A Language Corner - A Congregation Or A Choir?
Let me begin this presentation by relating to you a story from around the time of my conversion. It seems to foreshadow my warm attitude to church music that I later developed.
It was back in 2000. I was 27 and knew next to nothing about Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. I started dating a woman who was already a believer and a member of a local Christian church. Of course, she witnessed to me about Jesus and invited me to go with her to her church on Sunday.
In Czech, however, the word for church, 'církev', has a very negative connotation in our atheistic society. The reasons are hard to define and probably go back to the tragic medieval events like the crusades or the witch trials. That is why many Christians here today choose to speak about their congregation ('sbor' in Czech) rather than their church.
So I was invited to a congregation, to a 'sbor'. The Czech word 'sbor', however, has also the more usual meaning of choir, an ensemble of singers. So, the first thing that came across my mind when I heard the invitation was, "A choir? Me? You mean singing?" No, I wasn't interested. The confusion was later resolved and the woman I dated succeeded in dragging me into her congregation. There I came to believe in Jesus and, in December that year, I was baptized and became a member of that church. The woman later became my wife. I started out as a "shy singer" in the congregation.
We Are All Given A Voice!
As time went on and I learned how to read notes, I grew to be more confident in singing the new melodies and words of hymns. And I made two discoveries: that I actually had a voice to sing, and that I loved singing! I started singing at home, in the car, on the way to work, in the garden, everywhere. I also listened to recorded hymns and popular worship songs and slowly learned their melodies and words and was able to sing along. I was less and less ashamed to sing out loud in church.
Grown-up men in our culture are not accustomed to sing in public. They would feel embarrassed if asked to sing aloud or before an audience. That explains my initial hesitation and shyness. How many singers are there among us, adult men, who will never discover they were given a voice to sing?
I am convinced it needs to be instilled in children and encouraged in young adults that the voice they have can really be used and trained to sing songs! Not only when they are alone in the shower but also when surrounded by others. Band and choir singing is for the talented, but congregational singing is for everyone.
Professional And/Or Authentic Singing
When our Christian day school children perform their songs in church on Sunday, in front of their parents, grandparents and other people, they always see smiles on their family members' faces and get a big applause. Even when their singing isn't perfect, some of the children are off-key, and a few kids mess up the words while singing, they are all received by their parents with hugs and commendation.
I believe this is how our church singing is received by our Father and our Lord Jesus. I have heard people in church telling me, "I can't sing well enough so I will keep quiet". My typical response in such cases is, "Well, when God wants perfect quality, He tunes in to listen to angelic hosts. We all fail in comparison to their Glorias. But when our Father wants to hear his beloved children singing, He wants to hear you and me, and He rejoices even over our inferior performance. Just sing as best as you can and you will get better with practice."
So don't get discouraged when you hear someone in church, usually a visitor or a "Christmas-and-Easter church-comer", arrogantly making critical comments about your congregational singing. Never forget it is primarily directed to the Lord who looks at the heart, from which all praises come. If people seek to hear professional singing they can attend music halls and concert stages. Church is for the genuine.
Modern and/or Time-tested Music
In their video comedians John Crist and Aaron Chevning make a funny sketch about how modern Christian music is done these days, or is to be done, in order to hit the top of popularity charts. You can hear for yourself what they are saying but, in short, their point is that modern Christian music, which is commonly aired on Christian radios, seems to follow a simple formula, consisting in "three cords (e.g. A-D-G), simple rhymes, and vague struggles (e.g. a storm in life)."
For most young people, there must be something enchanting about the beat and rhythm of music. I never was, even in my youth, a particularly "disco person". And yet, in spite of that, I felt somehow drawn to songs which seemed to resonate with my heart beat. Later, as a new convert, I enjoyed hymns with elementary melodies flowing easily on a few repeated chords. It took me a while before I started to appreciate and even admire sophisticated music of the past centuries.
