This past week I went to my first Acts29NJ church planters conference at Emergence Church, Totowa NJ about 18 – 20 minutes from where I grew up. The plenary and discussions got my mind working as I sought to apply what I learned from these planters and what I have experienced in ministry these 22 years.
One thing did get my attention and got me thinking was not on the agenda – church music. Emergence is a new church in its location, part of a restored factory complex (I remember the old factory, they made Entemann’s Cakes – their poundcake is still a favorite of mine). They’ve taken great care in the design and it shows.
Here’s what caught my eye. When you enter the worship space and glance to your left you spot an earplug dispenser. Yes, that’s what I said, an earplug dispenser. I smiled and had to get a picture. I put it alongside this blog entry.
I say I smiled because we had already finished the morning’s session which began with the worship – “the worship” means music. The first song was a new setting of a classic hymn whose words I recognized. The remainder of the songs and tunes, I did not. I smiled at the dispenser because Emergence’s home band was REALLY LOUD and I do mean REALLY, REALLY, LOUD. Not only could I not hear anyone else of the majority of men singing, I could not even hear my own singing.
After lunch a second praise band led us in the worship at the start of the afternoon session. I wish I had not just taken the photograph but had grabbed some plugs. They were A LOT LOUDER. Not only were they A LOT LOUDER but their songs were near to impossible for a non-professional or at least someone without some rehearsal time to sing. I mean, who would want to sing? The volume pounded your voice back into your larynx. It was exhausting.
My life as a non-professional in church music has been long and varied, singing classic hymnody of the 18th-19th centuries, praise bands in the 1970’s, George Beverly Shea on the phonograph as a small child, and Anglican choral music with an all-male choir in cathedral and parish church. I have heard all this before. If you have a wonderful organ, an organist will PLAY THE ORGAN, rather than support the congregation’s singing. If you have a wonderful choir, the choirmaster will DISCOURAGE congregational singing so that you can hear his well-rehearsed instrument.
As an heir of the Reformation, serving the Lord Jesus Christ in a denomination that began in the Reformation, I find this earplug dispenser a sign of something disturbing.
The Reformation and the reformers gave worship back to the people, in the form of congregational singing. They composed simple tunes with lyrics that people could easily memorize. Some of the tunes came out of local taverns. Before the Reformation, laypersons were not allowed to sing in church. Sacred music was performed by professionals (priests and cantors), played on complex instruments (pipe organs), and sung in a complex setting in an obscure language (Latin).
The church has gone full circle and returned to the 15th century. Worshippers stand mute as professional-caliber musicians play complex instruments LOUDLY, and sing in a complex syncopation in an obscure language you can’t understand for VOLUME. Congregational singing is prescribed by the Scriptures and is an indicator of a people’s spiritual health. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?
Or I guess we can just put in the earplugs…