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Giving Advent and Christmas a Post-Op Performance Evaluation

Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.

 

I hope that you, dear reader, had a wonderful season of music and worship during Advent and Christmas. In my experience, it is the most difficult season of the year for worship planning. It is tiring to navigate all the… er… “needs and desires” of our congregations, liturgical and cultural calendars, and family vacations—whose kid is going to play Joseph in the pageant if the Perezes are out of town? (definitely not a real example from my childhood)—along with the ideas and desires of other church leaders. It makes for a ton of emotional and physical labor for worship leaders and planners. The experience of relief can be euphoric after the last Christmas decorations are torn down, photocopies recycled, and the last specks of glitter finally stop appearing out of nowhere.

We do all this because of how important the season is to the life of the church. Sure, sometimes it falls into the ditches of sentimentalism and consumerism, but the season is central to our faith. The event of Christ coming into our world and being “born in us today” is something worthy of every single exhausting hour of preparation. We did it last year, we did it this year, and we’ll do it again next year. You may not quite be over the exhaustion from this holiday season, but your planning for next year begins right now. Yes, right now—before the last Christmas lights are put away, before the poinsettias have wilted, and before the clarity of collective memory goes with them. Next year’s planning begins by giving your Advent and Christmas season services a liturgical post-op evaluation.

 

Solo Assessment

Our liturgical post-op begins with a review of what goals we set before the season began. Did you have a range of clear goals, some concrete and very achievable and some more ambitious? (Maybe you didn’t establish any goals beforehand, and that is the first thing to note for next year: set goals.) If the idea of having goals for your worship services sounds odd, let me suggest some broad Christian discipleship-related questions to frame your song planning:

Over the course of this Advent and Christmas season,

– Do your songs both embody the piety (or “heart song”) of your congregation and seek to stretch it? If so, how?

– Do your songs reflect a Psalm-wide engagement with God specific to the season?

– Do your services include songs from a range of diverse sources, periods, and styles (within and across hymn traditions)?

– Is there an appropriate balance between the familiar and the new?

– Do your songs address all three persons of the Trinity? Do they reflect variety in orientation (to God, to self, to others, to creation)?

You can probably go back through your services and answer these questions on your own. From there, develop some goals for next year (make your 2019 planning folder today!).

 

Draw the Circle (of Reflection) Wide

Deeper questions on the congregation’s experience of worship are harder to answer on your own. You’ll need to do that one thing that many of us avoid the rest of the year: ask the congregation for their input. There’s no better way to know how the services impacted the faith and discipleship of the congregation than to ask. I’m not suggesting you ask for generic thoughts and opinions on the season—that’s probably a terrible idea. What I am suggesting is that you create some pointed questions based on your explicit or implicit goals for the season. Crafting good questions will prime the pump for more meaningful answers and help to avoid the hurtful feedback that is often lobbed at music and worship leaders. It can also encourage a positive environment for reflection and feedback that might be a model for Christian lives out in the world.

 

Yes or No?

One way you can solicit feedback is with simple yes-or-no questions. These kinds of questions make it easy for others to get involved in the feedback loop. Yes or no questions aren’t necessarily bad. While they do limit feedback, they can be helpful for questions about the nuts and bolts of your services.  There are also better and worse ways of using these kinds of questions. For example, if you introduced new songs this season, avoid asking a preference-based question with a yes-or-no response (e.g., “did you like the new song(s)?”). On the topic of new music, you might ask something like this: “Was enough time given to teaching new songs in the service?” and a companion question, “Was enough information provided for learning new songs outside of the service?” You might need to use more than one question on a given topic to get feedback that is actually meaningful. With all feedback—and especially with yes or no—it is helpful to collect some personal, anonymous info on the respondent to help you understand their responses.

 

Short Answer

Opportunities for slightly longer written responses increase the meaningfulness of the feedback but may also limit the number of persons willing to do it. When asking open-ended questions, it is helpful to frame the question for a positive answer. Following on the topic of new music, “How did [the new song] enable your deepened participation in worship this season?” This framing puts up a higher fence between you and those who want to offer careless critical feedback. (The most vocal will still find a way to jump that fence and tell you how they feel about things, but they’d probably do that anyway, right?) You can also be more constructive: “How quickly were you able to join in singing [the new song]? What could be done to more effectively introduce or teach new songs?” It would be good to ask about the relationship between the music and the rest of the worship service: “How did the singing help you understand or respond to God’s call to [name a service/sermon theme] this Advent/Christmas season?” What other questions might it be helpful to see ask in order to assess whether you’re accomplishing what you hope to?  

