Conference Reflections: Spirit and Sacrament with Andy Piercy

The conference crew
The conference crew

Conferences are great. At the beginning of June I travelled to Trinity School for Ministry to attend “Spirit and Sacrament: Integrating Modern Worship with Traditional Liturgy,” a 3 day worship conference designed to equip and encourage leaders from traditions across the liturgical spectrum. It was refreshing to hear worship leaders, filled with love and wisdom, speak about joys and struggles, successes and failures, and to speak candidly about the heavy weight placed on our shoulders Sunday after Sunday. By the end of the conference I looked up to these leaders, not because of the size of their churches, amazing bands, flashy albums, or any other external success, but because it was clear that they have huge pastoral hearts, want to see Jesus glorified, and want to build up the church for the sake of His name.

I was also encouraged by being reminded of my convictions. As I met with fellow worship geeks from across the country, I was reminded that I am not so weird after all…or at least, if I am weird, I’m not alone! We all desire theological accuracy and depth in lyrics; elegance and economy in melodic writing; ways to draw the congregation into deeper worship expression; worship forms and models that help people become more like Jesus every week.

Liturgy was, is, and ever shall be CONTEXT-DRIVEN

Since the conference was hosted by TSM, and organized by Andy Piercy [web | twitter], Director of Worship Development for the Anglican Mission, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was at the center of our worship. Piercy reminded us that when Cranmer first complied these texts and wrote these prayers, they were to a specific people at a specific time. They were a direct reaction and indeed a correction to the theological mis-steps of the Catholic church in that day. When the religious climate of the post-medieval church was fear, guilt, and shame, Cranmer sought to reveal grace and gratitude. The liturgy was not an end in itself, but a means by which the nation would be converted; from guilt to grace, from fear to gratitude.

Glenn Packiam [web | twitter | blog] also pointed out archeological evidence of this paradigm shift. He showed us this chapel fresco from medieval England:

Then he showed a modern restoration of what the painting might have originally looked like:

We can see clearly an exalted and ascended Christ at the top of the picture. Great! But looking closer we see naked figures being tormented by demons, impaled on spears. Packiam pointed out, that at one point, this may have inspired worship in an authentic way, we are not medieval Christians, so we can’t assume they see it the same way we do. Indeed, we must fear God and love God. The reformers decision to whitewash these details was not out of hatred of art, or of the traditions of the past, but to better align the message preached by the walls of the church to the message preached by the sermons, prayers, and other ministries in that current context. When the post-medieval church was showing a powerful Christ standing above the chaos and torment of the world and hell, Cranmer was showing that Christ said “COME unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. (St. Matt. xi. 28.).” Read more about that story over on his blog.

Of course we need both, but the lesson here is that if any one is too-emphasized, we need a correction. As liturgists, we ought to be seeking the right words for our context. Are we too comfortable in our sanitized Christianity that is all about love and not about personal transformation? Then we need the Holy Sprit to convict us of sin, and an encouragement to move from apathy to action. Are we burned out on empty religious gestures or tiresome church programs? Then we need the Holy Spirit to refresh our souls and lead us to truly rest. As a diverse church, we have people from all different perspectives who may be searching for different things. Some come to church to pray earnestly in a peaceful space, others come to worship through song, to be poured into through a convicting sermon. It’s our job as leaders to listen to the congregation, hear where they are coming from, and lead them to a greater love for Christ and the world.

A Modern Example

I was greatly encouraged by Aaron Niequest [web | twitter], who shared with us about a new liturgical service born out of the place you would least expect: Willow Creek Community Church. “The Practice” was created from the idea that worship is formative (thank you James K.A. Smith), and instead of thinking of a worship service like a classroom, maybe we should think of it like a gymnasium. By engaging in ancient devotional practices, we were encouraged to see worship not only as something we do to glorify God, but something God does to us. It is not only our expression of praise to God, but how God has chosen to communicate with us: through his word and the sacraments. This dialoguical perspective has a huge impact on how we plan and organize our worship services. At “The Practice”, instead of the worship service centered around a 45-minute sermon/teaching and relegating music to “warmup time,” the entire service is a smooth flow of spoken and sung prayers, gestures (physical participation is loosely encouraged with simple encouragements: “let the posture of your body reflect the posture of your heart”), and guided meditations. The congregation even takes 2-minute, 3-minute, and *gasp* 5-minute pauses in complete silence, listening to God and reflecting on scripture.

