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Second Sunday in Lent

Songs Nobody Knows

There are few phrases in the English language that make me more tense than "Here's a song everyone knows!" As soon as I hear that, I am prepared to feel like a nobody because I don't know the song that everyone is about to join in on.

I had that experience, most vividly, at the party that followed my installation as Minister at Kittamaqundi. There were a couple of "special guests" at the party, a female vocalist and a pianist, brought in to provide some entertainment. They did a quite respectable job on a few jazz standards, and then the singer said, "Here's a song everyone knows, so please feel free to join in!" She then started in on a song that I had never heard of before but it seemed like every single person in the room knew. It was "Don't Fence Me In", which, I found out later, Roy Rogers sang in a movie in the mid-1940's. Needless to say, I wasn't born then, and as I sat in that room of singing people, I really felt the generational divide between me and the KC community. (I'm happy to say that community looks a bit different two and a half years later.)

But to my great surprise, the opposite thing happened at the Second Saturday show at KC this past Saturday. Ron Holloway brought up Meritxell Negre, a singer from Barcelona, Spain, together they performed a couple of Negre's original compositions (beautiful, by the way). Then the singer said, "Here's a song everyone knows. Absolutely everyone knows this one!" I braced myself, but then immediately recognized the opening chords to "Give Me One Reason" by Tracy Chapman. It's on Chapman's album "New Beginning", released in 1995, the year my twins were born, a year when we spent a lot of time inside, listening to music. I remember the song well and Dan and I sang our hearts out Saturday night.

When the song was over, I could hear people at the tables behind us and across from us asking each other, "What song was that? Who wrote it? Tracy who?" Funny, I thought everyone knew it.

Music is so generationally identified in our culture that it is very hard to find songs that "everyone knows" in a group that has even a little bit of an age mix. This is probably even more true in churches today than ever. Songs that people my age sang in summer camp or at Intervarsity meetings in college are considered "new" to people who grew up singing traditional hymns, but they seem so dated to me it's hard to muster the energy to fight for the inclusion of these "new" songs. But if we sing only music written 50 years ago or earlier, worship starts to feel a bit musty and nostalgic to me.

What's the solution? How can we find music to sing together as a community? Well, last night, KC began a 12-week experiment with a possible solution. Jason Reed, our new Walden B. Howard Musician in Residence, says that he is going to help us write our own music--words, vocals, accompaniment, the whole thing. About ten of us (ranging in age from 70's to 8 years old) gathered in Iris' dining room last night with three guitars, one bassoon, one violin, one piano, a hand drum and two maracas. Believe it or not, we composed a song. It was hard to believe it would work, but it kind of did. It's a process that I think we'll get better at as time goes on (if Jason has the fortitude to do this again).

I'm hopeful that somehow in all the racket we made, we stepped into a new future for our church, singing our own songs, songs that until now, nobody knew.


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jason reed

What a great dose of perspective on what we're trying to do. I hadn't
thought about some of the points you make, but they seem almost
inescapable. Lot's of brain food. I can echo your sentiment about
stuffy contemporary worship, as I grew up listening to punk and
underground rock... so come sunday morning, when the guitars and drums
come out for some hip and contemporary worship... I start to detect a
funny smell. It doesn't seem honest. I don't think any one
demographic should be catered to (say, financially strong
30-somethings), but certainly a church should reflect the lives of its
members. We've got a leg up, because if KC writes their own music, of
course it'll reflect the congregation. I guess my own opinion is that
church shouldn't be a guilt trip, or a fun distraction- and music can
be a part of that direction.
I also want to respond for a moment to the suggestion that someone
made on sunday that music is a luxury... that feeding the homeless,
and ministering should receive more attention than music. To me, such
a distinction misses the point. Music... or noise if you prefer, is
everywhere all the time, even when you're busy saving the world. It
is a choice that each of us have to appreciate it... and make it
music, or to drown it out with more noise.
So far, two days in a row
KC has me thinking. Not such a bad thing.
Anyway, thanks for the link. Very cool.


dave paisley

Great topic. I'm in a church with a decent smattering of age ranges, apparently like yours. We have traditional hymns/ choir/ anthems at our main service most of the time, but I lead the contemporary band once a month. We do some contemporary Christian music (not always "worship" music), but we also have a songwriter in our band who has created quite a body of work over the past 5 years.

The other advantage is that I'll tell him we don't have any good contemporary Advent songs (because the CCM machine is really pretty non-liturgical) so he writes some - and quite excellent ones, too.

I can't imagine how hard it is to write communally like you describe!

However, the next problem is that you have to introduce these new songs )no matter where they came from) to your congregation enough times so that they become familiar with them. That basically just takes time (and for the congregation to like the new songs).

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