31 May 2013

From church to stage: nurturing a culture of congregational song

While the Bible speaks of praising God with musical instruments (e.g., Psalms 147, 149 and 150), there is an ancient tradition of unaccompanied singing in the church. The Orthodox Churches, Reformed Presbyterians and the Churches of Christ sing a cappella in their worship services. Such groupings out of principle exclude musical instruments from their liturgies. Although many of us would not go quite that far, there is nevertheless much to be said for the argument Justin Taylor, drawing on John Piper and James K. A. Smith, makes in noting “The Difference between Congregational Worship and a Concert.” Taylor quotes Smith:

Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice–and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing–so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.

It might seem odd to jump from liturgy to the theatre section of the New York Times, but this report is a marvellous witness to the power of a culture of congregational song in one segment of the American church: Something Happened on the Way to Bountiful: Everyone Sang Along. Cicely Tyson currently appears in a Broadway revival of the Horton Foote play, The Trip to Bountiful, playing Mrs. Carrie Watts, a character played so wonderfully by the late Geraldine Page in the screen version nearly three decades ago. At one point Tyson sings Fanny Crosby and Phoebe Knapp’s familiar gospel hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”

From the first note, there’s a palpable stirring among many of the black patrons in the audience, which the play, with its mostly black cast, draws in large numbers. When Ms. Tyson jumps to her feet, spreads her arms and picks up the volume, they start singing along. On some nights it’s a muted accompaniment. On other nights, and especially at Sunday matinees, it’s a full-throated chorus that rocks the theater.

“I didn’t realize they were doing it until someone remarked to me how incredible it was that the audience was joining in,” Ms. Tyson said in a recent interview, referring to her preview performances. “I said, ‘Where?’ I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t hear it.”

After the play opened, on April 23, she began tuning in. “At that point, I was relaxed enough to let other things seep in,” she said. “It was absolutely thrilling.”

Thrilling but unexpected. Under normal circumstances the Broadway experience does not include audience participation, even when catchy songs from classic musicals are being performed.

Some decades ago, at a worship conference at Calvin College, I heard someone remark that Christians are among the few people who regularly sing together in a culture which has so thoroughly professionalized the music “industry.” A vibrant culture of congregational song is something we should continue to nurture in our churches lest it be suppressed by the ubiquitous choirs and praise bands that have reshaped the liturgy in so many settings. And if we do so, it may just manage to spill over into the rest of our lives, even into such unlikely venues as Broadway!

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