In all of my years as a pastor, my favorite service was the late evening candlelight service on Christmas Eve. It somehow combined all of the best things about church for me. The sermon was short and the evening was always festive, moving and deeply spiritual. But over the years I realized there was one thing about that service besides the candles that was special. It was the music.
Admittedly the music did not match the grandiose music performance of our amazing choir, guest soloist and visiting orchestra during Easter services. It may not have been quite as exhilarating as the music of the combined choirs and instruments during the Thanksgiving service we held with the Synagogue that shared our space for nearly 15 years. But a minor disaster that occurred one Christmas Eve made me realize what had made the music so important.
We had never used a hymnal for this particular service. But one year, shortly after we had purchased the new UCC hymnal, we decided to use them for the service. The worship committee printed out the first and second verses of over a dozen familiar Christmas carols. Frankly none of us had looked closely at the words or noticed they had been altered in the denomination’s attempt to make the hymnal gender neutral. From a philosophical standpoint I have always appreciated these efforts. But in this case it did not work out well.
It started at that magical moment when we turn down the overhead lights, light our individual candles and begin to joyfully sing the carols together. It was not long before grumbling could be heard. There were not many changes to the words but enough to throw people off. Some were using words from memory and others were following the hand-out. The singing began to sound like any congregation trying to sing new hymns—nothing short of awful. Fortunately most of the people in the pews only needed the music for the second verse for most carols. When I finally realized what was going on, I suggested that everyone put the paper sheets down and sing from memory.
A week or so later when our planning committee was reviewing our experience we all agreed we would go back to the old slides we had used for years. They were projected onto a screen for those few visitors who had not memorized the carols. I was surprised, however, how upset some people continued to feel about the loss, as one person put it.
A few years later, while I was doing research on the growing mega-church phenomenon, I began to grasp what really happened that night. Over time, I have become clearer why so many people felt such a loss that night.
I believe any truly spiritual path must understand its main function is to provide the opportunity to experience genuine Unity, or a Oneness with all Creation. There are many ways to say the same thing but every church, religious, or spiritual gathering is trying to help the attendee experience that Oneness. I am convinced one of the places we can do that is with music. The mega-churches, in large part, figured this out decades ago. But go into a typical church today with sixty members and listen to them try and experience Oneness or sense of Connectedness as they stumble through a difficult hymn or unacceptable theology. At some point in that experience, most people are just hoping for the hymn to be over.
I do not care if you are a fundamentalist, a conservative, or an evangelical mega-church, the music should be designed to offer an opportunity to experience that connectedness with the Divine and each other.
I get tired of hearing my scholarly friends make fun of the silly praise music common in so many of the mega churches and even in smaller evangelical churches. We may hold our noses up in distain but those churches continue to attract young people. I have attended many of those services over the years and watched the faces and expressions of those participating attendees. They are experiencing something few people do in our intellectually sophisticated mainline services. Forget the fact that most of our mainline churches are singing songs with music that no longer fits our Christology. The music does nothing for most people. Simply changing the words and correcting the theology is not necessarily going to make it any more palatable or experiential.
That is why most growing churches from all perspectives now include music with drums and with simple lyrics that can easily be memorized. This kind of music allows you to feel the beat. It does not have to be rock music but still something you can feel. Some churches encourage dancing in the aisles. People in general and young people in particularly want to feel some connection to the sacred, the divine through participatory music.
When I say participatory I don’t necessarily mean everyone has to sing or dance, although these can be positive spiritual activities. What I do mean is the music is something that touches the soul at some deeper level. It can be an action that helps someone recognize they are connected to something greater than themselves. For some it might mean sensing deep connection with other participants. For others it might truly be a path to the experience of the Ultimate Divine. For a few it might be all of that.
A few years ago I attended a Compline service at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in downtown Seattle. The Cathedral started this service in the 1950’s and it is still going strong. The service is held every Sunday night at 9:30 and is attended in large part by people between the ages of 15 and 40 years old. The time I attended, there were several hundred people nearly filling the large sanctuary. I was told attendance ranges from 200 to over 600 hundred depending on the time of the year. http://www.saintmarks.org/Worship/Music/Compline.php
The Compline service comes out of the monastic tradition and is primarily made up of chants and meditative music sung by a small choir. The attendees can sit, lay down or walk around anywhere they feel comfortable in the Cathedral.
I interviewed some of the young students I met in a nearby coffee shop after the half hour service. I discovered that few of them attended church nor did they think of themselves as religious. But they seldom missed a Sunday night. The common expression I got from them was that it helped them feel connected and they liked the way it made them feel. A couple of them were able to articulate a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. But not one of those I talked to had a theology or Christology they were willing to share with me or the group. They generally agreed that they love the experience and miss it when they do not attend.
I have sat at the edge of drumming circles for an hour or more on many occasions. I admit I never interviewed the participants but I do know most of them gather at least once a week. I believe they would have echoed much of the same comments the young folks expressed who attend the Cathedral services. It helps them feel connected and part of something larger than themselves. Others have found that same connectedness by attending Taizé services on a regular basis. Most of who attend do not necessarily see themselves as religious. I suspect many of them might be uncomfortable with the actually language of the chants if they were translated but I doubt if that would stop them.
Like the young people who attend the Compline services, they are not concerned with the words or worried about the religious implications. They are doing something together and experiencing Oneness or connectedness they seldom experience in our disconnected, competitive and sometimes downright callous world. Few of these, I am sorry to say, would find this connectedness on Sunday mornings in most of our mainline church services.
For over 20 years in my former church, we sang the same closing song. It was the word alleluia sung over and over, often with lovely harmony. We changed a lot of things over the years in that church, including buildings, bulletins and music. But I think I would have put my career and possibly my life in jeopardy if I had insisted on changing that one thing. It was rare when I did not notice tears of sadness, tears of release and tears of joy during that very short time in the service. No theology, no Christology, no sermon could have done more than those couple of hundred people holding hands, often with eyes closed, going someplace into themselves yet connected to something much larger.
So I go back to the question. What is the place of music in the progressive church or gathering? I would suggest that we have to start with a clear understanding of what our goal or purpose is for our progressive churches. From my perspective that means using and creating music, chants and meditations that bring everyone together. We want to create an opportunity for our participants to have an experience of Union or Oneness. That means a union with others in the room, with the creation and all sentient beings and with the Ultimate Mystery we call God.
We need to give consideration to things like: is it inviting, simple, does it have a beat, is familiar and/or joyful? If it is difficult to learn, to sing, to play or understand, I suggest we leave it to the professional or volunteer musicians for their special performances. It seems to me we should be looking for an experience that deeply connects us rather than concerning ourselves about echoing the sermon or the theology of the day. Maybe then we can sing or chant our way into the Infinite Mystery.