Monday, October 27, 2014

Music in the church - Part 1

This is an American Idol culture.

There aren't many places that people sing together anymore. A few uncertain voices sing the national anthem at sporting events, but most folks are silent. Some of us remember singing in school choirs. And everyone sings "Happy Birthday" together when the cake comes out.

A concert might gather together people who love a performer's songs so much that a crowd will sing along together. But it takes hours of listening quietly alone on your smartphone before that happens.

Today we are a culture of solos, not choirs. We listen; we don't sing. We watch a performance. We evaluate; we don't join in. Or we have a few beers and wait our turn at the karaoke machine, where solitary failure is embraced.

But Christians have a long history singing together to worship God. This poses a challenge. How does a church use music to worship God if most of the people present do not like to sing, or do not know how, or are afraid of looking silly?

Christians are told in the Bible to sing. Our Bible tells us to "teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts." One whole book of the Bible, called Psalms, is the songbook of ancient Israel. Singing has always been one of the ways the people of God express their joy in God.

So how do we do it today?

Every worship service has an entry point, a place of assumed knowledge that, once met, allows visitors to participate in the worship service. However "missional" or "seeker-sensitive" the church, this point exists. The "worship style" of the church is often based on the entry point for participation in the music of the church.

Churches with rock bands leading worship tend to assume several things for their entry point: 1) Guests don't read music, so displaying musical notes only confuses and alienates people. 2) Guests learn music by hearing, so songs must be repeated for the congregation to get it. 3) A musical style inside the church will be most inviting if it matches the musical style that is most popular in secular society. 4) Many guests will only watch and listen, so make the show worth watching and listening to. It's a performance first, and participation second.

Churches that sometimes get called "traditional" (not a particularly useful word - there are all kinds of traditions, many of them older than Isaac Watts. Not many protestant churches, for example, regularly sing in antiphony, and that church music style dates back to the first century) have a different set of entry points for singing. The songs are usually hymns written between 1600 and today, accompanied by organ or piano, which always includes playing the melody. Sometimes a choir assists. The entry points for this kind of worship are: 1) Guests can read and understand poetry that is hundreds of years old and often uses archaic language. 2) Guests can read music well enough to be assisted by musical notation, rather than intimidated by it. This includes being able to distinguish between melody and harmony.  3) Guests can appreciate a musical style that disregards trends, even if those trends have been around for eighty years and have become the standard music of the rest of society.

Neither of these worship styles has a null entry point. To sum up, if you want to sing along in church, the traditional churches assume you have a moderate to high level of education, and the contemporary churches assume you listen to Christian radio. 

Both these styles are trying to worship God, but by their entry point they end up attracting and engaging different groups of people.

Next time: the "worship style" we chose and why.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Why Start a New Church

Since we started this project, I have been reading books and articles about starting new churches. This is not a heartening genre. The subject tends to attract the bitterly idealistic. An article on how to start a new church often carries the silent subtitle "Because Every Existing Church Fails to Live Up to My Standards." 

This is a dangerous thing to believe.

If our new church fails to grow and become sustainable, my family will look around for a few weeks and find somewhere else. In any place we settle, the gospel will be preached, Jesus will be worshipped, and we will be alternately satisfied, challenged and hurt. This is the nature of congregational life. There is no shortage of churches where we could settle.

We are not starting a new church to create one that is worthy of us and our precious, precious ideals.

Churches are supposed to disrupt our preferences. If everything is being done the way I want it, then I can't grow. A congregation that lives up to my ideals is, perversely, a congregation that lets me down. My ideals can't always be right. There will be too much of me in them. I will mix up "the music I like" with "the music God likes," or live in the uncorrected certainty that my expectations for a pastor are the universally-recognized dictates of the deity. 

There are lines that must not be crossed. There are dictates from the deity. But the forces of habit and the imperious preferences of personality and the sloth of unexamined priorities can masquerade to us as the will of God. Sometimes we need a good shaking to remember where the real solid ground is.

