Building Community in the Intergenerational Church through Music- Selecting We-Centric Songs

In my last blog post I focused on several ways the music/worship leader in the intergenerational church can help promote or foster community through music. This week I will continue the discussion as I talk about how lyrics or text can help promote (or hinder) community.

We-centric- text that includes plural nouns that suggest more than one person is singing to, or about, God. 

There is not time or space to adequately discuss the evolution of hymnody in this blog post, but hymn texts have shifted from being more community focused to personal focused in the last 150 years or so. By the 19th century with the rise of evangelicalism, emotionalism, while focusing on personal salvation, writers such as Fanny Crosby and Ira Sankey (and many more) wrote intensely personal hymns with greater use of personal pronouns in the texts. Many of those seeds of personal experience from the 19th century live on today in worship/hymn texts.

While texts of personal experience and personal worship are certainly valid in some situations,  in corporate worship we (the church) need to sing more songs with texts that speak of US as a people. Too often we sing songs that use personal pronouns and sung vertically to God. Again, there is nothing wrong with these songs. I love songs like “Lord, I Need You.” But, when worshiping together it’s important that we also include song texts that include pronouns such as we and us. Further, it’s important to sing songs that we essentially sing to one another (horizontal)- admonishing each other and encouraging each other. For instance, who doesn’t have some “love” for “To God Be the Glory?” In this great Fanny Crosby text, we as the people are not singing to God, rather to each other. We remind each other, “great things He hath taught us” and the like, while reminding each other to “Praise the Lord” and to “give Him the glory, great things he hath done.”

In 2009 I did a content study on the top 100 CCLI songs at the time. While the primary focus of the study was theological content, one of the areas I focused on was the use of pronouns and direction of lyric (vertical-to God; horizontal-to each other in community). More than 60 percent of the songs were both vertical and personal in lyrical direction. (See graphs below)

My personal concern was not as much with the larger number of songs with vertical direction, but with the lack of songs that focus on community. These top 100 CCLI songs are comprised of church leaders who report usage of these songs in their worship services over time.

This week, I decided to take a look at the current top 20 CCLI songs and study their pronoun and directionality of lyric use. Much so my disappointment, the trends are not changing in the most popular used songs. Only 35 percent of these texts could be classified as having a community focus (pronoun suggestion we or us) while only 45 percent of the texts are all or mostly horizontal in nature. I believe we need more songs that include “we” and “us” in the texts if we are to be welcoming and community driven. Of the newer songs in the CCLI top list, “Lion and the Lamb” provided the most community focused text. We need more songs like this. Again, hear me, I’m not bashing vertical/personal texts, but there is a severe imbalance of songs used in worship that are community focused. Sometimes a simple change could make all the difference. How hard would it be to have written, “Lord, We Need You?”

It appears that vertical/personal pronoun, emotionally driven texts are here to stay. I’m certainly not opposed to them, but if we are going to promote community in our churches through our music choices, we have to be intentional about selecting a variety of songs, based on theological content, of course, which also include community focused pronouns.

The next time you are selecting a song for worship, check and see if most of the lyrics are not only use personal pronouns, but also are vertical. I bet most of them will be. Keep a running list of great community-focused songs from which to use to help balance out your service. You’ll be glad you did!

 

Building Community in the Intergenerational Church through Music- Part One

An intergenerational church values the whole over the individual–the family atmosphere over the segregated in order to build community. The musical portion of worship should also reflect and embody a welcoming spirit as well.  This week’s blog will focus on general concepts of music that is welcoming and builds community. Next week I will focus on specific concepts of selecting music.

