Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Lent I: A Cappella Sunday

photo credit: Music that Makes Community

This Sunday, my congregation in Toronto will be observing A Cappella Sunday, and I hope yours will too.

To begin this season of Lenten reflection and renewal, our entire worship service will be unaccompanied, joining our voices in praise and prayer without the support of instruments. At our church, worship is usually accompanied by some combination of piano, hand percussion, wind instruments, guitar, and occasional organ -- on this first Sunday of Lent, they will all remain silent to make way for the voice of the church.

A Cappella Sunday is an initiative started by the Center for Congregational Song of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, but it echoes a tradition already observed by many worshipping communities across North America and worldwide. If singing an entire worship service unaccompanied sounds daunting, start small: sing just one hymn or song a cappella. If you are singing an unaccompanied service for the first time, think about how the physical space of your sanctuary will impact congregational singing; I rope off some of our pews so that people sit closer together, a hack for robust singing that I learned from John Bell.

Lent is a particularly poignant season to sing unaccompanied. One element of the Lenten journey is lament, and the Psalms lift up some of the most anguished laments of the scriptures. You might intone the Psalms, or read them antiphonally with sung refrains; however you engage them, singing the Psalms unaccompanied connects us powerfully, with renewed attention, to this ancient prayer book of the church.

There are many reasons to take a Sunday to worship in this way, and some of them are outlined below, courtesy of Brian Hehn of the Center for Congregational Song. For resources and ideas on how to shape a service of unaccompanied singing, including hymn performance examples, contact me.

What:   A Capella Sunday is when worshiping communities across the United States commit to singing acapella in their Sunday morning worship service. For communities where this is a new concept, it could just be one hymn, but for communities that are more comfortable singing unaccompanied, they are encouraged to sing their entire service acapella. Below are why we do it, when we do it, and attached to this e-mail are some resources to help make it successful.
Why:     Spending one Sunday a year to focus on your congregation singing acapella (without instrumental accompaniment) has many benefits and purposes.
-          It connects us to the history of the church. For thousands of years, acapella singing was the mainstay of the church’s song. By recognizing this and exploring this way of music-making, we are acknowledging and honoring the saints of the past.
-          It connects us to many Christian denominations, traditions, and regions of the world that continue to use acapella music as their primary mode of music-making in corporate worship. Those include but are not limited to many Mennonite denominations, the Church of Christ, many Orthodox traditions, the Church of God in Christ, and South African Methodists. 
-          It offers to God something that is, for many congregations in the United States and Canada, a gift that is different from our usual music-making. Psalm 96:1 tells us to “Sing a new song to the Lord,” which can be achieved for some of us by singing acapella.
-          It encourages the congregation’s song by building up confidence in their own voices. Many in our congregations believe that they can’t sing, or can’t sing well. Singing acapella presents those people with the best opportunity to hear themselves and others singing, giving them a fresh perspective on their assumptions of their own abilities and the ability of the congregation’s combined voice.
-          It emphasizes the unique ability of instruments to enhance the congregation’s song. By showing the congregation that they can sing without instrumental accompaniment, instrumental accompaniment can then begin to enhance and empower the congregation’s voice rather than acting primarily as a crutch.
-          It allows the instrumentalists to spend a Sunday listening carefully to the congregation to assess where their voice needs support. Often times it is hard to listen carefully to the congregation when you are focusing on playing your instrument accurately and musically. This gives the instrumentalists permission to step away for a Sunday without feeling like they are leaving the congregation stranded.
-          Finally, singing acapella is fun! By removing our typical means of accompanying song, our minds are often challenged to come up with new and creative ways to sing together that maintains energy and vitality. It can bring out the best in not only the congregation, but in the musician’s leadership.

Courtesy of the Center for Congregational Song, the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

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