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.

 

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September 20, 2011

When It’s Your Turn to Lead the Scripture Reading

Fortunately, this issue hasn’t been a problem in the churches we’ve attended recently, but I think it’s worth repeating this piece from September, 2009…

scripture_readingNothing strikes terror in the hearts of churchgoers like being asked to do a scripture reading. Even some progressive, non-liturgical churches are trying things in the middle of the sermon which involve having the reader seated with a live microphone to jump into the middle of the sermon to read texts as needed. (The change in voices might actually keep some from slipping into their Sunday slumber.)

Laypersons so asked to participate will often make a panic purchase of a resource with a title like, “How to Pronounce Bible Names;” only to find the pastor saying the names with completely different vowel sounds and syllable emphasis than what they read to the congregation moments earlier.

And then there’s always the critical question, “What should I wear?” This usually transcends any consideration of the words being uttered.

Talking about this on the weekend however, we decided that what is usually lacking in these moments is passion. It’s not that the participant is unsaved or involved in gross sins. Rather, they just haven’t taken the time to examine the text and draw out its key elements in spoken form.

Which is a great place to interrupt this and add, in case you missed it, the excellent comment made by Jeremy two posts back, in ‘A New Way to Meditate on Scripture’ where he redefined this as: “…like walking down a highway that you drove on every day. Longer to look, to feel, to think about.”

So let’s cut to the “how-to.” Here’s how to slow down on the highway and consider the text so you that can read it with passion.

Photocopy or hand-write the verses you have been asked to read. Then go through and place EMPHASIS on the KEY WORDS you want to draw out. You can do this with:

  • underlining
  • capital letters
  • bold-face type (or retracing handwritten words)
  • highlighting in yellow

In other words, whatever works for you; one, some or all of the above. This is what newsreaders on Top 40 radio stations would do to keep music listeners from tuning out during the newscast. Punch it out a little! Sell it! Make it sing! (Unless you’re reading from Lamentations.)

In other words, short of doing a dramatic reading — which you probably were not asked to — communicate some of the fire and intensity in the passage. Because, all scripture is God-breathed.

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