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.
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. . . .