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III. At the College Church
The College Church of Christ is an iconic CofC that isn’t necessarily the oldest in town but is the largest and has been the most influential over the long haul. Since I didn’t jump on the College Church bandwagon while a student and take the convenient route to the church that was closest to campus, I was never a privileged student leader there.
Once, many years later, a couple months before a visit to Searcy, I wrote to an old college friend, who was then involved in worship planning, to see if there might be a Sunday night I could lead at the College Church. I didn’t hear from him at all; instead, I got a “blind” note from … wait for it … the preacher (aarrgghh). I hadn’t addressed the preacher (whose name I didn’t know at the time), he had no relationship with me, and he didn’t even tell me what his official capacity was when he wrote me tersely to say “thanks, but no thanks.” As I discovered later, the College Church’s refusal to admit me (on a one-time basis) to their sacred ranks all went to a relational issue that was obsolete and mostly, if not completely, in the minds of a few. I get a little upset when I think about this still, even though it occurred more than two years ago. I wish, frankly, that I hadn’t cared, but there was something about the experience of leading at this church, and the history of relationships there, that made me care.
Now, back to our unscheduled program. Back in the day, the College Church was famous for having only-professional-quality song leaders. Not a first-string and second-string group, but an only-string group. High levels of proficiency and “professionalism” (although that term wasn’t as common back in the day) were expected. Only two or three music professors — and two or three others who could have been music professors — were “allowed” to lead. I don’t believe this amounted to a draconian ousting of the inept. Back then, people weren’t as likely to be offended at not being included; it was simply the way it was. Quality was expected, and the regular rotation selected quality material for worship and led in a generally well-above-average way. All but one of these men I remember as the “A” list have moved into the land of the eternally living now.
Don’t let the modern logo fool you; the College Church strikes one as relatively conservative in structure and practice. It possesses a powerful legacy — and perches high atop a pedestal in the eyes of many, including a fair number of its own congregants. I don’t think I ever personally idolized the College Church; yet, deep within, there was for a long time a faint, but persistent, yearning to be included as a leader there. Even one appointment would be sufficient. I wanted to be able to say that, once in my life, that I was one of the few, the gifted, the chosen … that I had been presented with the opportunity to do what only a relatively small number of leaders had done: leading singing at the College Church in Searcy, Arkansas. This was the town that produced, through its College-turned-University, what were considered by many to be the finest a cappella choruses known in our fellowship of churches. This was the small town that had four fairly large churches of our stripe, and lots of capable student and faculty leaders (all “laity,” mind you). And in this town, College Church was king of kings.
One time, a couple of years ago, I sort of slipped in and led at the College Church — by quasi-approval, during a free-for-all singfest in which multiple leaders were leading two songs each. The opportunity presented itself, and I took it, and now, I don’t ever need to lead at College again. I’m persuaded now that I do more effective work in other scenaria, and I’m happy to do things I think are more important in the Kingdom than to lead singing at a place where there is such an auspicious history of song leaders, and where the congregation is so large that actual leading and following are not options, in any real sense.
Leading singing in Searcy was an important part of my earlier Christ-ian history, and the experiences were positively formative for me. These days, I continue to treasure opportunities to do such leading; this particular species of opportunity now comes every few weeks in Rochester, New York. There, our Lawson Road Church is a rare one in which depth of content is valued above style, speed, and glitz — and in which a nicely disproportionately large number of mature believers have leadership qualities and inclinations that are well suited to worship in the assembly. Yet I am convinced that with current developments in Christian music and church-growth thinking, congregational singing is deteriorating.
Never will congregational singing be the same, yet other aspects of church are being bolstered. It’s no case of “easy come, easy go” for me: worship and a mutual sense of what we’re gathered for are a high priority. Although I was for years a champion of “contemporary music” in my congregation–using overhead transparencies before PowerPoint and projectors were affordable, editing and compiling two hymnal supplements, and leading with the teenagers — I am no longer as concerned with contemporaneity in worship content. It is, in the final analysis, all about content. Who are we to say that Matt Redman and Casting Crowns and the erstwhile favorite Twila Paris are more soul-enriched than Charles Wesley, L.O. Sanderson, William Cowper, Clement of Alexandria, and even Fanny Crosby? Content is content, and style is style.
As strong congregational singing declines, I am wistful and more than a trifle sad. But I am saddened less now than I was when I first began to perceive and comment on this decline. Maybe it’s creeping apathy in that causes my sadness to be less painful. Or maybe it’s that I am finding other ways to serve in the Kingdom. May God keep me from apathy and move me more into valuable service, wherever I am. No matter whether worship and congregational song leading in a decade looks anything like it did in the 50s, 80s, or 90s, the Kingdom of God is forever.