 

Spectrum Responses

Somewhere between the yes/no and the open-ended questions is to provide a spectrum between two responses and ask respondents to place an x along a line between the two. In Designing Worship Together, Norma deWaal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell have some wonderful examples of how to do this (and a variety of other evaluation forms!). Benefits of this method include that it has a relatively low threshold for participation, more nuance than a yes/no question, and you get to frame the kinds of responses that are given. Check out that book for tons of other resources and methods for worship pre- and post-op.

Sharing reflective and evaluative practices with the congregation can help them gain an appreciative glimpse behind the worship planning curtain (sharing opportunities for feedback means, at the very least, a sharing). The congregation may also surprise you with the kinds of connections they make that were unforeseen and unintended (hopefully positive ones!). I’m reminded of Mark Porter’s excellent research on how congregants relate idiosyncratically (in ways peculiar to themselves) between worship music and their everyday lives. Regardless of how your congregation responds, the act of making space for the liturgical workers to reflect on their leitourgia is integral to your role as the one(s) in whom they’ve put their trust.

What were your goals in worship and music and how will you assess whether you’ve achieved them? Asking the congregation for feedback doesn’t have to be a fearful event—it’s just another opportunity for Christian discipleship. In 10 months, you’ll be glad you did. For pastoral musicians as much as for anyone, one aphorism still applies: don’t ask a question if you don’t want to know the answer!

 

Author – Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song

 

I had the pleasure of being invited to attend the Getty “Sing! An Irish Christmas” concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. last weekend. As an organization that prides itself on congregational song, the Getty brand always has congregational singing as a feature of their events and so I went looking forward to some great Irish-inspired music combined with congregational song. I was not disappointed.

 

The First Half – “Village Festival”

The first half of the show is billed as mostly a concert with a few moments to “warm up our voices” for the second half. There were a couple of opportunities for the audience to sing, but mostly it featured the band and on-stage vocalists. I didn’t mind because the show was tightly produced and the musicianship on display was world-class. The standard Christmas carols sung were presented with fresh yet simple arrangements that felt both new and familiar at the same time. Interspersed with the traditional carols and hymns were moments of pure brilliance when guest artists like Trip Lee (Christian rapper) and Sierra Hull (2018 International Bluegrass Music Awards Mandolin Player of the Year) graced the stage. When attending a concert by a song-writer, it is expected that they push their own artistic creations, but this concert was surprisingly balanced between Getty originals and other artists’ material. The highlight of the first half must have been what I can only describe as the instrumental “hoedown” that featured the band, including the mandolin playing of Sierra Hull.

 

The Second Half – “Village Carol Service”

The second half of the show was billed as being inspired by the King’s College Lessons and Carols service. There were to be three readings each followed by a few songs and/or carols. The readings were pulled from Psalm verses “which speak prophetically to the coming of Christ” and the Gospel accounts of the birth in the New Testament. This is the only part of the show where I felt a bit of disappointment. When I read “lessons and carols,” I had a set of expectations born out of my previous experiences and knowledge of the King’s College tradition. The second half of the concert, while including some readings and congregational singing, was not a lessons and carols service. The flow was very different, including some lengthy song-sets (something akin to a typical Praise and Worship style service) and a short sermon with a call to commit your life to Christ. I don’t have problem with any of those elements being present, but some of the hallmarks of a lessons and carols service is the absence of any sermon or spoken word other than the scripture readings and the constant back-and-forth between scripture and song like a conversation.

The audience sang enthusiastically, and it was a joy to be surrounded by so many singers joining in the song. However, after experiencing such tightly produced moments in the first half of the show, the congregational singing was not included in a way that had that same flow. There were questions (voiced on stage) about whether the house lights should be on or off, vague instructions about whether to sing in harmony or not, and what felt like half-hearted conducting from Keith when we were supposed to be singing. The singing by the people, however, was still well-done and obviously expected and appreciated by those in attendance. I hope that in the future they will give as much thought and effort into incorporating the congregational singing as they obviously did for the rest of the show. On that note, I must mention a final highlight which was a fully a cappella singing of a classic carol to send us all out: the perfect end to a thoroughly enjoyable Christmas concert.

