Thinking Out Loud

August 22, 2017

Church Life: Special Music

In a majority of the middle part of the last century, a feature of Evangelical church services was “the special musical number” or “special music” or if the church didn’t print a bulletin for the entire audience, what the platform party often logged as simply “the special.”

While this wasn’t to imply that the remaining musical elements of the service were not special, it denoted a featured musical selection — often occurring just before the message — that would be sung by

  • a female soloist
  • a male soloist
  • a women’s duet
  • a men’s duet
  • a mixed duet
  • a mixed trio
  • a ladies trio
  • an instrumental number without vocals

etc., though usually it was a female soloist, who, in what would now be seen as an interruption to the flow of the service, would often be introduced by name. “And now Mrs. Faffolfink, the wife our beloved organist Henry, will come to favor us with a special musical number.” This was followed by silence, with the men on the platform party standing as the female soloist made her way to the microphone. (We’ll have to discuss ‘platform party’ another time.)

While the song in question might be anything out of the hymnbook, these were usually taken from a range of suitable songs from the genre called “Sacred Music” designed chiefly for this use, compositions often not possible for the congregation to sing because of (a) vocal range, (b) vocal complexity such as key changes, and (c) interpretive pauses and rhythm breaks. These often required greater skill on the part of the accompanist as well.

A well known example of this might be “The Holy City” which is often sung at Easter, though two out of its three sections seem to owe more to the book of Revelation. “The Stranger of Galilee” and “Master the Tempest is Raging” are two other well-known examples of the type of piece. Sometimes the church choir would join in further into the piece. (The quality of the performance varied depending on the capability of soloists in your congregation.)

By the mid-1970s commercial Christian radio stations were well-established all over the US, and broad exposure to a range of songs gave birth to the Christian music soundtrack industry. More popular songs were often available on cassette from as many as ten different companies. Some were based on the actual recording studio tracks of the original; some were quickly-recorded copies; and some of both kinds were offered in different key signatures (vocal ranges.) Either way, they afforded the singer the possibility of having an entire orchestra at his or her disposal, and later gave way to CDs and even accompaniment DVDs with the soundtrack synchronized to a projected visual background.

Today in the modern Evangelical church, this part of the service has vanished along with the scripture reading and the pastoral prayer. If a megachurch has a featured music item, it’s entirely likely to be borrowed from the Billboard charts of secular hits, performed with the full worship band.

This means there is an entire genre of Christian music which is vanishing with it. This isn’t a loss musically — some of those soloists were simply showing off their skills — as it is lyrically. The three songs named above were narrative, which means they were instructional. They taught us, every bit as much as the sermon did; and were equally rooted in scripture texts. The audience was in a listening mode, more prepared to be receptive. Early church historians will still despair over the passive nature of listening to a solo, but I believe the teaching that was imparted through the songs was worth the 3-4 minutes needed.

My personal belief is that this worship service element will return, albeit in a slightly different form, as congregations grow tired of standing to do little more than listen to pieces they can’t sing anyway because of vocal range or unfamiliarity. This may be taking place already in some churches.

We’ll be better served when that happens.

 

July 10, 2014

Creating A Worship Song Set

Filed under: music, worship — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:10 am

Worship moment

Although our friend Laura has been leading worship for a relatively short time, she comes to this from a background in choral music in a more liturgical setting, so many of the modern worship songs and gospel hymns that are familiar to Evangelicals have been to new to her. With that perspective, her approach to leading in our home church is always marked by a careful choosing of songs, crafting original readings, and a most-evident continuity of theme.

She was asked recently to write about the song selection process — the always challenging and even mysterious part of worship leading to those who have never done it — and we got her permission to use this here at Thinking Out Loud. I really appreciated how she was able to cut to the core issues; the things that matter. I hope you’ll copy the link for this and send it to anyone who chooses the music for any sized event at your church.

Planning A Worship Set

by Laura Steen

In scripture, we are instructed to teach “using psalms, hymns and songs from the spirit, and to sing with gratitude in our hearts” (Colossians 3:16). How, then, do we plan a worship set that will set the spirit free, and make hearts thankful and ready to receive God’s word? How do we become organized, yet flow in the spirit? How do we work within the tension of careful preparation and spontaneity?

