June 19, 2006

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Children's Hymns in Worship: Using Repetition I love singing with children - (well, most of the time, but that part doesn't come into this story). They soak up words and melodies like sponges, storing them away and pouring them out at every opportunity, “in season and out of season” - as the parents in our church ruefully attest. What makes a good children's hymn? Or a good song for young people? Nobody I know, and no-one I've ever read, has ever come up with the formula. The problem is compounded by the fact that children will gleefully and confidently sing a song that is not at all what we think of as a “children's” hymn. Three-and-a-half year-old Joseph in our church can sing “Kwase, Kwase/Be Like Him” by Kirk Franklin, or join his (younger) brother Benjamin in a duet of “U ya-i mose” from Zimbabwe. (Two-year old Benjamin sings the bass part.) And, while I'm thinking of it, I remember 11- and 12-year-olds singing - lustily and with good courage - Charles Wesley's “And can it be that I should gain” at every opportunity at summer camp. Then there's the practical challenge. In the classic worship situation, children troop up to the front for the Children's Sermon while we adults sing verse 1 and 2 of a hymn that mentions children. Then, as they head off to Sunday School, we sing the 3rd and final verse. We might be singing a worthy hymn, but we are really using it as walking music, a sung processional and recessional to frame the children's time up at the front. Making a place for children's song in worship brings with it some practical problems - not the least of which is that many of the kids don't read yet. Even if they do, they don't carry hymnbooks up to the front. I'm also not convinced that (even for readers) projected words on the screen are the answer. Give me a human face any time - but that is also another story. Of course, the content is important, but I look first at the form. I look for how its repetitions (rhythmic, melodic and lyrical) lead the singer into the heart of the song. Then I look at how the repetitive elements can be used in teaching. I love African American spirituals and gospel songs for that reason. In my church, Trafalgar Presbyterian in Oakville, Ontario, we use one song for a month, linking it with the church school lesson. I think of it as repetition on a large scale, with the whole of worship for that month being the stanzas, and the children's hymn being the refrain. We used “I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table” while they were studying communion. We used “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho” while they were studying the Joshua story, and (since it was Black History month) linked it with stories of African Canadians and African Americans making other kinds of walls fall down. Our choir sang “Guide My Feet” (thanks to the new...
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Tradition: From Current Local to Historic Global It often seems that tradition is in the eyes of the beholder. A friend visited for a while with our large suburban congregation and suggested that what she discovered was a heritage of worship that was part town hall meeting, part local talent show, and part lecture series. Perhaps there are other congregations whose Ordo follows in a similar path. As pastor of the congregation for a little over two years, I have been faced with a number of questions related to local tradition. Making appeals to the great traditions of the church and faith don’t carry much freight for people who mark tradition according to what their parents taught them or what the last great preacher suggested. For large churches, change often comes slowly with much conversation – especially if change is rare and sometimes has been disastrous. Bearing this in mind, we have created safe spaces for conversations about worship. The conversation was structured by a graduate student we engaged for the purpose of exploration in small group and one-on-one interviews. As you might imagine, our conversations about worship were all over the map. We discovered yearnings amongst some for dimensions of worship that we did not offer at the time our questions were asked. In large measure, those expressed yearnings related to a sense of emotion and involvement that some felt was lacking in our more traditional church setting. So we decided to create some space for innovation. We are currently in the process of adding a new service of worship. The idea of adding an alternate worship service is nothing new. What is new (thus far) is the cooperative spirit being shared as we progress. This spirit is the outcome of much communication in many different forms. Since we began the process with an open conversation, the continuing development of new worship has become a shared conversation in meaning and problem-solving for the congregation. A friend is joining us in a few weeks to offer a worship service that demonstrates for the congregation the way that we can add a “contemporary” feel while also rediscovering the riches of sacramental practice. I suppose this is a small move toward "emerging worship." Learning to dance in large churches is, as some have coined the phrase, like waltzing a gorilla – so small steps are alright. One purpose of our “trial” worship service is to expand a conversation about experience, meaning, and tradition. One small thing we will do on that day is outlined in an idea you might try (listed in the ritual section - “Wade by the Water”). This is an example of the “small steps” I named above. Ultimately, exploration of tradition in local context relates to the relational character of ministry. It’s been my experience that time and trust open pathways for conversation and innovation. It also has been my experience that larger numbers of people require larger amounts of time for conversation about any change. When we create avenues for trust and conversation in...

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