Real (3): relevance and participation in singing

Relevance in church gatherings is sometimes overrated — at least, relevance as commonly understood.

Various aspects of church and church gatherings could be discussed in terms of whether or not they manifest relevance.  Since I am a professional musician and a longtime (read:  since I was 10 or 12) careful observer of church music habits, successes, and pitfalls, I’m opting for music as the specific subject area here, in this next-in-series post on being “real” and relevant.  (Please read the last two posts for background thinking.)

Is it possible that style in music is too important when people are trying to be relevant?  I mean, when churches that want to be “real” and “seeker-sensitive” get their heads together to decide what music is going to sound like in their gatherings, don’t they think about style before anything else?  On the surface, this seems a good line of thinking — I mean, skinny jeans and contemporary decor def give u good style points (as does my texter spelling there), don’t they, and that goes a long way toward hooking a seeker.¹  I don’t discount that style is important.  I just think it’s not the only thing.  In considering church music within the context of being “real” and “seeker-sensitive,” it is important to distinguish between style and content.

But first:  a matter of the harp. harp (By that I mean something I harp on every now & then!  See here and here for more logistical considerations and background.  These prior posts are both about the same length; one is more “brass tacks,” and the other is more “from the heart.”  Or, just stay with me here!)  The next section constitutes a rather substantive “aside” that I hope will not be ignored.

Whether the songs are familiar, somewhat familiar, or unfamiliar, more people can sing if there is music notation.  When there is no notation available, you’d better provide a lot of background texture of some sort.  Otherwise, unfamiliar music is especially uncomfortable and/or leaves out the uninitiated (seekers or otherwise).  Now, make no mistake:  at The Journey in Newark, Delaware, there was a lot of background texture!  In fact, the last time we were there, we were treated to a kind of head-banging performance version of “Carol of the Bells,” with three rockers front-and-center before things got really going.  🙂  For those with sensitive ears like me, earplugs are in order, but it’s “real’ to assume that most seekers out there already have hearing damage from their earbuds and subwoofers, and they’ll probably connect with over-loud music.

ppt lyrThere will probably always be something in me that feels deflated when I’m sitting in yet another church gathering in which someone has taken the lazy path by just projecting the words.  Words-only (or simply singing from memory) can work for a few songs that are “favorites,” and I do think it’s OK to “leave out” a visitor in some activities, since the church gathering is for the church, not the unknown and often indescribable visitor.

But, if words-only is all a church ever does, it’s ill-advised, careless, and really, downright inexcusable.  We ought to realize that we are a more advanced society than ever, and there is simply no reason — technologically, societally, or sub-culturally — to assume we are all dumber than people were in the 1700s and 1800s and 1900s.  They all had notated music, and we would do better if we did, too.  It is not “musically elitist” to display music along with words.  As a rule, projecting the music allows more people to sing more confidently, whether they realize it or not.  The technological tools we have available (CCLI‘s SongSelect and The Paperless Hymnal, for example) make this quite easy, and not really much more time-consuming than displaying lyrics only on PowerPoint slides.  I am not, therefore, advocating that all churches need hymnals.  (Hymnals still have their place, and some of you middle-aged folks might be surprised at the broad range of stylistic preferences of hordes of twenty-somethings, but that’s beside the current point.)  I am saying that contemporary, seeker-sensitive churches have just as much reason to display (at least) the melody lines on their screens as the more traditional churches have either to project four-part harmony or to continue to provide hymnals in the pew racks.  Pretty much EVERY literate person benefits (some, only subliminally) from seeing the musical notations.

One undeniable trend in all singing churches is this:  the more we distance ourselves from notation, the less people in the seats will sing.  Personally, 1) I am flat-out mentally unable to sing a song I don’t know unless music notation is available; and 2) I can contribute vocally pretty well on a song I don’t know if I have the sheet music, hymnal, or projected notation available.