 

Overall Impression

The concert was extremely well done. I can see why they play to sold out crowds at some of the country’s most well-known venues. It was entertaining, inspiring, and fun. It also was expressly and unapologetically Christian, which is not always the case when you attend a “Christmas” show. While the theological viewpoints expressed in the sermon did not necessarily line up with my personal beliefs, I appreciate the Getty Music commitment to spreading the Gospel through song and word. I also applaud Getty Music for continuing to champion congregational song. They always speak eloquently about the subject and inspire people to sing together, which is something we also work for here at The Center for Congregational Song.

 

Favorite Moment

A duet of “In The Bleak Midwinter” between Kristen Getty and Sierra Hull with Keith accompanying gently on piano. It was the simplest part of the show placed at the perfect time, allowing us to bask in the beauty of the hymn’s poetry and melodic line.

 

 

Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

 

Lessons and Carols

My church has a tradition of doing a service of Advent Lessons and Carols every year. To me, the term “Lessons and Carols” brings to mind King’s College in all its perfection, so planning my first service felt a bit daunting. I serve a small congregation with a small, but capable, volunteer choir. I knew the level that King’s produces was not attainable for us, so I embraced this as an opportunity to get creative. I ended up having a ton of fun crafting something that allows my choir to shine and encourages more active participation from the congregation. Below are some helpful tips for anyone who is still crafting Advent and Christmas services at your church.

 

Add some more prophets

Lessons and Carols is much like an Easter Vigil service in that it retells the Christian story of salvation: both services start with the Genesis stories of Creation and The Fall and end with stories of Jesus from the Gospels. As long as you start and end correctly, you can insert almost any readings, and any number of them, in between. The readings of the canonical nine Lessons and Carols connect Genesis to the Gospels via two passages from Isaiah. In my congregation, we enjoy hearing from several prophets in addition to Isaiah, which is perfectly fitting. I don’t mean to criticize the curators of those original nine lessons (okay, maybe I do), but the Israelites waited a long time for their savior! We should hear from more than one prophet before we jump to the Gospels.

In addition to it being historically appropriate, adding more prophets makes for a more exciting service. Start out joyously after the story of Creation and have the mood drop dramatically after The Fall. Then, make your congregation wait a bit before the star of Bethlehem dawns on the horizon. Jesus’s arrival will have much more impact.

 

Engage the congregation

When I’m worshiping as a congregant, I confess that I often get so caught up in the music that I miss the message. That is definitely the case when I attend a traditional service of Lessons and Carols; you’ll find me humming “Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day” for days afterward. I wanted to be sure the members of our congregation were engaged in the story of salvation from beginning to end, so I picked several congregational songs to fit with the additional prophetic readings. “Deep Within” by David Haas has a hauntingly beautiful melody and a refrain that is easy for congregations to pick up. The words about God writing a new covenant on the people’s hearts are taken directly from Jeremiah 31:31-34. “People, Look East” by Eleanor Farjeon is a common carol sung in Advent; most people don’t realize these words are based on the prophet Baruch (4:36). The prophet Micah also foretells a savior (5:2-4), and you can pair this with any number of Advent or general Parousia hymns (I often use “Soon and Very Soon” by Andrae Crouch). Finally, it is gratifying to hear from John the Baptist, as in John 1 where he foretells the coming of Christ. Pair this reading with “There’s a voice in the wilderness crying” by James Lewis Milligan using the ASCENSION tune.

Having plenty of congregational music also makes it easy to add in the odd musician from your congregation: flute sounds lovely on “Deep Within,” and “People, Look East” benefits from one or more brass players. Having more congregational music and musicians engages people in what is happening, and aids the service in feeling more like worship and less like a concert. If you’re doing Lessons and Carols on a Sunday morning, which we do at my church, it is fitting (and fun!) to engage your congregation more.

 

Make your choir shine

When taking a creative bent on Lessons and Carols, the more difficult job can be finding the right anthems for the choir to sing. Certain anthems have carved a special place in my heart, and my choir members feel the same way. After the reading from Genesis 3, for instance, it’s hard not to hear Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree.” “To Dust” by Karen Marrolli (a living composer!) is a new anthem that I’ve tried in this slot with much success. It makes an impression on listeners and has become a favorite of my choir. Since I like hearing from as many prophets as possible, I sometimes add Zephaniah 3:14-18 and have the choir sing a setting of Psalm 96 or 98 (perhaps your choir already knows a setting of one of those they can dust off and perform with gusto). Pitoni’s “Cantate Domino” worked well for us. Stainer’s “How Beautiful Upon the Mountains” and Carl Schalk’s “As the Dark Awaits the Dawn” work well with any prophetic passage, are fun to learn, and allow volunteer choirs to shine.

….

