Maybe it’s just our luck

The trend in a cappella church singing, with the exception of Mennonite groups, still appears to be heading downward.  With more visits to more churches in more states than anyone I know in the past couple of decades, I figure I can duly call this a trend, but I hasten to add that this is no scientific study.  Most of the churches in my sample have been relatively small (<100), but even the larger ones, with attendance of a few hundred in two cases and even 1500+ in one case, do not show upward motion in my estimation.  It’s probably worthy of mention that about 90% of the a cappella groups we’ve visited are CofC groups; four are Mennonite, and two are other.

We hit rock-bottom last fall, falling headlong into a crevasse with no space to nurse our wounds.  I described that experience in this post under the heading “Creekside Church.”  Here are a few excerpts, for those short on time:

It was an utter travesty, . . .   This was not your garden-variety obtuse or relatively unskilled leader.  This was like a paraplegic in a relay race or a short-order cook negotiating a nuclear treaty with the dictator of a 2nd-world communist country. . . .  It was melodically confused and harmonically chaotic.  The next song . . . began in at least three different keys with equal melodic confusion.  And no one even seemed aware.

Since that experience, I have been shimmying up the granite face of the aforementioned crevasse, inch by inch, but my soles are worn.  It’s hard to make much progress without rock-climbing gear.  Most recently, after a half-dozen visits to one small church, I’d say this group sings as well corporately as most other groups in their class . . . but it surely doesn’t help when the songs are pitched two or more steps low and the tempos are 25% too slow.  All the songs last Sunday were sort of drab and soporific, to boot.  Plus, there is that dratted beat-skipping that made me actually lose my breath more than once.  Those who don’t feel rhythm and tempo as acutely as I won’t be as bothered as I am, but it does create a disruption when my inner rhythm expects to breathe and sing at X point, but the leader and many of the others around me end up doing those things a quarter- or half-second earlier.  Ergo, loss of breath.

Here is a 2012 post in which I lamented poor tempos in a large church.

Here is a 2013 post in which I decried Beatus Leapfrogus and Tempus Crawlus

Another recent visit—this one to a church of an entirely different color—showed a better corporate energy.  However, I must observe that the praise team phenomenon, which I once championed, continues what seems like a throat-hold on corporate worship.  A performance group on mic can serve good purposes, but one purpose it does not inherently serve is that of encouraging congregational singing.

There’s a relatively old battle cry—and some of the interchanges have truly been combative—that those who don’t read music can “hear the parts and learn the songs” when there is a praise team.  I beg to differ, based both on experience/training with music and insight into human nature.  Praise teams actually end up masking or otherwise discouraging vocal efforts being made among the commoners.  (Mainliners with organs and choirs, be not smug, for your methodologies have the same effect!)  Again, “performance” in church gatherings is not categorically bad, and make no mistake, it occurs to some degree in every regular church, every Sunday.  One problem with praise team performance, though, occurs when would-be rockers with “axes” or country singer wannabes wearing skinny jeans commandeer the visual and sonic attention to the point that everyone in the chairs or pews stops trying.  Worship team singers should use microphones without romancing them and sounding so seductive, if you ask me.

I had not necessarily expected to write about this kind of thing on this blog, but this past Sunday, even before going in to the building, our son had asked if we could go to the Mennonite church, “because he feels more like singing there, where people actually sing better.”  His comment was in no way prompted; there had been no family conversation about congregational singing within the last month or more.  Besides being a good reader, Jedd is starting to read music, and I heard his frustration.  Maybe it’s just our luck that we haven’t been with a good-singing church in his whole life.  And I’m not sure what to do about that. . . .

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Communing … alone?

One day, I came at “communion” from an angle that has for many years been essentially antithetical to my emphases.  I “did communion” alone.

First, a lengthy, preemptive caveat:  No matter how much I might seek to be engaged in the time-honored practice of meditating and worshipping in my spirit, pondering in my own heart the great love of God in Christ or the supreme sacrifice of Jesus at communion time and other times, I have for decades known that the essence of communion is not private.  It is, at its conceptual root . . . well, communal.  Yes, the thing we call “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper” does have a private aspect, and we can validly say that each one worships and communes with Jesus, but the group element has always been present, as I read and intuit.  For too long, my Christian groups have downplayed the others aspect in favor of a completely Christward and/or inward framework.  That is a shame.  We should actually feel shame for the part of Christian tradition that avoids thoughts of one another while gathered together.  At the Last Supper, Jesus did include the twelve and didn’t just go off by Himself, you know.  With that said. . . .

I found myself alone on a Sunday.  In the interest of openness and honesty, I will insert that there have been quite a few Sundays during the last couple of years in which none of us have been where Christians practice some kind of weekly communion.  So, the habit I was taught as a child has not been so much a habit in recent times. But that does not mean my heart has stopped thinking about it, longing for a richer and more meaningful communion practice.

As I was saying, one day, I was not well enough to drive a good distance to see friends at their church with my wife and son.  At some point mid-morning after a failed visit with other Christians nearby, I had this weird thought and followed through on it a couple hours later.  I thought I would simply “observe” by having a little communion time on my own.

Components of my private communion included

  • John Bright’s book The Kingdom of God—specifically, a section that detailed some of Jeremiah’s prophecies
  • a copy of Great Songs of the Church No. 2—specifically, the songs “Majestic Sweetness” and “When My Love To Christ Grows Weak”
  • a Greek New Testament
  • the James Moffatt translation of the New Testament
  • oral readings, for my ears and the Lord’s only, of a section of Matthew 26
  • water, saltines, produce of the vine, and raisin bread

wp-1487549644535.jpgI suppose my little time lasted about as long as most traditional church communion observances last.  I think it was at least as meaningful and on point.  Oh, and my experience was at a table, after I’d eaten some vegetables; these facts connected me, if only on the surface level, with the Last Supper.

Later in the afternoon, I returned to John Bright’s book and finished a chapter that culminated in Jeremiah’s prophecies at the time of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah.  The concluding words of this chapter are below:

[True hope] lies in the grace of God, who accords to man a New Covenant—its law written on human hearts.  The people of this covenant are the people of God’s Kingdom, for they are the pure in heart who have been, as it were, born again….

 Guard these words of Jeremiah well!  You will hear them again.  You will hear them in a little upper room; you will hear them when next you sit about the Lord’s table:  “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood” . . . and again:  Drink ye, all of it” (Matt 26:27).
If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say God Himself orchestrated this experience for me today—a captivating harmony of communion with Him and deep thoughts of the Kingdom, which is the Reign of the Almighty that the Lord Messiah came to bring back in a renewed iteration.