Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Words of Assurance, for those who love the stage

Hear and remember:
Christ is waiting in the wings
To meddle with your assumptions.
No matter how far off script you have gone,
No matter how convoluted the plot,
There is always a new way through,
A divine gift, offered freely for you.
(Thank the heavens. Thank God.)


Developed for a God on Broadway worship series,
Used on the Sunday when we took our theme from the show 'Pippin.'

Monday, August 04, 2014

7 Arguments for Hymnal, Songbook AND Screen (and sometimes none of the above)

If there is a neutral or agnostic stance on the matter of screens vs songbooks/hymnals in worship, I have yet to encounter it.  There seems to be a great deal of passionate either/or thinking in this skirmish in the Great Worship Wars.

"Screens will ruin the aesthetics of the sanctuary!" 
"We're too focused on the screen, and not on worshiping!"
"Those old hymns just don't make any sense to me.  What do those words mean anyway?"
"How do you sing harmony with any of these new songs?  Can't we just sing something familiar?"
"Do we have to sing all.five.verses of yet another hymn?"

A post on the "use hymnals and not screens" side of the debate from Ponder Anew (theologyinworship.com) has been circulating among my pastor friends on Facebook.  Without disparaging any of the well-thought-out points the author makes, I'd like to rebut the assumption that this has to be an either/or proposition, and gently suggest that there are strong reasons to both/and.

7 Arguments for Hymnal, Songbooks, and Screen (and sometimes, none of the above)

1.  Hospitality.  

Having the words projected as well as in a songbook gives worshipers options.  Those folks juggling young ones have a shortage of free hands.  (ditto, some of our unsteady seniors who need both hands to balance while standing).  On the other hand, I've been that short person in the back row who can't see the screen over the person standing in front of her. When I announce the availability of both, I tell the worshiping congregation, "use whichever lets you worship more fully." 

2. Follow the Bouncing Ball.  

Sometimes the notation in a hymnal or songbook is confusing.  Ever seen an odd series of repeats, done to meet a certain page count? Ugh!  For someone who is not secure in their music-reading skills, these can be a  huge barrier.  By providing the text on screen in all its glory - verses, choruses, repeats, second endings - in a linear fashion, you can avoid overwhelming the reader. We've been known to warn the congregation, "there are some tricky repeats in the print version; you might want to lean on the screen here." You don't have to literally have a bouncing ball to show the reader the way through, but if you dedicate some attention to your visual presentation, you can mitigate the effects of bad editing.  

3. Try It, You'll Like It.  

To a congregation used to a traditional hymnal, a more contemporary songbook can be off-putting.  If you look at a page of syncopated notes, tied notes and dotted-whatevers, you might blanch because you can't figure out how to count it. However, if you hear the piece, it's much easier to pick up (most of those pop-music earworms are syncopated, don'tcha know)! 

Have a song leader teach it to the congregation by ear before you ever crack the songbook.  There's plenty of literature out there on how to do this - I won't presume to cover material covered so ably by John Bell and others.  What usually works for us:  Teach the tune. Put the text on screen with line breaks at musical phrases, and let the congregation feel where it's all supposed to go. (Interestingly, the choir struggles the most with this. Syncopation does not come naturally to those used to traditional anthems and metrical hymns.  Our compromise is to let them have their music in print and not fight it. During rehearsal, we teach the choir from the text, and they're our 'ringers' spread throughout the congregation during the service.)   

4. Expanding the Canon.  

A good hymnal and/or songbook is a great asset to a congregation.  But a church wedded to its hymnal is working with a closed musical canon.  Purchase a music license (yes, you do need one), and you've opened the horizon.  You gain access to new composers who might not be on editors' radar screen yet, and to brand-new pieces that are written to respond to breaking world events.  You are no longer hostage to denominational print houses' publishing cycles or editorial priorities; instead you can craft an ever-expanding canon that meets the needs and heart-song of your own worshiping community.  We've committed to increasing the congregation's worship music repertoire with a blend of formats:  hymns, contemporary pieces, popular music, and world music.  No one songbook does a great job of covering these.  A music license and the availability of the screen gives us affordable access to many more resources.

5. Eco-Friendly (and budget-friendly).  

To the point above, you might argue that you can accomplish the same by photocopying tunes and lyrics and providing as a bulletin insert or a custom congregational songbook.  If we printed every new piece we try, our Sunday morning bulletin would end up bloated...and most of that paper lands in the recycle bin an hour later.  We've been known to try a piece one or more times, realize it won't work for us right now, and (at least temporarily) retire it.  We'd rather put the lyrics on screen and see if the song will stick than kill endless trees and run up our photocopying expense.

6. Better Sound.  
When people sing up and out, the sound fills the sanctuary much better than when their nose is buried in a songbook.  Only our most experienced singers, singing their most familiar songs, managed to pull this off when we were a mostly-print-based worshiping body. When we made the switch to offering the screen as well as print materials, the energy level in the room increased.   Again, screen not required, if you have a confident song leader, but there are great benefits to getting your nose out of the book, no matter how you manage it.

7.  Singing and Playing with Heart.  
Have you ever performed with an amazing ensemble, where you get to the stage where you can feel one another's performance, rather than having to work hard to be "together"?  That's the kind of spirit-filled magic that can happen when a congregation and their accompanist can let go of the "as written" ethos and offer up their musical gifts as one cohesive unit.  Nothing about singing from a hymnal prohibits that from happening...but sometimes reliance on a hymnal can inhibit it.  If the more eagle-eyed among the congregation are not comparing notes on the page and tempo markings to how the accompanist actually offers the piece, the Body of Christ can relax and be more fully present.

A Coda...

A guest in worship recently remarked upon the strength of our congregational singing.  She said she didn't know any of the music we were singing that day - but the mixture of tools we offered made it easy for her to participate.  In the end, it goes back to hospitality.  As worship planners and worship leaders, how can we provide the tools that allow more people to worship more fully?  Sometimes it's the heft of a hardcover hymnal and the weight of time-tested lyrics that we need.  Sometimes it's new rhythms and new lyrics that challenge us to consider new ideas.  

Any of these resources can hold good theology, offer meaningful teaching, and stir the soul.  It's all in how we use them.  Let's not worship our traditions.  Instead, let's worship God.

Postscript:  the original post that this responded to has received over a quarter of a million hits.  OP has put up a response hereA Call to Think About Worship, with which I am largely in agreement.  Neither reactivity, nor sentimentality, nor new vs. old are productive avenues for conversation.  Kudos to the OP for a calm, non-anxious approach!