Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Music for the Master, or the ego?

A post over at Batesline got me to thinking, again, about the fine line church musicians walk while attempting to lead congregations in song and worship, especially at the major liturgical holidays like Christmas and Easter. You want people to like what they hear. In fact, you want people to REALLY like what they hear. You should also want people to participate. The problem is that if you do the first part too well, people will clam up and act as if they've paid to come to a concert.

That is bad.

Okay, you may say, why is it bad?

Because when people are gathered together in a church for worship, they come together as members of the mystical Body of Christ. They are not spectators, although they still see and hear. They are not passive receptors of sensory data. They are to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon their interior state of grace, members who should be complementing the worship and praise and feeling the joy of both giving and receiving.

Too often today, in too many churches the music ministry has become narcissistic. Protestants are becoming aware of the problem, particularly because of the rise of the large non-denominational and evangelical churches with their penchant for theatrics (which project well onto video displays and TV broadcasts). But to say that the problem is limited to large protestant churches would be unfair: a few discussions with people involved in music ministry in various denominations has shown us that the show-biz disease is widespread.

I know this to be true on a personal level. A few years ago I quit the choir at my parish in part because I felt my participation in the Mass had become distracted because of my desire to perform at 100%. Also, in part, I quit because I began to realize with no small degree of guilt, that I really like it when people paid attention to us. The occasional after Mass applause was wonderful, and totally contrary to a mind-set of humble servanthood.

And it all began when we moved into a large new church that featured a more auditorium-style seating with the choir situated near the front, just off the side of the altar and sanctuary. Until that time we had been in a choir loft where none could see. We were anonymous, mostly, and it was liberating.

Few churches hide their choirs, but I would highly recommend it. You might lose a few good cantors - at least those who like to be seen - but you'll gain something from it. More of a focus on Jesus Christ.

This year I volunteered to organize the small guitar group doing Midnight Mass. I drafted a son and daughter for respective guitar and vocal help. I kept two members of the regular choir that ordinarily would've done the service. We had one un-rehearsed regular choir member show up at the last minute, but rather insist on the legalities I merely stationed her one side and kept her mic level low.

It was important to schedule some congregational singing in among the songs we sung in the 30 minutes prior to the start of regular worship. But even before that, we prayed together that our effort would be 100% directed to the worship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for his glory and praise, and for the elevation of the minds and spirits of the congregation to God. We prayed that nothing we did would bring undue attention to ourselves, and that nothing would distract us from our own full participation in the worship of the Lord.

The prayer seemed to work. The music, although simple, was melodic and serene as befitting a Silent Night, and there were few miscues. And at the end of the service, when our pastor mentioned his thanks "to the musicians who provided such beautiful music for us," there was not the slightest hint of applause. Which is exactly how I had envisioned our participation. A total gift without human reward. (At our parish it is traditional that EVERY mention of a choir, even one that has performed poorly, ALWAYS gets a good round of applause. The absence of applause was a miracle in itself.)

Happy ending, right?

No. That fallen nature against which we all battle constantly, though redeemed by Christ's sacrifice and held at bay through various sacraments of the church, had arisen once again to torment me.

"No applause? Not even one pair of hands clapping?" The accusing voice inside my head would not let go as we packed up our gear. It was a voice from the past, a bit of the tempter himself, trying to deny me the measure of the miracle that had just occurred. A distressing, ugly little voice that might have or might not have been mine. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

It was a voice trying to turn God's triumph into my own little personal tragedy.

The average human need for recognition is so great, but what should be sufficient - after all, we are children of the Almighty God, what more recognition should you want - often is just whets the appetite for more. I thought about this a lot that night, as the effects of the flu worsened and I prepared myself for one of the sickest Christmas days I can ever recall.

And I'm cool with it now. But once again I am reminded of how easily swayed from true love of Christ we can be. Our little group, with its three guitars and three main voices, knowingly and actively fought against that urge. How much more difficult are conditions for those semi-professional choirs, with their horn and string sections, their soloists and featured cantors, where too often the emphasis is on the product, not the Creator.

The Psalms invite us to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord." That "noise" bit always puzzled me, but maybe you have to look at it from God's point of view.

Perhaps it's not so much the noise He's looking for but the joy.

Just a thought on the day after the day after Christmas.


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