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Xennial Christmas Music Memories

I am a Gen-X minister of music. Based on my birthdate, some would classify me as an older Millennial, but I feel like I identify with the Gen X generation more than the Millennial generation. Perhaps I feel this way because I am the third born of four children, born in 1977, and my older brothers are definitely Gen Xers. Recently, I’ve read some articles that have re-classified those of us born between 1977-1985 by grouping us into a new classification, calling us Xennials. Even one article I read called us the Oregon Trail generation. These terms are basically interchangeable because the characteristics described are synonymous. I laughed at the Oregon Trail reference, because it’s true, I definitely froze to death in Oklahoma while on the Apple II computers in the classroom-converted computer lab at my elementary school! Whatever you call us, there is definitely something about being born during a bridge period in generational history. I’ve included some articles on these terms that I think you’ll find interesting. It explains the dichotomy of being a bridger. After the articles, I’ll explain how being a Xennial has influenced my Christmas music memories and how I consider Christmas music to be a brilliant way to bridge gaps among generations.

Read here about Xennials:

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/06/28/xennials_a_23006562/

http://www.businessinsider.com/people-born-between-gen-x-millennials-xennials-2017-11

Read here about the Oregon Trail:

http://thefederalist.com/2017/07/21/finally-theres-name-generation-gen-x-millennials/

Christmas Music Memories from the Xennial perspective

As a so-called Xennial, I was raised in a family with Boomer parents and Builder grandparents in the same town. I had no idea that my Christmas “traditions” were somewhat skewed by the generational traditions of my elders until much later in life. You know when I realized it? When I started projecting my own idea of what celebrating Christmas should be to my own children. Let me elaborate specifically on the musical aspect of my Christmas memories…

If you grew up in my house, you developed a fondness for Christmas carols and holiday favorites from artists such as Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Gene Autry, Nat King Cole, the Andrews Sisters and the like. I can still see the record covers today (my absolute favorite is featured here in the cover photo); they are etched in my brain. To this day, I much prefer these renditions of familiar Christmas songs to anything newer. These songs/renditions have been my soundtrack for the season for years. I can’t hear Holly Jolly Christmas or The Christmas Song without being transported to another time and another place; it’s uncanny! However, during my formative years, I learned all kinds of new Christmas songs also that are now “classics,” such as Mary, Did You Know, Welcome to Our World, Breath of Heaven, and In the First Light, among many others. I grew fond (and still am) of so many “newer” Christmas songs, but nothing “warms my heart” like Bing, Nat, Burl, Gene, and Andy Williams!

I realize that my “bridge” status between generations allows me to “talk the talk” in a broader way than most. In fact I believe it’s a wonderful thing because I love all types of Christmas music and can lead them (generally) with ease. I also identify with both groups so I can understand the differences that divide and try to find common ground beyond our theological beliefs. However, I’ve found that people in general prefer nostalgic Christmas music, which certainly is different for everyone. It is interesting to me, however, that people of all ages have a fondness for more traditional Christmas carols. People who wouldn’t necessarily prefer hearing a choir and/or orchestra any other time of the year are suddenly rushing to services offering just that.

One of the first churches I served had multiple types of worship services with varying music types. On Christmas Eve we would host three worship services with varying styles of music similar to the styles during the rest of the year. Even though at the time our most modern worship service had the most attending, our “traditional” Christmas Eve services were always the packed out ones. I remember asking a few who never came to traditional services why they chose to attend the more traditional service on Christmas Eve. Their uniform response was…”I like singing traditional Christmas carols on Christmas Eve because it brings back many memories…it feels like Christmas to sing these familiar carols.” At the time, I remembered thinking, “of course…I feel the same way” and then just left it at that. It got me thinking later, why is this the case? Recently, I’ve been grappling with the question: what if nostalgia, for nostalgia’s sake, can be hurtful to our spiritual understanding of musical worship? Can our “hold” on tradition limit us from experiencing the joys of “new songs?” Here are a couple of thoughts:

  1. When nostalgic music (and it can be newer and nostalgic) is more important to us than “putting a new song in our mouths,” we can alienate others.
  2. The converse is true. When we try to forget the perceived “tired and worn out” songs and assume that those who like them are emotionless, out-dated, and tired in favor of only new songs; we can alienate others.
  3. Because Christmas carols (especially those found in most hymnals) are universally sung and known, they can provide an excellent way to bridge the gap in services that typically don’t sing “older” songs. Want to try intergenerational worship services at Christmas? Sing something everyone knows (carols) even if the carols are accompanied by different instrumentation that you prefer, is a great way to start.

If you’re like me, and newer Christmas music is familiar, but not your favorite, you are not alone. This does not give you a pass to forgo newer Christmas music. however. It’s important to remember that of all the times of the year, Christmas is the most nostalgic, so use it to your advantage to incorporate new and old music in worship services. You’ll find more “modern” versions of Christmas carols than anything else newly composed. Use new versions of older carols, along with new songs to bridge music gaps in your services that speak to all generations.

