The past few years have brought us new awareness of the power of music. We have Baby Mozart, Baby Bach, and Baby Beethoven products and their relatives, along with knowledge that music contributes to intellectual development. Neuroscientists explain that music is fundamental to our brains and that music communicates the emotions and ideas that are the building blocks of human nature. Music therapy offers healing for mind and body. Marketing experts use the suggestive nature of music to tap our purchasing instincts. Educators understand the capacity of music to help children learn facts and concepts. We watch people who have Alzheimer’s and those who have suffered a stroke retain the capacity to sing and play an instrument much longer than the ability to speak words or to carry on a conversation.
Music creates memory that is more lasting than words alone. Music helps us to see the same idea in new ways, to find new insights, to uncover new ways of being, to love again, to express emotion otherwise unknown. It takes us into another dimension where we can live more fully. The better the music, the greater its capacity to do its work. Although music has been a part of Christian worship as long as Christians have prayed and praised, we are only beginning to realize its importance. As a good friend has said, “We are what we sing.”
The word liturgy has its roots in the Greek word leitourgia, which combines the words for work and people. “Liturgical” describes communal Christian worship that is participatory. Thus, if we speak of Christian worship or liturgy, we are speaking about the work of the people. What do the people need to participate fully in worship? What do people need to know to sing God’s song faithfully? Granted, participation can be defined as listening or speaking, but singing requires full body involvement and hence has been a primary means of communal participation.
Today’s church lives in a culture where we are more likely to listen to music than to sing or play it. This state of affairs has profound implications for a church whose worship has been sung for all of its history. If we value this head, body, and heart experience of worship, congregations need ways to build their singing capacity. If we ignore this value, we not only lose hundreds of years of worship practice and tradition that have made the faith real to worshipers since Old Testament times, but we also lose the capacity for congregations to do their work through song, in the one way that allows head, heart, and body together to offer praise and prayer to God.
So how can a congregation and its leaders go about claiming the rights and performing the duties of their baptism through the vehicle of music?
1. Congregations can purposefully master a broad and deep repertoire of hymnody and service music that will reside in the memory of the community. Granted, this effort will be different for every congregation and will change over time. Clergy and music leaders can help the congregation determine this repertoire, but ultimately it belongs to the congregation. Every congregation is situated in a particular cultural and ethnic context and has its own musical gifts. Experience shows that the life of a hymnal is about twenty years. Yet a succession of hymnals in any one denomination will share a surprising number of the same hymns, as will the hymnals across a variety of denominations, so these often serve as a starting place. Familiar music can form a basis for an ongoing repertoire and set a standard for other music to be added to the collection. After a basic repertoire is mastered, confidence will allow the exploration of a wealth of new music to enhance and enrich worship.
2. Leaders can teach the congregation the art of singing. Singing is a physical act requiring breath and movement. Understanding how the body produces sound and reading music are fundamental to singing. Sophisticated knowledge is not necessary, but following the movement of pitches and having some understanding of simple note values helps. Perhaps a twenty-first-century equivalent of the early American singing schools could be initiated. Bulletin notes, Sunday school classes, adult education offerings—all are possibilities for such education.
3. Stewards of church facilities can provide the acoustic environment for singing. Perhaps the greatest deterrent to good congregational singing is a dead acoustical environment. Hard surfaces create the best sound environment for singing, allowing voices to blend easily so that no individual voices sound alone. Even in acoustically dead environments, simple remedies can help, such as painting sound-absorbent acoustical tile or removing carpet.
4. Musicians can accompany with sensitivity. Instrumentalists who play too loudly or do not “breathe” with singers will discourage singing. Good accompaniment facilitates but does not dominate the “voice of the people,” helping the people listen to one another rather than to the accompaniment.
5. Leaders can seek out capable musicians in the congregation to enrich the song. Choirs, instrumentalists, children, and anyone with special musical gifts can add enormously to the song of the people. When woven carefully into the fabric of the music of worship, they lend “many gifts but one spirit.” When given the opportunity to contribute to a verse of a hymn, a descant, a prelude, or an offertory, individual musicians reflect the tapestry of the congregation and give cause for celebration and thanksgiving.
Building the capacity of the congregation to offer its praise and prayer in song increases worshipers’ participation in ways that nothing else can. It not only engages many aspects of the individual but also connects many individuals in ways that create community. When communal music-making is done with skill and creativity, beauty and transcendence result, making possible an encounter with God.
The power of music and its impact have been understood intuitively and in practice for centuries. It is for twenty-first-century Christians to discover this treasure anew as we define our faith in this time and place, using a gift as old as faith itself. Thanks be to God for this extraordinary gift. Let the song continue.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Adapted from The Sounds of Our Offerings: Achieving Excellence in Church Music by Charlotte Kroeker, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
The Sounds of Our Offerings: Achieving Excellence in Church Music
by Charlotte Kroeker
The Sounds of Our Offerings is good news about the music of the church. It recounts what has been learned from studying nine congregations where music promotes the full, active, conscious participation of the worshipers and where it has done so consistently and coherently for many years. Pastors and musicians reflect on their work together and offer rich insights about what works and what does not. Lay musicians and members of the congregation also share their experiences with music in worship.
The Work of the People: What We Do in Worship and Why
by Marlea Gilbert, Christopher Grundy, Eric T. Myers, and Stephanie Perdew
Worship is the work of the people of God. Patterns of worship shape how we pray and how we live. Despite its centrality to church life, worship is too often taken for granted as something a congregation experiences rather than collectively creates.
Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship
by Thomas G. Long
Experiencing mystery, practicing hospitality, and recovering a sense of drama are among the nine characteristics of vital and faithful worship that Thomas G. Long identified when studying congregations that seemed to have avoided the tensions around worship that are so common today. These "third-way" congregations—neither "traditional" nor "contemporary"—are creating worship that is both vital and faithful.
Designing Worship Together: Models and Strategies for Worship Planning
by Norma de Waal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell
This book draws on more than two decades of collaborative worship planning by pastor Howard Vanderwell and musician Norma deWaal Malefyt of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, offering thoughtful, field-tested processes and tools for planning, implementing, and evaluating life-enriching weekly worship.
From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church
by Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger
Small congregations can have beautiful worship! In From a Mustard Seed, an experienced pastor-professor and an experienced church musician provide a model for faithful and excellent worship in congregations that average 75 or fewer people in weekly worship. While the limitations of small congregations are obvious to their members and leaders, the possibilities for creative music and worship are often greater than we can imagine.
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