Music that is welcoming in the intergenerational congregation is:

1. Varied and inclusive

People in every congregation don’t like the exact same types of music. Believe it or not, not everyone in your congregation listens to Christian music all day. I’ll bet in any given congregation, people would say they prefer all types of music including: country, rap, jazz, classical, pop, southern gospel, black gospel, reggae, and so on. Many of these types of music are easily found, to some degree, in today’s church music types. Naturally, people gravitate towards the church music types they grew up on or sound like the type of music they listen to for enjoyment. Generally, however, no music type should be off-limits based on stylistic reasons because if you look hard enough, you can find a suitable song for your choir and/or congregation. Because these varied music types exist, music leaders must be intentional about using music that is varied and inclusive of the various types of music found today. In my personal research on music types in churches, I found that certain types of music were more dominant than others based on what the publishers were producing, but I will write about at a later date in more detail. The findings, however, suggest that various music types are essential in the intergenerational church. And not only should there be various types of music, but it should be inclusive of the make-up of the church and the surrounding areas. Basically, don’t sing songs from classical literature if your church is an a very rural area where classical literature would not be appreciated or even understood. It is imperative that you understand the “music culture” of your church and your surrounding area.

2. Familiar

While varied literature is important, it’s more imperative that the music leadership know the musically DNA of the church. While the scriptural command to learn a “new song” is given, there’s no need to throw the baby out with the proverbial bath water. I’ve found it’s important to find out the choir anthems and congregational favorites from key music folks upon arrival as a new church. Having this bank of songs allows you to observe what types of music the congregation is familiar with. When planning worship each week, it’s important to include familiarity so people can PARTICIPATE. Congregational singing is not a spectator sport, it’s an ALL of us sport. By building trust through familiarity, the music leader can introduce things outside the familiar in manageable doses.

3. Authentic to the culture of the congregation

My church sits squarely in an affluent, suburban portion of a major metro area. Our people come from all backgrounds. That knowledge allows me to be as vast and as varied in literature as I want to be. Being in Georgia, we still sing plenty of southern gospel music and tunes that have a “country” feel to them. However, the very next week, someone could sing an aria and recitative from an oratorio, and our people would respond well. But, that’s not always the case with all of you. Our wide range of talent allows me to use a full orchestra and choir each week—which allows me to be more authentic in how our music sounds, especially our choir anthems. But, what we aren’t is “brand driven.” Our sound is not driven my electric guitars, but horns. And we’re okay with that. It allows us to use lots of people in worship leadership, rather than just a few players. We like that; it lends itself well to intergenerational behavior. I am fully aware most churches are not like ours. It’s not common to use full orchestra, in fact many churches don’t use more than a few instruments. You know what, that’s okay! Be who you are and do music the best you can, but don’t try to sound like a studio band if you can’t. Be who God has made you; don’t force it.

The same concepts work for music sung by your congregation and your choir. When branching out beyond familiar tunes for your people, it’s imperative that you know what types of music would work well in your situation. Basically, know your people and the community in which you live. However, don’t assume that music types are generationally specific. I’m tired (truly tired) of hearing that Millennials or anyone young ONLY like contemporary music. That is fallacious; I know LOTS of young people who’d rather hear a hymn done in a country-music style, over a Crowder tune. The converse is also true. There are some older adults that still are hanging on to Woodstock (that’s right, those young adults growing up in the late 60s and 70s are NOW our older adults) and many still love to jam out to a band.

On a similar note, the medium of music type presentation is often a struggle because we leaders believe the lie that our instrumentalists should be like the type of music we “think” we should be presenting. Can a church utilizing a full choir and orchestra be very cutting edge in their contemporary style? Absolutely, especially if the rhythm section is on point. Can a 5 person band do hymns and present them so even the most stalwart traditionalist “feels” like he or she has been to church? Absolutely. I think the tendency is to assume that one or the other medium of presentation represents a “look” that is assumed will attract either folks not there or those the church leaders want to return. I believe trying to emulate another is wrong, and wrong primarily because it’s inauthentic. Attracting people to church should be because the people in the church desire to build relationships with those not there. That, my friends, is the best way to be inclusive—love people to God.

To you musical leaders, regarding your personal vocal style, voice type and limitations, don’t try to emulate every sound you hear because you think it will sound more authentic. It can damage your voice. I know; I suffered a vocal nodual in 2010 due to unnecessary stress on my voice from trying to oversing. Don’t “show pony” either. Remember, you are leading a congregation of mostly non-singers. Pick singable keys, sing heartily with energy, but don’t get into performance-mode. There is much that has been written on this already, so I’m just reiterating. I will say this, however, a healthy vocal technique should serve you well in both traditional and modern contexts. Surely there are nuances to this blanket statement. We all know that choral singing is different than ensemble singing, which is different than solo singing. Point is, make small adjustments, not huge, inauthentic, adjustments to vocal style when leading services with multiple music types.

