Monday, June 9, 2008


Why is it that hymn-singing churches seem to be less inclined to confuse “worship” with “music”? Put another way, the churches that have abandoned, or all but abandoned, the singing of classic historical hymns appear more likely to use the word “worship” when really all they mean is “music” or “when people sing in services.”

This question has been burbling in my head for a while, but I haven’t taken time to sort it out. My initial conclusions, such as they may be, fall along these lines:
* There is a general sense among those who do not sing hymns, that a developed line of thought with multiple stanzas is too cerebral for the emotional act of worship. That suggests that worship is primarily emotional, and not volitional or intellectual. “Too many words” is how some have actually expressed this to me. So, music in the service is their time to genuinely worship.
* There is an appropriate understanding that worship is participatory. So if a group is engaged in an extended set of singing (and accompanying physical postures, gestures, and rhythmic accompaniment) this is worship. It is contrasted with the parts of the service in which we receive – especially the sermon – and appear to be more passive.
* The youth rally culture certainly has played a part in this. I remember when the youth pastor (at another church, in another state, in another decade!) regularly took students to a regional youth rally on a Christian college campus. I distinctly recall when his language shifted from “rally” to “worship” – though nothing changed about the event. And that language shift corresponded to a shift in the way he and the students talked about music in the church. These students are now young (and not so young!) adult leaders in churches, and my youth pastor friend has planted a vibrant congregation … where people call the musical part of the service their worship.

Does it matter? I think it does. If words matter, then these words matter. Calling our shared music in divine service “worship,” elevates music to a role not warranted by scripture, and demotes the biblical understanding of worship. Sure, at some level it’s only words. But words are all we have. So I continue to try to be gentle in correcting someone who says worship when he means singing. And try to carefully teach that our musicians are leading in the congregation’s musical expression of praise, adoration, prayer … and yes, granted, worship.

Learning humility

I had another opportunity on the heels of last week’s post. Check out the comments that follow it. Ha! Oh well …

Monday, June 2, 2008

The very merry, nearly nary, month of May

Mondays have gotten away from me lately, and te decet hymnus has taken the hit. As we roll into summer and a different rhythm to the week, I hope to regain some momentum in ongoing reflection on music, the public assembly for divine worship, and ministry.

Today we celebrated the life of a non-musician, whose musical wife sings in the Chancel Choir. Dr. Earle Cairns celebrated his 98th birthday one week ago today, and passed into glory last Wednesday. He and JoAnn had ample time over the years to prepare his service, and while he was no musician he did have a discriminating appreciation for music, loved hymn singing, and was a fan of the Chancel Choir.

So it was a privilege for the Choir to be asked if we would sing Earle’s service. In particular, we were asked to sing the Harry Rowe Shelley setting of “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” This classic anthem (copyright renewed in 1914!) has long been in this music library, but has not been used in worship by any of the last three choir directors (including myself). I’m not sure why. Some anthems get overused, I think, and set aside; and it takes a while – or a special occasion or a special request – to rediscover them. In this case, I have pulled the octavo several times to consider its use, realized that we don’t have enough copies in the library to use it, and been too busy, distracted, or lazy to do anything about it.

I have to admit that in my prep for this morning, I was still somewhat ambivalent about the anthem. I was sure it would sing well, it wasn’t that. I just wasn’t sure how I felt about the piece. Add to that the uncertainty of who all would show up to sing, and how the sections would balance … Well, I made some notes about how we could combine voices, balance parts, cover solo sections, etc. We would make it work, and we would not be embarrassed to offer this anthem in service honoring a dear saint and his chorister widow.

So it was with a deep joy that I learned how lovely this psalm setting (Psalm 23) is. We sang it through first with my suggested alterations, but with 4 perfectly balanced sections and the sweetest sound imaginable, we fell back to the voicing as given. “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” was written for Solo Quartet and Chorus. We did use unison women on the Alto solo, and unison men on the Bass solo. But beyond that we let each section sing throughout, whether marked Solo or Chorus. It was a glorious, almost numismatic sound.

You’d never mistake the melody for a new tune. It seems very distinctly 19th century, and yet not distractingly dated. The organ accompaniment is interesting and supportive. I repent of my pride and indolence, and now intend to find and purchase enough copies for the full Chancel Choir to use in the year ahead.

It’s a constant learning, unlearning, and relearning. Oh for the grace and humility to grow into this work!