Has Music Become a Problem?

In the week or two before Easter, Old South receives at least a few phone calls or emails that ask about whether or not our bell choir will be “performing” on Easter Sunday. No one ever calls and asks about whether or not there will be a sermon . . .

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that there’s a sizable percentage of those attending worship on Easter who are there only because of the bell choir and to a lesser extent, the regular choir. The rest of the service they simply endure.

I realize that those familiar with Protestant worship probably assume that there will be a sermon, so I shouldn’t take it too hard that no one asks about it. But, I have a growing feeling that many who come to worship on Easter would prefer that I just step aside, and keep the speaking to a minimum.

Like Christmas Eve. When I arrived at Old South in the fall of 2005, I learned fairly quickly that it was a “long standing tradition” that Christmas Eve mostly belonged to the music program and that both the choir and the bell choir were expected to “perform” five or six musical pieces EACH. Certainly preaching on Christmas Eve was “not traditional” at Old South, so really needs to be avoided. Most years I’m told that the music program will run for an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s clear that it’s my fault if the service runs longer than the average attention span of the Christmas Eve worshipper.

Long ago, I gave in to Christmas Eve. Over the years, the music director and I have been able to work together to reduce, slightly, the emphasis on music for that service. The service is usually a lovely service.

Easter, though, is starting to become a problem for me. This year, the choir has two pieces and the bell choir has two pieces. I’ve eliminated the “Faith Story” (the part of the service focused on children) and I know that if the sermon strays much beyond twelve minutes that I’ll begin to see fidgeting, glazed eyes, and a few will actually look annoyed.

The music, though, will get applause. The applause, in fact, has become a problem itself. It used to be that applause during worship was frowned upon, but then a few years ago, there was one particular woman who started applauding in the summer, when we had “special music,” a solo, duo, or small group. That seemed fine. But, then, the applause bled into the fall. And, soon, there was applause after the anthem for almost every worship service.

When there are multiple musical pieces, though, the applause is a problem. Last Sunday, when we started the service with “Palm Sunday,” but transitioned to “Passion Sunday” in the middle, it was especially jarring—to me at least—to have a round of applause after the bell choir’s postlude, “Go to Dark Gethsemane.” By the end of the service, with its difficult story (John’s version of the first Good Friday), I was exhausted and emotional. Apparently, I was alone.

Music is important to me, too, and I’ll admit that there are worship experiences that are on my “top ten” list that would not be there but for the music. A significant problem arises, however, when worship becomes simply “performance” or something along the lines of a music club.

Somehow, it seems that we’ve—at least in this part of the world—lost sight of the notion that part of the worship experience ought to focus on exposure to the scriptures—to hear the stories and to have a trained person share insightful information about scripture and how scripture ought to inform our individual and collective lives. To the extent that scripture is significant in these days it is in order to back up views already held. Rarely does scripture get under the skin, so rarely does scripture offer a path to something new.

I’m not sure why this is, and I know that this is not just about Old South. Other clergy share similar stories with me.

In this holy season, though, I am especially aware that there are not only profoundly important stories to be shared and heard, but these stories require context and additional information, beyond what is contained on the page. Yet, as I’ve tried to tackle the difficulties and complexities of the Gospel of John and the days leading to the crucifixion, I get little sense that the information I shared is considered vital, critical to lives of faith.

This is frustrating, to be sure, and sad. As we become more aware of the lack of younger people in our midst, I wonder about our capacity to spread the word, and to share why church is important to us. If it’s just about music, we are not terribly unique. Church needs to be about something more. The risen Christ, anyone?

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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