Tuesday, February 15, 2011

With My Whole Heart: Music Ministry in the Small Membership Church– Part I

I will praise You, O LORD, with my whole heart; I will tell of all Your marvelous works. I will be glad and rejoice in You; I will sing praise to Your name, O Most High. Psalms 9:1-2

By Robin G. Jordan

I was involved in a number of music and worship ministries for 23 odd years. My music ministry experience includes leading congregational singing in the capacity of a precentor; selecting hymns, worship songs, and service music for Sunday services; planning how they will be used in the liturgy; finding new hymns, worship songs, and service music; obtaining copyright permission for their use; teaching them to the congregation; conducting pre-service congregational rehearsals, and performing solos.

During those 23 years I was a chorister in three chancel choirs, a cantor at Sunday services and special liturgies, including the Great Vigil of Easter, and a male vocalist in a “praise and magnification team.” I immersed myself in the literature on music and worship, collected a library of hymnals and other music collections, cassette tapes, and CDs, attended workshops, wrote articles, and prepared the draft of a booklet, “Let the People Praise Him,” for clergy and church musicians on the use of music in Sunday services for the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana’s Liturgy and Music Commission.

One of my longstanding interests has been music ministry in the small membership church. I became acquainted with its challenges first hand in the 1980s as the worship coordinator on the launch team of an Episcopal Church new church plant.

My involvement in music ministry had begun two years before when I was invited to sing in the tenor section of the chancel choir of the sponsoring church. Squeezed between two tenors, I can sing tenor. Otherwise I am apt to sing the melody.

I must mention that I have no formal musical training. However, singing was very much a part of my home life as a child and teenager. I lived with my mother and her parents. My parents were separated. My grandfather had been a church organist and played the piano and violin as well as the organ. He and my grandmother sung hymns and gospel songs as they went about their daily chores. When my family went on a Sunday drive or a vacation trip, my grandfather would break into song and my grandmother and my mother would join him. We were a singing family.

The parish church that we attended was also a singing church. We sung psalms, canticles, and service music, as well as hymns. My mother sung in the choir. She had sung in her parish church's choir as a school girl and her college chapel's choir as an university student.

I also must mention that I cannot play any musical instrument, except may be claves and finger cymbals. I have tried to learn a number of them—piano, guitar, zither, auto-harp, kalimba (or thumb piano), and bhodran (or Irish hand drum) but with no success.

I, however, have discovered that God has given me two musical gifts. They are a voice and a heart to sing His praise. I am my own musical instrument. Or more accurately, I am one of God’s musical instruments. Indeed we all are one of His musical instruments. I am going to explore this concept further in a later article.

In every church in which I have been involved for any length of time, I have also been involved in the church’s music ministry. The exception is the Journey, the church in which I am presently sojourning. In traditional worship one does not need to play a musical instrument to lead worship (albeit the ability to accompany oneself on a keyboard or guitar does help in leading congregational singing.)

In contemporary worship the ability to play a keyboard or guitar is a must particularly in larger churches. A worship leader may successfully lead worship in a small membership church without this ability but larger churches insist upon professional quality standards in worship. Like concert artists worship leaders are expected to play a musical instrument. This expectation does not appear to apply to women vocalists leading worship.

I have had plenty of opportunities to learn and to minister since I began my sojourn with the Journey, but I have not been able to minister in an area in which I enjoy ministering the most.

I have also run smack into an age barrier. I auditioned for Kidstuf, now Xceler8, but I did not make the shortlist. To be a singer in Kidstuf, one must also be a dancer.

I did note that the lead male vocalist does not do much actual dancing—just moves his feet, while a chorus of back-up singers dance behind him. I can sing and do what he is doing. He, however, is under 30 years of age and meets the youthful image that seems to be a pre-requisite to serve in the church’s music and worship ministries. He is also one of the worship leaders at the Sunday gatherings of the church.

I did not try to audition for the band. The male vocalists in the band must play the guitar. Only woman vocalists are exempt from this requirement. Only one band member has been over 30 years of age. She played the electric violin.

Ageism is not particular to the church with which I am sojourning. It is not uncommon in a number of churches that are targeted at the younger generations, which have age-specific ministries. They have found that the younger generations conclude from the presence of too many people of my generation in the band as instrumentalists or vocalists or on the platform as worship leaders that the church is a church for my generation and not theirs.

The church in which I sojourn is targeted at the students at Murray State University and the young adults in the community. It is launching Ignite, a new Sunday gathering for teens, later this month.

The church also belongs to an informal affinity network of churches with a similar approach to ministry and mission. The pastors and ministry leaders of the church have formed mutually beneficial relationships with the pastors and ministry leaders of these churches. They exchange ideas with each other, recommend resources to each other, and otherwise help each other. One thing that I have noticed about these churches is that they have nothing geared to Boomers. They are churches for Busters, Millenials, and younger. Boomers are welcome but they are not targeting my age echelon.

Small membership churches tended not to be so selective about who leads worship and provides the musical accompaniment for the congregational singing. Most of them simply cannot afford to be too selective. They have limited resources. Consequently, they tend to be more intergenerational. The small membership church’s limited resources are one of its drawbacks. The small membership church’s multigenerational makeup, however, is one of its strength.

In this article series I plan to share with my readers what I have learned in the past 27 years. Even thought I am no longer active in music ministry, I keep on learning as much as I can. I may yet have another opportunity to engage in music ministry. In any case I can pass on what I have learned to others so they benefit from what I have learned. In this way I am doing what God has called me to do—I am building His Church, that is, God is building His Church through me.

I also hope to infect my readers with my own passion for the worshiping of God in song and my love of all kinds of worship music from plainsong to the hymns and worship songs of the World Church.

Most of all, my hope is that this article series will enrich and strengthen the worship of the small membership church and bring glory and honor to God.

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