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

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


Orianna Laun said...

It seems as though sometimes the whole "worship wars" are due to lack of knowledge rather than deliberate change. It's like jr. high--"all my friends are doing it". I confess, I was that way before I knew better; I know many people who still are that way.
Being proactive is a good thing. As much as the last election was all about change, someone once told me, "I'm 40 and I don't want to change." Let people know you're changing and why. It can be easier to swallow.
There's also the old saying, "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission." Making a change first and explaining later can work too. Hey, we've already set the precedent; besides, look at how well it worked (provided it worked).
It seems that one has to know the congregation and act accordingly (proactive or shoot first, ask questions later) based on how much flak one may receive.
Politics is always involved, and one cannot expect a 100% approval rating; yet, you are correct: building trust is key. Most people are willing to take a risk (yes, even new worship practices can be risky for a parishoner) for a person who is trustworthy and a person they know will help them learn by working with them rather than shoving them off the proverbial dock.

Caitlin Magness said...

This is very thoughtful.

Phillip Magness said...

Yes, these are not easy questions, yet are what musicians and pastors and elders must grapple with lest worship remain stagnate and our proclamation of the Word degenerate from a living art to a stale artifact.

And I want to be clear that I'm not talking about "change" in the sense of moving from one "worship style" to another so much as what is entailed when we do anything creative, new, or fresh in the liturgy.

Thanks, Orianna, for outlining the two core choices we face when we wnat to implement a new idea: let people know what you propose to do and why vs. explain later and hope people are convinced by how well the new thing worked.

As I go down this road of discussing the liturgical renewal of Bethany during the days of the Three-Year Plan, you'll see both strategies employed.

We'll see all that goes into how those decisions are/were made - and what the results turned out to be.

And, yes, Elephant's Child, we'll also get a peak into what things were like at Bethany BEFORE the Three-Year Plan!