Monday, June 21, 2010

Encouragement, not self-congratulation

Reading others' blogs recently, I was encouraged in a couple of ways.

First, from a Welsh preacher who was in the College Church pulpit on June 13. An excellent preacher with a vibrant ministry in Cardiff, Wales, Peter Baker was our guest for special services to kick off our summer. It was good to meet Peter, and to have a few minutes to talk about music in the life of the church. Two minor quibbles - his accent is English, not Welsh, and he apparently doesn't do Richard Burton impersonations. But he does have the same handsome features. And he is funny!

Peter was visiting a number of churches of various types, on a 3-week "study" trip to the U.S. In his last post before heading back to Cardiff, he wrote:  "When I joined in the singing of Guide me O Thou Great Redeemer ... I remembered how rarely I had felt personally involved in the worship of the majority of churches I had attended in the US. Worship as a spectator sport was the consistent experience over here, except in College Church Wheaton." What a nice nod to his time in our morning services. This is not self-congratulatory - of me or of this church - but rather just that it's encouraging to have someone experience what we probably take for granted, and then to say so, so publicly

And I have to ask, but again I don't mean anything by asking: Is it coincidental that College Church is also the most "traditional" of the churches Peter visited? Seriously, it is an honest question. And again, I mean nothing self-congratulatory by even asking the question. Food for thought.

The second bit of encouragement, or food for thought, comes from today's Choral Net blog post. Today's post points to a favorite author and blogger, Alex Ross. The subject is the culture of applause, with some surprising history that suggests our concert etiquette (strict rules about when to applaud) are fairly recent. The blogger, Allan Simon summarizes: "the 'traditional' way of listening to classical music is largely the invention of Wagner, who created a quasi-religious aura around his musical creations."

The questions raised by the Choral Net post have to do with an audience's engagement with the music being made in their presence. Is there a mechanism for immediate, even visceral, response to beautiful and/or moving music? Do we lose something by controlling individual responses as music is being made? Why do we have to wait for the last notes to fade away before applauding?

It is one of the replies to Allen Simon's post that elicited another small bit of encouragement: "If you really want to hear beautiful music performed without applause put on your favorite CD or go to a fine church service. (There are exceptions!)." Interesting that Alex Ross points to the quasi-religious setting of Bayreuth as the beginning of concert etiquette restraint. In his essay (which is linked to the Choral Net blog) Ross demonstrates that Mozart's concert music was routinely "interrupted" by applause. But it is hard to imagine that this happened in the Salzburg cathedral, with his vocal music or even the church sonatas. So, a sense of decorum that one has to assume comes with a sense of place and of purpose.

And, again, I ask the question, apropos the reply just quoted (go to a fine church service. (There are exceptions!)) - but I don't mean anything by asking it. Would that be more true of "traditional" church services than other "fine" services? And what is gained, and what is lost, by our control of the peoples' responses in public worship? Or is it really a virtue, that there exist church services with a sense of place and purpose that make applause seem ... out of place?

I do not mean it to be self-congratulatory when I say that I am thankful for this place, where people still participate heartily in the acts of praise, and where there is a sense that whatever our responses may be, the response of the concert hall is somehow inappropriate. Inadequate, even, if I may say so. I long for more responses, and deeper, interrupting (if you will) the flow of our service. But let's not confuse things by mis-reading the venue or changing the direction of our attention.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Humility and Limitations

Several guys from our pastoral team attended the conference, Together for the Gospel, back in April. They brought back the conference booklet, which contained the songs (er, rather, hymns) sung at that gathering of some 7,000.

A couple of things really struck me in this collection:
  • of the 18 songs (er, rather, hymns) sung, only one (1) was completely new to me. We have since introduced it to our evening service, and I commend it: "All I have is Christ" by Jordan Kauflin
  • of the 17 songs which were not completely new to me, only 4 have not been sung in morning services here at College Church (and, interestingly, 3 of those are among the oldest hymns in the lot)
  • Only 5 of the 18 have "new" words or tunes.
  • I could go on with other interesting tidbits about the selections, but the most interesting feature, to me, is
  • All the songs are presented in 4-part harmony!
T4G music leader Bob Kauflin (whose fine "O great God" is included) wrote about this decision in his always readable blog. The author of a book I have been recommending, Worship Matters, Kauflin discussed the request to present music this way, was frank about how this put him out of his comfort zone, and demonstrated what it looks like to serve others with joy.

Just to give a little taste of this post: Whatever limitations you face when you lead, see them as opportunities for God to do something better than what you would have done on your own. If nothing else, limitations imposed on us by others are occasions to trust God more intently and “look not only to our own interests, but also the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4)

Take a look at the hymns used at the conference, and learn at least one new one, for the good of your spirit this week!

Monday, June 7, 2010

No turning back, no turning back

I've just had lunch with a friend whose leadership in church music is quite different from mine. He has served churches as a full-time musician, as a part-timer, and in a volunteer capacity. I have often said that I have served two large churches because I am not talented enough to serve a small church. Keith (let's call my friend Keith) is talented enough to serve small churches, and would make an excellent music leader in a large church as well.

He is currently in a church now as a lay participant, which he used to serve as a staff member. In that earlier period, he introduced contemporary music into the services- under the leadership of the church board. He has been away, and is now back in a different capacity, and said to me over lunch, "once that change [to a contemporary service] is made, there is no turning back."

This from a man who appreciates contemporary music, and whose ideal musical setting he describes as "blended." Keith has history in this church, and is hardly a "baby with the bath" kind of guy. But he has come up against the juggernaut of style-driven, revelevance-seeking music decisions. That is, the juggernaut of contemporary services.

Not "contemporary music" mind you. Contemporary services. To be clear, in this case the objection is not to the musical selection, but the musical limitation that comes with a self-described contemporary service. And it sounds like the church in question is pretty sincere and rigorous about what is contemporary. The copyright date drives the music placed before the congregation. "Contemporary classics" from the 1990's do not factor into the services, even as nostalgia pieces. Turn of the millenium songs do not pass muster. The calendar does not turn back farther than five years, in this place.

Once down that road, it seems, there is no turning back.

I'm struck with the importance of turning back. Of looking back. Of welcoming what came before. Of learning from my elders, my forebears, my ancestors in faith and practice. I won't sing everything that has survived the test of time ... may sing very little of it, in fact, given its sheer volume. But how could I ignore it? How could I thrive today without the inherited riches of yesterday?

Once down that road there is no turning back. But by turning back, I hope by God's grace to better navigate the road ahead. Unlike driving, in which all that is behind disappears in the rear-view mirror, in this thing of congregational song we can bring all that beauty along with us as we move on down the road. So, why wouldn't we?