Where Have All the Choirs Gone? (Part II)

It was in the 1990’s through the early 2000’s that I began to notice the trend of the disappearing church choir. Looking back upon those years with an eye on the current music landscape, I am compelled to believe that the now less prevalent presence of choirs is linked to a time when I was becoming aware of a newly prevailing and divisive concept known as “worship style”.

As an adolescent, I was already painfully aware of the cultural conceptualization of “style”. My Mama regularly shopped at a store in Wilmington, NC named Piece Goods. She made quilts…and she made our clothes. When the popularity of a style of shorts known as “jams” moved to the East Coast of NC, my mother’s answer to my request for a pair of jams all my own was to present me with a pair of homemade jams. My jams, instead of being purchased from stores featuring curated patterns and styles, were lovingly designed and made by my mom. Wearing those shorts carried a weight of shame for a shallow prepubescent status seeker. 🙂 Deliver me!!!  The desire for popularity sought through “stylishness” is timeless. “Style” is life.micrphones

As a faithful church-attender from childhood through adulthood, I was also aware of the religious conceptualization of “worship”.  Attending both Baptist and Pentecostal churches, it was easy for me to observe that there were forms of worship that were near and dear to these two denominations. In fact, it wasn’t just these two denominations that had their own particulars when it came to their worship services. Prior to pulling into any church’s parking lot, one could easily ascertain what experience awaited them behind the doors of the church by simply taking a look at the church signage. “Baptist”, “Methodist”, “First Baptist”, “Episcopal”, etc. were all categorically distinguishable and definable experiences. The forms, the liturgies…all fairly consistent from one congregation to another. Somewhere along the way though, the wheels came off and religious forms intentionally took upon themselves a less than subtle cultural style…and the battle lines were drawn.

In hindsight, looking back to 1993 when I was a young and newly hired “praise and worship leader”, I suppose adopting a paradigm of “worship style” as opposed to “worship form” was an easier transition for me than for others.  After all, bouncing from Baptist to Pentecostal experiences allowed me to become kind of amphibious in regard to each church body’s “culture”. In one, I was going to sing strong and meaty hymns that were intended to teach me doctrines and ideas about doctrines. In the other, I was going to sing engaging and lively hymns that were intended to excite me as they expressed  relational ideas about me and God. I loved both experiences and often found myself wondering why it had to be “either or”. But it was in 1993 that I would begin to discover the bigger and far more intricate issues evolving from and around the combined religious and cultural concepts of “worship” + “style”.

Prior to my filling the post of “music director”, “choir leader”, “minister of music”, or “praise and worship leader”…(or whatever the title may be in your church)…I was already vaguely familiar with the concepts of liturgical worship vs. non-liturgical worship and of the categories of charismatic worship vs. non-charismatic worship.  And though the contrasts between these concepts and categories are easily discernible, there are also some important shades of overlap, of shared similarities that should be noted for the purposes of this particular article.

The similarities that provide necessary context for this article are:
1) Historically liturgical & non-liturgical/charismatic and non-charismatic services easily accommodate the effective use of a choir.
2) Historically liturgical & non-liturigcal/charismatic & non-charismatic worship services are a reflection of a congregation’s shared theological understandings and agreements.

In that context, I will simplistically define a church choir as a subgrouping within its own congregation. It is a subgrouping comprised of people who share the same theological understandings and agreements of their congregation…but they also like being in a community of singers who rally around the idea of shared experiences through vocal song.

Now back to the year 1993. For me, that is when the categories of “contemporary” and “traditional” worship styles ripped through the congregations of the Bible Belt.

The debates that were birthed from the ideologies of “Worship Style”, “Worship Evangelism”, “Seeker-Sensitive”, “Cultural Relevance”, etc. were typically caustic. They rarely led to anything besides toxic divisions within a faith community as congregations were forced to grapple with words and reasonings that were interpreted as personal attacks on one’s history, preferences, families, and values. Many a well-meaning church leader attempted blends, differing schedules, restructuring staffs, creating worship formulas and flows that would “make everyone happy”. Bookshelves in Christian bookstores were loaded with tomes regarding biblical worship, worship teams, worship training, worship resources.

