Ask any person who is affiliated with my congregation and they can tell you that summer at Eliot Church is different. There are fewer folks around. Most of us who are around are also focused on different things. Even those of us who are around and working have scheduling changes to deal with, particularly if we have kids. Of course, we do still try to make it to church from time to time and we have projects like the garden and building repairs that will keep some of us busy until September. Life at the church goes on. It is just altered by the hot weather and long days.
Today, for example, I am dodging electricians and painters at the parsonage and demolition folks at the church while trying to get a grip on the music situation for summer services. I will be officiating at four of them this year. My colleague Matt will take two and my other colleague Donna has one. It isn't clear if the two remaining dates will be filled or will serve as a "mini-vacation" from church. We opened them up to lay folks but it appears no one is around.
Anyway, the music situation this year is similar to those in the past. Our Music Director is off and each officiant is left to his or her own designs when it comes to hymns, anthems, and whatnot. This is another place where I asked for volunteers and got a couple so we will be fine. Still--from a worship perspective--summer can be a challenge. Challenges, however, lead to possibilities...
At the end of this post I will link to my "Ukulele Hymns" post about leading hymns for small group (and that is what summer congregations are) worship. I have traditionally played the uke. This year I will do so again but will add the mandolin and play with whomever I can each Sunday to add some depth. Before I post the link, however, I wanted to list a few things that I have learned since that time which--when added to the previous post--may be helpful to folks who find themselves in my situation...or in one like it.
The Medium May Change but the Context Does Not:
Over the course of the year (particularly in Advent and Lent) I have selected and/or played (with other people and on my own) a variety of songs during worship. What I have found is that our congregation seems to prefer hymns and folk songs that they already know over newer or more contemporary pieces. That is, they would rather sing along to "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" or "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" on the uke or mandolin than, say, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (by U2) or some modern hymn. This is in keeping with our context. We are a liberal church that likes the tradition embedded in our rituals. To play an old song in a new-to-us way is interesting and fulfilling. It honors who we are and where we come from. For many folks, taking one more step into pieces that may not as closely reflect our church culture also makes us step out of our "worshipful minds".
A while ago I preached a sermon about how part of the challenge of worship is to take old things and interpret them in new ways. This is certainly true in our scriptural interpretation. It is true with preaching and prayer. It is also true for music.
What this means for another sort of church (of course) varies. If the tradition is "Contemporary Christian" or if it leans toward modern pop music, then too much of the folky stuff will start to sound odd as well. Also, a little variety is necessary anyway. Horizons need expanding after all. However, it is important to actually know when we are singing out of context. When we do this, we need to plan the service with intention and respect..
Simplicity is a Virtue...Especially When Singing:
Leading a hymn is not the same as playing an interlude. Neither of these are the same as a concert. For hymns, folks are trying to sing along. The uke or guitar or whatever needs to keep the beat and provide the cues that keep everyone on the same page. Too much fancy stuff is distracting and makes participation difficult.
This is even more important when singing. Most of us probably sing more often than we play an instrument. Also, some of these instruments encourage us to make greater use of our voices (the uke, in particular, is a singer's instrument). This means that we like to slide into notes and mess with the rhythm and melody. This sounds great in concert and on a CD (and in the shower or whilst cooking dinner), but it is hard for group singing. If congregants want to get fancy, that is much more than fine. However, the song leader is carrying the tune for everyone else. That is a serious responsibility.
For both singing and playing it is best to be basic. Your job isn't to impress but to sit in the background and facilitate the participation of others. If you are a child of the '80's (and some of you are) or just a fan of good music, then there are a great many professional examples of good, solid, unadorned musicality to choose from in the worlds of folk and punk. Listen to Joe Strummer, Shane McGowan, Tommy Makem, and Pete Seeger. They will set you right.
Practice If You Are in a Group (and Take it Seriously):
Here I am not so much warning against hacking around (it should be fun, after all) but about being mindful of other performers. This includes the congregation. Doing a good job means being aware of other performers and comfortable enough to take in the whole of the moment. This means being able to "read a room" and adjust on the fly. This is a skill that preachers (good ones anyway) use all the time. In order to do that, you must know your stuff.
Take Advantage of the Talents of Other People...and Keep Expectations Realistic:
Music is the part of the service that everyone gets to participate in. This needs to be recognized. In our church we have a group of younger members who are very gifted musicians. They continue to learn and grow while the congregation takes advantage of their talents. It is important to recognize growth as the holy thing it is. However the opposite is also true. We are talking about a worship service. While professional-grade performance isn't necessary all the time. There is also a minimal threshold. People (both children and adults) should not expect to be able to play a song whenever they would like. Again, it isn't a concert or a recital...
Well, anyway, the "ukulele worship" experience continues. Over the summer I will try to remember to post updates. Past posts on this subject can be found in the "Ukulele" and "Worship" sections of this blog. Also, here is the post about Ukulele Hymns for Congregational Worship...