Next week I will discuss how current church music lyrics are overly personal and do not reflect a community focus. Additionally, I will discuss how to select music following a rubric that is steeped in the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:30).

 

Pitfalls in Music that Hinder Being a Welcoming Intergenerational Congregation.

Most churches want to be perceived as a welcoming. Sadly, if you’ve been in a number of churches over a lifetime, you’ve probably encountered churches that have no set plan in place to create a welcoming environment for guests (or members), but by their actions, philosophy, and music, they are adamantly exclusive. An intergenerational church values the whole over the individual–the family atmosphere over the segregated. The musical portion of worship should also reflect and embody a welcoming spirit as well.  Today, I will discuss pitfalls of music in churches that lack a welcoming atmosphere.

Music that is unwelcoming in the intergenerational congregation is…

  1. Performance Driven.  In these churches the congregation simply spectates with little to no participation. Many think that band-driven worship leadership is the primary offender of performance driven worship, but I’ve experienced choral driven worship services that did the same thing. The medium of presentation does not indicate whether or not it’s performance driven; rather, the lack of opportunities for the congregation to sing. We are not simply spectators, but participators.
    Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
    (Colossians 3:16)
  2. Physical Space. What does your worship center look like? What does it say about your congregation? If your worship space is Gothic and medieval in appearance and you’re attempting to do band-driven worship with and echo that could ring for minutes, it’s not very welcoming for your congregation. Basically, the look of your worship space should reflect who you are. Remember the authenticity thing. Forcing a musical style or preference in a room never designed to handle that type of music usually ends in someone thinking or saying) these people try too hard. Our room here at Ivy Creek is very well-suited for choral and orchestra-driven music. Our acoustics aren’t very dry and there is a nice ring to the room. If we were band-driven, we’d probably add more acoustical panels to deaden the sound, but we have found what works for us. When you walk into our room, you see a large platform (it’s actually about 35-40% of the room—no lie) and it’s pretty obvious what we’re about. Sound/loudness also can wreak havoc on the welcoming spirit of the church worship space. I have some new friends in my choir, late Gen Xers, who came from a church that was so oblivious to the decibel level in the room, they often had to come in after the music portion of the worship service was over because the volume was so loud. They also mentioned that because it was so loud they couldn’t hear each other sing. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to admonish one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, if no one can hear each other. The converse is also true, make sure your people can hear and understand or they also won’t be edified.
  3. Too Personal or Me-Centric. Honestly, until several years ago sitting in hymnology seminary, I had not really given this thought that songs could be useful for personal use or corporate use. Not only that, I realized that there were a lot more songs that were vertical (sung to God) as opposed to horizontal (sung to others about God). One of the assignments during that seminar was to analyze texts of many of our hymns and modern worship songs for these elements.  We even were asked to take months and months of our own corporate songs we as worship leaders selected for worship and analyze them as well. What I discovered was I tended to lean towards songs that lacked the collective “we.” I was not aiding my congregation in the act of worship together, but in subjective/privatized time of music.
  4. Loss of Welcoming Community. Congregations seeking to be welcoming, inclusive, while admonishing each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs cannot exist primarily on texts driven with personal pronouns. This is not to say that vertical, personal pronoun driven songs are off-limits. There is an argument for the collective “I,” which states that as long as we are individually proclaiming our love for God together then we are essentially doing the same thing as singing we or us. I can accept that argument to some degree, but hear the heart of the point I’m trying to make: the goal of corporate worship music is for the whole body of believers to experience community together. Community is mutual submission to our neighbors. It welcomes all who will come to the table of grace. We are better together, synergized by the people next to us—flesh and bone—harmonious, literally and figuratively!

