Updated: Mar 28
I am writing these words from 30,000 feet or so heading west to Dallas following our Polyphony conference in Nashville. These past three days have been remarkable: morning prayer in Wightman Chapel and the exquisite singing in that space; group and panel discussions on leaving and entering congregations; Dr. Jeffery Ames speaking on choral artistry and performance practices in Negro spirituals; performances by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Tim Sharp, the Immanuel Baptist Choir and the Chuck Nation Band.
Our program theme has been adaptation.
We are all having to adapt to a church music landscape that feels, well, less predictable. Fewer people in the pews, fewer singers in our choirs, and fewer dollars to underwrite good work.
However, the church musicians I know as creative and committed folk have always been adaptable. They have always lived into the question, how do I lead and create and teach these particular people with their particular gifts? This question is inherently about adaptation.
But something else happened at this gathering.
Talking about adaptation and the challenges of the present day created moments of vulnerability I have rarely seen among professional church musicians. Was it that the size of our group was intimate enough that people were really connecting with one another? Was it that we did not program every minute and created time for rich conversation? Or was it simply that the Spirit hovered nearby giving birth to a new community?
I remember three years ago when Polyphony met at Mercer a younger, wiser colleague expressed he was not interested in being a part of a group that was forever crowing about the size of the music program. Instead, he hoped he could connect with colleagues and might share the joys and sorrows of the vocation. That’s what happened in Nashville.
At the end of April, I will leave Wilshire in Dallas after more than 18 years as Minister of Music. One of my favorite memories in worship happened when George Mason dedicated babies and families. After George had carried the child around the sanctuary, speaking words of affirmation and asking the congregation to commit themselves to praying and supporting this family, he would conclude with a prayer of blessing. Every prayer would include these words, “Lord, I pray this child will have a good life, not an easy life.”
This is my prayer for church musicians everywhere. Church music is a good life, but not an easy life.
“I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
Adaptability. Vulnerability. Community.
This is Polyphony.