One step at a time

One thing that was made clear again and again throughout the three days was that all the discussions and examples are meant to be models; representations of a real thing, but not to be mistaken for the real thing itself. The lesson was not, “look at the awesome things we’re doing at our churches…here’s how you can make it happen at yours,” but real honest discussions about the struggles of ministry; with all the conflicts, disagreements, misunderstandings you would expect.

One comment by Aaron stood out to me. He mentioned that early on in his “mission to liturgize” the culture at Willow Creek, and having recently “discovered” liturgical worship, he introduced a sung kyrie at the beginning of the worship service. This was met with a resounding NO from the congregation, as for too many people, it reminded them too much of “that Catholic thing I ran away from.” I couldn’t help but smile remembering that I did the exact same thing at TCC a few years ago myself. Sometimes you need to take a step back before taking the next step forward.

For those of us serving in Evangelical contexts, there is no one-size-fits-all liturgy. Every person has a unique faith journey and we all carry baggage and mis-conceptions about worship. As leaders we need to be wise in discerning the shape of worship each season. We need constant reflection and evaluation. We need to be sensitive and listen to the pastoral staff, the lay leaders, and the congregation. And of course to do all this, we need the Spirit’s guidance and power.

Redeeming Emotions

Speaking of baggage and mis-conceptions, if you are like me it is not a skepticism of liturgy that I need to fear, but exactly the opposite: a strong aversion to overly emotional worship. I remember many camps and conferences that used music, dim lights, and social pressure to manipulate awkward jr. highers into making commitments for Jesus. I have always looked on those experiences with a mixture skepticism and embarrassment. Today, with a decade (almost two!) distance from jr. high, I feel myself resisting any emotional response to music in worship, out of fear that it is not “real,” but put on or influenced by the music.

But here’s the thing: music is emotional. Cranmer’s prayers are emotional. They are evocative, stirring the heart and moving the emotions. When the church prays the prayer of humble access before communion: “we are not worthy even to come to this your table…but you are the same Lord who’s nature is always to have mercy,” I often get choked up. Relentless grace should create an emotional response!

The redemptive part for me was to hear several eloquent, thoughtful, and even well educated speakers share how they want to redeem emotions and help the church embrace worship not just in the mind but in the body and the heart, I was encouraged to give it a second look. We, perhaps rightly so for a time, emphasized intellect out of fear of a thought-less worship, but perhaps we need to reclaim the heart. I’ll admit, it doesn’t come easy for me!


Like I said, conferences are great! This one reminded me of that fact. With only 50 or so attendees, a simple schedule, and a very warm atmosphere of respect and love, the conversations were healthy, life giving, and energizing – which is a high bar to hit for worship discussions!

So if you’re interested in geeking out with fellow worship nerds, be sure to register next year for this conference! I’ll be there!

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David Bailey on Assimilation, Acculturation, and embracing the whole gospel

In my daily blog reading I ran into Issac Wardell’s followup post on the Bifrost Arts 2013 conference. Here you can find recordings of each of the conference talks relating to the themes of worship, community, and mercy in the life of the church.

David Bailey’s talk on “Contextual Creativity in Worship” caught my eye. His vision for music as a reconciliatory tool is uplifting. His humor on our denominational differences is refreshing. A couple key points:

