Worship Isn’t Always Led in Church
It may be some of the most important worship I ever led.
For several weeks we had the joy of hosting my mother-in-law in our home. She was 92 years old. Her name was Audra but she was universally known as Granny. She had almost forgiven me for taking her only daughter away from her more than 35 years before. She even declared that I was her favorite son-in-law. (The fact that her other two children were sons is not important.) She was tiny, walked with a cane, and seemed to shrink a little more each year. (As to size, we are on opposite trajectories.) Reading tired her and she seldom attended church because it exhausted her. When she did attend worship, she didn’t know any of the songs. The songs she knew, no one ever sang anymore.
For many, many years, Granny, “led the singing”at her church. Although she was an alto, she sang the songs in their written keys. Several generations of sopranos and tenors are grateful to her for this. She knew her alto part and everyone else’s part and could sing any of them except bass for that just wouldn’t have been proper. She knew almost all the words to all the verses, even the oft-neglected verse 3 in a four-stanza song. All in all, she was a delight, a treasure, and the sole family survivor of my parents’ generation.
Since I was working out of the home, I had primary care of her each day. This involved preparing meals, putting out her medicine twice a day, and preparing her insulin shot in the morning. I have never eaten so regularly. (That brings up a completely different problem.) I am a loving person, known for the power of my hugs and for frequent expressions of appreciation. Missing my father and mother and my father-in-law as I did, I poured lots of love on Granny. She liked it I think–if only I hadn’t married her only daughter and took her away from Arkansas!
Something about being with Granny, made me think of the songs I sang growing up in our Southern Pentecostal church. When I heard her sing alto, I flashed back to a scene of me as a little boy sitting on a hard wooden pew next to my mother, also an alto, and hearing her sing these songs. I learned the chorus of each song before I learned the verses because we sang them more often. I remember once, before I could read, standing in the Sunday night “choir” holding a hymnal, patiently waiting for the chorus to come around so I could join the singing. Until someone pointed it out, I didn’t know I was holding the hymnal upside down.
After Breakfast Worship
One morning while scrambling eggs just the way Granny liked them, one of these songs lodged in my mind and I sang it. Granny joined me on the alto and did not miss a note or a word. Well, you don’t have to hit me in the head with a hymnal! I found a copy of “Melodies of Praise,” the Assemblies of God hymnal from the 1950’s s—that’s the one we all memorized, not only the songs but the page numbers: page 111,”At Calvary”—and we did just fine. I used the book to find the words and the next song. She never needed it.
We started singing every morning after breakfast. Once in a while, I would sneak a peek at her and her eyes were often closed as she nailed the alto part, every chromatic note and answering line. We had no instrument, so I was guessing at the keys. Not to worry, she told me when it is too low or too high. She also told me when we were singing too slowly. She liked her songs peppy, even “In the Garden.” I mean, when we sang “In the Garden,” we were booking it through that garden! But He still walked with us (maybe he jogged) and talked with us and told us we were his own.
Since the songs were so much fun and were such a bright spot in her day, I had another bright idea–reading the Bible! I brought out one of my old King James Bibles, a Thompson Chain Reference Bible my wife bought me back in 1975, and started reading a psalm and a chapter from the Gospels every morning. I hadn’t read aloud from the KJV in a long, long while and then I remembered why. Between the small print, (how had it shrunk so much in just 30+ years?) my tri-focal glasses, and the challenging Elizabethan English, I sounded like I was learning English as a second language. But we were having church, right there at the breakfast table.
As we sang those old songs, the feelings of nostalgia were pleasant, but there was more than nostalgia going on. I was amazed at the quality of them. The people who wrote these songs knew their craft, both with the music and the words.
- Many of these classics are literary gems. There may be four or five verses (or more) but each verse will have the same number of syllables and the same rhyme scheme. That means they can all be printed to one setting of the notes! The language may be old-fashioned or sentimental and the imagery may be over-the-top, but the work that went into them is plain to see. The passionate skill of the creative artists comes through.
- They are highly structured mostly in a binary form (verse and chorus.) This makes them easy to sing—you always know where you are in the song.
- The chords are simple but really well-constructed and the four vocal parts would get an “A” in Theory III.