Back in those days of transition, educating, and restructuring, I used to receive a consistent number of calls and emails from church leaders searching for someone that “could lead worship AND direct a choir”.  At the time, these churches were (and I paint with a broad stroke here for I can only make an assumption based upon indirect experience and conversations with these churches) struggling through the transitions of redefining themselves as “contemporary” or “modern” in their worship style. And that transition was bringing an increasing awareness and gravity to the question of, “What shall we do with the choir?”

Now well past the heat of the “worship wars”, the faith community has collectively resettled themselves around modified religious categories and cultural concepts that provide their specific faith communities with necessary contextual connections that reflect their particular congregation’s shared body of agreements and beliefs…whether theological or not.

Those of us who went through the now decades old “worship wars” that once blazed fiery hot,  still note among the casualties the once ubiquitous church choir. Remember that subgroup within the congregation? By and large, they are no longer an assumed element within a church’s shared worship experiences. Somewhere along the path of debating and remaking, increasing numbers of congregations new and old ultimately decided that the church choir, like pianos, organs, orchestras, etc. was “ineffective”, “irrelevant”, and likely “a dated expression of worship”. Whether these are fair or justified assessments, they were the general results of evaluations and reviews completed long ago.

Why was it the case?

Maybe it was a budget issue.  Choirs are not “cheap”.  There is a degree of financial obligation on behalf of the organization possessing a choir. It costs money to consistently (and legally) perform at a certain level of effectiveness and quality. And embracing new expressions of worship required reengineered budgets for many churches. New audio, video, lighting, music collections, staff were not cheap. A common question was, “Where can we cut so that we can afford?” Choir was not likely an initial financial cut. But I could make the case that the decreasing effectiveness of a choir was symptomatic of new budgets which were a reflection of shifted priorities. Inevitably, if you introduce enough new circumstances into an organization’s environment you will introduce circumstantial strain that requires adaptations that may simply be outside the organization’s ability to grasp. And without appropriate direction and leadership to assist with the necessary adaptations…there is implosion.

Maybe it was a lack of interest within a church’s congregation.  Choir membership does require a good deal of personal commitment.  There are rehearsals to attend, performances in which you must be present, musical and spiritual concepts that must be learned and, maybe memorized for later regurgitation in an engaging and artistic manner.  There are varying communal requirements and expectations in regard to dress, use of resources, special event participation, etc. And these are all in addition to a person’s “normal” participation within the greater church and happenings their personal lives. New songs, new ways of singing them, new staff members with new teaching methods were all necessary components of a church’s move from one worship form to another worship style. “New” equates to “change” and “change” is a taxation on a person’s commitment and interest.

Or…maybe the loss of a community within a community is a peripheral and compounded result of the church’s misguided passion to reach the lost by haphazardly changing directions that unintentionally took them away from shared core values, core beliefs, and core language and towards decisions and practices that created values, beliefs, and language that subtly undermined their good intentions.

I have been involved in worship ministry since I was 19 y/o and I can’t begin to describe in this one post how drastically and rapidly church music has changed from then to today.  Looking back, I believe we may have pursued goals at the expense of effective congregational worship.  Allow me to clarify with this one summation…if a volunteer church choir can’t participate in the church’s community worship service, a congregation may very well struggle to participate, as well. That’s a broad stroke…I know. It’s a big generality. I know. BUT…any informed answer to the question, “Where have all the choirs gone?” will likely lead to the strikingly more meaningful question, “What did we change that led to the extinction of this community within a community?” Did choirs disappear from the planet? Good gracious no. They are still everywhere…just not so much in church anymore. (And yes, I know that some churches still have vibrant choirs. How? Why? Those are other posts 🙂 )

It’s time to bring this stream-of-conscious rambling from a 41 year-old worship pastor to a conclusion. I have service plans to create and a stage to design 🙂

So…am I saying that a church MUST feature a choir in its corporate worship services?  No, I suppose not. There is no doctrine that dictates such a feature in our worship services. But I would still ask the questions “why?” and “why not?”.