Reflections from Christmas at Ivy Creek

Christmas at Ivy Creek is always a highlight of the musical year here at our church. This year we had over 1200 guests in three presentations, 73 singers, 28 in the orchestra, 30 in our older children’s choir, 22 in the youth choir, 5 working in audio/visual, one narrator, and a partridge in a pear tree. Approximately 160 of our Ivy Creek people of all ages served in worship ministry this weekend. It is truly a joy to serve with these people.

Each year, my goal is to provide a worship experience that allows our intergenerational worship ministry the opportunity to share their musical talents. Not only do I intend to use groups of all ages, but I try very hard to select music that is varied in style. We sang congregationally as well, but here is a list of the songs and arrangers we used this Christmas in the link below. I always like knowing what types of things my colleagues are using each Christmas so I can get ideas for future years.  This year I pulled several things that have been around for awhile and mixed them with some new things. Don’t underestimate a song that is 10-15 years old and reuse it when it works. If it’s still available, it’s probably because it’s a good tune and worth repeating. I ALWAYS use things I’ve used before if it’s appropriate and it fits. 100 percent of the time, these tunes are some of our choir’s favorites. This year is no exception. This year, we used several tunes I used in the early 2000s and our choir LOVED them.

CIC 17 order

Finding things that I know will work musically/textually for my groups is essential. Here are the criteria I use when selecting music for Christmas at Ivy Creek each year in NO particular order:

  1. The music must be varied stylistically. There must be a balance between new and old (familiar). There must be SOMETHING from the major music types. I try to find something that hits black and southern gospel, a carol arrangement or two, something more “choral” or traditional, contemporary Christmas music, something “fun” (perhaps even secular).
  2. The music must be “catchy.” Call it cliche, but I believe if you want people to enjoy singing and playing in your music ministry, they have to love the music. Otherwise, the congregation will not enjoy listening if the choir and orchestra is not engaged.  I have a theory that selecting music is 70 percent of what makes a good event. I don’t think there is an exact science to it, because every church is different, but I do believe we should examine what characteristics are common in popular music and apply some of that to our selection of choral music. Personally, I’m listening for the “hook” in the song. Does the song grab my attention by the first chorus?
  3. The text and music should complement each other. Musicians study word painting in music as part of their training. We should never stop this! In fact I try to capitalize on it. When rhythmic figures and musical phrasing lend themselves to accentuating the text, we do that to bring out the message of the song.
  4. Some of the music must challenge my singers and players. Every year there is a piece or two that everyone knows will require some more time. I like that, because it gives us a goal to stretch our abilities. It’s definitely more satisfying in the end!
  5. The texts (each song and collectively) must tell the gospel story. I always, always make sure we never forget to mention the cross, the resurrection, and the second coming. We have JOY of the Christmas story and HOPE because of what happens AFTER he was sent.

I’m praying for many of my friends who have musical presentations in the coming weeks. May the gospel truth be shared boldly and the Holy Spirit prick the hearts of those listening to respond in faith!

From Generation to Generation

Psalm 78:4- We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.

While giving thanks this past week, my family gathered in my hometown of Enterprise, AL to pack up my family home. After 33 years, and more memories than I can count, my childhood home is getting ready to be sold to another family. It was harder than I thought. I remember watching my parent’s custom-built dream home built from the digging of the earth to the final touches. Just about every day my mom would ride us over to the “new house” to see the progress. It was very exciting for me as a second grader because not only were we going to have a new home, but we were building next door to some of my parent’s best friends. We would have instant neighborhood friends.

When my mom died in 2013, we all knew that one day the home would have to be sold. Mentally it was inevitable, but emotionally I kept avoiding the subject in favor of trying to be strong. I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of resentment that our family home would no longer be the place that my own children would go to year after year throughout their lives as I did to both of my grandparents’ homes. Sure, my children are old enough to remember being there, but it was a little sad, nonetheless. It’s already hard enough that they didn’t really get to know my mom well enough.

My mom was truly the most organized person I’ve ever known. Thankfully, she was mostly specific about who got what “stuff” in the house from children to grandchildren. It made for an easy time to divvying up the furniture, artwork, dishes, and knickknacks around the house. Every.single.piece tells a story and we rehearsed those stories all week. It was emotionally exhausting, but cathartic, nonetheless. While the house itself will become void of our personal touch, the pieces within are being spread out among the other five of my nuclear family members. History will live on in each of our own homes…stories will be rehearsed time and time again of the wonderful memories of living at 106 E. Sandcreek from generation to generation.

I couldn’t help but think about how important history is to the local church. Without history, we simply cannot understand the journey that has led a particular body of believers to their current place. I know older adults who are passionate about the church growing and moving forward, but it’s hard for them to let go of certain memories…perhaps even pieces of furniture or mementos that signify something that is deeply important to them. These older adults probably realize that they cannot re-create the past, or dwell in it, but it’s important to them nonetheless. Some things probably seem trivial to younger generations. Don’t worry, older adults feel the same way about some of the “new” things younger adults are passionate about as well.

My family home will likely get a makeover cosmetically, and that’s okay. It probably needs it. The memories we made there will never fade, however. Likewise, we, as the church, must be sensitive to the felt needs of each generation because sometimes changes need to be made. Every generation seems to have (or create) their own “sacred cows.” What is most important is that the gospel not change. Sure, processes and ministries should change as time goes on, but never the life-changing truth of the Word.

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).