Sunday, 16 March 2014

Let all the World, in Every Corner, Sing!

"The power of art draws people to behold it. Good art bears its message into the soul through the imagination and begins to appeal to reason, for art makes ideas plausible. The quality of music and speech in worship will have a major impact on its evangelistic power. In many churches, the quality of the music is mediocre or poor, but it does not disturb the faithful. Their faith makes the words of the hymn or the song meaningful despite its artistically poor expression, and further, they usually have a personal relationship with the song leader and musicians. But any outsider who arrives not convinced of the truth and having no relationship to the music leaders will be bored or irritated by the poor offering. Excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre or poor aesthetics exclude. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come. To say this positively, the attraction of good art will play a major part in drawing non-Christians." (Tim Keller - Evangelistic Worship, p. 7).

"Excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre or poor aesthetics exclude."  This is absolute nonsense! 

For a start, it is based on some preconceived notion of what is aesthetically excellent, what is mediocre and what is poor.   One of the things that people of almost every type find "inclusive" is participation.  A church with talented musicians and a great "up-front" music team can suffer from an extreme lack of participation, simply because every church service is a "performance".  People don't "sing"; they simply "sing along".  

If you can get ordinary people to sing "together", then you have something that others will want to join in. The music can be as excellent as Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, Bach's "Oh Sacred head sore wounded", or the magnificent Wesley/Mendelsshon combo of "Hark the Herald Angels"; it can be as corny as "Standing on the Promises" or "When the roll is called up yonder"; as simple as "Wide wide as the ocean" or the Taize chant "Laudate Dominum", or totally and utterly trite.  But whatever the music may be, wherever people sing with enthusiasm, others will join in, and in doing so, will be included, just in the process of raising their voices as part of the multitude. 

Modern styles of worship have increasingly robbed worshippers of the pleasure of hearing their own voice raised as one of many. Recitation of familiar prayers, including the Lord's Prayer, is in many places a thing of the past. The voices of the young are rarely raised together in that ancient statement of faith known as The Creed. Familiar hymns that traditionally have been used to bond communities (young and old) in times of grief or celebration have been forgotten in the provision of stimulating entertainment for the young.  No.  "Excellent aesthetics" is one of the least considerations. Being able to join in "The Lord's my Shepherd" with your mother, granny and other mourners  at your grandfather's funeral is to be included. Standing there and fumbling because you don't know it when you need it is to be excluded. Holding a Carol Service and using the familiar carols but with modernised words and an up-beat rhythm excludes all the people who only come once a year to bring their kids. 

Putting a group out the front who concentrates on producing a quality performance, is exclusive. Putting just one leader whose primary job is not to play an instrument and sing into a microphone, but to conduct the whole congregation is far more inclusive. No-more than one person can lead congregational singing, unless the venue is so big that people cannot see. There is nothing wrong with a backing group which serves like a choir, but the minute they take front stage, you have lost your congregational singing. 

The traditional choral service such as are still used in cathedrals and collegiate churches across the world, are an effective way of getting congregations to sing.  The choir doesn't face the congregation. They sing the responses (which the congregation can join in) and when they do perform during a service, it is an "anthem" and it is clearly a "worship performance".  The choir also leads the hymn-singing, which is generally done in unison, with the choir breaking into parts in the last verse. The treble line that is produced in the final verse is intended specifically to complement the unison singing of a congregation of ordinary untrained singers. Being part of the congregation when the choristers suddenly break loose in a great hymn can be thrilling, but it is the general rumble of untrained voices that is the essential component, not the choir.  I will put some of my favourite hymn-singing clips on my page. 

Some of my favourite Youtube Hymn-singing: "Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah" from Wales.  Jesus would have been right in the middle of this. a very enthusiastic Easter Anthem

Taize from Notre Dame, Paris

This is what a well-trained congregation can do! 

The words and music of this hymn are as trite as they come. The singing is delightful!

Pope Benedict really enjoyed his visit to Westminster Abbey.  The name of the tune, appropriately, is “Westminster Abbey” by Purcell, and the words “Christ is made the sure foundation”. The grave with the poppies is that of the Unknown Soldier. This was a great moment for ecumenism. 

The very poor video is of a wonderful and glorious moment in the history of Christianity.  "Shine Jesus Shine" at the inaugural service at Our Lady of the Rosary, first Christian Church in Qatar, an Islamic state on a peninsular in the Persian Gulf. The Catholic congregation is mainly domestic servants and workers from the Philippines and other parts of South East Asia.

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