Starting a new church is disruptive. No one can say "but we've never done it that way before," because we have never done it before. The disruption makes us think more deeply about why we are here and who we want to be. The disruption makes us flexible, with more freedom to speak in the language that our neighbors are best able to hear. A new church is, it turns out, new. Fresh and green and pliable, like the honeysuckle shoots I cut out of my yard. They bend.

The reason to start a new congregation is so we can bend when we need to bend. The point is to have lost so much already - the stability and familiarity and comfort and steadiness of the church you left - that you can give up whatever you are asked to lose next. Because the gospel asks us to give up all sorts of things. 

The loss of the familiar helps us make Christ our steadiness. The absence of cherished friends in our worship service reminds us that Christ is even dearer. The dislocation we feel reminds us to see Christ in the faces of strangers and welcome them as brothers and friends.

Welcome. Come in. Come learn with us.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Worship is always practice

Our big start date is June 8th, but we've been having "practice" worship services the last two Sundays. We called it that, but real worship happened.  We sang songs to God, we read aloud the scriptures and we prayed. I preached a sermon and the congregation listened.

We have been working so long and so hard to get this little church up and running, and it finally happened.

Our worship service is at 4 pm, which is an unusual time for a worship service. The afternoon sun through the stained glass windows gave everything in the sanctuary an unfamiliar glow. I looked into the faces of the people in the pews and I saw hope and friendship. It felt like the first day of summer camp, when you see those special friends you haven't seen since last year.

And most importantly, worship happened.

Christian churches do many things, but worship is the center of it all. Charitable projects, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, caring for children, teaching church members -- all these are important parts of a church, but their roots are in worship. Acts of helping other people are like the hands of the church, but worship is its heart.

But it is also probably the weirdest part of Christianity to anyone who did not grow up attending church. A traditional sanctuary has seats like nowhere else in our culture, not even the bus station - long wooden benches, made as pretty as a bench can be with paint or varnish, and shined till they're lustrous. Nowadays they are also padded so they are slightly more comfortable to sit on. Everyone faces the speaker, and we tell God how great he is, sing some songs, read the Bible and then the speaker gives a speech.

And every piece of this event has Christian terminology that isn't used anywhere else. A bench is pew, a podium is a pulpit, a song is a hymn, a speaker is a preacher, a speech is a sermon. Somehow those words stuck, and no one thought to change them. We only use them out of habit, even though every reader understood me when I used the word bench instead. The average sermon is almost indistinguishable in style from the average TED talk, but the word "sermon" persists, and gives it an austere and disapproving air.

And then there is the actual worship.

I am trying to think of another place in our culture where we focus on telling someone how great they are. Sports game and concerts can be filled with cheering, but they also boo, and that does not happen in worship. Awards shows like the Oscars or the Kennedy Center Honors are more sedately complimentary, but they usually include some comedian making fun of the recipients as well. Preachers crack jokes, but they don't poke fun at God. Graduation ceremonies celebrate the graduates and include a long speech, but the speech is usually giving instruction to the same people who are being celebrated. A sermon does not instruct God.

So maybe the worship service is the only place something like this happens.

Ringing in my ears is the advice of someone's grandmother for the hard times of life: "Praise him. Praise him till the power comes." Worship chases away the fear and the sorrow. Worship lets me cast aside the weight of the day and know the glory of God.

This side of heaven, worship is always practice. Our thoughts get distracted. Our weakness creeps in. Our fusty old preferences exert themselves and become more important than the presence of God. We resist these things, and we keep trying. We practice worship.

And God, in his mercy, shows up. Our fumbling and faltering does not keep him away. He is not waiting for the grand cathedral and the flawless hymn. He comes wherever "two or three are gathered in my name." We ask for his presence, and he comes.

Even when we're just practicing.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

I am resisting the urge to call this post "On fire for the Lord"

Photo by Cami Macaya Palma, licensed under Creative Commons.

I was working on my sermon last night when the kids set the microwave on fire.

River Valley Presbyterian is having its "grand opening" on June 8th, but we're having smaller  "dry-run" services until then, and I volunteered to preach for one of them. I've given one or two sermons a year since seminary, which is enough to get over the worst of the nervousness. But I was at that moment in writing a sermon where I wondered why on earth I volunteered for this and wouldn't it be nicer to go hide in the basement instead.