Prayer – the most important planning element. We enter into prayer as we think about the needs within the congregation and songs that may speak to those needs. We ask ourselves … is there a theme we need to work with, is there something in the message that needs to be reinforced through the music, do people just need to know God’s heart? It is amazing where answers come from … other people, scripture, books we are reading, or messages we have heard. We pray for preparation in our own hearts so that we can enter into worship and connect the hearts of God’s people with Him.

Song Selection – easier said than done. There are so many songs to choose from! Once prayer has given us a clear focus for the set, this process unfolds. We keep in mind several other items; are the words meaningful and scripturally based, are they right for the voices and instruments we have to work with, do they move us from praise to worship of our God?

Transitions – important smaller details. These create a natural flow through the worship set, often assisting in freeing the spirit. Scriptures, prayers, readings, heartfelt words or images are used to offer encouragement. Sometimes, a planned pause can speak volumes! Images, too, can speak a thousand words.

Practice – it isn’t about perfection, but rather to prepare the leader and team to work together and to create an arrangement that works for the songs. It isn’t just about technicalities, it’s a process that frees us to discover what works best for the song – voices, harmonies, instruments. Practice roots us in the purpose of our leadership and prepares us for the unexpected. We want people to feel freed to worship as the spirit moves them.<

And finally, Gratitude – we are grateful to be able to be used by God for the purpose of preparing hearts, freeing the spirit and encouraging others … and, while the planning takes time, there is so much joy in making music for God and his people!

 

October 24, 2011

First, The Bible Wars; Then, The Music Wars; Next…

Collectively, churches and changes don’t go well together.  Whether it’s change in the way people dress for worship; the addition of multiple service times and Saturday night services; replacing the choir with a worship team; or the preacher switching from the NASB to The Message; we tend, as a group, to be very uncomfortable with the transitions. 

In Evangelical circles, the ongoing tension is often expressed as, “The Bible Wars,” or “The Music Wars.”  Like the weather, everyone has an opinion on these topics, and some people simply vote with their feet and move on.

For Roman Catholics, the parish system dictates where your primary place of worship is located.  Catholics actually led the rest of us in the switch to contemporary music, with the folk masses of the early 1960s, so it’s not a prime breeding ground for music battles.  Their scripture readings form a smaller part of a much larger liturgy, and use the NAB (New American Bible), NRSV, Jerusalem Bible and even the Catholic edition of the Good News Bible allows some flexibility.

In fact, the NAB went through a revision this year; a revision somewhat ignored by the rest of the Christian community, and totally overshadowed by the release of the 2011 edition of the NIV.  But it was not without controversy especially over — you can pause and make a guess here — the use of inclusive language.   So now we hear the NABRE (revised edition) is “approved for private use and study.  It will not be used in the mass. “

While we wait for that story to sort itself out, comes word this week that changes are coming to The Missal, a book which really has a larger place in the structure of the mass than the Bible itself.   What might be called “focus groups” are getting together across the USA to “test drive” the new order of service, as USAToday Religion reports:

…They [are] preparing for a revised text of the Mass that will take effect on Nov. 27, the first Sunday of the liturgical season of Advent and of the church year.

The revisions reflect a new translation for the English-speaking world of the Roman Missal, the official Latin-language set of worship documents. It includes words and instructions for conducting the Mass, the central act of Catholic worship, in which priests bless and distribute bread and wine as essentially the body and blood of Jesus.

Virtually every prayer and proclamation in the Mass is undergoing at least some revision, marking the biggest change in worship for American Catholics since they began having Masses in English rather than Latin after the reformist Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

Much of the debate within the church is over whether the changes, ordered by the Vatican to achieve more literal translations from the Latin, are good or bad.

Proponents say the new version is a more precise reflection of the original Latin. They say it is richer in its poetry, more reverent in its references to God and fuller in its allusions to the Bible and church creeds.