  • He acknowledges that churches are incredibly diverse organizations, yet there can be unity through diversity. Indeed it is scriptural.
  • Aural culture vs. literacy culture. Not everybody learns the same way. We all have different educations, experiences, and learning styles. Yet the power of stories connect with everyone. Is my song selection is biased towards doctrine over response?
  • Hymns speed through a bunch of awesome doctrine at 1000 miles per hour. Wesley and Watts are master craftsmen at infusing congregational song with doctrine.  This is great if  you have studied the doctrine, read Romans, and know the tunes, but what about giving some time for the singer to digest and meditate on one point entirely? (skip to 37′ for his discourse on this.)  I am often skeptical of the ‘retune’ choruses that Tomlin et. al. splice into hymns (Amazing Grace + ‘My chains fell of…’ is a classic example). Why mess with perfection? But Bailey made me see the value in these additions.
  • We have our denominational emphases: Evangelicals, the cross and personal salvation; Mainline, the kingdom of God and social justice; Baptists, the resurrection and the power of the Gospel over sin; Charismatic, the holy spirit; to name a few. But we have the Good News, and it includes all of these things. What are we forgetting in our own church contexts? We need to preach the whole gospel, not our Christian tradition’s preference of the Gospel.

Check out the full talk here: David Bailey – Contextual Creativity in Worship: Practices for Diverse Congregations

David also runs an “equipping ministry,” Making A Melody:

Making a Melody is a ministry department of Artist In Christian Testimony International. We use music as a tool in the reconciliation process. Music is a great tool for connect people, cultures, and communties, creating shared experiences that can be a bridge for deeper relationships. We are an equipping ministry that provides resources and trainings for Christian communities that are commited to cultural diversity.

Check it out here: http://www.makingamelody.com/mam-questions/

When a hymn retune is needed

wow three posts in one week Adam! Good job kid!
hymnscan
A print from the Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church (1917), p. 406  Courtesy of hymnary.org

I’m all for the current resurgence of setting old texts to new music. It’s fantastic for us young evangelicals who seek and crave lyrical depth and historical grounding. It’s great for churches that have ‘worn out’ the top 40 CCLI songs and looking for new songs by reaching backward. A bit of ‘retrovation’ if I may implement my new favorite neologism.

Many times these hymn re-tunes are successful, and bring back an otherwise forgotten text to 21st century congregations. Other times they miss the mark. Lackluster texts with unimaginative melodies simply add to an overwhelming corpus of contemporary hymnody that confuses and alienates worshippers. It’s great for the hymn (re)writers, to gain experience composing new tunes, trying out new arrangements, and sometimes failing, but is it really effective? With new CCM songs written every day, and 90% of them won’t last more than a year.  The last thing we need is to revive an extant mediocre text.

What are the things needed for a hymn re-tune to succeed? I’ll explain them using an excellent example, Greg Thompson of High Street Hymns’ 2004 setting of “Jesus Lord of life and glory” by James Cummins (1839).  Incidentally, we’re singing it this Sunday at TCC.  Here is my litmus test

1) The text must be good. Like, real good.

I can’t emphasize this one enough. The text has to be SO GOOD, that we can’t not sing it. It has to make you look at the gospel with a new pair of glasses. Though the perspective and cultural context of hymn writers of centuries past is different from our own 21st century hermeneutic, people are always people, sin is always sin, and God is always God.

Besides the aim for gospel centric lyrics, they must also be valuable poetically, both sense and sound. The words must not only pack a theological punch, but must be pleasant to say and pleasing to the ear.

Take our example, “Jesus Lord of Life and Glory.” The alliteration of phrases such as “Lord of life,” “while our waiting souls,” and “when the world around …” roll off the tongue with ease; they’re a joy to say and sing!

Consider also the structure of the text, which lends itself nicely to our contemporary verse/chorus idiom. Each verse concludes with this final line: “By thy mercy, O Deliver us, Good Lord,” rendering all the preceding text as submission to God.  It’s especially poignant in his fourth verse:

When the world around is smiling,
in the time of wealth and ease,
earthly joys our hearts beguiling,
in the day of health and peace
By thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

2) The original genesis of tune use must be fragmented

(see pie chart)

HymnTunepiechart
Exhibit B – Who’s ever sung ST. RAFAEL anyway?

The OLD hymn must use a tune (or tunes) that are relatively unfamiliar to the typical worshipper. If a tune is too readily recalled it will be near impossible to remove the conventional wisdom of the past. Especially if the old hymn exists in the existing pew hymnals. “Why can’t we just sing it the old way! I knew that one!”

