Thursday, May 22, 2008

American Idol: The Home Game

I had the exceptionally wonderful experience yesterday of attending the Festival of Homiletics. Got to hear brilliant addresses by Walter Brueggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor and Jim Wallis. And attended morning worship. Excellence all around; Carol Miles in the pulpit, Mark Sedio at the organ, Jearlyn Steele singing. My favorite moment was the very first, when this crowd of 2000 preachers lustily broke into the opening hymn. Because seating was at a premium, my friend B and I were sitting in the choir loft, facing the congregation. The first sung word of the hymn was like a giant trumpet blast. The sound of that many souls singing together...well, it's a foretaste of the feast to come, IMHO.

Carol Miles preached a truly wonderful sermon about a God who is with us in the painful dark, and about orienting ourselves by the cross. Afterward, Jearlyn Steele sang "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." She did it VERY well. It was gorgeous and penetrating and uplifting, like the sermon itself.

But then it happened.

Steele got an ovation. In the middle of the service.

Both Steele and Miles Preached; both served their calling well. The congregation, made up of preachers from around North America, expressed their appreciation for the music by...well, by effectively stopping the worship service. One gentleman shouted from the balcony, "THAT WAS THE BEST SERMON WE'VE HEARD ALL WEEK!!" Going back to the liturgy, to the beautifully crafted prayers designed to put us in conversation with God, felt like a thud because the crowd made it clear that what they wanted was more music.

In fact, their next action was to demand, as a group, by shouts, stomping and applause, that Steele be allowed to sing again after worship, as the moderator was trying to move us into the next phase of the morning.

The irony that this happened at a homiletical conference is not lost on me.

Steele DID sing again, and handled the situation beautifully, in my estimation, when she said, "We singers are a dime a dozen. I am here by God's anointing, and I ask all of you to pray for us musicians, that our music may open the ears of its listeners to the Word you preach."

Effectively: this is not about me. We're here for something, some ONE bigger than all of us. It's not false humility. It was a necessary corrective, in that moment.

I am a church musician by vocation. This is not a small thing to me. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a killjoy, I'm not a snob, and I, too, was deeply moved by Steele's singing. I'm not trying to suggest that there's only one right answer to the "applause" question, and I'm likewise not intimating that there was any ill intention on anyone's part. But I do think this is a question that deserves careful attention, for the sake of our shared worship life.

Steele DID preach. The problem was not hers: we lost the greater context for a moment and focused on her instead of the service. What could have been a holy moment became something else for me, because this group of church leaders acted like a mob of consumers in a scarcity of Cabbage Patch Kids, instead of a worshiping congregation.

Let me be clear that I do not mean to minimize the power of Steele's song. It was nearly perfectly done. And it was as well-paired with the sermon as any music has been, EVER. What troubles me is the reaction of the congregation. We're so enculturated to applaud for music--that coding happens at such a deep level that it doesn't occur even to this cross-section of church leaders that there should perhaps be another way to express our appreciation, which should (not incidentally) also be extended to the preacher, the presider, the organizer, and the custodian.

And it should be a way that doesn't render the rest of the liturgy an afterthought.

RevGals and other conference attendees: I'd love it if there were some conversation around this. I've talked with many who have said that clapping is just a way of saying "amen" with their hands, and I appreciate that. However, I submit that sometimes applause is too pregnant with other cultural associations (spectatorship, consumerism) for it to be appropriate in mainline liturgical worship. It turns us into a mob, in a way. And it's a very different experience in communities that grow up using clapping as percussion and as "amen;" I've also experienced the power inherent there.

It's an issue that is not going to go away, and I would be very interested in some other points of view here. 'Cause I went away feeling like something sort of icky had happened at an otherwise lovely, uplifting service.

+++ 24 hours later +++

P.S. It occurs to me that the crowd was probably, on a deeper level, responding to the COMBINATION of music and preaching and good worship and being together and just being really FED, which made God's presence palpable. However, that is not the shape of their response. That's what troubles me, I think. It's too easy, and it's not quite true, to clap for the singer. I guess I'd hope for us to be a bit more grounded...a bit more thoughtful/intentional, and more prepared to see this in a leadership context. It think it's possible that this gets to/results from the sometimes-troubling dynamic between pastors and musicians--the one they warn us about in seminary, but don't really prepare us to deal with, and which becomes a source of tension in so many churches.


