Striving for diversity in congregational song in the intergenerational church

Colossians 3:15-17- And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 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. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Music surrounds my life! My boys find it strange that my favorite music to listen to in the car is so varied they never know what I’ll be listening to. I will admit, though, I often have something from Latin America playing; it’s always a fiesta in my car! Joking aside, as a musician, I find that all over the world music speaks to people in different ways. Paul knew the power of music as well as he admonished the Colossians to use all types of music to remember the gospel truth.

Having been called by God to serve in vocational ministry, I’ve devoted most of my life to promoting, teaching, and glorifying God through music. I feel blessed that I enjoy leading and worshiping in most music contexts that glorify Christ and articulate the message of the gospel clearly. I’m an anomaly, however. Most people I encounter do not like all kinds of church music. In fact some are more adamant that certain types of music are genuinely more worshipful and edifying to the body. Further, there are those that believe that the presentation of “their” idea of worship music is somehow more authentic and “holy.” Then there are folks who, given the choice in their churches, would rather simply just turn the worship team “off.” It is vital that worship leaders be sensitive to this me versus them mentality and strive to integrate a musical atmosphere that is sensitive to the various generations and cultures in our churches.

If you asked most American churches to describe their worship experiences, most would say their congregational song includes some variation of hymns and/or modern worship music. From a musical standpoint, other than the newness of the songs composition, there is little really very little diversity stylistic. It’s interesting how diverse we really think our music is that many churches create services specifically to homogenize the musical style, rather than provide opportunities for diversity! When I taught high school choir many years ago, diversity of the literature was encouraged strongly to promote unity in spite of the diversity. However, our churches who should be beacons of light for the gospel, struggle to even find unity in their congregational songs!

Our lack of unity is no stranger to contemporary culture. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, knew that unity was important for the early church because sin would always creep in and cause division. Not only should worship be vertical (in praise to God directly), Paul asserts that unity could be achieved by singing the WORD of God to each other (horizontally) in a variety of types of songs. Paul knew that the early church didn’t have the printed Word of God that we enjoy today. These early Christians would need to remember the Word somehow…and singing scripture was an incredible way for the word to “dwell richly” in the hearts and minds of those early Christians. The songs we sing today should do the same thing. We must sing substance and the music should complement the text of Truth. Further, the various types of music available today should be reflected in our worship services. I encourage the writers of today’s congregational song to branch out into styles more reflective of the diversity of our communities.

Here are some suggestions to select worship music that reflects ethnic and generational diversity, while being rich in text.

  1. Text is most important factor in selecting worship music. Period.  Worship music should include vertical and horizontal expressions of worship where the people of God sing to God as well as one another the truth of the gospel. For more information, see this previous blog post Building Community in the Intergenerational Church through Music- Selecting We-Centric Songs
  2. Use black gospel as well as southern gospel music, especially if you have African-Americans in your congregation. We Georgians are well adept at singing southern gospel; our people are familiar with it. However, if we are to reflect our communities, we need to sing black gospel also. There are numerous wonderful songs out there to sing. However, I’ve found the best places to find these songs is by looking into literature written for schools and/or community choruses.
  3. Investigate music from Latin America. I love syncopation, especially the habanero and other cross-rhythmic beats. We have a severe lack of latin flavor in many of our churches. Just be sensitive if the presence of congas and a cowbell make some folks in your church squirm! Again, school literature often has more variety in terms of literature.
  4. Integrate music from Asian cultures. In our county, the Asian population is exploding. Traditional Asian music utilizes a limiting pentatonic scale, but there are some interesting things out that can be used if you investigate.
  5. At the very least, utilize worship leaders (players and singers) who are not ethnically the same as the majority of your congregation. Example, I have a wonderful Korean young woman in my choir who studied opera in South Korea. She is an excellent singer, but didn’t know many songs in English she could use in worship. I suggested she look at some oratorios she might be familiar with. She wound up singing “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,” one December and it was a glorious offering of worship.

The key is strong text, varying music types, and utilizing folks from various generations AND cultures. Doing so can really make the difference in the worship experiences for ages to come. I believe this is exactly what Paul was referring to when he was encouraging the Colossians to be unified…bring your various experiences and abilities and be unified in PURPOSE and the Lord will be glorified.

Merging Worship Styles

Over the last several months, I’ve heard of several churches that have had multiples styles of worship prior to Covid making changes to one, more balanced, intergenerational style. Most of the worship pastors I’ve heard from are excited that their churches are embracing a more inclusive worship experience. For those of you in a similar boat, here are some great guidelines (not exhaustive, of course) for you to use when considering a shift from multiple styles back to one, more balanced, style. To be clear, this is not a call against churches with multiple styles, but rather some practical ways those churches seeking to bring greater unity to their churches by merging into one style may do so.

