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Music and Dynamic Worship

By the Reverend Dennis Hamilton

"They say it is air, moving, vibrations of air, / traveling across the room, even through walls, / coming to move the cochlea, the eardrum..." Read the entire poem (PDF, 1 page).

Dynamic Worship is Affective

Worship in our tradition seldom lacks a strong intellectual content.  But often it is emotionally unexciting.  If it leaves the worshipper thoughtful, but unmoved, we have wasted a precious opportunity.  We need to ask ourselves, what is it we want to accomplish in this service?  How do we want the participants to feel when they leave?

If we want to get to where people live, we need to touch their hearts, what is most important to them.  Every service needs to address the basic needs of the congregation.  We need to recognize the life issues that people bring with them to church.  We need to address real issues of the human drama, and we need to send people off with enthusiasm for the task ahead.

To do this the service needs to do more than make us think.  It needs to get under our skin, into our hearts, and breathe the spirit into our souls.  It needs to move over the waters and speak to us from burning bushes.  Our goal should always be to send people back into the world saying, “I laughed, I cried, it changed my life.”

How can we consistently create services that move people?  How can we couch the message in language and music and movement that will be remembered, recited through the week?

First, we must pay attention to the affective nature of the hymn or song or piece of music.  And this is true of the sermon, the prayer, the readings.  It is no secret that some music relaxes us and other music makes us want to dance, or cry.  There are lots of studies that show the effect of music on the emotions, if you need more than the truth of your own experience.  The idea of the use of music to heal goes back to Aristotle and Plato.  As a modern therapeutic discipline, music has become one of the tools of the medical profession.  Dr. Oliver Sacks, in Awakenings, said, "I regard music therapy as a tool of great power in many neurological disorders—Parkinson's and Alzheimer's—because of its unique capacity to organize or reorganize cerebral function when it has been damaged."

We need to think of our worship services in much the same way, that they are intentionally therapeutic and healing.  In Singing the Journey, we find songs like “Comfort Me” by Mimi Bornstein and “When I Am Frightened” by Shelly Jackson Denham.  When we sing these songs, people always become emotional.  Everyone needs comfort.  Everyone needs protection.  They are universals, and our worship services are places where people come to be healed, to be encouraged, to be reminded that life is good and worth the struggle.

So we need to continually ask the question, how is this hymn, this prayer, this sermon, this announcement, this sharing of joys and sorrows, this benediction, this prelude or postlude contributing to the service?  Where is it taking the congregation?  Is the congregant involved or just an observer?  To say it another, traditional way, has the Holy Spirit descended upon the assembled?  Do they feel the spirit?

If you are concerned that this is only emotional, don’t worry.  I don’t know of a Unitarian Universalist minister or congregation who would tolerate content-less worship for long.  But how many tolerate worship that is unemotional?

The old joke about people reading ahead to see if they agree with the words is true.  With music that is affective, people forget to read ahead.  They “get” it, the metaphor, the meaning under the words.  This is why Gospel music is so loved, even though the theology is not in line with most Unitarian Universalists’ theology.  When the music speaks to our hearts and souls, the music becomes the theology.

Dynamic Worship is Collaborative

Putting together a worship service is not as easy as it should look on Sunday morning.  A Sunday worship experience is an amazing event. It may look as simple as a preacher and a choir getting together to sing and preach, but it is far more complex.  The personnel involved in putting together an effective service usually include a preacher, the Worship Committee, a Music Director, a Choir Director, musicians, readers, technicians, office workers for the order of service, ushers, greeters, a hospitality committee to make coffee, and, if children are involved, the DRE, teachers and children, and, of course, a congregation.  Story tellers, dancers, poets, filmmakers, and other artists may also be involved.

Some worship services are so unorganized they seem to limp along and are salted with miscues, ineffective music and apologies.  Other services may be organized, but they fail to move people, to motivate them.  A “successful” worship service will be intentional, and so well constructed that it seems to flow smoothly, and to do what the worship leaders intend it to do.

It is our belief that collaborative planning is essential to this kind of worship.  This means that the worship committee, the music director and the minister need to be aware of every element of the service.

Some ministers just preach, and leave it up to the music director to choose appropriate music. This can work, but when they and a few others are a team, when their collaboration creates a synergy, wonderful and powerful things can happen.

As a minister I know there are services where the central piece that people will carry home with them is the music.  My sermon is really a frame for the music in those cases.  At other times, the music supports the theme.  In any case, the music needs to lead the congregation to where we want to take them emotionally.

For instance, in the opening music, be it a song, a round, a hymn or a prelude, its purpose is to gather the clan, to set the mood, to announce that this is now sacred apace.  After a pastoral prayer, the music usually is gentler, more contemplative than, say, the closing hymn.

When we plan a service, each of us brings pieces to the table.  We begin with a theme.  That theme might originate out of the season, or an event in the world, but sometimes it will begin with a reading, and just as often with a piece of music for the choir.  If I bring a theme to the table, a sermon topic, the worship arts chair brings readings, stories for the children, or does research on the topic.  The music director and chair of the music committee bring ideas for music and we will go through the hymn book, singing hymns until just the right one pops out.  Often we look outside the hymnbook, to folk or popular songs, to gospel or to classical.  This hymnbook includes songs that are not “church” music.  And this is an important understanding.  One of the uses of music is to connect us to our daily life, the rhythms of the day.  Secular music can do things that sacred music cannot.  And this is another reason for collaboration.

Some music crosses generations, but some is generational.  Bringing in music that is “my” music can involve someone who might otherwise feel outside the loop, feeling the music is “their” music.  We cannot accommodate every taste, but we can be thinking about the different generations in our congregations.

Collaborating has many rewards.  First, it is fun.  We laugh and joke and let our imaginations run wild.  But it is also good for us, for our own spiritual growth because we are thinking about healing, inspiring, bringing peace or encouragement to the congregation.  And we are listening to each other.  Each of us comes away with more than we had when we sat down together.  Another way to look at collaborative worship planning is to see the group as a covenant group, with a sacred mission.  For lay centered services, where there is no minister, all of this still applies.  The process of planning services can be a spiritual growth experience no matter what size the church.

Think of the congregation coming through the door on Sunday morning.  Think of their needs.  One has just been diagnosed with cancer.  Another has just seen his first grandchild.  Another is pregnant, and is afraid.  Another has struggled through depression just to get to church.  Another has just fallen in love.  Some have elderly parents.  Some are elderly parents.  The children may be bright and sassy, but they are children, and they need joy, surprises, repetition, comfort.  Everyone thrives on stories, especially redemptive stories that give people hope.

So the worship service is collaborative in the planning, but it is collaborative when it happens.  It is good to think of the service as inductive, inviting the congregation into participation, inviting them to internalize the message, and, we believe, to internalize the music and respond to the feelings the music calls forth.

Again, as a minister, I hope people will leave remembering the sermon, but I know they might carry away a song and remember nothing I have said.  That keeps me humble, but it also reminds me how important the music and the musicians are.

Finally, there are a few things to remember about the music.  Although it may be really lively and even outrageous at times, it isn’t  entertainment.  It is there to bring us into a sacred time and place, to heal our wounds, to strengthen our resolve, to remind us of our values and to bring us joy.

Please practice the music before you take it to the congregation.  Your team should own the music and be able to lead the congregation strongly.  The idea that Unitarian Universalists can’t sing is simply not true.  They often simply have never been given permission to sing or had anyone model the joy, the sorrow, the soul that lives in the music.

We hope that this songbook will be accessible to everyone, that you have fun with it and use it to bring new life into your congregation.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, April 5, 2012.

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