I encourage young worship leaders who are embarking on the adventure of serving their church through the arts to intentionally strive to provide thoughtful answers to these broader questions:

1)  Is my church’s worship service built upon or around the presence or absence of specific skills, talents, people?

2)  Is my church’s worship service built upon a specific vision or philosophy?

3)  Why have we chosen to entrust specific people, skills, talents with the influence that comes through the provision of our platform?

4)  Why have we not allowed specific people, skills, talents to be on our platforms?

5)  Is there a guiding mission each time our church gathers to worship?  (I hope there is more to your response than, “Yes. To worship God, of course!”)

I guess, after all of this article is said and done, my main concern is not in finding a church with or without a worship leading choir.  My main concern is that we appear to be returning to a day in the church’s past when worship services were conducted by a subgrouping of the religious elite. The rest of the congregational community  was encouraged to participate by their attendance alone. Research the history of church worship and you’ll find a good bit of what I reference. These “wars” are nothing new. It may be time for another impassioned struggle within the church regarding its shared values, beliefs, doctrines?

Where have all the choirs gone?  They’re in the marketplace…in community theaters…in schools…in fact, they’re still in our congregations. Is that where they should be? Why? Why not?

Happy is the Breeze

There are memories that never seem to fade from the landscape of my life’s meanderings. Like an Eastern NC sand burr, they continuously catch and attach to the fabric of my wandering thoughts, requiring the painstaking chore of extraction. There is no ignoring a sand burr once you are aware of their firm attachment to your party of one.
sticker-field-sandburYears ago I was asked by my pastor, “Are you happy here?”
“I’m not clear on what you’re getting at.”, I replied.
Without relinquishing, the question was reposed, “Are you happy at (name of job I worked at the time)?”

I recall a similar question posed years before the other. “Why are you here?”, asked a deacon of the church I served at the time.
I responded similarly, “What do you mean?”
“Why are you here, right now, at (name of job I worked at the time)?”
“Because it’s my job.”, I replied slightly confused and dismissively.
“No, not good enough. What is your reason for being here today, tomorrow, and the day after, and so on?” Like the extraction of a sand burr, this line of questioning continued for a few minutes.

Over years of living days into nights into days, these particular memories of completed conversations have continued to infuse ongoing conversations. They have led me to answer the question, “Why…?”, anew, afresh, again and again.

I am grateful to my inquisitive companions for their distracting questions that subtly guided me to realize that I prefer meaningfulness over happiness. And…I have come to learn that there is a profound difference between meaningfulness and happiness. Though there is a harmonic kinship in the experience of meaningfulness and happiness, we can find ourself dreadfully misplaced if we negotiate our journey towards happiness, targeting it as the destination…the intended end. Pursuing destinations of meaningfulness or happiness have the power to become a moment’s…a day’s…a life’s purpose. Give me a path of meaning. Happy is the breeze.

