Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Singing in the key of autopilot

I finally found time to get my thoughts down in type regarding this post, which was part 1 of the post I commented on earlier today:

Learning a song and singing it in worship are two different activities. That's why choirs, worship teams, and all other church musicians have rehearsals, or should. What they sometimes forget is that if the congregation is to participate in worshipping God in song, they need a chance to learn the song.

The church I grew up in had hymnals filled with many well-loved hymns. Even when we outgrew that space and built a bigger one, we bought additional copies, and replaced some of the worn copies, with the same edition of the same hymnal. Not unusual for a church that loves traditional hymns, but in the pew rack, next to the hymnal, was a "chorus book". These books contained newer songs, and were replaced with updated editions every few years. So we sang both newer and older songs, added to the new songs regularly, and had the chance to learn them both. When we moved into the new space, we bought more hymnals, but not chorus books. We stopped using them. I'm not sure why. The effect, though, was that we stopped learning new songs. The only time we even heard new songs in church was when a soloist sang one (rare) or the choir did (rarer still).

We heard new songs on the Christian radio station, but we never sang them in church. Music gradually faded from the youth program, and some of the older people gradually adopted the attitude that we probably shouldn't even be listening to most of the new music, and we certainly shouldn't be singing it in church. So church music became a battle, with the young people versus the old people. While I loved the hymns, I thought we should be learning some of the new songs, too.

We moved away, and every church I attended or even visited seemed to choose between old songs and new. Those that preferred the old songs stopped learning new songs. Those that preferred new songs gradually stopped singing the old ones. Some churches bought new hymnals that included some more recent songs, but they changed the words to many of the old hymns, making it difficult even for those who knew them to sing them. Other churches put the lyrics (never mind learning the tune by reading the music) on overhead transparencies. That meant you couldn't practice the songs except during the service unless you rifled through the song leader's transparencies. It also made it possible to change their repertoire faster than ever. You could learn all the new songs, but they might have different ones in a few months. Nothing wrong with learning all those songs, but when do we get the chance to let them soak into our bones? You couldn't even leaf through the hymnal when the sermon got boring, because they eventually ditched the hymnals.

One church I attended had three services, which really meant they had three congregations. Not only did people from different services not get to know each other, they didn't sing any of the same songs. Early service had no music. Middle service sang only hymns. Late service was contemporary.

As song leaders and choirs were replaced by worship teams, and pianists and organists were replaced by louder and louder worship bands, the music became more performance-oriented. Sure, people sang along, but it felt more like a concert than congregational singing. Then the transparencies were replaced by computerized projectors feeding us one line at a time. No time to think about what we're singing, just read the next line and sing it quickly before it disappears. We still usually got one or two hymns a week, if the pastor insisted on it, but they not only changed the words, they often sang them to unfamiliar tunes. I heard one minister of music complain about singing that many because, "people don't like singing the old hymns because they don't know them," They don't know them because we never sing most of them. At one or two a week, you're lucky to hear a given hymn once a year, unless it's in that church's top five favorites.

That was another trend I noticed. We did get to know a handful of songs very well. The fight to be allowed to add new songs became an excuse to stop singing the old songs, and we've ended up singing fewer of the new songs, repeating them as if to fill time. As worship teams became more "spontaneous" and leadership more diffuse, some members found they could get an emotional high by repeating a favorite line, or even a chorus. No one wants to quench the Spirit, so when one repeats a line, everyone joins in. That might not be so bad if we had one song leader, but now some churches have six or more. When everyone gets at least one chance to add a chorus, the song has no definite end:
I could sing of Your love forever,
I could sing of Your love forever,
We've been singing this song forever...
ad nauseum. Singing twenty-six choruses is not twice as worshipful as singing thirteen.

I love an ancient hymn, and a rousing gospel number, and a meditative piece during the Eucharist, and a band that really knows how to rock. It's even better if they know when to rock. So by all means, give us the music of the whole body in all its variety, and if you want the congregation to participate, first give us the chance to learn the songs, and then give us the chance to sing them.

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