June 18, 2014

Singing a New Song

This past fall, St. George’s took the RenewalWorks survey. Based on the work of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church and adapted by the Jay Sidebotham for purposes of use in The Episcopal Church, RenewalWorks is an incredibly thorough survey that seeks to get at spiritual life and vitality. It presumes that the questions we need to be asking are whether, in fact, people are growing in their walk with God in Christ? Whether people are expanding their understanding of discipleship? (Conversely, it does not ask whether people like their church or are (dis)satisfied with their congregation.) RenewalWorks focuses intently on a given person’s spiritual life and growth trajectory and determines, in turn, whether that person’s congregation is meeting or slowing down or helping propel that overall growth.

If, when someone takes the survey, s/he says such-and-such is absolutely vital to their spiritual life and growth but that item is not found in their church life – or is only there insufficiently – that thing shows up as a big red flag.

In our case, it was music and worship. Specifically, this statement triggered the greatest discrepancy: “The worship and music in my church feeds my spiritual life.”

Most of the survey respondents said that music and the arts of worship are critical to their spiritual wellbeing and growth. And what really set off the survey instrument was that they also said, in successive questions, that the music and worship they were getting as their daily bread in church was not on par with what they were feeding themselves throughout the course of the rest of their lives. Note that the survey did not ask whether they liked or did not like the music in church. It asked them what was working, or not, in their daily, personal spiritual disciplines. And it discovered, through a series of other questions, that there was a disconnect between the two.

Also, as much as we tried to get young adults and younger persons, including high school students and Sunday School kids, to take the survey, the vast majority of persons who did were older adults, retired, with no children living at home. (Such is the nature of those who can take a nearly hour-long survey.) Even though the demographics were skewed, it’s still telling that even older members of the congregation, those you might think would be comfortable with organ music and predictable hymns, reported a desire for something more.

This was our starting place; our opportunity and, yes, our challenge.

For starters, this allowed us to have a different conversation with our longtime music director and organist. No longer were we having a conversation about the musical choices or style or instrument(s). Instead, we were talking about the spirit of experimentation and why we do what we do. This conversation led our music director to see that God was inviting her to retire, something she’s long wanted to do anyway, and that this was a real gift, not only for her and her family but for the wellbeing of the congregation.

And we, for our part, are exploring and experimenting and trying out new things and new styles. We’re calling this a Summer of Music & Praise, and we’re trying to line up as many different musicians and instruments and styles as possible on these summer Sundays.

As we move through the summer, we are assembling a proper search committee which will explore big questions about space, music, instrument(s), style, purpose, time(s) of service(s), and sound quality. Through it all, we’ve been reminded that St. George’s has grown and will continue to grow so long as we offer a compelling and profound Christian community experience. In terms of the overall worship experience, then, that doesn’t mean we need to throw out the organ and bring in a drum set, nor does it mean adhering to our customs at the exclusion of bringing new people to Christ.

What it does mean is that we, the Body of Christ in this corner of God’s vineyard, have to be honest with ourselves about several key things. This is a list I created for our vestry, and I think it’s pretty universal in most congregations in The Episcopal Church today:

  • We have effectively lost the stability and predictability that came with a longtime music director. This is to be mourned as a real loss, and yet we should not let that mourning get in the way of moving forward, nor should we let it be an excuse for not experimenting.
  • It’s not about the text or the music, itself. It’s about the spirit and the intent.
  • Worship is the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” (Book of Common Prayer). It is more important to sing God’s praises and offer our gratitude than find the hymns that line up most with the lectionary or choose anthems which sound ‘proper.’
  • It is better that God’s People sing God’s praise with gusto today than go through the motions of yesterday’s songs.
  • Unless we, the People of God in Valley Lee, go through a fulsome and proper search we may find a perfect musician and turn that gift into a squandered opportunity.
  • We may not find one person to be music minister. We may find two or several musicians who may wish to lead music, but just not every Sunday.
  • We may not find, nor might some wish to find, an organist.
  • We may need to explore issues of space and interior design/architecture.
  • We will need to examine new instrumentation.
  • We will have to determine the role and function and ministry of a choir; whether we need one and, if so, what role they will play.
  • We may have to address the time(s) and style(s) and format of the Sunday morning schedule.
  • Growing is not easy and sometimes causes its own growing pains. We need to be honest and clear about that and pray and work for the unity of the community nevertheless.
Read about another congregation's experience with RenewalWorks here.