Magdalene6127 said...

This is a powerful and insightful analysis of a troubling episode at an otherwise wonderful conference. I appreciate your perspective as a minister of music/ church musician (do you have a preference?). I too am interested to hear what others have to say!

Choralgirl said...

Hiya, Mags--actually, given my druthers, we'd all be "cantors," leaders of song. Barring that, I'll answer to either. :-) I do think that part of the priesthood of all believers is that we're all ministers of music, too.

Hope you've enjoyed the remainder of the conference!

Rev Dr Mom said...

I think you raise a fascinating question. I was raised to believe "you never clap in church" but recently I've been hearing some folks question that, asking why it's not okay to show appreciation with applause. I think the points you make about it interrupting the liturgy are excellent.

Now, a story: One Sunday last summer I was applauded after a sermon. I was completely flabbergasted--I've NEVER heard applause after a sermon and I wasn't even sure what I should do. I was the presider that day (I'm an Episcopal priest btw) so I just smiled, nodded once and went on with the liturgy. While I was gratified that the sermon had touched people, I'm still not sure that applause was appropriate there. It's really not about ME the preacher. But maybe I'm being too much the frozen Episcopalian? Maybe the congregation should feel free to express themselves about music or sermon? I don't know.

I hope you do get some more conversation about this, because I'd be interested in hearing other view points, too.

Choralgirl said...

Hello, RDM!

I know what you mean about the not-sure-how-to-handle-this-in-the-moment thing; I haven't found a way to receive such applause that's anything near as graceful as what Jearlyn did.

I kind of go back and forth about it, honestly--I certainly don't want to stifle spontaneous, genuine participation, but I worry about the "points to us, rather than God" in an already "Me Generation" time and culture. And I don't like anything that reinforces the idea that the folks in the pews are any less participants than the folks up front--hence my wariness about acting as if it were a concert or some such.

And then there's the question of the Great Vanishing Public Silence.

I dunno. Really.

Thanks for visiting, and for the story!

She Rev said...

I appreciate you posting on this. I was bothered by that particular reaction, too, especially the shouted comment about the "best sermon all week." Is this about one being better than another?

I, too, don't want to reduce it all to a discussion of clapping vs. non-clapping although I tend (more than tend) not to like clapping for "performances" of any kind in worship. It's not a hard and fast rule for me, but 95% of the time I'm a non-clapper, but there are RARE occasions when the Spirit is literally palpable that applause seems to be the unstoppable inside of me and in a congregation as a whole. It's kind of that like that famous definition of pornography for me - - I know those moments when I'm in them, but I can't describe them.

Throughout the week I was really surprised by the applause and reactions to not just the music, but also to the preaching at most worship services. Applause after a sermon would make me, a preacher, REALLY uncomfortable (I hope). The worst case, in my opinion, would be if it DIDN'T make me uncomfortable.

I don't know. I guess the reactions could be an honest and faithful response to God in thanksgiving for the gifts of the one presenting in worship (song, speech, or prayer), but really it feels like it's giving the glory to the presenter and that's not what it's about in my opinion.

I guess I was slightly more comfortable that both preachers and musicians were applauded/appreciated at the Festival since usually those sorts of reactions are limited to the musicians. It did at least take away a little of that dichotomy you mentioned. But in the end I wasn't too comfortable with the reactions at all and didn't participate in them myself for musicians or preachers.

My own story about this: I haven't been applauded in worship before, but I have had people in a congregation apologize to me or I guess express regret for the applause of the congregation after a particularly moving musical offering. The comment was, "I wish we could clap for sermons. Your preaching was as good as that song, but it would seem weird to clap for it."

Lecturers? That's a different story. I clapped like crazy for some of those! It's the worship context that bothers me with the applause. In worship things are done for a different reason and the "audience" is not in the room among us. I guess you can say the clapping is for God, but like you are leaning, the ambiguity and the slippery slope into showing appreciation to a "performer" in an entertainment-saturated culture is to much for me.

Diane said...

Hey Choralgirl, thanks for your comment on my blog. I have to admit that my brain was too foggy from the migraine I was contracting to really register the reactions of people to Steele's song. I actually was surprised there was so much applauding during worship. Very confusing as I was brought up like you. what causes a bunch of pastors, who should know better, to do this.

