Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Power of Hymns

Merry Christmas! It has been a busy month as I have focused on rehearsing musicians and preparing Advent and Christmas liturgies. In the near future I will be returning to my series on liturgical renewal. But in the meantime, don't miss this excellent article on hymnody at the Brothers of John the Steadfast.

"If I Were the Devil" by Pastor Klemet Preus

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What I Found

So, before we get into the "Three-Year Plan" that we implemented at Bethany to "nurture authentic worship," I think it best to take a look at what things were like at Bethany when I first arrived there. What was the state of worship in 1999 that led Bethany to call their first Cantor? Some knowledge of what liturgical life was like when I arrived will be helpful to understanding the need for a comprehensive plan for liturgical renewal, as the scope of what we undertook over the course of four years was thorough and significant--and therefore required a patient and deliberate approach.

When I arrived at Bethany, she was being served by three confessional pastors, two of whom had been there for several years, and one who had been added just a few months prior to my arrival. The DCE and principal were theologically conservative, and the call committee which had interviewed me was vocal in their support for our Lutheran liturgical heritage and our hymnody. I even noted during the interview process the wonderful absence of flags in the chancel and was told they had been placed at the exit to the narthex a couple of years before following congregational deliberation on the matter. So I was greatly encouraged that I'd be serving a solidly Lutheran parish and was looking forward to serving people who were unified on worship matters.

Only they weren't. Not by a long shot. Sure, the program staff and the call committee shared a vision of traditional Lutheran liturgy supported by a strong and creative music program, but I soon saw that there was much work to be done--and learned very quickly that there were some who either wanted no changes at all (for various reasons) and others who wanted Bethany to move in a totally different direction.

Certainly good things were going on. The preaching was and remains excellent. But liturgically I entered an environment where the following was the norm:

1 - Cutting of hymn stanzas and omitting of parts of the liturgy so that services without communion were but 45 minutes long. (And communion was only once-a-month at that time!)

2 - Two praise teams that "led worship" at all Sunday morning services: one group once a month; another, made mostly of non-members, once or twice a quarter.

3 - Little use of the chorales for hymnody.

4 - Little use of the excellent new hymns and liturgical resources that were in common use in sister churches (such as from HS 98).

5 - Very little ceremony; a high degree of informality in how the ministers conducted the service.

6 - An expectation that children's choirs were for pre-service entertainment.

7 - A general view of instrumental and even choral music for worship as being "special music" of general devotional content rather than as a means for proclaiming the Gospel.

You get the picture. More specific details will come out over the course of this series, but this is enough to give you a feel of the disconnect between the theology being preached and the liturgical customs of the parish. And, let's be clear: I'm not complaining. I was brought in to "improve the field" at Bethany, and was aware that the leadership was seeking a musical and liturgical life that would match the theological depth of Bethany's preaching and teaching. I just didn't realize the size of the gap until I got there. Having served previously in parishes with fairly rich worship traditions, I was unaware that large congregations within Lutheranism could have such "low church" traditions. And I was also unprepared for the number of folk who were actually opposed to the pastors' and lay leaders' vision for worship as well. In previous parishes, there were staff who wanted more "evangelical" or "entertaining" worship, but the people pretty much wanted Lutheran hymns and liturgy. At Bethany, many of the people wanted "contemporary worship", but the staff was opposed.

So it was into this environment I was installed as Cantor in January of 2000. Over the next 11 months, working with the pastors, a worship committee, and a "Ministry Council," we would draw up a document called the "Three-Year Plan" that would guide Bethany's liturgical renewal from 2001-2004. We did this because we believed that a significant amount of teaching would be necessary in order to lead the congregation to embracing a more Lutheran approach to music, liturgy, and ceremony, and so took the time to get the full leadership of the congregation on board and took the care to be fully transparent with the congregation about our plans.

Over the next few weeks, I'll share the plan with you, and let you know how things turned out!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Nurturing Authentic Worship

Nine years ago, my life changed dramatically. I accepted the call to serve as Cantor at Bethany Lutheran Church and School in Naperville, Illinois, leaving my previous cantorate at Trinity Lutheran Church in Peoria. This was a move to a larger church. Little beknownst to me at the time, I was not only going to assume more responsibilities - that much I knew - but I was also about to be embroiled in the "worship wars" that have permeated the Church these past few decades. My experiences in leading the Lord's song in previous parishes prepared me somewhat for the stresses that lay ahead, but the first few years at Bethany were to give me a most thorough education in teaching congregations, nurturing traditions, and implementing change.

The last couple of posts, "Learning By Doing" and "Letting It Happen", were not originally intended to lead into a review of my first years at Bethany, but the discussion that followed made me realize that they are the perfect introduction to a series of articles on those years, because during that time I did more explaining, teaching, and communicating about music & liturgy than at any other time in my 19 years as a church musician. I discovered that being proactive is often the best strategy - but that sometimes the wisest move is to simply act and answer questions and, if necessary, make apologies later. I learned that while teaching the congregation more about music and worship is a good thing, there is a limit to what they can reasonably be expected to learn, and so often earning trust can be more important than good communication. And sometimes, because "talking about music is like dancing about architecture" (Thelonius Monk), congregations need to learn by experiencing things the Elders or Worship Committee might never approve if proposed abstractly to them in advance.

Now certainly church politics comes into play with all of this. Whether a congregation is getting along or is in conflict, there is a congregational power structure, pastoral leaderhsip styles, and congregational culture and history to navigate. And then there are personalities on committees. Sometimes they are like Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates! So the overall prinicples I've learned have to be applied in the context of a given situation. But, regardless of church politics, I think the story of my first four years at Bethany reveal effective strategies for nurturing authentic worship in a parish, and so I will share this experience with you over the next several posts.

Coming up: Developing a Three-Year Plan for Liturgical Renewal at Bethany