Critics say the Vatican dismissed years of work by scholars who had been working for the bishops of English-speaking countries. They call the new version rigidly literal — difficult for priests to recite and lay people to understand.

It contains technical theological terms — such as Jesus being “consubstantial” with the Father, replacing the current phrase “one in being,” and “oblation,” replacing the term “offering.”

But for many Catholics, such discussions haven’t even registered.

A national survey released in August found that three-quarters of Roman Catholics are unaware of the changes to come.

continue reading the story at USAToday

Other highlights from the article:

  • [Michael] Diebold sees the revisions as showing “symbolically where Rome is headed” — away from a cooperative vision of church as the “people of God” toward one defined by its hierarchy.
  • Others worry about how young people — whom Catholic and other churches are already struggling to retain — will react.
  • The Rev. Joseph Fowler, a retired priest, said the phrasing is “going to be very foreign” to people.
  • The vocabulary is “not the language of the street, it’s not the language I may pray on my own,” [Archdiocese worship director Judy Butler] said. But it reflects the current Vatican emphasis on using a “sacred vernacular” — which people recognize as devotional language.
  • “If any priest picks up that Missal on that first Sunday and has not read it out loud, he’ll be in over his head,” said the Rev. Paul Scaglione, pastor at St. Barnabas.

So for non-Catholics, how does this affect you?

I think that for the most part, Protestants and Evangelicals have done a decent job of surviving the Bible wars and music wars, but not so good a job at “refreshing” the liturgy.  We still tend to lapse into dated and awkward phrases at time, and the repeating of the ‘words of institution’ at The Lord’s Supper or Communion could easily be refreshed since they are straight out of I Cor 11 and the other translations already exist.

While mainline Protestant churches focus more on liturgy, Evangelicals focus on the sermon, and this is another area where help is needed.  One Atlanta pastor is known as “one of America’s top communicators;” but I wonder if the issue is not the number of people in the pulpit on Sunday morning who simply aren’t good communicators, or are perhaps really bad communicators.

The Roman Catholic church is working to address a badly needed change; but it’s insistence on a “sacred vernacular” that is difficult to grasp may signal change that is moving in the wrong direction.

Some excellent articles on the new missal can be found at Catholic San Francisco:

Again, from a non-Catholic perspective, it would be great to see so much thought and consideration being poured into the words spoken during our worship services, especially given the Evangelical penchant to speak extemporaneously, or as one pastor told me years ago, “to wing it.” Winging it simply doesn’t respect people’s time, intelligent or the place of things sacred.

March 25, 2011

Accidental Anglican

I realized yesterday morning that I’ve accidentally become an Anglican.

Well, sort of.

You see, as an Evangelical, we base everything on the sermon.  As the sermon goes, so goes the service.  As the sermon went, so went the service.  And you could say, as the sermon will go, so will go the service.  That’s why, for example, people don’t say, “I go to North Point;” they say, “I go to Andy Stanley’s Church;” as if he owns it or something.

We like good preaching.

We also like good worship, but that’s not really a biggie since its now been proven that the Top 100 Churches in America — as selected by Outreach Magazine — are all using the same MIDI loops of Majesty, I Will Follow, and (for less cutting edge congregations) Revelation Song.

So given the choice, we choose on the basis of a good sermon.

I have three choices this weekend.

The preaching will be great at all three.

So I’m making my choice based on some advance information on the worship.  As it turns out, I have in my computer the exact worship setlists from two of my three choices for the weekend services.  This the worship-nerd equivalent of insider-trading information.

In other words, I’m choosing based on the liturgy.  I’m prioritizing the liturgy. And as every good mainline Protestant knows, as the liturgy goes so goes the service.  As the liturgy went, so went the service.  And you could say, as the liturgy will go, so will go the service.

I can’t decide if I’m being discriminating, or if I’m being shallow.

??

October 25, 2010

Traditions that Don’t Make Sense

Tradition Bible Church is probably the most well-named church we’ve visited.   It had everything you want in a 1930s church service:   Women in long dresses and hats, King James English, classic hymns and a large church kitchen that was regularly employed for what one person called “all day dinner on the grounds.”