Another undeniable trend in a cappella churches:  the more years that transpire without music notation as the norm, the closer the congregation edges toward musical extinction.  You can do church without music at all, but I’ve not met the church that intends that, and no one seems to realize that they’re hurtling down this path to oblivion unless they change courses.  You see, if there are no instruments to carry things, notation is even more essential, for without it, there is nothing but a bad, rhythmically scattered rendition of a poorly remembered melody from the last time people heard the song on the radio, by some — which was it?  the 3rd or 4th? — group that covered the song.  Confusion quickly results.pierce1

Within the context of analyzing for the relevant/”real,” we have to admit that it’s a little weird for anybody but Girl Scouts and churches to sing together in a group.  (“Kum Ba Yah” is a great song, really, but it has often been the butt of jokes, showing that group singing is counter-cultural.)  It is no more relevant to the world out there to sing with lyrics-only than it is to sing with projected music notation or hymnals.  Group singing is pretty much out of style, and we simply have to major in offering relevant content within the songs we do sing in church.

With all that said, I would acknowledge that the “heartfelt energy level” of the singing at The Journey was a bit higher than at many other contemporary churches with a lot of instrumental texture.  (It was probably a bit higher than in most a cappella churches, too.)  They have something corporately energized going at The Journey.  But more often, in my experience, loud instruments inspire

  • hero worship (as with groupies and rock idols)
  • mumbling and half-hearted singing (as in most congregations)
  • silence (with some, no matter where you go)
  • the insertion of earplugs (as with me)

Loud instruments, then, would tend to discourage participation with any real personal dynamic.  But not always.  For instance, a relatively young, derivative organization in Searcy, Arkansas called Sons of Thunder recently almost single-handedly restored my faith in the ability of a “praise band” to inspire the congregation to pour our their hearts.  I surmise that assembly energy has more to do with the group’s health as a whole than with the particulars of the music.

Next:  The last post in this series comes in two days and deals with covering up the eyes, style, and content.


¹ Don’t for a moment think that that “hooking” is reelly my line as a fisher of men.  But we must admit that hooking people is the way that some church salespeople think.  Sit there in your church row(boat) singing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” and think about it for a moment, and you’ll reelize that something smells fishy, which makes you stop singing bass.  You’ll get that sinker feeling.  Then, just cast off and move on.  But don’t listen too closely for pitch; it’s very difficult to tuna fish.)


2 thoughts on “Real (3): relevance and participation in singing

  1. markgoho 03/18/2013 / 1:05 pm

    I think you’ve made some excellent points here, Brian. I really connected with “Personally, 1) I am flat-out mentally unable to sing a song I don’t know unless music notation is available; and 2) I can contribute vocally pretty well on a song I don’t know if I have the sheet music”

    As I grow in my own aural/oral ability, I find myself able to learn songs better when just hearing them, similar to how a very young child learns to sing all songs before learning to read notation. However, this is kind of pointless in a worship service when songs aren’t sung with enough repetition to learn them aurally.

    Overall, I think having notation is more conducive to congregational singing. This is especially true (and you mentioned it in passing) when it comes to four-part harmony–something a cappella churches are (should be?) known for. While singing a root bass line isn’t the most difficult thing in the world, and tenor part that just hangs a 3rd above the melody is probably accessible to a long-time member of a church, you just can’t get much more from lyric-only slides.

    On a recent trip to Michigan we visited the Rochester Church of Christ (associated with Rochester College). They had an 8-10 person praise team and lyric-only slides of songs that I mostly didn’t know (i.e. contemporary songs from the radio that were probably too hard to transcribe but easy to grab lyrics for). That, combined with the number of people in the worship hall (500+) made me feel like listening more than singing.

    That wasn’t the most cohesive comment I’ve ever left….sorry for the ramblings 🙂


    • Brian Casey 03/18/2013 / 2:29 pm

      Thanks for the feedback and observations, Mark. Good stuff. The only place we might differ here is in the aural/oral growth. (I think I stopped growing there about 20 years ago.) I’ve always been fairly good at hearing, but I’m eliminated from anything that has to do with remembering tunes these days — they all sound the same. 🙂 So, it’s pretty much notation or no singing for me, unless, as you say, there is plenty of repetition. Recently, somewhere, I began to feel comfortable with some nondescript poppish tune on about the 10th rep of a pitch pattern, so I started to sing … but, sure enough, I got it wrong, probably because I had some other, similar tune in my subconscious.

      Appreciated hearing about your visit to RC area. I was probably at the same church about 8 years ago. I’ve been up and down w/regard to praise teams, and I’m kind of ambivalent about them now, especially in the a cappella setting — for one of the reasons you bring up and more. They tend to make people listen (which isn’t inherently bad; it’s just inherently not congregational, and I value the congregational more), plus, they tend to be band-aids for marginal singing and not cures. Ya think?


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