The King’s College version of Lessons and Carols is not feasible for the vast majority of us who work at modest churches with volunteer choirs. This isn’t a bad thing. Tinkering with their version to make it fit your congregation is quite enjoyable. In the process, you’ll learn a lot more about the individuals you’re working with and the message of the service you’re planning. Happy planning, and happy Advent!

 

For more blogs by Ginny Chilton Maxwell, go to the Centered in Song Blog Page.

 

Author – Ginny Chilton is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

It’s a struggle every year: how can I balance the quiet expectation of the Advent season with the rush and excitement of Christmas? You would think that as a church musician in an Episcopal church, I’d get plenty of Advent, but that’s not the case. As many of you know, I’m sure, if you’re involved in church, you’re spending the four weeks of Advent in a rush to be ready for Christmas: getting the kids ready for the pageant, prepping for the church Christmas dinner, practicing your Christmas choir music. Then you leave church, and our stores, radios, and neighborhoods are full of reindeer and bright lights. It feels like it’s Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. What can you do?

There are all sorts of answers to that question, but here I am writing a blog for the Center for Congregational Song, so I have to say: community singing can help set the mood for Advent. I’ve been angst-ing over how to bring more Advent into my family and church life this season, perhaps more so than in previous years. My son is growing up, and it feels more imperative than ever that I figure out how to bring Advent into our home—without being the “Scrooge” mom who won’t allow anything fun before December 25th. And in my work as a church musician, I help plan beautiful worship services of expectation on Sundays, but during the week I’m singing Christmas songs and ringing jingle bells with the children in our parish school.

I think many of us came feeling much like I was: stressed about everything I had to do at work, everyone I hadn’t found a present for, etc.

All of this came to a head this past Thursday. I’ve been leading a new weekday gathering at our church for parents and young children. Each week we have about a dozen parents and small children gather to sing songs, play instruments, and play or do a craft together. This past week we made plans to meet at the local assisted living facility to sing Christmas songs with the residents. I think many of us came feeling much like I was: stressed about everything I had to do at work, everyone I hadn’t found a present for, etc. It didn’t help that it was about 90 degrees in the facility, and there was a bit of a holdup before we could start singing. The children were getting restless, and the elderly residents were giving us a skeptical look. I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake in planning something like this so close to Christmas.

But then we started singing. The children calmed down. The residents perked up, and even those who had been confused a moment before, sang as loudly as anyone.

There’s something about making eye contact with others while you’re singing together that ignites a little flame in your chest. What do you call that? Love? Belonging? Joy? God? It brings a sort of hush even in the midst of commotion. It was the Advent moment I had been hoping for all month, and a perfect way to set our hearts in the right place as we wait for Emmanuel, God with us.

Do you struggle to experience Advent in the midst of all the busyness December brings? What have been your moments of Advent hush this season? Does group singing play a part in any of that? Happy Advent and Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.

I am going to be upfront with you that, for some, this post may contain an unwelcomed or unpopular suggestion. And I know that I kind of “missed the boat” on the timing of this post—it probably would have been more appropriate before Advent, on Christ the King. Oh, one other thing to be candid about: this is a post that is going to suggest that if you don’t already sing some praise and worship in your congregation, now might be the best time, in this month and a half-ish between Christ the King and Epiphany. In fact, I won’t be suggesting you try on just any praise and worship from the last 40 years, but what we might call “classic” praise and worship. Better yet, you’re welcome to call it “traditional” praise and worship. I’m talking about the stuff from the mid- and late-1980s, the songs that came out before CCLI was a thing and before Christian bookstores picked it up and before the CCM industry saw the market value in it. I guess you might just call it “hipster” in that way—”traditional” praise and worship was doing it before it was cool.

You might be wondering what, exactly, this so-called “traditional” praise and worship was doing? And what that non-liturgical charismatic praise and worship stuff has to do with the so-called “liturgical” calendar?

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It’s no mystery that the central themes of the Advent season revolve around waiting, anticipation, patience, preparation, and expectation. These themes are quite appropriate for this first season of the church calendar that celebrates the grand narrative of Christian hope that ended last week with Christ the King Sunday. The King has now crowned the liturgical year, and we’re back to the beginning of our story in time: Christ the King not-yet.

If your experience in congregational song is anything like mine, the deepest sense of expectation during Advent is actually for the opportunity to sing Christmas carols. Radios and shopping malls everywhere have long beat us to the punch, and it’ll be another three weeks before many communities let their O come‘s become has come’s. We (myself included) can often be quite zealous about our careful navigation of the liturgical calendar. We’ve got a cosmic story to tell and only 52ish Sundays a year to tell it, much less the four of Advent and the one Sunday after Christmas. Time is short. Choose carefully, choose wisely.