  1. Prayer! Pray for unity in specific ways (1 Cor. 1:10; Phil 2:1-8; Col 3:14; 2 Cor 13:11; Rom 15:6; et al). Remember: the goal is not to make everyone in the church unhappy by telling them their preferred style of music (and let’s be honest, music and time frame are what people care about) will no longer be the same. Pray for soft and receptive hearts, for unity, and for God’s glory.
  2. Must be approved by the Senior/Lead Pastor. While many of the worship pastors didn’t say this directly to me, I got a very strong sense that the move to multiple styles of worship was championed by senior leadership who felt the need to reach more people/please more people in their church. While this is not a hard and fast rule, many worship pastors would not advocate for having to plan and lead (or even oversee other leaders) for multiple worship styles. Therefore, you can bet that the senior/lead pastor must be on board with this change. If you can, remind your pastor of the biblical precedents of intergenerational worship and how unity is the goal.
  3. Must have buy in from key leaders. I don’t think I can stress this enough. Have meetings, have conversations, have prayer with all those major leaders/players in the process of coming together. Share your heart and philosophical reasonings for why intergenerational worship is biblically sound. Be prepared to answer tough questions and anxious people. Think through every aspect of how the changes will affect as many groups inside the church so you’re prepared when confronted with questions.
  4. Consider your church context. Every church is unique. When hearing from each church planning to merge together, each and every one had a specific set of limitations and concerns. Carefully consider how this move might affect your Bible Study/Life Groups/Sunday School, your choir and orchestra, your band, AVL teams, etc. Ask yourself: what challenges present themselves that we need to solve before and during our merging process. The most common questions will likely be, “what will the new service look like? and who will be involved?”
  5. Work hard to bring together a “new” common musical language. One of the biggest tasks you’ll have to navigate is merging the hymnody of your multiple styles of worship. Perhaps there are songs that overlap from each of the separate services—begin with those. Look for ways to integrate familiar songs for “all” groups represented. You may have to unify the charts used and the instrumentation depending on your new intergenerational style, but choose wisely and carefully…especially if drums were not present in one of the services.
  6. Figure out a way to utilize all the musicians from all services. This is also a challenge because when combining forces, you’re going to realize there might be some redundancy in your players. Find creative ways to use them all in an equitable rotation. Just remember…we’re in this together; no one is totally excluded. There are some challenges to face depending on your context. I heard from one colleague that has merged styles and their choices related to merging styles has the choir not singing every week for now. He said it’s hurt rehearsal attendance because there’s not the weekly service to sing in. However, this same choir is now having to sing for multiple services on the weeks they are scheduled! The scenarios are endless. Just realize there will be compromises ahead! Handle them with grace.
  7. Make changes slowly. Unless you have an incredible reason to make a dramatic shift quickly, make slow changes—working in one new song that might be new to everyone–or one new instrument that might change the timbre of the sound. Perhaps the dress of the worship leadership themselves might need to be done slowly. If one service was formal and the other very informal, find a compromise on the dress to help foster unification.

As a church that is pretty textbook intergenerational and our services are identical with one prevailing style, which has both traditional and contemporary elements, I can say our move in 2014 to two completely mirrored services had its own challenges. While we didn’t have a musical style issue to overcome, we did have several practical issues to deal with. Here was our scenario:

*We had an 8:30 and 11:00 service with SS in between (choir and orchestra only at 11-PT and band at 8:30- same music, but without choir feature; we moved to SS at 8:20, 9:45, and 11 and our worship times went to 9:45 and 11.
*Our shift to back to back services allowed us to use the choir and orchestra for both services (although choir was only in loft for first 10-15 minutes of service–major drawback). The plus was each service got the identical worship experience. To date I have less than a 15-20% change in choir size between the services, because the choir sings and then can go to SS, stay for whole service, or leave. The change did require many more volunteers than we had before, but the dividends have been worth it. I built up the excitement of being involved in the worship services while not having to miss SS.
*Biggest drawback has been parking. Between 10:30 and 11 is the time frame we have the most people on campus at any given time. The 11 worship attenders are starting to arrive, 9:45 attenders are still here, and our largest SS time (9:45) is still in session. We regularly max out parking, so many have to park off-campus.

If you and your staff are considering a shift and have questions, either I, or some other trusted friends who’ve been through shift like mine or a musical style shift, would be happy to talk with you about it!

