Garnering Old School Praise

“It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High..” — Psalm 92:1

Sunday, my wife and I attended a morning Service of Worship at Bellevue Baptist Church,  our sister church in Converge MidAmerica​, and the home church of our partner and musical director Garlan Garner​. In the 25 years of our association with Bellevue, as often as we’ve presented together through Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries​ or Elk Grove Baptist Church​, we had never been able to go to a Sunday morning service.  Add this to our list of #holyspiritmoments.

Bellevue, on Chicago’s South Side, is what we call an “old school” church.  It’s often found in an urban setting or the center of a long-ago established smaller community in a building that was built to be a church decades ago (as opposed to being a converted office building, mall, movie theater or multi-site complex).  Its founding residents were likely another ethnicity than those currently attending, and perhaps that change in demographic was problematic, so much so that it may have hastened the change though few of the current attendees recall.

Such was the case with Bellevue, whose congregation was predominately Caucasian when Lucious Fullwood, a pioneer in encouraging racial unity through the Gospel of Christ, became the senior pastor almost 40 years ago. “Black” was still being accepted as the preferred reference to Americans of African descent.  That there are few Anglos in the neighborhood or congregation Pastor Fullwood still shepherds at Bellevue now is moot, for his messages of maintaining faith in Christ in the face of daily human struggles transcend any particular DNA.

Vikki_Garlan Bellevue

 

Vikki J. Myers and her musical partner Garlan Garner embrace musical styles that transcend neighborhoods and unite communities.

Old-School Worship

Besides,  while the people may have changed certain elements of Sunday worship passed on tradition. In the context of modern church-ulture, “old school” likely means the church has not totally abandoned occasionally reading from The King James Version; announcement time may include conversations from the platform and the pews; guests  may be welcomed by name, invited to stand, and an opportunity to give a greeting during the service; and may have a small, non-flashy, yet boisterous choir whose singers may include those not-yet qualified for AARP.

Garlan led the musical worship as he does three Sundays a month.  In something of a concession to contemporary settings, Garlan plays keyboards that can replicate other instruments.  He is frequently backed-up by what my wife — the gospel jazz singer — calls the rhythm section: drums and electric bass.  They also have an alto sax.  Another modern adaption is having words on the screen versus singing from the hymnal.  Although  there is a printed order of service for the congregation to follow, the printed order is a template.

In old-school church, there is no countdown clock to follow.  No kickoff to hasten home to watch.  DVRs were made for old-school churches (microwaves, too). The first time a preacher says, “As I close” is the 15-minute warning.  the choir, the people and the technicians have to be ready to change. It’s called letting The Spirit work.

Improvisational Worship

Among Garlan’s great gifts is musical improvisation — accompanying in the moment. Without being told, asked, paid or noticed he senses when the atmosphere of a prelude, prayer or offertory  would be more worshipful with keyboard underscoring. He conducts the choir confident that they have done their homework, reviewing their charts, lyrics and mp3s.  Sundays are not for rehearsal, he tells them during their Monday practices,; Sundays are for worship.

He embodies the old old-school form of leading worship, call-and-response, where the person guiding the singing sings or says the upcoming line and the others follow along. An echo. The structure is not dissimilar from Old Testament psalms (e.g., Psalm 136) yet emerged as a distinct element of Christ-centered worship among African-Americans — out of necessity during slavery and as tradition after Emancipation.  At the core of call-and-and response is that there’s no sheet music to follow.   It’s about trusting the leader, listening, knowing the songs by heart, and hopefully singing them from there. Those in the congregation who don’t know the lyrics are not left out.  When the musicians yield to the spirit, the people’s hearts and minds will follow.

All of that history is to help you understand the impact of what happened when Garlan called for a song that wasn’t planned.

 

Garlan Interps

The hands of an arranger:  Hear the score, score the script, play the music, make it your own.