ef·fer·ves·cent

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
ef·fer·ves·cent19 years old, visiting with relatives for the weekend, I was seated within the sanctuary of a large church in Durham, NC. I was taking in the scene around me: men, women, boys, girls…most singing, many clapping and swaying…some running…some speaking in languages other than English…a large choir on stage with various musicians and other singers. In spite of the frantic energy in the room, I was feeling the seconds being slowly peeled away from the unknown remainder of the service.
As I sat pining for the lunch awaiting me (the only reason I attended here), I tried to distract my focus from waiting out the unyielding worship leader on the stage and began to note the elements of the environment that frustrated me, that shouted at me, “Look over here! No, look at this! Wow…have you noticed me yet? How could you have missed this one?”
The choir and musicians swelled into a key change, foreshadowing a second wind, and the congregation responded as if they were floating atop carbonated waves….”I want to be washed in the blood of the Lamb! I need a cleansing from the fountain!”
The heaviness of perfumes in the air underscored the loud garish colors shouting from the dresses and hair accessories of pious women intending to present themselves in modest dress while cajoling around the room in dramatic fashion. Men in stark white dress shirts tucked within shells of dark suits shouted and cheered. Pumping their hands and fists in the air. Shiny belts, polished shoes, awkward ties. The choir whipping up the room into a frenzy of steamy fabrics, misty perfumes, and billowing hair sculptures.
Sigh…such misguided people.
Internally, I was weighing it all harshly and with much frustration bordering on anger. Externally, I smiled and kept time with my foot patting dark carpet and one hand softly tapping a knee. This was my extent of my polite participation while my physical form sat anchored to a pew by a spirit in protest. I encouraged the steadiness of my bankrupt heart with images of chicken and cornbread and mashed potatoes.
I honestly cannot provide an explanation for what happened next. It was as if a television program’s broadcast signal was abruptly disrupted causing an entire scene from the show in progress to be lost…missed…unseen…and the signal suddenly returns, the show is restored, and nothing you’re seeing makes any sense now.
My awareness of sitting in judgement was truncated and suddenly, like a slight of hand magic trick, I find myself suddenly conscious of my body fully erect, both arms sticking up as rods towards the sky, my face turned to the ceiling, eyes pinched shut, hot tears pouring, and the sound of my voice jockeying for position among the congregation singing the words, “I want to be washed in the blood of the Lamb! I need a cleansing from the fountain! My soul is hungry, I’ve got this aching within! I wanna be washed in the blood of the Lamb!” And I knew that I meant them. I don’t know how, but I knew that these words were, and are, my deepest-to-date plea…my sudden and unexpected surrender to a Christ with Whose story I had been immersed in and fed all of my life.
Much of the remainder of that day’s events are now a blur. I can only recall being baptized at the conclusion of the service. I recall walking out of the church with new eyes, a new mind, an unfamiliar gnawing hunger, and a zealousness for pleasing the LORD that was ef·fer·ves·cent.
That was some 22 years ago. Looking back, I am amazed and humbled by my Jesus. I was attending a college I did not desire to attend. On a scholarship that I did not want. Newly majoring in a field of study that was awkward and causing me much distress. Living a life of scathingly enduring people.
Ironically, within a year’s time of that conversion, I was called into Christian ministry…worship of all things..working with people…an occasional and residing phobia. The one thing that I sat despising in the lives of others…God destined me for it.
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
‪#‎mytestimony‬ ‪#‎bornagain‬ ‪#‎spiritualrebirth‬ ‪#‎thensingsmysoul‬ ‪#‎surrender‬ ‪#‎confess‬ ‪#‎befree‬ ‪#‎loveofChrist‬ ‪#‎compassion‬

Short shorts, Emus, and Gelflings

Here is a younger Vince Lanier wearing China’s version of “Daisy Dukes” 🙂VinceandJo

This photo is of her and  her friend, Jo Fan, visiting somewhere in China. Seeing this photo this morning reminded me of a treasured memory of a day from my honeymoon.
I remember well, while on our honeymoon, Vince and I were visiting Disney World (of course!). It was my very first visit to the happiest place on earth. Vince was wearing some really short shorts on this particular day. (I should mention that I’m the one who actually cut these shorts for her. I can’t recall why I did this…but I was probably a little more depraved in my thinking back then…and it WAS my honeymoon, afterall!). As it was my first visit to Disney World, and I was always an avid Disney fan growing up, you can imagine the overwhelming sensations of walking through the gate into the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street USA. 1-main-street

