mishaps that occur as we try to have meaningful worship experiences together.

Despite our best planning, things often go awry as we Christians attempt to balance celebration and reverence, spontaneity and ritual in baptismal services and other spiritual events.

When things go wrong, it helps to remember that God only looks on the intents of our hearts. It is our sincere effort, not our perfection during worship that is most important to our Creator.

After all, God does know we're only human.

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Worship: Taking God's Name in Vain?

Most parents go through several phases of correcting inappropriate language their children have picked up somewhere--never from home, of course.

A former pastor of mine, trying to reframe his four-year old daughter's undesirable vocabulary, admonished her that whenever she used the word "God," she'd better be ready to pray…or else.  

One day she was riding with him in the car, and he again heard her exclaim, "O, God!"

Immediately catching his accusing glance out of the corner of her eye, she quickly bowed her head, closed her eyes and intoned, "Thank you for …," listing several of her favorite things, followed by "Amen."

He couldn't help but chuckle at her resourcefulness.

My first college roommate and I were both raised in devout Southern Baptist homes. As I look back, we were pretty conservative even for the late 1960s.

At the Christian-based college we attended there were many students who shared similar values as ours. There were also a lot of students who either rebelled at their fundamentalist upbringing and sowed wild oats during that tumultuous era, or who came from families barely recognizable as Christian.

One day my roommate and I were having a discussion about the preponderance of swearing on campus--there was a whole lotta cussin' goin' on.

True to our conservative upbringing, we believed that having a "dirty mouth," while undesirable, was not as bad as swearing, i.e., using God's (or Jesus') name as an expletive.

Since childhood, we'd been admonished that taking God's name in vain was a "thou shalt not" from The Ten Commandments. In other words, don't do it…or else.

Part of our discussion that day centered around the meaning of the phrase "taking God's name in vain." My roommate said that her dad once told her it meant to use God's name "insincerely." That definition has stuck with me through the years.

Not that every word that has ever poured from my lips has exactly been worthy of broadcasting, but generally I am not prone to using salty language (probably due to lack of usage during my formative years) .

The list of society's "bad" words is still evolving, but those words don't come to my mind very often, even when I'm angry or upset.

However (lest I appear annoyingly pious), according to my roommate's definition, I am definitely guilty of taking God's name in vain. This sometimes happens during worship, most often when I am singing.

Now, as a musician who has been "churched" all my life, I could probably be a successful contestant if there were ever a church music version of the old TV game show, Don't Forget the Lyrics.

I can sing verse after verse of dozens of hymns and gospel songs, sacred solos and oratorios, mostly from memory.

The problem is, it's too easy to sing only notes and words. To sing without engaging voice with mind and heart. To sing glibly or insincerely. To "take God's name in vain."

This is not just a "musician's curse"; it happens to non-musicians, too. In order to worship authentically, worshippers must focus on God, not just on matching notes and words correctly.

Author Gary Thomas (Sacred Pathways) reflects, "It amazes me how casually I can sing songs of deep, almost heroic commitment. It's as if I think, 'As long as I'm singing, the words I say don't really matter. God knows it's just a song.'

While my mind wanders I promise to bow before the Lord, to proclaim His name, …to go so far as to die to express my faith. Yet these words may be sung with scarcely more emotion than I feel when I'm ordering a hamburger."

Singing words glibly or just going-through-the-motions on Sunday mornings is not worship at all. Worship, like being Christian, involves much more than just showing up at church.

Authentic worshippers can't simply walk into a church building and slide into a pew with an indifferent attitude toward God: "Hey, I'm here, aren't I? What else could you possibly want?"

True worship is akin to active listening vs. passive listening. True worship requires intentionality and sustained effort--and God is worthy of our true worship.

Matthew 22 says to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." We are to offer our whole selves to God as an acceptable sacrifice during worship. To do less is to dishonor God.

"You are worthy, Father, Creator; You are worthy, Savior, Sustainer. You are worthy, worthy and wonderful; Worthy of worship and praise."*

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

*from Worthy of Worship, in Celebrating Grace Hymnal

Friday, 9 August 2013

Cave Song

During seminary around 1990, I served a Louisville, KY church as Associate Minister of Music. In addition, I had some Children's Ministry responsibilities that included assisting our on-the-ball Children's Sunday School Department director with her annual 2-day educational/fun trip for older children.

One summer her itinerary included a tour of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. Our group of 30 or so gathered with about 70 other tourists for the historic tour of this national landmark.

As everyone began the descent down the long stairway into the massive rotunda, I covered the rear flank, rounding up any stray children from our group.

A friendly Assistant Park Ranger fell in step with me as we followed everyone down the narrow staircase. He began asking questions about our group, and at some point I mentioned that I was a seminary music student.

