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

 

One of the hardest things for me in planning worship is constructing the overarching narrative of the service. From the very first word to the last, I want the worship services I plan to take the congregation on a journey of encounter with God and each other. I want it to seem effortless and inevitable, like each element couldn’t possibly lead into any other than the one that’s been chosen. If you’re in the work of actually planning any or all of worship, you know that achieving such an ideal can often be elusive (for encouragement, see Ginny’s blog last week about ‘Success’).

 

Worship As Narrative

I call worship a narrative because I think it needs to go somewhere thematically, logically, spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. It needs to have a plot, and some subplots. Key characters who are developed over time. It needs to generate conflict and resolution, tension and release; it needs to have some small climaxes and some big ones too. It needs a range of emotional engagement. Not every story is told the same way. Narrative can take on a diversity of styles, as we know about the best books in a variety of genres; scripture also shows a diversity of genres.

My commitment to narrative for worship comes from scripture. Aside from the cosmic view of the Bible as one big narrative from Genesis to Revelation, it is true in more micro-cosmic ways. In the Old Testament, God’s people are encountered by God who (via the prophets) reminds the people of God’s story about them and they respond (e.g. Joshua 24). In the Gospels, Jesus himself tells stories (parables) to teach about the kingdom of God.

 

Hymn Sandwiches and Thematic Planning

But not all worship services or their patterns seem to have a clear direction to them. The classic ‘hymn sandwich’ service can feel like a game of ping-pong that never has a winner. ‘Thematic’ planning, where a simple theme is chosen to orient the service (e.g.  “Grace”), can sometimes generate services that have many smaller elements that point to the central theme, but are disconnected from one another. Thematic planning can especially impact services with extended song sets, resulting in an opening time of musical worship that spins its narrative wheels. Even in congregations where the liturgy is (supposedly) ‘set,’ the sense of overarching narrative can be overlooked in the midst of the structure–a forest missed for the trees. Worship planning in these settings can often feel like a ‘fill in the blank’ exercise. In all of these examples, the question remains the same, ‘How can a worship narrative more deeply embed the congregation in the story of God?’

 

Here are a few simple suggestions:

  1. Think about the genre of the scripture story for the day. Ask how the music and the whole service can inhabit that storytelling mode in its structure and content.
  2. Choose a song that uses scripture paraphrase or quotation and use it in place of one of the readings for the day (rather than a reiteration of the same text). In your worship bulletins, mark those songs as scripture or scripture paraphrase.
  3. If you’re only responsible for music choices, ask the worship leader, reader, or pastor, to say a one sentence introduction to a congregational song you’ve chosen. If speaking would be too cumbersome, put a note in the back of the bulletin. If you’re doing choral music, this is a great way to key in the congregation for how to listen well to the piece as part of the service. Why did you choose it, what are its virtues at that point in the service? What does the song express that can’t be expressed with words alone?
  4. If you’re responsible for the whole service, I can’t stress enough how the use of ‘in-between-words’ can help tell the big picture story in worship. See Paul Ryan on this (of Calvin, not the WI politician!).
  5. Avoid redundancy in music! If you have a song that acts as a confession, don’t also read a confession–let the song do its part in the worship story.
  6. Assess your choral music based on function–from week to week, an anthem’s text and music might not always best serve the narrative of worship by being sung during the offering. Ask, “What is this text and music doing and where might if fit better”?

 

If you do some of these things to support a narrative-based approach to worship planning and leadership, it will support worshippers’ deep engagement with worship. More importantly, it will support a deepening engagement with God who shows us love through the redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–the most important story worth telling.

How do these suggestions engage with your worship context? Share with us in the comments!