With regard to in church, I think in part it is a desire, especially in liturgical churches, to have some sort of spontaneous moment, which I can sort of empathize with. ON the other hand, I do want to distinguish worship from performance.

Thanks for the discussion.

She Rev said...

I play bass - trained classically first, but added jazz into my repertoire eventually, too. Now I don't play nearly enough, but I hope to be able to join a community orchestra here in Western WI in the next year or so. It'll be easier to get involved when my son is weaned soon. Right now it's not worth it to be gone more than I need to. Soon.

Catrina said...

I, too, was uncomfortable with all the applause in the context of our worship, which in my opinion, only got worse as we went through the week (for both preachers and musicians). To me, increasingly it felt less and less like a participatory response or a giving glory to God for the gifts or the message, and more and more like consumeristic glorification of the performer (I felt this particularly when applause would erupt after a quiet piece intended for meditative reflection or "musical prayer").

I'm curious, in the case of Jearlyn, did anyone else feel kind of weird about the applause from a racial standpoint? On Tuesday, Barbara Lundblad really laid down a challenge to tackle issues of racism and white privilege, then the mob-like response too Jearlyn's singing happened on Wednesday, and it was really the first time the crowd responded like that (and I would say it was the most mob-ish response to anyone all week).

I don't mean to diminish her gift in any way by asking this question - her singing was absolutely gorgeous and moving, but to me and my pew mates, the zealousness of the crowd's response felt kind of like a delayed manifestation of white guilt in response to Lundblad's challenge from the day before. Did anyone else feel that vibe?

On another note, CG, I wish I had known you were going to be at the Festival - I would have hunted you down so we could have had lunch!

And, I agree with Walken, this blog definitely needs more cowbell. . .


Choralgirl said...

Catrina--yes, rats. I was only there for a day, but it would have been great to have lunch!

My friend Pat and I were talking about that potential racial overtone,too--and whether this was a display of Liberal Overcompensation...also, I wonder whether there's a whiff of a similar dynamic at work, in relation to the sometimes-contentious pastor/musician relationship. Hmmmm...

Julie said...

Since I wasn't there, I can't really comment about the applause that happened in your worship, but I can speak to applause that happens spontaneously at other worship - particularly in response to sermons, as revdrmom mentioned.

It's my experience that often the applause is in response to the message that was preached, not necessarily a reaction to the preacher themselves. Sometimes when we hear the word of God in a powerful way, we want to shout our agreement or approval - sort of a great "Amen", like we often hear in the evangelical tradition. But, us modest protestants aren't so good at that, so I think applauding is our way of saying that we heard the Spirit speaking through the preacher and it touched and moved us in a powerful way.

Maybe the applause isn't so much for the individual person (preacher, singer, musician), but rather is a way to indicate a response to the Spirit at work in the midst of the community. As if to say, "Look, there it was - the Spirit of God among us!"

RevDrKate said...

I'm glad to see this thoughtful discussion. I was uncomfortable with the applause in worship in general at the FoH and after Jearlyn's song in particular, as it had taken me to a particularly deep place of prayer which the clapping put a rather abrupt end to. At the risk of sounding rather rigid, I generally don't think applause belongs in church, except maybe when the bride and groom are introduced, but NOT for preaching or music which is intended as praise not performance. Maybe we need to just say "Amen."

Choralgirl said...

Kate--you got to the one thing I forgot to mention. Clapping in formal liturgical worship always strikes me as a tiny bit insensitive to the other people in the room, whose locus is more reflective (especially in moments of deepest reality), which needs the corporate agreement to keep silence.

I think that we're losing the ability in this generation to keep silence in groups; we're losing the collective patience to hold a quiet core. The pendulum has swung to more yang that yin.

That grieves me, because I personally need the time for reflection, and isn't worship a place where that should be enabled?

Let me be clear here that I'm not knocking traditions (like are found in many AME churches) for which the whole style of the worship service is more dialogue-based: i.e. "Preach it!" That has a wonderful power and energy all its own.

It's just not a seamless patch on a liturgical tradition, and that sort of lessens the power on both ends for me.

But maybe my Minnesota Lutheran is showing. :-)