Monday, July 5, 2010

Music to Dad's ears...

My dad is not a churchgoer. Oh, he’s been to church. He grew up in southern parts in the old Church of Christ. He has his reasons for moving away. But he still pokes his head in the door from time to time.

The last time I was in a church with Dad happened in the months after Mom died. I think he hoped to find something to meet the emptiness of his brand-new unwanted life. It wasn’t a good experience. He couldn’t hear the sermon, and the regulars ignored us.

Dad told me that the worst part of that church was the music. I wasn’t surprised, and I jumped to my own conclusions about why. “Too modern. Too loud. Unfamiliar songs and tempos. He is unable to receive the new ways.”

Another lesson in listening. Dad elaborated, and the shallowness of my assumptions was exposed.

The denomination Dad grew up in was one that kept musical instruments out of worship. I don’t know the theology behind it, but I’m familiar with the concept. I would have thought that contributed to a somber, stoic, dare-I-say boring atmosphere.

“The music is sloppy!” Dad told me. “The congregation doesn’t know how to sing! Even the people up front don’t sing well.” I learned that when Dad was a boy, everyone in the congregation was involved in the music. Though they didn’t use them in church, many played instruments and read music. They practiced as they went about their everydays. They learned harmony and descant. They broke into spontaneous song alone and together. They mastered all the words. “The congregation was like a choir, and the singing was beautiful. It was an offering, like we cared about how it sounded to God.”

I often think about what Dad said when I’m in church. The fashion today is for the “worship team” to belt into amplifiers so loud I can’t hear the person next to me, much less the community of faith. When I look around I see that many don’t bother to sing. Maybe it seems pointless when you can’t hear your own voice. Hymnals have vanished so we can’t learn parts and harmony, or memorize words. Rich older hymns are sung at dirge-like pace.

How we express Christian community—or fail to—is a topic that fascinates me. Dad gave me this beautiful image of the community of faith at worship together, each important, each making a unique contribution. No one just a face in a crowd—or perhaps everyone was. No stage personalities.

I never was part of what Dad describes, but I miss the days before amplifiers. I recall worship leaders who delighted in encouraging the congregation to lift harmony and joyful noise, who suggested descants and harmonies, and invited us to blend our voices by listening to the people around us. No trance-like closed eyes, no one voice overshadowing all others.I remember learning, in church at the side of my more-musical friend, how to read music. Grappling to get it, working on it on my own. I remember other things, too. Occasional liturgy, praying the Lord’s prayer as a body, reciting the Apostles’ Creed, sharing prayer requests and being free to make an announcement or share a bit of good news. Has church become a spectator sport? “Sit. Stand. Watch me worship. Listen to me talk.” And what of passers-by outside the building? Do they hear corporate worship, or a single (and not-so-good) miked singer or lecturer?

So, I ask my 55-year-old self, is there something transcendent here, and worth pondering? Is there really a message in the medium, or is this a matter of taste and changing times?

1 comment:

Jan said...

Boy, we could talk for a lonnnng time about this topic. However, just one encouraging thing: in our little Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI, we purchase the right to project notes w/the words for our songs .... ALL the songs. It makes all the difference in the world for hymn-and song-singing. And, like so many things in the life of the earthly church, these "fashions" tend to be cyclical, so I'm looking forward to the return of true congregational singing and will try to lead our congregation as a true choir unto the Lord through this amplified stage.