Then my daughter ran into the study and said, "Mom! The microwave is full of smoke!" I ran downstairs and sure enough, clouds of smoke were billowing out of the microwave and filling the kitchen. I told the kids to get out of the house. They stood there slack-jawed. I told them to get out of the house NOW. They did.

I turned off the microwave and when I didn't see flame, I opened the door. One of the kids had tried to warm up a breadstick, and it was a charred, sticky cinder on the tray. There appeared to be no other damage.

I brought the kids back in and we discussed the protocol for getting out of the house if there was a fire. We also discussed microwaves. We opened up all the doors and fanned away smoke till the air cleared. Things settled down, or at least returned to the ordinary chaos.

One of the challenges of starting a new church is that ordinary life doesn't stop. There is a mountain of new work to do, but all the old things - like making sure your kids don't burn the house down - still need to be done too. The Christian faith is support and comfort for daily life, not a remedy for it. One of the least glamorous parts of the Christian life is the way God gives us competing vocations and waits for us to ask his help in managing our time. The holiest pastor you ever met is still a man who schedules meetings and visits the dentist and puts his dirty socks in the hamper (or gets crabbed at for not doing it).

I went back to my sermon and, in the way of preachers, I tried to think of a way to work this story into the sermon. Come by this Sunday at 4 pm and you can see if I succeeded.

In the meantime, I'm in charge of all the microwaving for a while.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Waiting for the city

Today I went to our parent church and picked up the hymnals they gave us. My husband and I carried them in stacks to our van, looking like the strangest thieves ever.

Psst. Black market hymnals. Totally genu-wine. Original lyrics and everything.

Saying goodbye to our parent church has been difficult, especially for our kids. We'll still go back for the occasional visit, but it won't be the same. The new church will be our home now, and that is a bittersweet feeling. The kids don't understand why we would start a new church.

I tell them that we are starting a new church to help us tell more people about Jesus. I tell them our new church will be in a new neighborhood where we can get to know new people. I tell them that the new church will belong to a denomination that tries harder to obey the Bible. I remind them that their favorite Sunday School teacher is coming with us. But they are still sad, and truthfully, so am I.

Endings are always sad.

The Bible uses metaphors to describe what life will be like when Jesus comes back and sets the world right again. One of those metaphors is the city. The picture of paradise in the beginning of the Bible is a garden, but the picture of paradise at the end of the Bible is a city. John says in the book of Revelation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The paradise of God living with people forever will be a city. A place where people live close together.

It always reminds me of the first Crocodile Dundee movie, when the hero visits Manhattan for the first time and says: "Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. Yeah, New York must be the friendliest place on earth."

You heard it here first, folks. Heaven is a lot like New York.

In ancient near eastern mythology, the sea was the origin of evil and chaos. When John says that the sea is no more, he means that even the origins of evil will disappear. Paradise is people living together without pain or loss or evil, at peace with one another and God.

Sounds good to me.

Every goodbye between followers of Christ is only temporary. This ending is a temporary ending. It still hurts, but I know it isn't really over, even if I don't see these friends often for now.

For now, we work at the projects in front of us, and we wait. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Flannelgraphs and Hymnody

The Sunday school teacher gave my five-year-old daughter scissors and felt and a flannel graph board. Didn't know flannelgraph could be freestyle, did you? Noah's ark never looked finer.

Today I sat with three other women of River Valley Presbyterian and cut out flannelgraphs. Do you remember those? Characters and scenery from Bible stories are printed onto felt (not actually flannel) and the Sunday School teacher puts the felt characters onto a felt background to illustrate the Bible story. Flannelgraphs have never gone out of style. Even in the era of iPads and Minecraft, kids still love flannelgraphs.

But I did not know that we needed to cut them out. It is one of the many labors of preparation that happen behind the scenes. The flannelgraphs come printed on big sheets, carefully positioned to fit as many Davids, sheep and sling-shots on one piece of felt as possible. It takes a skillful hand and a sharp pair of scissors. It also takes hours. Our children's minister had been cutting till her hand was sore, and we showed up to help.