Choosing an All-Virtual Christmas at Ivy Creek

I’ve really enjoyed hearing and seeing many church’s Christmas music this season. Never before have our Christmas celebrations been so visible as this year. One thing I noticed immediately, every church fell into one of four camps when presenting their music this year:

  1. Some chose to do nothing at all, forgoing a special Christmas offering this year, but chose to do some special things during the normal weekend worship services.
  2. Some chose to continue with a live presentation (with modifications such as distancing for congregation and presenters) and livestream the presentation for those at home.
  3. Some chose to go a completely different direction than focusing on an indoor musical presentation (live nativities or other outdoor event).
  4. Some chose to do an all-virtual presentation (some chose to simply use videos from previous years, while others recorded new material-or some variation of the two).

Regardless of the camp chosen, I have been very impressed with the creativity I’ve seen and the effort to make Christmas special for each community of faith. Every church has had to make some tough decisions on what to do in their own particular context based on the restrictions of their community, effect of virus on their own congregation, and comfort level. There was NO wrong way to handle Christmas music this year because every context was different.

I chose option four at my church for two basic reasons:

1. Our room (both the platform and congregation space) would not allow us the opportunity to do live presentations without at least 10 different presentations, let alone the issue of how to fit 125 in the choir and orchestra distanced in a space barely able to hold this number elbow to elbow!

2. Doing a virtual recording, using our whole sanctuary space allowed us to spread out like we needed to, and not limit the number of participants in our event this year. My number one goal this Christmas was to make sure that all who wanted to sing and play had that opportunity.

I struggled in the latter part of the summer about what to do for Christmas primarily because I’m a big time planner. Our event, Christmas at Ivy Creek, is the largest single event we do in our music ministry each year. Our investment in this event and the spread of the gospel message was just too important to forgo. By August, I was concerned about our ability to do anything for Christmas. I had thrown out the idea of doing something outside because of the volatility of the weather and I threw out the idea of doing the event up to ten times. As the fall began and we started resuming bi-monthly choir rehearsals, I realized our best option would be to do something virtual–specifically pre-recording something, but it was the first week of October when I finally felt a peace about what to do. At that point, we only had seven rehearsals before we planned to record. I knew it would be too much to ask our folks to learn a whole hour of new music and be able to internalize it. So, I started looking back at previous year’s recordings and I decided we’d do a hybrid virtual concert: some videos of songs from the past and then five new songs (four choral and one orchestra feature). I figured we could learn five songs in that time frame to get ready to record.

Getting ready to record proved to be a frustrating challenge at first! Finding a way to mic an entire room (can you say balance issues!?) and video an entire room with our equipment would not have produced the best result. The balance of orchestra to choir during this season was a challenge. While almost all of our 34 players played, only 60 of our almost 95 singers were comfortable singing. After many conversations and some trial and error during rehearsals, we realized we needed to hire an audio engineer to record the audio for our new songs. This was the best money we could’ve spent to get a real-life room sound.

We decided to record our narrations off-site this year and drop them into our “cornucopia” presentation. Because we gave my video producer only 5 days to edit and create our video for our premiere, we decided to do the narrations in mid-November. This gave him the time to make sure the previous choir and orchestra videos were extracted from the past and the narrations edited before he tackled the new material.

The day of recording went as follows:

  1. Orchestra arrived first for temperature checks and tuning and then recorded their feature first from 9-9:30.
  2. Choir arrived and stayed in cars or outside (even though it was cold) and then entered to have temperature checks and begin recording at 9:30.
  3. The rest of the recording itself took about 2 hours to for the other four songs with the choir and the orchestra. We stopped between each song to clear the air.

These are the safety features we implemented. I’m sure they we are not as strict as others I’ve heard of, but now that we’re over 18 days from the recording, I can say there was no COVID transmitted during our recording!

  1. Mask wearing when not singing or playing. Worn upon arrival and when leaving
  2. HVAC systems on constant flow to move the air
  3. Physical distancing between persons (I cannot say we kept 6 feet the whole time, but we grouped family members close to each other as much as possible and we did have several family members present).
  4. Breaks between each song to clear the air.

Our experience recording went so well for us that I’m planning to bring back the audio engineer and do another round of recording for our choir and orchestra at least once more closer to Easter. We are NOT using the choir in person during our regular weekend worship services. We are using pre-recorded anthems to use for the foreseeable future. I am using orchestra and praise team every week. I miss having the choir, but allowing them the platform to sing and record has meant the world to them. They STILL get to be worship leaders, just in a different way. The goal of this blog, and this article as well, is to remind us that all persons from every generation and ability level should have a place to serve. Creativity is a must to make this happen, but it can happen. I applaud the work so many of my colleagues are doing to keep people active in worship ministry throughout this unprecedented season. I’d love to hear more ideas of how all generations are still being utilized in worship ministry.

If you’d like to see our final product, here’s a link to Christmas at Ivy Creek 2020. Below that are a few pictures from the recording day:

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