Here We Are to Worship

It started as a “Is-there-a-doctor-in-the-house?” moment.   Garlan moved toward the keyboard, then walked to the edge of platform and shouted for the ushers to see if a choir member was in the lobby.   This was her Sunday off, or she perhaps attended the first service of the morning hours before. Nevertheless, she was not expected in the building, yet Garlan thought he saw her from the stage, and in doing-so a new song came on his heart for the pre-sermon selection; a song he felt was particularly suited to her interpretation.  When the singer could not be found, the song remained appropriate, so Garlan went to the keyboards and began singing “Here I Am to Worship.” The choir and congregation responded. While moving in its own right, the power of these moments became more inspired when we finished singing and recognized what had transpired.

 

Here I am to worship
Here I am to bow down
Here I am to say that You’re my God
You’re altogether lovely
Altogether worthy
Altogether wonderful to me
— (c) 2001, Tim Hughes

Three weeks ago, on a Saturday when we were preparing to serve as KIT Ministries in Sunday worship in Libertyville, IL, Garlan texted Vikki he had lost his hearing during the week.  A medical procedure to alleviate pressure in his ear canal was not only painful, it did not totally take and left him with minimal hearing.  Not good: not for the service plan; not for Vik, whose musical growth has corresponded with Garlan’s interpreting her thoughts; least of all not good for a pianist who — pardon, yet it’s true — plays by ear (as in, Garlan doesn’t read music. For newer songs, Garlan’ collaborated with his wife, Tracey, also an accompanist at Bellevue.  Tracey does read music, so she plays and records the tunes which Garlan listens to a few times, replicates and then adapts. )

Despite prayers for relief, we did not expect him in Libertyville Sunday, and when we arrived at the location before he did (extremely rare) were certain we’d need to improvise and make adjustments with the host lead worshipper.  Silly us.  (translated, “Oh, ye of little faith!) Garlan not only had confirmed his attendance the night before with our host…he not only drove over an hour from his south suburban home to the northern suburban near- the-state-line site and played our set, but only AFTER the service did any of the other musicians know he could barely hear them.

Standing arm’s-length away he explained, in his normal voice, “You sound like you’re in a barrel and feel like I’m shouting.” When he laughed, it felt safe to make a Beethoven reference — something about “Ode to Joy.” He chuckled then headed home, reassuring us he was all right to drive…despite his balance not seeming right.  We waited for news of his followup visits.

Last week, he had another excruciating ear procedure done.  So painful he had to take off work (Garlan does NOT miss appointments), and listening to him tell what occurred creates weak knees and watery eyes.  In the weeks since the initial problem occurred, Garlan and the Bellevue Prayer Ministry (the whole church), went into overdrive.

 

Pastor Fullwood

Pastor Lucious Fullwood:  Preaching the gospel, providing stability throughout transitions.

A Word from the Pulpit

On this particular day — Communion Sunday — as he finished “Here I Am to Worship”by seguing into “Thank You, Lord” in such a way you thought it was planned, as the singers left the choir box to return to their congregational seats, Garlan intercepted Pastor Fullwood just before the pastor announced, “It’s Preaching Time!” He felt compelled to share a brief medical update with the congregation whose last news was that Garlan was unable to hear what he’d been playing that morning’s music.

“I just want to say,” he said hurriedly, apologetically but necessarily to Pastor Fullwood, “prayer works!  I just wanted to thank you for praying.”

Beat.

“The doctors say I’ve got 80 percent of my hearing back.”

Beat.

“I don’t know what God’s going to do about the other 20 percent, but I’ll still be serving, so I just wanted to thank you.”

With Garlan’s testimony still ringing in our ears, Pastor Fullwood resumed with his regularly scheduled “Preaching Time!” message, “Having Faith In God.” He read from the selected  New Testament passages of Jesus healing the leper and Roman centurion’s daughter. (Matthew 8:1-10, 13).  Healing, by faith.  Garlan took his seat in a pew. And the band prayed on.

