Monday, March 31, 2008


The pinnacle of the Christian year. The very heights of gathered worship. Even the earliest Easter makes for the longest – and most invigorating – Sunday morning.

And so we rejoiced at College Church.

Umm … just don’t listen to a recording of our 11:00 prelude. I know I won’t. Sure, I’d like to know “who’s fault it was,” but I’m not sure I want to know it was mine. Thanks to a slow harmonic rhythm, only the closest Bach observers could tell that the organ and trumpet arrived at the final bar before the strings and conductor.

And, with apologies to John Rutter: I was wrong to try to slow the anthem one bar before your marked “Molto Allargando.” Too clever by half. And that fact that the string players never quite understood what I was after was just an indication of their good taste.

But oh what a time it was.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Your music works for you

College Church in Wheaton is in an interim between Senior Pastors. An excellent search committee is working with due diligence, including bringing in people with expertise and experience to shed light on the process, the challenges, and the realities of finding a senior preaching pastor for a large influential independent evangelical church with some interesting latitude in non-essential doctrines and practices. (Now there’s a mouthful and an understatement!)

In a recent report to the church elder council, the search committee chairman related the following comments from one of these wise counselors (who was kept anonymous):
“Your music works for you” – that is, the music of College Church’s gathered worship is not typical and we may not find a pastor who comes from a ministry with similar musical commitments.
And “Will the music in your services be this way 15 years from now?” – the implication being, I gather, that we had better be prepared for change.

Now, I have no idea if the music of College Church presents, or will present, any real obstacle to the willingness of a potential senior pastor candidate. Experience and anecdote suggest that incoming senior pastors routinely exercise direct influence on public worship, especially music. And they are not always able to articulate when they take the position, what that influence might be. Perhaps, to be as positive as possible about it, senior pastors come into position with completely open minds about a church’s music, and only develop their concept of change over time after careful evaluation, thoughtful conversation, and much prayer. No, I think it is unlikely that our given historical and traditional use of music in worship will be a genuine stumbling block to a potential candidate.

But the comments do suggest an understanding of music in the church that needs to be evaluated, exposed, and challenged.
“Your music” – as if the historic hymnody and sacred music of the Church is somehow unique to College Church; as if there is no continuity between the recent and distant past, the very current present, and the near future in regard to the peoples’ song, sung theology. “Your music” – at least as related in the anecdote – has the ring of condescension or accusation.
“Will it be the same 15 years from now” – suggests that only by abandoning the past can a church move credibly into the future. Realistically, only if we insist on keeping our music as a museum piece could it possibly be the same 15 years from now. It is not the same now as it was 12 years ago, when I came into this position. But someone who left the church 13 years ago, coming back, would recognize the same music ministry. The trajectory of the ministry guarantees that. Tradition is handing on, not holding on. We sing newer songs and different choral music … along with older hymns and music that was bought for this choir over 70 years ago. We have abandoned some hymns and sent some octavos to the recycler. We have declined to sing other new songs and refused to purchase some popular choral music. The question about 15 years from now is: “Will the congregational and performed music of our public services still be upward, reverent, joyful, Bible-based and Christ-focused?” If there is nothing different, we will have failed to pass on the tradition. If everything is different, we will have failed by abandoning the riches of the historic, global and ecumenical Church.

One of my interns related a similar comment, from the music pastor of his home church: “Hymns are no longer the music of the church.” There is a world of material in that assertion, which I will try to get at another time. I mention it now because it comes from the same apparent mindset as our pastoral search committee anecdote:
Hymns are no longer the music of the church – They still work for you – But 15 years from now if you are to be a viable church you, too, will have abandoned hymns, sacred classical music, and choirs.

I know that my work in the church will ultimately be judged on the basis of stewardship – in light of this discussion, specifically the stewardship of the history and tradition of the music of the Church and of this church’s gathered worship. Will I hand my successor a carefully curated, protected exhibit of the way evangelicals used to worship? Or a vague blank slate to be filled in with the worship du jour? As a steward, let me pass on a living worship ministry with vibrant ties to the past and growing connections to the future!

Monday, March 10, 2008


I love how things “come together” unexpectedly.

For example when I learn a new word, then start seeing it in use all over the place. Or when I see a long-forgotten song on Monday, and on Tuesday am asked a question the answer to which is that very song.