He immediately said, "Oh! Would you like to sing in the cave?" Oddly embarrassed, I quickly blurted, "No!", and we moved on to other conversation.

The Senior Ranger had already begun his narrative as we reached the bottom of the stairs. I quietly found my group and edged into the crowd, forgetting all about the Assistant Ranger. This was my first tour of the cave as an adult, so I became really engrossed in its history as an ammunitions warehouse and later as a tuberculosis hospital.

The Senior Ranger soon began telling a wonderful story about the gigantic "Methodist Church" boulder prominently featured in the rotunda. Long ago, a congregation used to gather in the cave for Sunday worship services, and the preacher would stand atop the boulder to deliver his sermons. No microphone needed, for sure.

As the Senior Ranger wrapped up his presentation, I noticed that the Assistant Ranger had circled down to the front. He leaned over to interrupt his boss, whispering something in his ear.

A moment later, the Senior Ranger announced, "I understand someone wants to sing." At first I looked around to see who it was, but after what seemed a long silence, one of the children poked me in the side, and I suddenly realized he was talking about me!

Within a split second, my thoughts moved from "How embarrassing!" to "I'm gonna git that Assistant Ranger!" to "Oh, my, what song would be appropriate?"

An instant later I thought of a hymn I had memorized as a child. I quickly reviewed the lyrics in my head. Then as the crowd stood silently, I inhaled deeply and began to sing a cappella:

"Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee…"

My self-consciousness quickly evaporated as I relished the experience of singing inside that wonderfully acoustical, historic landmark. I'm sure the notes are still resonating somewhere deep within the cave.

Afterwards, as we continued on the tour, I thought to myself, "You just never know when you're going to have an opportunity to do something special for God!"

We all prepare ourselves for God's service every time we fill ourselves with "spiritual things": Learning songs of the faith. Memorizing scripture. Praying. Reading books and articles about discipleship and Christianity. Discussing matters of faith with friends and family.

Observing master teachers and engaging ministry mentors. Taking seminary classes. Studying to teach Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. Practicing conducting or sermon delivery or…the list goes on and on.

Then suddenly, God puts a new opportunity right in front of us. And we discover we're ready!

Unknowingly, we've been preparing for this "God moment" all along. We are amazed at how the Spirit has been at work in our lives.

All that remains now is for us to step forward boldly with a resounding "Yes!"  

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Shifting Paradigms for Church Musicians

What is the purpose of a choir during a worship service? Are church musicians even necessary for worship? Do they function primarily as leaders or as performers--or both?

Music has always been an integral part of worship. There are over 200 references to singing in the Bible. It was common practice in the Early Church to include singing--and playing instruments, dancing--whenever worshipers would gather.

Robert Mitchell, in Ministry and Music, once wrote that the primary purpose of a church choir is "to prompt and enable each worshiper to worship; each choir member is at the same time prompter and individual worshiper before God."

Contrary to popular perceptions, the main function of a choir is not to perform, but to enable congregational singing. 

Some in the congregation may scoff, "Well that's fine for some folks, but I've been told all my life that I can't sing, so I don't even try."

What a shame. 

Every human being has innate musical abilities, whether they realize it or not. Singing is simply sustained speech on varying pitches. Technically, anyone who can speak can also sing.

The difference is that some people are born with "musical ears," i.e., the ability to discern and match pitches. Others need a little coaching to train their ears and discover their "singing voice." From there it's just a matter of practice.

But God doesn't really care whether or not everyone sings on pitch during worship. The Psalmist says that we are to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord…come before God's presence with singing" (Psalm 100). What is important to God is our sincere participation in worship.

Time and again, I've heard people with "undiscovered" musical abilities comment that when they are surrounded by good singers, their inhibitions vanish and they enjoy singing along. While they may never be offered a microphone, that synergy describes the main role of the choir: to inspire everyone to worship through singing.

In addition, the choir (or praise team or soloist or instrumentalist) has priestly responsibilities during worship.

Because of choir members' advanced musical skills and commitment to preparation, when the choir sings an anthem, it is doing something that the congregation cannot do by itself.

Thus, the choir enables corporate worship by offering music to God on behalf of the congregation--a priestly function.

It is easy for choirs and congregations to become confused about the difference between secular musical performances and sacred musical presentations. Each has a distinctly different purpose:

Secular musical performances are designed to showcase the performers themselves. Their purpose is to entertain.

Sacred musical "presentations" or musical "offerings" (either term seems more worthy than "performances" when describing church music) should be designed to showcase God. Their purpose is to lead in worship.