Check out this pie chart – Exhibit B.  “Jesus Lord of life and glory” shows itself to be a promising candidate for a hymn retune. Not only are the most commonly used tunes unknown (ST RAFAEL and ST AUSTIN…wut?), the “other” category is just as big as the other two. This essentially indicates this text is not tethered to a certain tune, and can be freely re-set to new music.

3) Original tune (or tunes) must be unfamiliar

(see bar graph)

HymnUse graph
the hymnal stock market…

This is perhaps more like #2a, as it is similar to point #2. Not only must the current usage be fragmented, the usage must be low. The graph on the right shows a very low occurrence in hymnals from the hymns original publication, no large spikes or even any increase in use. It also hasn’t died away, but seems to be hanging on in one or two hymnals. Today it is listed in the Trinity Hymnal, #569, and no others. Perfect.

When these three factors align, the new setting might just ave a shot at succeeding. We haven’t begun to discuss the compositional decisions that need to be made – we’ll save that for another blog post.

All this to say, I’m loving the re-tune by High Street Hymns.  Check it out online here:

Buy the track here:
http://highstreethymns.bandcamp.com/track/by-thy-mercy-jesus-lord-of-life-and-glory

Or come to TCC this Sunday and sing it with us!

Corporate Worship and the body

If you read the Psalms like an ancient Israelite rather than a modern Westerner, you realize quite quickly how the imperatives of worship would have hit the gathered body.  The commands would have been heard as a call to corporate action

Another great post by Zac Hicks on why corporate (i.e. my own body, and the united body of the local church congregation) actions are biblical, historical, and good for the soul.

http://www.zachicks.com/blog/2012/12/17/the-missing-piece-in-debates-about-physical-expression-in-wo.html

Joining with the angels: some reflections after one year of music ministry

The sentiment I expressed in my opening letter to the congregation rings just as true today. In that letter I articulated that my primary goal has and will remain this: to empower all people who come through our doors to worship God fully.  Though the job of a worship leader is often viewed as a position rife with disagreement, in many ways it is the easiest job in the world.  Recalling the words of the Westminster Catechism, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”  With this in mind, my position is not one of conflict and disagreement, but of harmony and joy – one that is less concerned with pleasing people, and more concerned with pleasing God through His people.  What ceaseless hope and consistent joy it has been to work and serve in the ministry of our Lord!

I am forever grateful for the work laid out by Beth and Jim Pocock, who tirelessly and selflessly gave of themselves and stretched this congregation in new and at times very difficult ways.  One idea that they championed in their ministry is that we ought to sing each others songs – i.e. have open hearts and minds to the songs of other generations.  This gracious act of charity and love towards our brothers and sisters in Christ can be salt and light in our consumer-driven individualistic society.  It’s not just about us.  Going forward from here, let’s remember not only that learning unfamiliar music is an act of charity towards our friends, but that these songs have inherent value that we ought to pay attention to.  We are drawn to hymns because they have stood the test of time and have spoken to the hearts of Christians despite changing fads and fashions.  For that we celebrate and sing.  We are drawn to modern music because it encourages us to engage our whole body and speaks in the language of the culture we live in today.  For that we celebrate and sing just as heartily.  Can we get away from the bi-partisan attitudes that instantly dismiss music because it includes the organ, or the electric guitar?  Uses antiquated or overly modern language?  Can we move past the sectarian notion that because we are a certain age we must enjoy a certain kind of music?  Yes, with humble spirits and God’s help.  I promise to pick only the most excellent music of these (and other undiscovered) categories of music styles leading us into worship for years to come.

In this short letter I would like to share with you my vision for music at TCC for the years to come.  This does not represent a gut reaction to the climate at this particular moment, but from what I have come to stand for after years of thinking about worship, leading worship in all sorts of styles (from hip-hop to Taizé and everything in between), and studying in the classroom.  Here are a few concepts I have come to understand, and hope and pray that I will come to a fuller understanding in the months and years to come.