In my next blog post, I will discuss how the church can overcome these pitfalls in churches that do not value community. As a teaser, I will remind you that people of all ages, especially our Millennial friends, value relationships in the group sense. While this “pack” mentality is certainly not original to the Millennial generation, I’ve noticed that small groups is the key to engaging and keeping young folks. In fact I believe that focusing on getting young people plugged into small groups is more important than catering to perceived musical tastes that many church leaders believe will draw and retain young people and families. Getting them connected to each other, driven more by how they can help (think social justice), and provide solid biblical children’s ministry is the key. Pastors (and yes, the pastors are the ones driving the vision of the church) need to stop putting so much weight on the music and worship service itself as the key to retaining young people. Don’t worry; it’s important, but not the key. More later…

 

 

Worshiping and Leading While Squinting in a Fog

1 Corinthians 13:12-13 MSG: We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

I had all but finished my weekly blog post by Friday this past week. I planned to re-read and put my final touches on it on Monday the 16th, but felt compelled to push it back a week at the direction of the Holy Spirit.  Saturday morning, my dear friend, choir member, care group leader, deacon, Sunday School teacher, passed away suddenly from a heart attack. Suddenly, that all too familiar sadness my own life has experienced rushes in…my own mother passed away suddenly of a heart attack in 2013. The shock, dismay– almost unbelief was overwhelming.  Here’s a guy and his precious wife who chose to adopt and raise their grandchildren who, up until they intervened, were in a horrific, unimaginable situation. These girls, whom I’ve known and taught piano lessons for five years, already have fragile spirits. They’ve made great strides emotionally and now have to deal with the grief of losing a parent. You know, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and sad in these situations; I definitely was. When Deanna and I got to their house Saturday morning, the Holy Spirit said to me…remember that you can’t see the big picture. Your earthly perspective is dim. Just remind the family of My promises. And so we did. A group of us were there with my pastor and me and we just prayed and comforted and extended love through tangible arms and tears. It was beautiful; the body of Christ weeping with those who mourn.

I remember the first year I was here, we were learning a choral hymn arrangement of “Give Me Jesus” and I asked my friend to sing a solo at the beginning of the song in his rich baritone voice.  I was reminded today that his prayers have been answered he will no longer have to yearn for the day when he will see Jesus face to face. He is in the presence of Christ:

In the morning, when I rise
In the morning, when I rise
In the morning, when I rise, give me Jesus

Give me Jesus,
Give me Jesus,
You can have all this world,
But give me Jesus

When I am alone
When I am alone
When I am alone, give me Jesus

Give me Jesus,
Give me Jesus,
You can have all this world,
But give me Jesus

When I come to die
When I come to die
When I come to die, give me Jesus

Sunday morning worship was hard too, yet it was also one of the most gratifying and joyful times of worship I’ve led in quite some time. When someone so invested in your community of faith dies suddenly, I wasn’t sure what the tenor of the services would look like. I think the vulnerability and shock allowed the walls of our hearts to break down and worship became our natural response. We celebrated, we worshiped in Spirit and in Truth, we cried, and we prayed earnestly for one another. Not only for the Conn family, but others also. In fact during our altar call, a large group from a Sunday School class came down to lay hands and pray for one in their class who just found out that have lung cancer. Ya’ll, this life is fleeting…it is short, we have so much to do and today we were reminded that the gospel commands us to share that news with those around us.

The Lord was not surprised by our dear friend’s death or the diagnosis of cancer, or the myriad of other things folks in our fellowship are dealing with.  But, GOD knows and He hears the cries of His people turning to Him in their greatest time of need! He also knew when planning for musical worship today what we as the body needed to hear and confess with our lips. In our worship we sang words of affirmation such as: trust and never doubt, I will give thanks for bringing me out of danger toils and snares, Here’s my heart–take and seal it for Thy courts above, Our God saves, there is HOPE in Your name, MOURNING turns to songs of praise, Amazing grace, My chains are gone.  The list goes on….affirmation after affirmation of grace extended to us—freely offered if we will receive. And once we’ve received, He will NEVER leave us. We can trust and never doubt for He has never failed us!

So, if you find yourself having to lead a worship service where you feel utterly helpless, and an emotional basket-case, remember that God sees the big picture. It’s okay to be emotional, real, raw, and authentic. The presence of the Lord will do wonderful, powerful things in and through you when you feel like your strength is gone. And just think, we’re only experiencing a taste of what awaits us. We are squinting to get just a glimpse of Him, but one day will see Him clearly. For now, we must yield to the Holy Spirit, so He can do His deep work in us and in the hearts of His people.

