Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Because We’ve Always Done It That Way

During the Sunday morning service this weekend, at the church where I do my “church gigging” (and where I’ve been a member for something like 40 years now), I experienced something I’ve not experienced before. Namely: we had to convince the congregation that it really wanted to start the service.

That’s not as dire as it sounds, now that I read it back to myself. There wasn’t a revolution against having Sunday morning worship. But our congregation has always been a very social group. And sociable! When they are offered the opportunity to greet each other, in a “schedule item” in the order-of-service bulletin, they greet each other! Firmly! Vigorously! Cheerily! It’s a whole lot of fun, and I remember that being the case when I was a little guy, too. We call it “Passing the Peace”, so as to say “Peace be with you, brother, sister, whomever…” and it’s generally anything but library-grade peace, at least as measured in decibels.

Over the years, though, we’ve struggled with the Prelude, i.e. the piece of music that begins the service. Not to put to fine a point on it… sometimes you can barely hear the Prelude for the greetings. For a long time, the Prelude was the VERY first thing in the order of worship, and so it was kinda background music for the congregation finding its seats in the Sanctuary. We’ve monkeyed around with other parts of our worship order this year, quite a bit; but “how to begin the service” has garnered a bit of attention itself. And this morning, as the Passing of the Peace was the first item in the bulletin and the Prelude was the second … and the third item took a moment or two to get going … I thought maybe it was time to consider this topic myself, formally, intentionally.

So the following article will be published in our church’s weekly newsletter in the next week or two. And we’ll see how many people I can offend!…


NOTE: The opinions expressed in the following article are those of the writer. But others may agree!

From my choir director perch, I’ve been privileged to witness the skill that’s required to design a Sunday morning service. It’s everything from ‘covering all the bases’ to ‘respecting tradition’ to ‘trying new things’ to ‘reverse psychology’! And this year, we’ve been experimenting with lots of different worship elements. Chant!! Praise music!! Communion every week!! … And other, smaller things that perhaps you noticed, or perhaps not.

Maybe my least favorite phrase is ‘because we’ve always done it that way.’ I usually find this to be not a good enough reason to continue doing anything a certain way. If that’s one justification, but another is ‘it makes sense to do it this way because of these reasonable explanations’… then OK. But humans push back against change, especially if we like what’s going on or we’re used to it. Don’t mess with my comfort zone!

Musically, SUMC is anything but ‘Same Thing Happens Every Week.’ Kevin and I prefer variety – not for variety’s sake, but because the more different things we offer, the more likely it is that someone will leave after a Sunday service having enjoyed at least one musical thing that morning. In the major leagues, if you average one hit every three chances, you could be a Hall of Famer!

I’ve been considering one musical item particularly this spring: the Prelude. It’s a little (or big) quite (or loud) piece of music that has been one focus of our service-design wrestling this year.

Prelude time was originally intended to help a congregation prepare for the service to come. Lately, we’ve been actively working to figure out where to put the prelude so that it can serve this function well. At SUMC, the prelude has been much more commonly seen as a time for people to re-connect before the Sunday service, perhaps for the first time since *last* Sunday morning. And sometimes that connection is pretty loud. It’s been this way since I was a little kid in this congregation, and that’s a few years back.

Which doesn’t make it right.

I’m going out on a limb here. Send all your cards and letters to me and nobody else, c/o the SUMC choir room. This is me, opening my big yap. When people use prelude time for this purpose, the service that follows is immediately that much more effective. Sometimes, here at SUMC, we don’t utilize it that well. Sometimes, the liturgist or pastor needs to do more work to draw congregational attention to the start of the service than honestly he or she should have to. (‘Class!… Class!…’)

I’m not saying this to get all defensive of my colleague Kevin – although he’s responsible for some pretty neat prelude music at the organ, if you listen to it hard enough. Neither am I saying this to get all defensive of other musicians who may help provide prelude music – even though I usually can be so. We are a congregation heavily stocked with amateur musicians (in the best sense of the word, i.e. they don’t do it for a living), and when they help present the prelude, it’s a big deal for them and I bet they wish we’d listen.

And I’m not saying this to imply that SUMC is a bunch of self-centered knuckleheads! Hardly! I suspect that SUMC is not the only church where the prelude (or postlude) sometimes has to be specially pointed out in order for people to know they have to make the effort to listen.

And admittedly, we do live in a culture that is very rarely quiet. We’re constantly bombarded by music (or music-like sounds!) in stores. It’s the rare TV show that doesn’t have a fairly boomy musical soundtrack attached to it. Even cooking shows use jazzy little riffs to remind you that the recipes are so easy and tasty! On top of which, most current entertainment is delivered in such a way (TV, computer) that we’re able to hold conversations while being entertained. And the providers of that entertainment aren’t usually physically present, so they’re probably not offended if we’re not listening closely. So, we’ve gradually gotten used to being less than polite. I say ‘we’ because, well, I talk back to the TV all the time – and on certain Saturday nights I’ve had the Red Sox on the TV, muted, while I listen to ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ on the radio, so I am hardly blameless in all this!

Recently, you may have noticed a new ‘tweak’ of the Sunday service design: the Passing of the Peace first, followed by the Prelude, followed by the rest of the service. You have perhaps noticed that the two items are listed separately. Here’s what I wonder: can we agree to treat them as separate items that have separate intents and separate functions? Let’s pass the peace with vigor, since I suspect God doesn’t intend for us to be shy about that! But I challenge you to actively utilize the Prelude music – whether it’s offered by Kevin or the choir or anyone else – to help us get ready, prayerfully, for what God may say to us subsequently.

Peace and low notes, /s/Rob”


June 5, 2011 - Posted by | entertainment, media, music, SUMC, television | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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