1.     Music is more than we give it credit for.  Too often we relegate music into a specific function.  For some music can be a means to draw unbelievers into the church, for others music can be a reminder of God’s trustworthiness and provision.  Further still music can be a means of experiencing God’s mighty power, or his relentless love.  Music can be something we make together; music can be something we rally around.  The truth is music is all of these things and more, but we must never assume that music is purely functional.  The minute we do is the minute we erect a wall that prevents the Holy Spirit from working through music to communicate truth in our church both individually and corporately. 

2.     Music is sacramental.  I apologize for the fancy theology word, but sometimes we can say in one big fancy word what would take many smaller words.  In short, a sacrament is a tangible sign of an intangible reality.  The best example of this is Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper.  Whether you view communion as the transformation of simple elements of bread and cup into body and blood, or see our Lord’s supper as a deep act of grateful remembrance that Jesus paid the ultimate price, in this meal we find that something mysterious yet real is happening.  Though it involves physical elements, our five senses cannot adequately describe what is going on.   The same applies for music.  On the surface, music is simply pitches and rhythms – vibrations, but we all know there is a greater reality underneath the physical hearing.  Anne Lamott gets at this when she asks, “How come you can hear a chord, and then another chord, and then your heart breaks open?.”  God, the creator of music has given us this gift.  How should we use it to give back to him glory?  We must never reduce music to simply a means to a greater end.  We can easily assume that as long as we agree with the sentiment of the words, the form (style) is neutral; simply a carrier of text.  The sacramentality of music reminds us that form is not neutral.  Form says something, and we must consider what we are saying through the style of our music as much as what we are saying with the lyrics.  As the saying goes, “it’s not what you say, it’s you how you say it.”  This is a potent criticism of contemporary and traditional music alike, and we need to be aware of the successes and shortcomings of both styles.

 3.     Music is congregational.  This may sound like an obvious concept, but we want to offer worship services where participation is not forced on a visitor, but essential for the regular congregant.  When our congregation is feels that participating in the worship services (and this is much more than singing loudly) is not only important but necessary, the newcomer will feel welcome and encouraged to participate, not forced or manipulated into false participation.  In addition, leadership should not be by a homogenous group, but one that accurately represents the congregation as a whole.  Let’s allow our young children and teenagers to lead us in worship for their benefit and for ours – all pleasing to the Lord.

I can help but share with you some of the conflicting reactions I’ve received for leading music in a church with multiple styles of music.  Sometimes people mention to me that the music is “too catholic sounding”, and that same week I’ll receive an email saying that they want to hear music more like the catholic music they grew up with.  Some people have come to associate me with smells-and-bells high-church worship, but others associate my song selection with the churches slow and steady movement away from hymns of the 19th and 20th centuries.  It seems I can’t win.  Believe it or not, this is actually a good sign.  We need each other in this season at TCC, and to go forward we need to seriously consider the other.  We need the budding energy of Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons” just as much the steady assurance of the old Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.”  I think back to the Kyrie we sang during lent.  I received a lot of mixed comments, both negative and positive for this from both young and old people alike.  But singing this song was good for a number of reasons.  For one, this song didn’t belong to any one particular group- young or old.  Instead it belonged to all of us: the church universal.  For another, it disrupted notions that ‘classical’ sounding songs are complicated and ‘contemporary’ songs are repetitive.  Here we had a super-traditional (4th century) song that was in fact very simple and repetitive.  Just 3 lines of music and 3 words!  Finally, it helped us not only to connect us with Christian worshippers across time, but across the globe.  As American Protestants, we need to remember our origins in the Catholic church, but also the Orthodox church in the east.  The Kyrie is one of the songs that all three churches still sing today – despite all the schisms and conflicts over the centuries we all still need to say “Lord have mercy!”  I am always on the lookout for these barrier-breaking songs for us to sing (Trisagion, the thrice holy hymn we have sung several times since Lou’s last Sunday is another example, as is Charlie Hall’s “Mystery”, which quotes directly the memorial acclimation as the chorus).  They are often the most simple but the most powerful.  We don’t need fancy words or loud guitars – those things are nice – all we need is a humble spirit to do what we were created to do.