It was also a dying church; we didn’t see any young couples and there were no children, to speak of, anywhere in sight.   Most people seemed to be at or near retirement age.

But there were a few middle aged couples and curiously, a row of teens in the back row; their presence explained to me later by the couple who invited for lunch being due to the fact the nearest ‘contemporary’ service was at least a 25-minute drive, and that church was looked on with suspicion.  These teens had all grown up in TBC, and regarded each other as family.

So when a woman who I think was maybe 80+ years old announced it was “time for the children to come forward for their story;”  I looked around again to see who exactly she had in mind.

“C’mon, Taylor; come up Melissa… where is Justine?” she beckoned; and one-by-one the teenagers — average age approximately 16 — arose from the comfort of the back pew and sauntered up to the front.

I learned later from our lunch hosts that the youngest among them — two boys 12 and 13 — were the ‘last’ kids that had been born in that church, and that there was a time when all of them had simply refused to come forward after Mildred would issue her summons from the platform, feeling they had reached a point in life where being asked questions like, “Do you think you could hit a giant with a slingshot?” were a bit beneath them.

But Mildred would not be denied the chance to tell her story; she had been doing so for 48 years; and so a few years back she started calling the teens by name, and rather than suffer that embarrassment, they returned to going forward and being dismissed to their service, which also got them out of having to sit through the sermon, and granted access to the aforementioned large kitchen.

It probably looked like this once; but that was then...

Phillip and Mark, the two youngest boys, simply sat on the far right of the platform sharing some kind of portable game console with the volume off.    Derek, who was about 16 occupied the other end of the platform and simply stared at the back wall of the sanctuary as though caught in some kind of mystic vision.   I turned around to see if whatever he was seeing might be of interest to all of us, but saw only a wall.

In the middle was Melissa, chewing gum loudly and whispering to a girl who looked 18 or 19, whose name I didn’t get; who laughed at something Melissa said, but then started a contagious yawn which I noticed spread to the adults.

Brianna, the niece of our lunch contacts, sat texting during the entire story and at one point her phone erupted with a loud chime that caught everyone by surprise except Mildred, who didn’t miss a beat telling the story of Samson and his long hair; a story which brought a question from the rather shaggy Nicholas, who looked about 17, and who asked as to whether Samson’s story indicated that he should not need a haircut; a question that Mildred apparently hadn’t anticipated and didn’t answer.

I think Kayla, who introduced herself to me personally after the service, just before trying to sell me a $5 chocolate bar to raise funds for the cheerleading squad, spent the whole story time rummaging through her bag in search of lost treasure.   This is just a guess, but I would say that, like so many of the ten of teens up there, she didn’t hear a word, but I couldn’t pay much attention to her because — and this is also a guess — I’ll bet her cheerleading skirt is longer than whatever it was she was wearing sitting on the platform.

Amber had a pair of ear buds attached to an mp3 device which we couldn’t hear until she decided to scratch an ear itch, and then we heard a few bars of a rapper saying, “I’ve got what you need;” which caused Amber to blush and quickly return the offending bud to her ear.  Near the end of the story there was also a shorter few seconds of drums when she pulled out the other ear bud and simply jammed it in Melissa’s ear and loudly whispered, “Check this out.”

And then there was Cody, the nephew of our lunch hosts, who simply read a comic book while sitting on the floor in front of the platform, kicking the communion table every 30 seconds or so, and never once looked up.

I really appreciated the fact the teens didn’t feel the need to feign interest in anything being said.   At least there was no pretense.

At one point Mildred interrupted herself and noticed that Justine still hadn’t come forward.   “Is Justine back there?” she asked, looking toward the back pew.

“No;” the kids replied as one, with Melissa adding, “She went into labor on Saturday afternoon.”

So maybe, finally, Tradition Bible Church will get a child to add to its cradle roll; the first in a dozen years; and maybe that will justify the continuation of the children’s story as part of the Sunday morning service there.  Justine is 16 and says she really wants her child to grow up in church like she did and Mildred says she really wants to say she’s done the children’s story for 50 years, and she’s only got a couple of years to go.

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