 

This essay is one of a series called, “Benediction,” a collection of reflections on sermons, keynotes and workshop presentations heard, and church experiences we have had.

#SDG #AndAmen #MEMoFromMichaelEdgarMyers

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Sermonized Announcements

Then Boaz announced  to the elders and all the people…” Ruth 4:9 (New International Version)

It’s the snarkiest of times, it’s the most troublesome of times.  It’s time for the church announcements, the bane of a worship planner’s planning.  What a to do!

Sermonized 2
Our tendency is to rush through the items, as if necessary evils. There is also the tendency to languish, as if the presenter is self-possessed.

You could mention them at the start of the Service of Worship, like the pre-show curtain speech in theater .  But then, the people don’t hear them. They’re getting settled waiting for the real show to start:  the music; the real worship, you know?  Or for the music to stop.   That could be another 10 minutes.  More people would be in the audience to hear them.  But then…?

If the announcements are in the middle of the service, either before or after the sermon, they interrupt the tone set up by the music to receive the message, or the reflect on it afterward.

If they are after the decision-making, maybe tied in with the offering, they run the risk of being dismissed as a superfluous afterthought.  These days with so many announcements being produced as mini-movies, that can be demoralizing, running the risk of an unhappy video ministry.  On the other hand, even the most Oscar-worthy announcement verite risks a thumbs down, no matter how well done.  In some circles, the idea of movie announcements in church is as sinful as the organ, drums and guitars have been (are?).  At best, they become the annoying white nose between the sermon and the parking lot release; at worst, they are akin to audio-cranked, strobe-paced TV commercials that blur the line between the kingdom and the world —

“We interrupt our Worship of God to bring you this news about us.” 

Even if the next-to-last item in the itinerary before the  day’s exodus, there’s visual cacophony– often boisterously written on the congregation’s faces — of hearing a James Earl Jonesian announcer (the Voice of God?) intone, “We return you now to our regularly scheduled Service of Worship.”

That leaves a gamut of announcement options. These vary according to the church’s size, resources, expectations and clock-watchers: keep them short in passing; interweave throughout the elements, just don’t do them.  Let people read the bulletin or go online.  Enough with the tongue-in-cheekiness.

However they’re presented, however much creativity and energy are spent, even if they’re diligently absorbed by the most steadfast listener, the question remains:  do our “announcements” fit the idea of a Service of Worship which is focusing on God?

The answer, as with each element of church ministry, is found in this perpetual query from a mentor pastor who lassoed freewheeling, unending brainstorming with this earth-bound retort: “Toward what purpose?”

What is the purpose of church announcements?

Simply tradition?  A news and prayer update of the calendar or congregation’s lives that we’ve always done, or that everybody else does?  The stuff that church bulletin typos comedy is made of? Or is there something about this sharing of information that actually is — or can be — connected to the overall atmosphere of collectively honoring God?  Having wrestled with this dilemma for several years, I’m comfortable that there is.  Church announcements are as essential to corporately worshipping God as psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, and the sermon.  Perhaps, in many ways, more so.

As a presenter and visitor, I’ve experienced the good, the bad, the ugly of “announcements.” Our tendency is to rush through the items, as if necessary evils (emphasis on the final word). There is also the tendency to languish, as if the presenter is self-possessed.  I’ve been accused of both.

I’ve attended services where there are no announcements, announcements from the audience, music video announcements, Reader’s Digest bulletin sample announcements, “apologetized” announcements (where the speaker repeatedly makes excuses for what needs to be said), ABC announcements (where every line of the bulletin is read to the congregation).

However, a few months ago, I had an announcement epiphany while, of all times, listening to the pastor’s sermon.  Imagine.

You see, as a staff member, my Sunday mornings are often spent fine-tuning details of the service and balancing those with parental responsibilities.  When I have platform duties — like presenting the announcements — there are times when my focus is hazy.  The slightest technical bobble distracts me.  I mentally truncate the list of items to mention…because of the game clock.  Or the pastor makes a salient point that opens creative floodgates.