While we were there, we also looked at hymnals. Our parent church has promised us forty of their hymnals, or we could use the hymnals that are already in the sanctuary of our host church. We looked at the two options.

Hymnals are not just books of songs. They are expressions of the beliefs and identity of the church that uses them. The songs in the hymnal will be used to shape the life and faith of congregations for the future. A congregation usually only buys a new hymnal once a decade or so. When a denomination makes a new hymnal, they may reject favorite hymns of the past if they think those hymns have failed to stand the test of time, or are embarrassing, or no longer express the beliefs of their denomination.

My worship professor in seminary (yes, in seminary you take classes on subjects like worship) collected old hymnals, and he said that he had some old hymnals in which half the hymns were about mothers. Mother featured more largely than Jesus. I am glad those hymns were culled (even if my grandmother requested "Tell Mother I'll Be There" for her funeral). I love my mom, but the Christian faith is about something bigger than fondness for her.

But sometimes instead of removing hymns, the hymnal committee decides to change them. They change the traditional words to something they like better. This often has serious theological implications. But even when it doesn't, imagine for a moment what can happen to poetry when it is rewritten by committee. 

I've been through the hymnal wars before, so I knew which songs to look for in the two hymnals before us. I turned to "O Worship the King" and "Be Thou My Vision." These two are favorites for bastardizing lyrics because they both use male imagery for God. Progressive hymnal editors rewrite the hymn to get rid of the male metaphors. 

Gentle reader, this drives me batty.

Sure enough, one of the hymnals had changed the lyrics. God was no longer "true Father" and I was no longer a "true Son."

If I write too much about this subject, my opinions will get intense and I may rant a little, and I don't want to do that. So I'll just say this instead: good hymns are not like computer operating systems, needing to be updated every few years or they're useless. Good hymns are like flannel-graphs; they don't need to change for evey generation. When they get it right, the right lasts a long, long time. 

And unlike flannelgraphs, no scissors are required.

Worship and Belonging

Millenium Mosaic in Covington, Kentucky. Photo by elycefeliz licensed under Creative Commons.

When I was six, worship was something I did in the crook of my mother's arm.

Our sanctuary had its own scent, a mixture of old wood, humidity and dusty institutional tile. My father preached an informal Sunday evening service, and I loved the part when he let the congregation suggest hymns. I would rest my head on the soft skin of my mother's arm and strain my hand up high so that maybe my dad would call on me and I could suggest "Power in the Blood."

When I think of what church should be, that memory rises in my mind. I knew I was safe and loved. I was in a room full of people who wanted to praise Jesus. God felt next to us, holy and loving, and I thought that if we just found the right songs or I sat perfectly without squirming or my mom held me long enough, that feeling would snap into place and become permanent. All the worry and uncertainty of life would slide away, and I would be safe and happy with God forever.

I am in a group that is starting a new church. We begin worship services soon. We have discussed and planned what those services will be like. It can be tricky planning worship with fifteen other people, because each of them carries in their heart a memory or a longing for their own version of resting in mother's arms while singing a favorite hymn.

We all want to belong.

And when we come to a loving, welcoming God in worship, we do belong. No matter who we are. Coming to God is always a kind of coming home.

But worship is also unsettling. God is perfect; I am not. God is holy; I do wrong. Facing God throws my own flaws into sharp relief, and that is not comfortable. Even being folded into the welcome of God makes me realize the effort it costs me to welcome others. Sometimes welcoming others means setting aside my own nostalgic affections to make certain someone else feels like they belong.

The Bible tells us that Jesus left the presence of God - a place where he perfectly belonged - to be born as a baby and grow up in the pains and heartaches of life on earth. He was rejected and killed and then came back to life again. He did all this to give us all a way to belong in the presence of God.

When a church worships Jesus, it praises the God who welcomes us. Our model of worship is Jesus himself, who endured terrible things so that others could belong with God. So in planning a worship service, we look for ways to celebrate coming home, but also ways to show other people they belong, even if it means giving up something dear to us.

Come and join us for worship. Jesus will be here, and we'd love to make you feel like you belong.