I was so overwhelmed with the swirling and alluring flood of vibrant sights, sounds…and of Vince standing before me in Daisy Dukes with Cinderella’s Castle on the horizon…that I had to sit down on a bench just across from the candy store.
Vince said, “Why are you already sitting down? We JUST got here!!!”
I said, “Baby, I need to sit down. It’s a guy thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
Vince retorted, “What?!?! What does sitting down have to do with being a guy? Let’s go! We’re already late.” (Always rushing me…still to this day. Curiously, she is never in a rush while at home. But on vacation…it’s always time to pound the pavement and go go go!)
“Honey, just let me sit a little while. It’s your shorts. You’re not going to be able to walk in front of me today. Stay beside me…or, like a good Asian bride, walk 3-feet behind.” smile emoticon (I still ask her to do this today…just to get her goat.)
During exchanges like this…those in which I am talking in veiled indirect facetious codes in response to Vince’s prodding demands…Vince consistently displays a look that is strongly reminiscent of the cold hard stare of the emu.emu
The emu reminds me of the Skeksis from “The Dark Crystal”. My first experience with an emu was at Lazy 5 Ranch. I was seated in a truck’s open-air bed, looking forward to this expedition as a first-timer, holding a bucket that apparently exudes a siren’s call to all animals in the park, and an emu suddenly appeared, gliding into my personal space and stood solid, still, and close. It’s dark, pinched and impressive sized cranium framed an expression that starts with the full canvas of the face and draws you to the cold hard expressive eyes that say, “Fool, you are in imminent danger should you decide to not comply with my reasonable request and submit to the obviousness before you that I possess the ability to do memorable harm to you.” I threw the bucket of food at the bird who was unmoved by either surprise or gratitude. The bird simply released me from the stare and descended like a rain cloud on my scattered food pellets.
Looking up at Vince from my park bench into that foreboding expression, I complied with a slightly more direct response.
“I have to sit here for a little while longer until my biological reaction to the view of your Daisy Dukes framed in Disney subsides, abates, diminishes.”
skeksisShe cocked her head with the cool precision of a mounted weapon while maintaining that Skesis-like glare. Suddenly, my condition that I was attempting to politely describe to her, dawned upon Vince. And with slightly less disdain than a Skesis holds for a Gelfling, Vince said, “You’re an idiot.”dark-crystal-jen
She joined me on the park bench. We sat, together, taking in the sights and sounds of Main Street USA in Disney World…and I was a happily married man in the happiest place on earth.
(For the record, Vince never wore the Daisy Dukes again…much to my dismay.)

We Are Home OWNERS!…but not really.

My wife, Vince, recently shared some very big news regarding our family. WE PAID OFF OUR HOUSE THIS WEEK! After nearly 15 years in this home, our first home, we made our final mortgage payment this very week.
Pulling into my driveway this week has been more satisfying than my normal “home again, home again, jiggity jog” elation that arises once I have completed a full day of living outside my home and in my community. I am thankful and grateful that my wife and I have accomplished this milestone together. I am thankful for our gracious God who led us here (yes, He led us to this property one seemingly random day as we drove, nearly lost, in Mecklenburg County) and, after almost 15 years in this structure…serving God, living for God, believing in and holding to God…a lot of life has happened. Marital strife, financial roller coasters, family drama, love, birthday parties, Christmases, tears, fights; you name it…this house has seen it. When a man loves a woman, and they work at becoming ONE…well, it’s a force of nature and an act of God. Marriage is not about my sexual attraction to or emotional enjoyment of Vince. Those things are simply what sparked the intrigue of the concept. And here we are, 20 years later, going strong and paying off our house.