Sermonized Pix 1
Can we get listeners to view announcements as opportunities to serve God?  And once recognizing that, can we encourage them to participate?

On this particular day, I had no responsibilities but the family news, including no family tasks. So-freed, I allowed myself to become a congregant — to sing, reflect on the scriptures, absorb the message, and make connections.  One pastoral point stayed with me as I went forward to spread the news.   So much so, it took a moment to speak…and discover:  All three verbal items were related to the day’s message, our church mission, our vision.  Each had an inherent purpose for being read.  They weren’t separate.  We were doing these acts of service because of who we are as a church committed to Christ.  It was incumbent to express this to the audience, including those people who had never been to our church before.  The 3-5 minutes allotted me (the length of a song) now became, not a time out, but time to engage and to challenge; to allow the listeners to remain connected for the elements following — our financial offering, a celebration song, God’s benediction blessing.

 

Since then, I’ve been developing a more intentional template.  A guide for “sermonized announcements” that at least allows my sense of worship to remain attentive and inspired in the midst of ministry-threatening busyness.  The template works for a church our size (the 150s) and may have merit elsewhere.  It’s a guide to interacting with the congregation, whether through showcasing acts of service, greeting the audience,  presenting events information, or giving instructions for the offering or communion. The template allows the challenge of putting the moment in spiritual context and trusting others participate because they understand the “commercial” through Christ’s eyes.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Can we get our listeners to view the announcements as an opportunity to serve God?  And once recognizing that opportunity, can we encourage members and guests to become active participants?

“…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)

Making too much of this announcement thing?  The point is to dispel the misconception that worship starts and stops with music.  It’s the entire time.   Our overhead projection that introduces this sequence is called, “Worshipping God through Offerings and Acts of Service.”   It’s important to underscore these concepts, particularly among guests whose idea of church may be “they’re always asking for money.” And to remind everyone why the church exits.  These items don’t need to happen at the same time.  They are, however, a checklist to review when deciding what information should be shared in corporate worship.  So, the template is something like this:

  1. Introduce yourself;
  2. Acknowledge the audience — regulars and guests;
  3. Point out information that needs to be written:  for example, names & addresses on a communication card;
  4. Give brief instructions to complete card and offering envelope;
  5. Express the church’s mission and vision;
  6. If you have a Welcome Packet, give summary of content, highlight special additions and where to get one;
  7. Connect the mission and vision to this sequence of worship;
  8. Connect to a sermon point if possible; or scripture; maybe note “This is why we do these events…”
  9. Point out the bulletin and refer to key items of the day to be addressed before leaving, and those to read at home;
  10. Invite the audience to a special activity not listed in the bulletin such as a class; when possible, highlight a topic;
  11. Mention any available sermon support material — a CD or order, web connection, or study notes;
  12. Pray, giving thanks for participation and reminding that contributions today underwrite ministries as the ones mentioned;
  13. Invite your offering collectors to begin.

The sequence may seem long, yet has purpose based in research:

  • Long-time attendees may go through these motions by rote, forgetting the importance of ministry service.
  • Newcomers don’t know the “rules” and may feel out of place.  In anticipation of growth, assume each week has new people.
  • If you have a video or audio ministry, telling people about the existence of this media for further study on today’s topic is more ministry uplifting and less commercial.
  • A special class invitation may pique the curiosity of a person who would like further study but doesn’t know what’s going on.

If the repetition annoys regulars, ask how many times they’ve seen their favorite “I Love Lucy” rerun.  Research also points out it takes several “touches” or reminders for people to latch on to a concept, especially to comprehend a church’s mission or vision.  One church mentor has said, “About the time you’re tired of hearing it is the time the people start getting it.”

We return you now to your regularly-scheduled reading.

(Featured photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash)

(Other photos by Dara Magrum)