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.