Drafted for the team leading the congreational music at St. John's Church, Nevilles Cross, Durham, 1997
I cannot stand your assemblies ... Though you bring me choice offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.
It seems reasonable to conclude that those involved in leading the worship of the church, musicians as much as clergy, have a fearful responsibility to lead daily lives of integrity and of Christian commitment. Our Sunday worship is insignificant compared to our Monday to Saturday Christian living.
Our vision is of a Music Team to be united in mind and purpose in its desire to be people of God, so that our worship of him becomes a natural expression of our daily walk with him. Our part in leading of worship should be first of all by example: by the way we care for each other in the team, and have an interest in the individuals in the congregation, and secondly in making music together by which we glorify God and lead the congregation in worship.
This paper assumes about the music of a parish church that:
A small, but dedicated and enthusiastic group of singers commit themselves week in, week out, to midweek practice and all the services that we support. Several others join us on a more occasional basis, such as Christmas, Easter Sunday and the centenary service.
The primary focus of this paper is on the regular, weekly, group: the “Music Team”. It is to be hoped that the occasional members will nonetheless find it useful, sympathetic and relevant.
The music at St. John’s covers a wide range. Its breadth is an integral part of the life, worship and mission of the church. It is assumed that all people involved in the music are in full and happy agreement with this as policy and principle. Inevitably, in the realities of the pieces chosen, there will be a wide range of personal tastes and distastes: enjoyment and endurance for all.
It is assumed that:
In addition to our Sunday service commitments, we should be prepared to be keenly involved in other events, including external ones such as the carols in the shopping centre and carol singing round the parish.
To illustrate the points by fine recent examples:
The guiding principle is that attitude is considerably more important than present technical ability. Of course a key component of the attitude is willingness to expand and develop technical and analytical abilities. The measure, if any, of technical ability is “personal best”.
The running of the Music Team for the church, especially with such a diverse repertoire as ours, requires a huge amount of tedious and often unnoticed background work. The people who undertake it, often in an already busy working and family week, should be warmly commended and their work valued.
The range of music requires much hard graft of letter writing and telephoning to obtain copyright clearance, with subsequent photocopying and form filling.
The choosing of hymns, songs and other items every week of the year is an activity far less glamorous than might at first sight appear. Balances must be kept between old and new, quiet and raucous, substantial and incidental; meanwhile thematic congruence and liturgical placement both offer and constrain choices.
Hymn numbers are placed on hymn boards. Lists are drafted in advance for discussion and refinement, then prepared and distributed to the Music Team, clergy and sidespeople.
New items usually require acetates for overhead projection or typed inclusion on notice sheets. Both these activities require the painstaking work of individuals.
These labours of love often involve personal financial cost, willingly given. The church leadership should ensure that the offer of recompense is always available.
Our current workload is comfortably full. At present we primarily support the 10:00 Sunday service, which is usually a Eucharist, the monthly informal “Praise and Prayer” evenings and some “occasional” services, such as the Christmas carol service, the recent centenary service and the shopping centre carols. The church also hopes to develop an evening service in Taize style, perhaps quarterly, in which we would play a full role.
The 8:45 service is basically “traditional”. It need not officially fall under the remit of the Music Team, although it is hoped that the organists supporting this service would be active members anyway.
Practices are currently at 7:45 on most Thursday evenings. We should aim to finish by 9:15, but this requires discipline by leaders to keep things moving, and discipline by each member to arrive promptly.
As a general rule: “no practice, no service”. Someone who has missed a practice should not expect to sing or play on Sunday, unless by explicit arrangement. Please do not put the leaders in the embarrassing and delicate position of having to find a tactful way to say “no”.
New or unfamiliar music requires work and investment of time. The leaders should ensure that it receives attention on a minimum of two practice nights. The first practice can familiarise everyone with the music, the second allows work on the fine detail and ensemble coordination. Between the practices each member should be prepared to do some homework on the music. Time spent with one person or one part during practice is, in general, a waste of the valuable time to which others have committed themselves.
Each service is for congregational worship. The time leading up to its formal start is used by the people in the congregation for their own quiet reflection and preparation. The Music Team should respect this.
Instruments need tuning. Tuning disrupts the congregation. So instrumentalists need to arrive sufficiently early. Likewise movement around the sanctuary can be disruptive visually and should be kept to a minimum.
It is highly desirable that Music Team members, having committed themselves to its regular weekly activity, should have time off, say, once a month. This provides the opportunity not only to be with the congregation, including perhaps their own family, but also to exercise their developing skills of listening and discrimination to assess the work and effectiveness of the rest of the Team from the perspective of the pew. It is not generally intended as an opportunity to bunk off church for the seaside!
Occasionally the timing of other church events will conflict with practices. Recent examples have included prayer meetings and an “Alpha” course. The clergy and music leaders should seek to prevent such timing clashes. Nevertheless, any Music Team member is free to attend the events “in another place”: indeed this should sometimes be encouraged as recognition of our integral role within the church.
The Music Team is neither choral society nor rock band. The congregation is not our passive audience. The church is not a replica of Spring Harvest or Taize or a cathedral, but rather a motley collection of individuals, called together by God to worship him and to serve the community and world around. The Music Team simply comprises those whom God has winkled out of this congregational habitat into a peculiar sub-colony.
We should be constantly monitoring and extending our repertoire as best serves God, the congregation and the unchurched community around us. Whatever is chosen to sing, we should sing everything with equal effort, regardless of personal taste or distaste of a particular item. All we do, we should do to the best of our ability.
We should aim to be as professional as possible in our performance. But it should never be “performance” or “professionalism” for its own sake. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for others” (Colossians 3.23). We are primarily there to enable the congregation to sing. To paraphrase: “music is for the church, not the church for music”.
St. John’s is already very fortunate in having a wide range of music available and acceptable. We must never undervalue this privilege. As always, however, this is room for development and improvement, AMDG.
Particular current needs include:
People in the congregation with musical gifts or enthusiasms should be encouraged to use and develop them in and for the church. The sobering parable about letting talents lie buried should be heeded: it applies not only to those individuals but to others in the church community to encourage those individuals, and to us to nurture their gifts. We commend the church to ponder this shared responsibilty.
Within any such group, there are two dangers, actual or latent:
We are fortunate and seem not to be endangered by these at present. Nevertheless we need to be aware of them to ensure continued safe steerage.
Because of the technical pressures of music practice, we do not spend enough time in social, corporate activity. In the last couple of decades many churches have realised the importance of housegroups for spiritual growth, both individually and communally. Although the Music Team is not, nor should it be, a housegroup, it would nevertheless be beneficial to adopt a general housgroup ethos and attitude, spending more time together in prayer, study and general social activity. For instance a little more of the practice time might be spent in prayer or study. We should consider a once-per-term team lunch and social afternoon. We might even consider an annual “Away Day”.