Several years ago I came across an article by Dave Williamson, titled "Worship Leading Choirs." He noted a shift in paradigms regarding the primary function of church choirs and other musical worship leaders:

Outward Signs of Earlier Paradigm        Outward Signs of Emerging Paradigm

  ●Sings horizontally, to the people                ●Sings vertically, to the Lord

  ●Practical role: Spiritual Entertainers          ●Practical role: Lead Worshipers

  ●Performs for Jesus                                    ●Worships Jesus

  ●Celebrates the Gift (music)                       ●Celebrates the Giver (God)

  ●Hopes to hear, "You sang great!"             ●Hopes to hear, "God IS great!"

  ●Engenders emotion for the moment          ●Engenders significance for eternity

The differences between the paradigms are subtle, but important. Both apply to all styles of worship and church music--gospel, contemporary, traditional, liturgical, global, formal, informal.

The earlier paradigm is performance-oriented, though it does have some merit. The emerging paradigm is more worthy because it is biblically-based and worship-oriented.

Admittedly, there are horizontal aspects to our worship (ex., giving personal testimony about how God is working in someone's life), but our primary focus during worship should be vertical: from God to God's people, and from God's people to God.

As church musicians, the ultimate goal of presenting our best talents to God during worship is not to draw the spotlight on ourselves, but to reflect the spotlight so that it shines on God. Not to hear, "You are so talented!" but to hear, "You really helped me praise God today!"

So the only question that remains, for both church musicians and congregation, is: "What will be my focus today during musical worship?"

"Sing praise to God who reigns above, The God of all creation,
The God of pow'r, the God of love...To God all praise and glory.'"

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Pest

I was twelve; my brother was eight. We rarely got along. We lived in a big house which my family had converted into a mission chapel in Grand Island, New York.

Sometimes, my brother and I played together--or tolerated each other, at least--for a while. "War" was an ever-present threat.

I was the bossy older sister. He easily earned the label, "The Pest." I was still mad at him for demolishing my doll collection when I was six. He'd done a lot since then to aggravate me, too.

We weren't allowed to hit, but sometimes we'd shove each other a little. Mostly, we just argued, becoming quite adept at "murder by sharp tongue."

(Later, as a chubby teenager, I discovered that the best way to control his pestering was to get him down and sit on him until our parents arrived.)

He got home from school before I did. I didn't like the fact that I had no control over what he did to my "stuff" for an hour or so each day. He delighted in the opportunity--as long as Mom didn't catch him.

Walking home from the school bus stop one day, I could see that my bike was moved from where I'd left it the day before. The Pest had been at it again! How dare he ride my bike!

Mad, I flung open the front door. My mother was playing the piano in the "sanctuary" (our large, extra living room, set up for chapel services). The Pest was standing near her. Startled, they both looked up as I began my tirade.

Suddenly, without a word, he walked toward me, thrust something in my hand, and quickly left the room. I looked down and opened a card he had carefully made in school that day. Inside were scrawled the words, "I love you, sister."

Speechless, I looked up and silently shared one of those memorable moments with my mother, who was looking at me with teary eyes. I was a changed person.

Today, as I continue my Lenten pilgrimage toward Holy Week, this childhood memory prompts my reflection on God's transforming love.

Throughout history, we mortals have given God a lot of reason for dismay:
     •Israelites complaining on their way to the Promised Land
     •crucifixion of Jesus, dissention in the Early Church   
     •murders, bombings, wars (often "in the name of God") 
     •domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, unkind words
     •self-centered, God-blaming "pity parties"
     •…the list goes on and on...

Yet, amazingly, God's response to the dark side of our humanity is always: "I LOVE YOU. After all, I created you. You are my beloved."

Henri Nouwen, in Bread for the Journey, says: "God's unconditional love means that God continues to love us even when we say or think evil things. …It is important for us to hold on to the truth that God never gives up loving us even when God is saddened by what we do. That truth will help us to return to God's ever-present love."

We mortals are sometimes able to change our outward behavior because of a strong will ("I will not do that again!") or external forces (parent to teenager: "You will not do that again!").

But those who are enlightened know that real, lasting, satisfying change is always internal. It is the transformation of one's Inner Self that brings serenity to one's soul.

Recovering alcoholics speak of serenity as the difference between being dry (living without alcohol through determination) and being sober (experiencing internal release through surrendering to a Higher Power).

Only God's expansive, overwhelming love has the power to transform us completely, from the inside out. Christians speak of this process in a variety of ways: sanctification, spiritual growth, redemption and conversion, among others.

Popular spiritual author Richard Rohr says: "God's love is total, unconditional, absolute and forever. The state of grace--God's attitude toward us--is eternal. We are the ones who change. …We have to allow God to continually fill us. Then we find in our own lives the power to give love away."

God is not only loving, God IS love (1 John 4:8). Ultimately, it is only to the extent that we fully realize the depths of God's eternal love for us that we are able to become thoroughly changed persons.

"What wondrous love is this, O my soul . . ."

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi