Monday, June 13, 2016

A Vision of the Small Church as a Singing Church

By Robin G. Jordan

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The 1970s and 1980s saw an explosion of new hymns. The same period also saw the emergence of a genre of simple hymns and songs which were known as “celebration songs”—at least in Anglican circles.  Some were of recent composition; others had a long history. A number of them were inspired by indigenous melodies from the global South. The hymns and songs in the hymnal supplements, Songs for Celebration and Come Celebrate, exemplify this genre.

A number of songs from Roman Catholic music collections also gained popularity. Among these songs were “Gift of Finest Wheat,” “Here I am Lord,” and “I Am the Bread of Life.”

They were followed by what were described as “global songs,” music from the world Church. The hymns and songs in World Praise 2: Songs and Hymns for a New Millennium are a good example of this genre. What they had in common was that they were musically appealing and accessible to the average congregational singer.

In the 1990s, however, the music used in church services began to undergo a noticeable change. It started to lose its folk song qualities and its suitability as music for unmusical people. It increasingly became music for a solo voice or a small ensemble, for individuals with semi-professional if not professional musical abilities, in other words, performance music.

At the church with which I have been sojourning for the past nine odd years the music has moved further in that direction every year. The music used in worship was much more congregational and participatory in the early years than it is now. A number of the songs are repeated with enough frequency that those who wish to sing can learn them. But many people do not sing along with the vocalists in the praise team. They just listen. The church cannot be described as a singing church. Since the music and the preaching draw large crowds every Sunday, the church’s leadership team is convinced it is making the right decisions.

A number of factors account for the growing dominance of this type of worship music. Its strong resemblance to secular pop rock music is one of them.

Its ascendancy has added to the problems of the small church with limited musical resources. Small churches have always been tempted to imitate the worship of larger churches. Small church choirs have struggled with anthems arranged for larger choirs. They have attempted to sing in the acoustical environment of a small church sanctuary works intended for the cavernous spaces of a cathedral.

In 1982 in Renewal in Worship Michael Marshall pointed out the need for small churches to tailor their worship to their circumstances. He also encouraged the use of “celebration songs” in their worship.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Mandeville, Louisiana we heeded Marshall’s advice. While we had a small choir, its main purpose was to lead and support the congregational singing. Its performance of special music was secondary.

We focused upon building up the congregation’s repertoire of hymns and songs, recognizing that in a small church the congregation is the church’s primary musical instrument. We used an eclectic blend of the older hymns and the newer hymns and songs.

We selected music that could be sung with little or no practice by “congregation of musical amateurs.” The music that we used then would be classified as the “New Traditional” today.

The result was pleasing and engaging as well as God-focused and worshipful. We became a singing church.

While small churches can assemble a praise team and use worship track accompaniments if they have no professional quality musicians, their music will always fall short when compared the rock concert type musical productions of larger churches.

Or they can decide to become singing churches. This means using music that exhibits the folk song qualities of a good hymn tune.

Small churches can provide an invaluable service to the Church by not only championing congregational singing but also exemplifying congregational singing at its best. They can also pass on the Church’s rich heritage of song to the next generation. That heritage is not found in one hymnal or songbook. It is not limited to one period in Church history or to one part of the world. Every generation has produced hymns and songs that witness to its faith. Wherever the gospel has spread, voices have been raised in praise of God.

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