 

 

Living in Community is the Hallmark of the Intergenerational Church

Community– a group of people “who have a sense of common purpose(s) and/or interest(s) for which they assume mutual responsibility, who acknowledge their inter-connectedness, who respect the individual differences among members, and who commit themselves to the well-being of each other and the integrity and well-being of the group.”  Wood and Judikis, Coversations on Community Theory, 2002.

When I read this definition through the lenses of what the church (local and global) should resemble, I was convicted. This definition is convicting and thus challenging because we’ve got some work to do as communities of faith that are unified in one purpose and mutually submissive to one another. In the area of music for our churches, which is too often divisive anyway, we tend to lean on our preferences and not on how we can live in community.

One of the hallmarks of the intergenerational church (music ministry) is that we strive to live in community where all ages should feel valued and important. However, it’s a struggle. Here are a few ideas of how intergenerational communities of faith can make strides in being more authentic in striving for community:

  1. Involve others in the process of making music. Never underestimate the musical talents of your team. Don’t be afraid to use them to help for sectional rehearsals, orchestra sectionals, and the like. Often, the collaborative team-work approach often produces a better overall sound. Again, all the help from your team must be directed and overseen by you. Don’t let someone have carte blanche when ultimately it is your job to protect the musical and theological integrity of the music ministry. Invest in others and work together—don’t just push tasks off on other leaders without purpose.
  2. Involve others in leadership planning of worship services.  Yes, we should involve others in the “doing” of music ministry, but I bet there are folks with theological and musical training that can assist in helping plan worship services.  Planning with a team is hard work, but the creativity gained and ownership from the whole is worth the time and effort.
  3. Involve others in making overall worship ministry decisions.  Beyond musical and worship service related decisions, I find it helpful to have persons dedicated to helping “steer” the direction of the worship ministry. At our church, we have Music Ministry officers that act in this way. They hear the vision and direction from me, while adding add input, revisions, and the like. When decisions are made (even not so popular ones) the group has made them collectively, which I think adds more weight to the decision. With this said, often there are decisions that must be made outside the collaborative experience with your lay leaders. However, when possible, use your lay leaders in helping make decisions.
  4. Regularly celebrate the importance of each person in the ministry. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it is vital all members of your community (music ministry) feel important. Remind them of the biblical importance of music in worship and how they are being the body of Christ as worship leaders in the church.
  5. Celebrate what makes your local church unique. I cannot stress this one enough. All churches, even those inside the same zip code, are not equal. Some have choirs and orchestras, some have a band only, some piano and organ, or any other combination you can think of. Some are very casual; others are not. There is much to be said here (another blog post soon), but every congregation is different. Their corpus of music is different. In the not so distant past, most Baptist congregations were similar in their congregational music. Now, with the advent of technology, this is not the case. I remember when I arrived almost five years ago to Ivy Creek, I asked our music leadership to make a list of the top 25 or so congregational songs (and choir favorites) so I could get a feel for where the church has been prior to my arrival. I still refer to the list…
  6. Be authentic as a leader, but willing to stretch. As a leader, you are the sum total of your experiences to date. To be asked to make a 180 degree shift in worship leading style is unfair and ultimately detrimental to the leader and the church. However, the leader should always be willing to stretch out of his or her comfort zone musically to some degree when needed. If we are to truly live in community, we must sing theologically-rich songs, both old and new, and everything in between. The only difference may be that in some churches, the medium of musical presentation might be a band in one church or a piano and organ in another. Whatever the case, strive for excellence and lead with high expectations. I remember my pastor saying to me a few years ago, “Will, you set the bar for excellence for your choir so high knowing that just below that is where they’ll end up and that’s your plan all along.” At first I wasn’t sure how to take this comment until he explained that I’m always striving for the perfect sound/blend/articulation/vowel placement, but I’m thrilled because while they might not achieve professional sound, they are far better than they were and I’m okay with that. Always aim high, my friends. Be authentic and real and appreciate your people when they give their best for the Lord.