Renewing Our Music and Reviving Our Worship

by | Feb 11, 2016

By Kathleen Moore

“Church is one of the last places left in American culture where people expect and, in fact, demand live music,” says the Rev. Andrew Barnett. “Where they expect to sing together, where they expect to tell stories—grownups telling each other stories that matter, that shape our visions, our realities, the way we act, and our relationship with God. Almost nobody else does that anymore and it’s so powerful, and it is sacred and beautiful.”

Barnett is founder and band leader of Theodicy Jazz Collective, which incorporates jazz and musical improvisation into liturgy. “Those who would like to innovate—and there are many reasons to innovate—need to bring a great humility and a great respect for what is there already,” he says. Theodicy will lead music at Diocesan Convention on January 30 and at the Absalom Jones Celebration at 3 p.m. on February 7 at Washington National Cathedral.

The group has traveled around the United States and England, performing at cathedrals as well as food pantries and clothing closets. “Our mission is to share music with anyone who wants to be part of it,” Barnett says. The band has written and performed a jazz mass for Canterbury Cathedral and led music at a Eucharist last summer at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church In the process, Barnett says, they’ve learned a lot about what makes people want to worship.

“When you ask people what they really care about, what keeps them up, what they talk about with their friends, very few people will tell you that they care particularly about the color of the vestments in church or the orientation of the Host,” Barnett says. “What people tell you they really care about is their kids, their neighborhood, the planet. And people ask, ‘Why don’t people come to church anymore? They only come on Christmas and Easter!’ And I think, ‘People are busy! We gotta make it worth their while. Not just by putting on a show, but by cultivating a deep Christ-centered community that people want to be a part of. And it has to be really good. It has to touch on what people care about. And if it doesn’t, it’s no longer acceptable to say, ‘Well, no one comes to church anymore except for Christmas and Easter.’ Instead we have to look inward and say ‘Well, why is that? Why do people care about what speaks to them and how do we be that church that responds?’”

When he got the results of a parish RenewalWorks survey, the Rev. Greg Syler witnessed first-hand the disconnect between what people really care about and what they were experiencing with music and worship at St. George’s in Valley Lee, where he serves as rector. “The response to the statement, ‘Worship and music feeds me spiritually’ was so low it was off the charts,” Syler says. “It showed us that we had a congregation of people who really were finding ways to feed themselves spiritually, and oftentimes that was through music, but that was not happening for them in their spiritual life in church. That was a really big red flag. But it was also an opportunity.”

From there, the St. George’s community was able to have a conversation about pursuing music and worship renewal. A worship and arts exploratory group was formed. “We knew we wanted to explore a wide range of music and music-making, and we wanted to explore how our common spirituality can be enhanced and grow when we think differently about why we worship and why we make music,” Syler says.

St. George’s music director had recently retired, and Syler took the summer of 2014 to experiment, welcoming in different types of musicians each Sunday. “I’d see Craigslist ads, talk to friends, friends of friends,” he says. “If I met musicians, I’d ask if they wanted to come. We had all kinds of different musical genres and styles, and it was fun. We learned a lot about ourselves, what we’re capable of, and what brings us delight and joy.”

The process caught the attention of Eliza Garth, a member of the music faculty at St. Mary’s College in southern Maryland. Garth is a concert pianist who has enjoyed an international career, but she also had experience working with congregational music. When she heard about the exploration St. George’s was undertaking, she reached out and started a conversation that led to her being appointed as music director in September 2014. Since then, St. George has stopped using its organ, disbanded its choir and shifted its focus to acoustic instruments and enhancing its congregational singing.

Barnett, who will lead a hymn sing at St. Stephen and the Incarnation on February 5 at 7 pm and aworkshop for church musicians on February 6 at 9:30 am at Washington National Cathedral, believes that any parish can innovate with music, and that it all starts with empowering the congregation to sing. He explains, “it really comes down to making an explicit invitation to the congregation to sing, and that is really a pastoral task. Almost everyone can remember at the deathbed with a mom or dad or grandmother, that person might not be able to have a conversation anymore, but more likely than not they can still either sing or respond to a song they learned as a child, like ‘Amazing Grace.’ Singing is the first thing in and the last thing out. Neuroscientists call singing one of the most powerful full-body experiences. And so empowering congregations to sing is a pastoral task because if people have sung that theology then they can call upon it in times of trouble. And if they haven’t, they can’t. It’s essential that not only is the congregation empowered and enabled to sing, but that the congregation knows that theirs is the most important voice.”