But despite the really cool feeling of knowing that I don’t have a mortgage payment to make anymore, instead of wondering, “what’s next?”, I remember and savor the following experience.
Shortly after moving into our new home on Branthurst Drive; the structure, the door frame, the occupants were prayed over and anointed by Dr. MA Thomas. He was a great missionary, visionary humanitarian, and the inspirational founder of Hope Givers.
I considered it a distinct privilege to have Dr. MA Thomas in my home and praying because he had left a memorable imprint on my life a few years prior to this moment when he had stayed with Vince and I in our Cornelius apartment for a weekend while visiting North Carolina. I remember having to almost fight for the right to host him because there was another family at my church (a wildly financially successful family) that wished to host him, as well. Their position on the matter was, “We cannot host this great man of God in an apartment when he can stay in our lakeside home.” In my immaturity, I despised the comparison and the desire to have Dr. MA Thomas in my home became more of a competition than an offer of hospitality.
In God’s sovereignty, not through my efforts (as I thought then), Dr. MA Thomas stayed with Vince and me and that visit was instrumental in shaping my growing faith. While with us, he would spend 2 to 3 hours per morning in our guest room…praying. He would be on the floor, facedown, seeking God and praying. I thought, “how in the world does he have that much time or that much stuff to pray?”
Fast forward to the prayer over our present home; I remember that as he was praying and anointing our home with oil, he authoritatively asked God that our home be set apart and that, by His power, it be found useful and effective in the ministry and mission work of God.
Back to his stay in our apartment:
During his stay with us in our apartment, I had asked Dr. Thomas about my observations regarding his prayer life and the time that he spent praying and meditating. He said, “Allow me to start with an observation of my own.” (People from India and England always sound so poetic and wise…I feel like a bumpkin when talking with most of them) He shared that, on his visits to the US, he was always struck by American’homeownerships appetite for and relationship with their houses, yards, wealth. He said that he did not understand why they could not see how much time that their houses and their possessions required of them. When staying with gracious hosts, he would note how much time was spent by his hosts in maintaining yards, maintaining cars, keeping rooms cleaned, picked up, dusted, organized, etc. From his observations, he sensed that one would never reach a place of inner contentment because they would always be seeking more to own which would result in more to do.
I have never forgotten that conversation. I have never forgotten the vision of him praying in my apartment for what seemed like an excruciating amount of time. I have never forgotten his mighty request of God regarding my home and my family. It was as if I was living the Mary and Martha story of Scripture.
So when I pull into my driveway of my fully paid for home, I remember that it is set apart. And though Bank of America no longer owns it with Vince and me, we do not own it either.
It has been a place where much ministry and mission has been accomplished and birthed.
In closing, I must add that my wife, who is a financial genius, has managed our finances well. She is the closest thing to a Proverbs 31 I will ever know and see. She gave up her culture, her family, her “identity”, to become Mrs. Lanier. You’ve done good, baby. You’ve done real good.

So now we are mortgage free and I know that, in part, it is because God honored Dr. MA Thomas’ prayer that day. But I also know this: In the eyes of Heaven, I am not entirely debt free. No, I owe Him. All to Him; I owe everything. So, as for me and my house…we will continue to serve the LORD.

“What’s/Whose Your…?” Thoughtless Questions & Thoughtful Answers

ocean waters“What’s your biggest fear?” I was asked recently. The question has stayed in the halls of my mind. It was not the first time I was asked this question or had heard it or read it. It’s like the elusive, “Who is your hero?” question. Or the, “What is your biggest regret?” question. I do have PEZ answers; those answers that stand at the ready when they are necessary supplements for pushing past an inevitable crash from the depleting pressure I can feel when expected to sustain and to effectively participate in socially engaging & polite dialogue. But real answers do not immediately come to my mind. And if they did, the kind of answer that truly meet every qualification of the words that build the questions, would I share them?
These questions are of the sort that are deeply anchored far beneath our life’s surface waters. To mine for the answers to these questions would require a thoughtful and honest appraisal of self. It would require reflection, discovery, and exploration that would take a person somewhere beyond the comfortable reach of the primary senses, beyond easily accessible “within reach” memories, beyond what others have told us about ourselves (and that we pick-and-choose to believe), and into the massive dark and nearly alien waters of self-awareness.
As I approach birthdays, I can feel the weight of the questions waiting. I think others feel them, too. Otherwise, why ask the questions? There are times that we cloak our desire to know more about ourselves by posing questions that express a desire to know others. Maybe their answers will help us to form our own answers. Then again, maybe we ask the questions as an avoidance of some type. Or maybe we rush to be the first to pose the question because that’s the easier and more dominating role within social interaction.
I believe that I have come to know this: There is an inner self with which we either daily brutally fight or that we daily heavily disguise…or both. I guess that’s another question to add to the list. ‪#‎birthday‬ ‪#‎melancholy‬ ‪#‎nostalgia‬