I titled this letter “joining with the angels” because it is one simple concept I want us to remember this coming year.  It is a simple concept that radically re-orients our perspective: A call to humility in expressions of praise.  When we worship the triune God, it is not by our power or strength alone, but it is with the choirs of angels and archangels and the company of hosts in heaven – so raise your voice and praise God – for heavens sake!

[repost] How Communal Singing Disappeared from American Life

Apparently I am too busy (or too on-vacation) to publish my own thoughts anymore; this blog has become a nonetheless very interesting portal to other articles on church worship, hymns, sacred music, and the like.

Here’s one from a secular source – the atlantic monthly:
http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/03/how-communal-singing-disappeared-from-american-life/255094/
What I find the most interesting is that the article condemns American culture for loosing the idea of “communal singing”, without even mentioning the fact that every Sunday, millions of Americans gather at church for exactly that purpose. My favorite part is the comments, where practically every other person mentions this glaring omission from the original article.

Reflections on Holy Week

Well I’ve made it! My first real life experience planning and playing in holy week services.  This post is largely non-theological and very much practical.  Though I’ve participated in holy week services almost every year of my adult life, I have never had to be the person in charge.  I had a great time with it, am totally exhausted, and will need at least 11 months before I’ll want to do it again.  Good thing is I hear it’s going to happen again in about 12 months.

At TCC we had a total of seven services throughout the week:

Palm Sunday (2) – We sang “All Glory, Laud and Honor” with kid’s choir, adult choir, organ, trumpet, and palm fronds galore!
Maundy Thursday – A communion service with choir and organ reflecting on the last supper and Jesus instituting a new commandment – love one another.
Good Friday – A tenebrae service of shadows where we read through the passion narrative of Luke interpolated with passion hymns like “O Sacred Head”, “How Marvelous” and “Stricken Smitten and Afflicted”.  I brought in my friend Josh who is a fantastic cellist to play excerpts from the Bach cello suites.  The service ended with the congregation coming to the front of the sanctuary to literally nail their sins (written on prepared slips of paper) to the cross.  I plan on keeping these to use next year, when we will burn them into ash for our Ash Wednesday service.
Holy Saturday – Our newest worship service (dubbed “saturday night life”) which had little to do with a traditional holy saturday or easter vigil service, but was easter themed.
Easter Sunday (2) – He has risen! We brought back the kids choir, adult choir, organ, and waving streamers and crosses singing ‘lift high the cross’ with our resident brass ensemble.

The last supper table.

*PHEW*

Well needless to say, I went home on Sunday afternoon after the last Easter service and slept for a few hours.  Never. Slept. So. Well.  I loved planning the services and leading the music, but have learned a few things in hindsight:

1) You can never prepare too much.  As much as I thought I had everything together, something always fell through the cracks.  I was making photocopies for the choir and adding another song to the overhead screens on Easter morning at 7:57 am.

2) I don’t have to do it all.  I had many wonderful helpers who directed and managed the children’s choir, and staff support for bulletins and projections.  That being said, this year I tried to plan and execute all of the services myself.  Next year I hope to have someone help manage the choir (including photocopies and tracking attendance).  Next year I hope to have someone else plan and lead one of the services.  Next year I hope to have someone else create the bulletin and projections.  It’s not that I didn’t have the help, it’s that I didn’t know how to properly delegate.

3) Trumpet players are a hot commodity on Easter.  Though I had thought I had booked a quintet back in January, some last minute changes left me with a quartet – forcing the french horn to play the trumpet part and the tuba to play the trombone part.  Not the end of the world, but it could be avoided.

4) Some people come to church only on Christmas and Easter.

5) At the end of the day, it’s about worshipping GOD.  I need to constantly remind myself that in my preparation I am bringing God glory.  Though on Sunday at 9:30am I don’t always feel like I am having a “worshipful experience”, my preparation and professionalism does bring God glory by allowing other people to enter into worship.  To some extent, I cannot get ‘lost in the moment’ as a worship leader, because I always need to be thinking ahead.  I’m learning to be okay with that.  (That being said, the kid’s choir never ceases to get me choked up…that’s why someone else conducts them.)

That’s all.

What happened at your church?  Any fellow church musicians out there that have holy week reflections to share?