For so many, the songs themselves are the greatest reason for the season. I don’t mean to be harsh but—as you probably know from experience—no other season of the Christian year is so infused with popular demand for a certain repertoire of music. In the span of just a few days, many communities celebrate a Lessons and Carols service, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Church Christmas Pageants/musicals, not to mention all the concerts put on by schools and community organizations (also not to mention those of you who livestream musical events like those at St. Olaf College or King’s College Choir Cambridge—you know who you are).

In the midst of our waiting for this short flurry and flourish of appropriately Christmas-y repertoire, how can we infuse a deep sense of expectation for the coming of Christ himself? How can we help Advent sound its own part of the story? Do we commit to only the “traditional” Advent carols and the medieval church modes?

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Pentecostal and charismatic traditions have something to teach the rest of the church about a fervent expectation and experience of God in worship. Sure, we have had some inter-Christian disagreements about what happens when God is “manifestly” present, and that’s fair enough. But what I think we in congregational song can learn is another musical way to celebrate the basic rhythm of Christian worship in revelation and response and in expectation and fulfillment and how we might more deeply join in the palpable sense of excitement that God is truly making Godself present in our worship and in the world, and God is doing so powerfully.

One thing traditional praise and worship does well is generate a sense expectation. In fact, the expressed goal of these songs and their use in worship is to facilitate the journey from expectation to fulfillment of God’s coming in Christ through the power of the Spirit. And not with the journey itself as the goal, but the celebration of the very presence of God.

Now, if there’s one thing that I feel confident in saying that this season of Advent to Christmas is about; one thing that matters for our participation in the present portion the Christian narrative; one thing that we can hang our discipleship hats on, it’s so that we have the palpable sense of expectation that is ultimately fulfilled with an enjoyment of God’s presence in the incarnation; Emmanuel, God with us. Traditional praise and worship can help us do this well, if we give it the opportunity and take it on its own terms.

Here’s one great example: go have a look/listen at the early Integrity’s Hosanna! Music tapes from the mid 1980s—a great place to start would be the tape “All Hail King Jesus”[1] from 1985 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlAWfJl8Ljo). I mentioned in the opening that this would have been quite appropriate on Christ the King Sunday— “but wait, there’s more!”—listen to how chock-full the songs are with language of expectation directly from the Psalms and Prophets and invites our direct response to the great acts of God, especially in the person and presence of Jesus Christ. Over the course of the album, it moves from boisterous praise and confident statements of beckoning or expectation into quieter songs of response to the enthroned Jesus Christ. It’s a very cosmic—and very Advent-friendly—narrative.

Use these (or others from this repertoire), and make them your own. But also be sure to give them the space they need to do the work they were made to do. So to say, take some cues from this album as to how the performance practices might do as much work as the texts in generating a strong sense of expectation and fulfillment. The other great part about traditional praise and worship is that the instrumentation is highly adaptable. You can do it with virtually any arrangement of musicians that will suit your context and your services. Because these were originally done in orchestral settings, it makes for a much easier process of simplifying to suit your context than “complexifying” to suit. Take for example the title track mentioned above, “All Hail King Jesus” that Lifeway offers in lead sheet, chord chart, piano, vocal, and full orchestral versions (print or as digital files).[2] All very easily accessible. But don’t just do one song, do a whole set, musical transitions and all. It’s called “flow.”

All this to say: I hope we continue to reach across the musical boundaries that have grown up around us to celebrate the good in other traditions of congregational song in Christian worship by participating in them. “Traditional” praise and worship has something to offer all of us in learning how to deeply experience and rehearse the story of the coming of Christ in Advent and Christmas as more than a symbol of Christian unity, but an embodiment of it. As Rosa’s recent blog reminded us so keenly: our singing is an act of love, not just with our lips or ears but with our actions and our presence. We celebrate in sung prayer and presence as an act of love for each others’ diverse experiences of God. And all of this stems from the layers of hope, expectation, and ultimate fulfillment we find in this first season of the Christian year, and ultimately in God’s eschatological fulfillment to which the year so beautifully points.

 

[1] The title track of the album, “All Hail King Jesus” Words and music by Dave Moody. © Copyright 1978 Dayspring Music, LLC.

[2] https://www.lifewayworship.com/findAndBuy/songPage/AllHailKingJesus?versionId=90387&searchString=null#song-Parts