Or why when I was in the 8th grade and tried to read “The Fellowship of the Rings” it just didn’t click with me; but as a college freshman on my first Christmas break I could not put it down. (I know from my own children that 8th grade is not too early to “get” Tolkien’s work.)

Or, to be specific, particular, and current, how I “just happened” to get a copy of Alice Parker’s book on melody, days before hearing the Goshen College Women’s World Music Choir. I didn’t start reading the book until after the ACDA convention, and have found that it points me to some essential elements that will govern music-making for our World Music Choir work here.

Two things I appreciate about this: first, that the book fuels my enthusiasm for establishing a high school church world music choir; and second, that the book provides a musical foundation early on as I think and dream about the idea . Would I have come to this foundation naturally? Where would the idea have come from? Is it the essential starting point, or does it just seem like it because the two apparently unrelated things came together unexpectedly? When would I have taken time to begin to think about getting started, and how would I have known what resources to look for?

Alice Parker’s Anatomy of Melody is not written as a guide to singing world music. And perhaps few world music choirs will naturally look to Alice Parker for their musical inspiration. But it is such a natural match, for me, and I’m thankful for the synchronicity. As much as I admire Carl Jung on that topic (and I confess I am not well-schooled on it), I must say that it is a specific gift of God to bring these things to germinate or cross-pollinate when otherwise I could not devote myself at this time to the creation of the WMC here. Call it cognitive bias if you must; call it casually providential if you will: I will go a step more personal and thank God for graciously making these things “come together” unexpectedly, and fruitfully.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Or perhaps, epiphanic …

The Goshen College Women’s World Music Choir performed at the Central Division ACDA convention on Thursday, Feb. 21. They were the first choir I heard at the convention, having arrived too late to hear the first choir in that first set on the first day. I could have gone home satisfied, fulfilled, and energized for a new initiative at College Church. (For more reasons than I have time to comment on, I’m glad I did not go home then. But I could have!)

As I watched and listened to these women, I had an epiphany regarding youth music in the church. It is a perennial and thorny question: how to engage high school youth meaningfully in a church music program? College Church long had a vibrant, large, viable youth choir, which sang regularly in morning services and learned repertoire which I still use with the adult Chancel Choir here. Generations of students participated in the choir, and many went on to significant musical study and careers, and not a few continue in all sorts of ministry right here. But that fell to the wayside before I came along, and in spite of heroic attempts at resuscitation we are now about 20 years past the youth choir years. High school musicals (including a touring group), special services and events, what might be called “guerilla youth choir” (meet 4 times to prepare one thing, sing then disband) – the attempt to keep students somehow involved in a traditional choir program has taken a number of creative and successful steps.

But can we say we have youth music if there is not something ongoing? Even if it is seasonal, if it is not ongoing, and on the books, we’re just limping along, making it up, hoping for the best, and ultimately just fooling ourselves.

All of this was so not in my mind as I drove to Grand Rapids early Thursday morning, eager to get to the convention, eye on the clock (and the time zone change), thinking about my organizational duties later in the day. Not in my mind as I sat down, breathless, to hear the Goshen College Women’s World Music Choir. (To be honest, I had made it my goal to arrive in time to hear the Greenville College Choir, third on the set.) What I heard – and saw – completely revived me. It was an epiphany which prompted a number of conversations during the convention, which sailed home with me on Saturday. And I could hardly wait to talk to our high school pastor about it.

World Music Choir is the way to re-establish a youth choir program at this church! Our high school students go overseas every other summer, working with missionaries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern and Southern Europe, and the Caribbean. They always come back impressed with the gathered worship in the cultures they serve. They always wonder “why cant’ we sing/dance/clap/worship like that?” As time passes, they return to their normal routines, lowered expectations, and parochial youth music culture.

I am delighted that our high school pastor seems as enthusiastic as me to establish a World Music Choir. We will scheme and plan and in the fall launch this endeavor, building on this summer’s World Impact trips to Bulgaria, Wales, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Spain. I will ask the students to bring back examples of the music they hear and sing, and this will shape our first year’s repertoire. Our second year will precede the next World Impact summer – and that year we will prepare music from the countries to which the students will travel and serve.

A World Music Choir provides opportunity for youth to contribute uniquely to the music ministry of a church, engaging more of the senses than a traditional choral experience, and an antidote to CCM or popular-music-influenced worship music. Rooted in folk cultures and expressions from the church around the world, the Choir will also contribute to and build the congregation’s global awareness and connection to Christian worshipers in diverse cultures.