Barnett suggests some methods for encouraging congregations to sing. “One of the easiest things you can do is just sing an a cappella verse,” he says. “Sing at least one verse a cappella every week for a year. And guaranteed, the entire congregation will sing better at the end of the year. And it will be weird and awkward the first couple times, but just sing, just make a joyful noise. And pretty soon it gets good.”

Another method for getting the congregation more involved in singing is to think about your space and the placement of the choir and congregation. “Basically the worst configuration for empowering a congregation to sing is staring at the backs of people’s heads,” Barnett explains. “And most churches understandably aren’t ready to pull out the pews. But even in pews you can just turn in and face each other. So the people in the front can face the back, the people in the back can keep facing front, and the people on the sides can face the center, so you have kind of a box looking in, like when we process the Gospel. Just changing where people’s faces are makes a huge difference, because we’re looking at each other, we’re hearing each other.”

For congregations with choirs, Barnett recommends thinking about where choir members are placed. They might place themselves in an “in the round” formation, stop for a verse during a procession, or even simply process through the congregation at a slower pace while singing. Or if you’re “really all in,” Barnett suggests taking a Sunday and placing members of the choir throughout the congregation. “The best way to empower people to sing is for the average person in the congregation to be within 3 feet of someone who is singing confidently,” he explains. He adds that this is a good thing to try the first time you experiment with an a cappella verse, as it makes everyone more comfortable.

“St. George’s had a choir, but we also had a really strong singing congregation and a really intimate worship space,” explains Syler. “So it’s so easy in our space to really make music sing and make music together. We’ve tried a number of different genres, and we’re still able to do anthems and instrumental pieces by bringing in what we’ve called a ‘pop up choir.’ Instead of having choir every week dressing up in robes and marching around the church, we work with individuals and groups of individuals within the congregation. Every Sunday features really familiar Episcopal pieces and some unexpected and delightful pieces which Eliza and others have been working on.”

Barnett says Theodicy always tries “to make the party feel like church and church feel like the party.” The Rev. Gini Gerbasi, rector at St. John’s, Georgetown, knows something about that. She and music director Samuel Carabetta “are not the young teenage hot-shot, digital native people,” she says. “But we have a sense of a little bit of mischief in us and a deep, deep love for our liturgy and music. Both of us deeply believe that what we as Anglicans have to offer is that our liturgy is so great and so different and so ancient and and so awesome, it has enough flexibility built into it to make it fit different personalities at different churches.

“One way to reach people is to help them see that a story they’ve always known is actually the story of God,” Gerbasi says. “Which is why I said I wanted to do a ‘Frozen’ Sunday.”

“Frozen” is the runaway hit Disney movie that included the Grammy and Oscar winning song “Let it Go.” On Frozen Sunday, February 15, both services at St. John’s featured music, decorations and a sermon on the theme of the film. “In ‘Frozen,’ Disney told a story that made us think until the very end that it’s gonna be the story we already know,” Gerbasi says. “And instead it is turned on its head at the last minute in a way that sets you free, in a way that you didn’t even realize you were oppressed – which is what our Bible stories do. They turn things on their head and set people free when we didn’t even realize we were being held down.

“Two of the members of our choir performed an amazing rendition of the song ‘Love is an Open Door.’ And then, of course, the entire congregation belted out ‘Let it Go.’” Gerbasi was delighted to find that incorporating music and themes from the popular film into worship “took the ancient totally awesome stuff we do well, and told the story in a language that would speak it in a fresh way.” The parish has plans to follow up on the success of “Frozen Sunday” with “Star Wars Sunday.”

Syler has found the work of innovation with music and worship at St. George’s has resulted in the deeper connections that had been missing. “We receive positive and negative comments, but the spiritual, theological, and musical depth that people inhabit when they’re making those comments has grown so much from where it used to be. It used to be, ‘I don’t like that,’ or ‘I like this.’ Now we’re getting really deep feedback. It’s deeply engaged. It’s real,” Syler says.

To those considering exploring innovation with music and worship in their parishes, Syler says, “if you’re doing this, it’s going to be huge. It’s going to be awesome. It’s going to take a long time, and any handbook or consultant or ‘this is the way you have to do it’ is going to go right out the window on day one.

“If it was just up to me, I probably would not have started the conversation,” he says. “I probably would have suffered with bad music and surface-level spirituality for a lot longer. So the fact that it came from God through the community and right back to me is amazing. I mean, these were things that I felt too!”