Thursday, April 16, 2009

Signs of a cultural tipping point

Last week we held our annual Maundy Thursday remembrance service. It's a quiet time of reflection, in which we retell the story, going back to the first Passover and working forward to the Last Supper. As part of the service we gather around the table and celebrate the Sacrament of Communion. It's a thoughtful, quiet, beautiful time to remember Christ's sacrifice.

We hand out a bulletin for the service, which contains all the scriptures and other readings. In addition, it contained the lyrics to the one song we sang that didn't come out of the hymnal. For the rest of those songs, it simply listed the title and hymn number.

Now, the truth is, we don't use hymnals very often in our Sunday morning worship celebrations, choosing instead to project the lyrics up on an overhead screen. However, we do have hymnals in the pews, and we always list hymn numbers in our bulletin, whenever we happen to sing a song that is contained the the blue Covenant hymnal.

And, up to this point, it's seemed to work. But this year, I sensed a shift. As we began singing the second song of the service, I noticed a lot of confusion around me. People looking into their bulletins, people fiddling with their hymnals, people on the correct page but still looking confused. And here's what I think happened: for the first time, we had a large contingent of people who just didn't know what to do with a hymnal. They didn't know how to find the right page, and, if they got there, they didn't seem to understand how to follow the lyric on the page, let alone read the melody and harmony lines to sing along. Most confusing was Glen Kaiser's "Behold the Lamb of God," which ought to have been the simplest, with its unison melody and simple melody and lyric; however, the song has not only a 1st and 2nd ending, but a bridge that breaks up the middle of the song. And I suspect that the majority of people sitting in there were completely lost by the time we jumped to the bridge.

What it all means, I'm not sure. There certainly were a number of people there who were used to hymnals, who were used to reading music; I'm not describing everybody. But there were enough, perhaps even a majority, who suffered in silence while the rest of us haltingly sang along, wondering why more weren't joining in.

I suppose it does mean next year we'll just have to put all the lyrics in the handouts, although that means an extra page and that much more paper used. But it also points toward song selection. Some of these songs don't come around except at Lent, same as with Easter and Christmas. The bulk of our repertoire is comprised of songs we sing the rest of the year. Which means we're being a little unfair to our people, singing one set of songs most of the year, and then replacing them with different songs for special services like Maundy Thursday. It's only that, until now, we could pull out "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" or "What Wondrous Love is This?" or "Behold the Lamb of God," and you would have a core of people who knew those songs, who loved those songs, who sang those songs with depth and passion. That core seems to be dwindling, being replaced by a core who know none of those songs.

So, I suppose we could work some of those songs in more regularly, but I think that may be a hopeless cause. It most likely means we need to find songs that speak the same message, but that our people already know. It's not fair to force them to learn something new (I see the irony, of course - when our old songs are "new" to so many), when they've gathered for a special moment like Maundy Thursday or Christmas Eve.

It's just that I know those songs and love those songs. So it's difficult for even me to recognize I need to give up those things in order to better serve the whole.

A few years ago I went to a worship seminar, and the leaders talked with great excitement about all the new hymns that were being written. "We're in a resurgence of hymnody!" they proclaimed. Even then, I thought that was wishful thinking. Truly, those days are dying more quickly than we'd care to admit. One could point at many reasons - the lack of music education in schools, the 'coolness' factor of sports over choir, the replacement of family song time with Guitar Hero (who needs to learn to read music when you can do the same thing with colored buttons?), the victory of solo-driven pop music over choirs and group singing; I know there's more.

But the point, to me, is that we can no longer put out hymnals, and assume that everybody will follow along. That day, apparently, is over.


Ann said...

That's interesting, Dan, and has implications for worship in the church! The mainline church we went to for a while justified using the hymnbook exactly because people were musically illiterate and the director of music thought it was part of her mission to educate the uneducated. That seemed an unnecessarily top-down approach to ministry but fit the hierarchical bent of that denom. How can we love people and offer meaningful worship with good music?

rebecca said...

So as they say "don't throw the baby out......"I'm remembering the notes and comments that we receive as a worship team about the lack of hymns in the service. Don't those same people have just as much trouble learning "new" songs as the next group with the hymnbooks. We need to be careful not to judge, as God is the recipient of all this praise, which I'm sure He appreciates from ALL generations. As we've talked about before, let's poll the congrgation for their favorite hymns and keep a good number of them current so everybody is familiar with them. Actually, I think we do this already, but obviously not everyone is satisfied.Why should we tip with the culture anyway? Are we saying they are right about something and we are wrong? I don't think it's the church's roll to please the culture, but to provide ways(plural) for meaningful worship, which does include a bit of teaching. And if we wait awhile, what now is new will soon be outdated also, so lets choose quality over style and hold on to what is good.

Kim said...

You just gave me a great idea for an adult education topic. :)