- These songs are bright, joyful and full of faith. They look at life realistically—there is no avoiding of unpleasant topics. They deal with trials and suffering and death. But they treat these unpleasant things in triumphant faith. Some of them swing from darkness to light like a 3 minute Frank Capra movie.
- Most enjoyable of all, these songs are fun to sing and pleasant to think about.
There is so much condensed truth in these songs. The doctrines of the church are expressed in these works of liturgical art. Our church has four cardinal doctrines:
- Jesus is our Savior.
- Jesus is our Baptizer.
- Jesus is our Healer and
- Jesus is our soon coming King.
Each of these doctrines has a whole section of the hymnal devoted to it. Songs were teaching tools; worshipers knew what they believed because the worship service provided songs to memorize and take home with them. Scriptural allusions abounded including stories from the Old and New Testament.
Here’s one example from the Holiness-Pentecostal repertoire:
Bring Your Vessels, Not a Few
Lelia N. Norris, 1862-1929
Like the cruse of oil unfailing is His grace forevermore and His love unchanging still;
And according to His promise with the Holy Ghost and pow’r, He will ev’ry vessel fill.
He will fill your heart today to overflowing,
As the Lord commandeth you, “Bring your vessels, not a few.”
He will fill your heart today to overflowing With the Holy Ghost and pow’r.
© 1912. Renewed 1949 by F.M. Lunk.
Assigned to Hope Publishing Co.Â All rights reserved.
You have to know your Bible to really understand this song, but Granny and her generation knew their Bibles! They sang what they believed.
Why did my generation of Baby Boomers dispose of these songs? I know many of them are sentimental, overly romantic and full of Stephen-Foster-style melodies and harmonies. But that isn’t all they are filled with. They are full of truths that transcend the moment of their creation. Granny learned the songs by heart because that’s where they went when she sang them with her brothers and sisters at church. It was her 92 year old heart I saw each day at the breakfast table.
The Ministry of the Song Writer
I believe in the ministry of the songwriter. The office of the psalmist is vital to the move of the Spirit today. Outstanding songwriters are hearing this call and producing songs that carry in them “What the Spirit is saying to the churches.” We have to have these new songs. Some important questions:
- Are we producing songs that will last for generations to come?
- Do we sometimes tend to jump on a new song, use it up in a few weeks and throw it away.
- Should songs be so disposable? Do they expire like milk in a carton?
Songs are cultural entities and as such they come into style and go out of style. No one can stop it from happening. The best songs of past generations live on and become precious artifacts of our faith for future generations. Far from mere nostalgia, they will remain timelessly relevant to each worshiper who sings them “from generation to generation we will recount your praise.”
What should a contemporary worship leader look for in songs, either new or old?
- I am drawn to the work of songwriters who let me sing about the wonders of Jesus as well as sing to Him with songs of prayer.
- I love to find songs about the work of the Holy Spirit and God’s power to touch and heal lives today.
- A rare gem, is the contemporary song about the Second Coming of Christ. Let’s have more!
All artists should study the masters of their art.
As in other arts, contemporary songwriters should study the masters. Today’s filmmakers learn from Frank Capra, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and the other masters of the 20thcentury medium. Performers on Broadway are expected to know Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe as well as Sondheim and Webber. A careful study of the masters of the praise and worship music of the past will reveal lyricists to admire and composers whose subtle use of simple melodic and harmonic lines brought the poets’ words to life.
“Sing unto the Lord a new Song.”
This is one of the most important biblical demands of worship!
- Every church needs the fresh word from the Lord in newly composed songs.
- The Holy Spirit routinely, amazingly touches old songs and makes them fresh and new.
What songs do today’s worshipers need? We need new and old songs in order to hear what “the Spirit is saying” to us.
- We all need songs that help us praise, give thanks, adore the Lord, proclaim His excellence, and seek His face.
- We need songs that help us all pray the same prayer at the same time–a truly untapped force for good in this world is the church praying in “one mind and one accord.”
- Worshipers today need songs that are not only well-written but are also joyful and full of truth even as they speak to enigmas and unpleasant issues.
- We also need songs that express the doctrines of the church in memorable terms. The church still needs to sing what she believes.
Meanwhile, I will entertain pleasant memories of having church with Granny using an old hymnal and the King James Bible every morning.
Surely this was some of the most important worship I ever led.
© 2012 CREATOR Magazine, 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved