Monday, February 23, 2009


The church choirs of Wheaton joined forces to sing in a community Festival yesterday. The city of Wheaton celebrates its sesquicentennial throughout this year. (The College follows with its 150th in 2010.) As one of a year-long series of events, the churches of Wheaton combined in what turned out to be a very nice program of Christian sacred music, driven by choral music.

Wheaton, IL, is not the "holy city" it was once purported to be. It is still very much a city of churches, but its population is no longer dominated by evangelical churches, organizations, or ethos. It is a lovely city, a classic Midwestern college town along a significant train line that tied it to both the prairie and the city of Chicago. The character of a stand-alone community is still largely intact even after suburban sprawl has closed it in. I applaud the city for acknowledging that even though the town has become more diverse and pluralistic, it had a distinctly Christian formation and is still very much a "church community."

I have no idea when the churches last sang in combined festival for any reason, if ever. It hasn't been mentioned. But for this occasion nine churches which still have some kind of choir sent singers, and these joined students from the four high schools in town (2 public, 1 parochial, and Wheaton Academy - as old as the town) and two of the College choirs. We sang several combined numbers, and each combined choir also sang alone: the church choirs sang one anthem, the high school students sang two of their own numbers, and each of the College choirs sang a stand-alone piece.

I have served 0n the state and division boards of the American Choral Directors Association, and never followed through on the good idea of creating a church choir festival in this community. After our work together (3 combined rehearsals and the program) I am reminded that this is still a great idea, and I hope that with some of the more viable choirs in town we might pull something like this together in a year or so.

There's something really invigorating about church choristers getting together. These people sing for the love of singing and with a special sense of "service." They invariably want to be pressed to a higher performance standard, and at the same time have no illusions about the limitations of the typical church choir - limited rehearsal time, the constant moving on to the next week's service music, the unceasing cycle of Sundays and seasons, etc. Get these singers together and even if they do not know each other (but in a town like this, there are lots of relationships that span multiple churches) they have an immediate connection because of what they love to do and their faithful commitment to that task in their congregation.

A local festival would allow each participating choir to sing something(s) alone, if they chose to, and to prepare a few things to sing together - to sing in a really big choir for a change! Ideally it would give us the chance to bring in a well-known choral conductor for the big numbers, and so to share the experience of working with a master.

When the dust settles, and my hard-working colleague from First Pres recovers from his good labors, we will set our minds to consider: can we? may we? should we? and when!?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

hymn-signing online

I don't get out much on Sundays. When I am away from College Church, I like to attend a service led by a friend/colleague, or a well-known church in whatever town I may be in, or whatever. When I can't (see story below), there is always the default option: listen to College Church's service online.

That's what I did this past Sunday, visiting my son in California for the primary purpose of watching professional bicycle racing, live and in person in the Bay Area. In order to get in all we hoped to during the day, and so Chris could hear our new pastor, we tuned in and settled down for a service that I had planned and was frankly sorry to miss in person. Sadly, about 15 minutes into the service, power went out where we were in San Jose. But that was enough time to hear, and be reminded again, what a joy it is to hear the College Church congregation sing with their characteristic heart.

The hymns we heard: "Praise the Almighty, my Soul, Adore Him" - a Lutheran chorale in a stunning setting by Walter L. Pelz for congregation, choir, organ and brass. This is a favorite here, having been immediately embraced when it was introduced. The setting (CPH - Concordia, 1996) is thoughtfully voiced and scored, carefully communicating this deeply biblical and joyful hymn. Following the Creed, the congregation sat and continued with "I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art." Again, a hymn well-loved and beautifully sung. When you can hear the congregation sing well, on the computer, you know they are singing well! Naturally, with a choir in the loft, the sound is enhanced in the broadcast, but even at that there is no disguising that the congregation knows, loves, and sings these things. What a joy to listen to this.

I was reminded again what a privilege it is to have some responsibility for the peoples' song. Reminded again that it is in fact the peoples' song that has and must retain the highest priority for church music. I hope I don't lose my perspective on this as I continue in my work. It helps when the congregation I serve embraces the song so well, so widely, and with such a good nature.

Now, the story: Nearly 13 years ago my family was in process, moving to Wheaton from Burnsville, MN. The kids wanted to start school here, but we couldn't get into our house until October 1. So we were invited to stay for 6 weeks in the basement of College Church members, the kindly and legendary Dr. Kenneth Taylor and his wife Margaret. Gracious, hospitable, and formal but not intimidating, we were included in meals and invited to participate in their evening devotions.

I say "we" but for 4 of those weeks, while I was finishing my work in MN, Karen was there alone with the four children. The first night they were invited to participate in devotions, Karen rounded them up, and rather directly told them they were to be there and enjoy it. Our youngest, never one to mince his words, and at the same time capable of an easy charm, was in 5th grade. At the end of the various readings (from Job, and a devotional on hymns), and prayer, Andrew said: "Well! I really like these devotions. We never do anything like this ... unless we're on vacation and don't want to go to church!"

This may have been the moment at which Karen thought maybe she had made the last move for a church music position, if she can help it...

Monday, February 9, 2009

New Hymns

Five years ago my wife and I were excited to be preparing a trip to England. It wasn't our first trip, but it was a sanctioned 'work week' because we were going to attend a bible conference at the urging of our senior pastor at the time. Kent Hughes had been urging me to try to get to Spring Harvest "Word Alive" - a week of bible teaching at which much of England's new music was being sung and shared around.

There's a lot I don't get about how this conference works. It goes through Palm Sunday, and I wondered (I still wonder) "How do all these church leaders manage to be away from their congregations at the beginning of the Passion Week?" Five years ago, I was also preparing for a sabbatical, the first half of which was going to be spent in Cambridge, so I finagled a "pass" on Palm Sunday to (a) take in Word Alive, and (b) make some arrangements on the ground in Cambridge.

Thinking about it now takes me back, but this isn't the space for most of those good memories.

At Word Alive, we met up with friends of Kent and Barbara who were teaching at the conference. There were others there in various leadership roles whom we had met over the years at College Church. And through them we met Steve James, song-writer, pastor, and publisher with Jubilate Hymns. Steve was leading music for the Word Alive gatherings, along with musicians from All Souls' London. It was pretty glorious.

I did not expect to find "interest session" workshops during the week. But since that was an option, I got into one with another song-writer, whose name I had just learned since arriving in Skegness. [By the way, you have to see Skegness to believe it.] Keith Getty was presenting some of his new songs for the church, assisted by his recently affianced, Kristyn.

Sure, I liked Keith's songs. I thought they were fabulous. But what really grabbed me was what Keith had to say about congregational singing, about the theology of song as it relates to ecclesiology, about head and heart and bridging generations, and about music belonging to the people and not to the musicians. We had a brief conversation and established a connection which has brought Keith and Kristyn to College Church a couple of times, once with his friend and some time co-writer, Stuart Townend.

We sing so much of Keith and Stuart's music, that I am often teased about it. I can handle it.

Much of what Keith said that cold wet day in Skegness, April 2004, is in this interview from the current issue of Leadership (a publication of CTI). Enjoy, and if you love the peoples' song from all the ages, be encouraged.

Monday, February 2, 2009


My computer dings me each Monday, my self-imposed nag to write something in this space.

Today, I got nothin ...