What I want to say is that diversity in the kingdom reflects itself in and even requires diversity in the church music. For me, there is nothing wrong with any music style or level of complexity, because I am convinced there are children of God who, at the stage in which they find themselves, will be especially delighted and uplifted by such music, and drawn to live each day with the Lord, who is the Inventor of music and of the principles behind all musical instruments. I even recall a period in my life when a Czech Christian rock band's song was one of my favorites, with drums and electric guitars neatly accompanying the frontman's singing about his mom, who had recently passed away and only now her son admired her for raising him in faith and hope in Jesus.
For that reason I believe we should introduce various styles of worship music in church and school. I have heard both complaints about the old songs being "unsingable" and complaints about the modern songs being "one-dimensional". Sometimes a simple change in instruments playing the music (e.g. organ to piano) brings about a renewed or increased interest and liking of a well-known, "chest-nutty" hymn. A modern take on old-time hymns, such as those performed by the band Koiné, is another way of "reconciling" contemporary and traditional music.
Tune in to listen to a unique take on "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" by the band Promise Keepers.
Catchy Melodies And/Or Profound Lyrics
Now, what about the lyrics? Are songs which speak about "vague struggles" using general, abstract, descriptive words – like storms or floods, light and darkness, etc. – necessarily of lower value? Even if they were there is, I believe, a place for them in the church.
After I became a Christian, I listened a lot to songs written by Mr. Zmozek, a great Czech pop-music composer who believed in Jesus. Many of his praise songs have wonderful melody and simple lyrics, often just two lines that are repeated a few times with the music picking up intensity and richness. Listen to an example of his production "Tebe, Pane můj, chválím a uctívám" ('You, my Lord, I praise and worship'). I was excited (and still am!) about Jesus loving me and dying for me and finding me. Those songs were perfect for me in those "initial years", when I had very limited knowledge of biblical teachings and didn't understand the specific vocabulary and concepts, like atonement, inspiration, or communion.
The problem with elementary lyric is that it has the tendency to wear out quickly. So it did with me. As I grew in knowing Jesus and the details of God's saving plan, I started to listen and sing along to more "textually rich" songs, both traditional and modern.
The authors of "In Christ Alone" make a remark in their interview "How Was 'In Christ Alone' Written?" saying that in modern Christian music we want to see more "hymns that actually help people understand the faith," that are "trying to put into words what it means for Christ to have gone through what he went through, what that means for me as a person and how that completely changes my life." Creedal songs, in which melody and lyrics are equally powerful, seem to be what most of us will find fulfilling and nurturing our soul and spirit in later stages of our Christian walk.
And yet, as if we all go a full circle in life and in the end we come back to our childhood, I have heard about old people wanting to listen to and sing "I am Jesus little lamb." It was all the creed they needed and all the music they craved for.
Two Final Ideas
You have probably discovered that Youtube is a rich source of church music, with instrumental versions of songs and added lyrics to learn to sing along. Two ideas come to my mind as I think about how to make Christian hymn-singing more popular. The first one has to do with learning — or teaching — to play a musical instrument using simple praises. For example, when my daughter was learning to play the piano, she was excited when I brought her some of the worship songs of Michael W. Smith in the easy piano version. Or children in our school who learn to play fipple flute, they enriched the Advent program in our church with some well-known Christmas hymns. You can even find instruction videos on how to learn to play worship songs within a few days. For instance, look at "Learn 10 worship songs with 4 easy guitar chords."
The second idea also deals with combining the hymn singing with another activity which provides extra motivation. Using Christian praises you can also learn/teach a foreign language! You can find English songs sung in another language — those may be easier to learn the words. Languages can also be mixed (e.g. one verse in English, one in German, one in Spanish) to make a multilanguage versions. And then there are, of course, hymns native of that particular language. Let me finish with a few examples:
French Songs of Praise
Spanish Songs of Praise
A Well-known German Hymn
A Slovak Song of Praise
Slava Bozich mien ('Glory Of God's Names'), with English subtitles
[Editors' note: This last song, Slava Bozich Mien, is one of our favorites. In the discussion, describe how Christian music, in and out of the church service, has affected your life journey so far.]
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