Upcoming Performances

December 1
3:00 pm Eastern

Messiah organist, First Presbyterian Church, Statesville, N.C.

December 3
8:00 pm Eastern

Haydn Creation organist, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

December 13
12:15 pm Eastern

Music at Midday, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

February 9, 2020
3:00 pm Eastern

Inaugural recitalist, St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Columbia, S.C..

February 16, 2020
5:00 pm Eastern

Evensong recitalist, Church of the Ascension, Hickory, N.C..

March 6, 2020
7:30 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tenn.

April 5, 2020
2:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Ga.

April 18, 2020
7:30 pm Eastern

Concerto organist, Milligan College

May 12, 2020
12:35 pm Central

Tuesday Series recitalist, Church of St. Louis, King of France, Minneapolis, Minn.

June 21-26, 2020
Worship Organist, Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, Lake Junaluska, N.C.

Entries in Worship (24)


How many churches do you play for, really?

An elder member of a liturgically conservative church met with her pastor to make the plea that “we ought to offer an alternative service, since every other church is doing it.” The pastor replied, “Madam, traditional worship IS the alternative these days, and that’s what we will continue to offer.”

I know a wonderful fellow who serves as his church’s administrator and director of music. He swears that while he is on staff, that church will never start a second worship service. He will not split the congregation into two groups that could turn into two factions. They are all one family, and as long as they all fit into one room for one service, that’s how it will be. People who wish to shop around may certainly do so; his point is that there will be no surprises at that church on his watch.

I am torn. I agree with the premise of the illustrations above and appreciate the courage of the leaders to keep their flocks together in one style of worship for one congregation. But I know that some churches are too small to allow people to leave and go shopping elsewhere if they can’t get what they want there. But I also know that congregations that have split up into different worship styles inevitably drift into Us-vs.-Them mentality, usually driven by attendance numbers. The more heavily attended service is deemed the hipper one, and the other one is eventually deemed a necessary evil until it dies off.

While I appreciate the necessity of a church’s marketing strategy, I feel that we drift into dangerous territory when we insist that people be comfortable in church and that we should design something they enjoy and are attracted to. Just whom is being worshipped? I’ve said it before, but when we’re eventually standing in the presence of the Almighty, I doubt we’re going to be very comfortable or chatty. It seems that being in the invisible presence of the Almighty in church ought to carry some mystery, as well. We ought to engage the quiet brain cells, the ones designed for contemplation of eternal beings and concepts, not just those brain cells looking for a Sunday morning ecclesiastical version of a video game.

I commend those old-school “Organist/Choirmasters.” It was new territory for them to be expected to incorporate praise choruses and non-traditional styles into a traditional liturgy. Many Organist/Choirmasters became or gave way to Directors of Music. And even then it was difficult for them to oversee multiple styles of worship each Sunday, let alone participate in all services. Soon, the responsibilities were split up between a “Director of Music” and a “Director of [contemporary service name].”

And I am torn once again. I appreciate a church’s need to demonstrate itself as a complete worship center, with traditional and contemporary worship. But I also see the factions that form. I see members of the same church who have never met, because they attend different services. I don’t see a church family; I see a church full of individuals. I don’t see unity; I see the constant threat of people leaving to “go shopping” if that church doesn’t deliver the goods. I don’t hear two different sermons; I hear a traditional sermon hipped up for the contemporary service, or I hear a hip sermon straitjacketed for the traditional service.

A funeral director friend once told me his funeral home conducts 350 services each year. Then he corrected himself: “Actually, we don’t conduct 350 services each year. We conduct one service 350 times.” How difficult it must be to infuse different worship styles with enough staff, enough energy, enough difference each week to make them meaningful! How difficult it must be to keep a different style alive for the 20 people who still attend it. How easy it is to let the different styles drift into essential sameness and still call them different.

And I am torn again. While I’ll give plenty of credit to those churches that pull it off each week, I’ll also quietly lament the loss of unchanging worship of an unchanging God. I celebrate the diversity but lament the lameness of sameness that contemporary worship exhibits from church to church. It is nigh unto impossible to guess the denomination of a contemporary service. But it is even more frighteningly impossible sometimes to guess the denomination of a traditional service, and that is where I feel we’re losing heritage and history.

Come on, folks – stay in the game. You already have a plan handed down from your denominational forbears; don’t try to stray too far from it while you're inventing new wheels. Be what the sign out front says you are, whether Methodist, AME Zion, Presbyterian, Episcopal or Holy Cow.


Famous first words

My first church job in grad school was Episcopal. Although I did not grow up in that tradition, I quickly converted and easily got used to services that began with, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” When I visited my hometown for the first time after moving away for grad school, I was reminded that church back home still begins with “MARNIN’!”

Now, “MARNIN’!” was never shocking to me as a kid, but it was shocking after a time of hearing “Blessed be God…”. By contrast, “Blessed be God…” was never shocking to me, ever.

The first words uttered from the leader to the assembly might define the nature of the service to follow. What you hear may be what you get for the next hour. I like that consistency, and I like knowing up front whether I’ll be able to survive the next hour if there is not a decent chance to escape before it’s over.

I am not seeing informal churches move toward a more prescribed format; rather, I am seeing an erosion of formality in other churches. Some congregations who were used to a ceremonial service before are now allowing “Good morning” in, yea even responding to it in kind as if it were always that way. And we’re talking about just the first words of the service here! We could go on and on from there regarding such things as where to put the announcements, the use or willful ignorance of the lectionary, what the prelude is for, what the anthem (“choir special”) is for, etc.

But could it be that church must begin in some corners with “MARNIN’!” [or the more tame but equally offensive “Good morning”] and others must begin with, “Would the owner of license plate number…,” or, “Will the parents of…”? Many churches begin worship with silence. Others habitually begin late (which is itself a statement of how the service might go from there). Others begin with announcements, including the singing of Happy Birthday for those who celebrated birthdays that week.

It would appear that the things that drive some people crazy may be to others essential for worship. Could it be that we are all different? Yes, it certainly could. Not every church will thrive with a certain style of worship. But worship should be defined by the congregation at hand in the form of mandates from their elected governing bodies, not by the speakers of the first words. Congregations need to be allowed to be what they are. Is it a traditional Episcopal congregation? Then the service is prescribed to begin a certain way. Is it a traditional Southern Baptist congregation in North Carolina? Then there is more flexibility. Although I am certain that “Marnin’!” and Happy Birthday will never induce a spirit of worship within me, I won’t begrudge them for the congregation who does find them meaningful.

Ultimately, a congregation needs to decide what it will be, then be it. And the worship leaders need to stop apologizing for being formal or informal. Just be what you’re supposed to be, and worship accordingly. When in doubt, err toward a spirit of worship. I really don’t think we’ll blurt out “Marnin’!” when we’re standing at the pearly gates.


On announcing hymns

Sometimes I do my best writing in casual responses to questions, usually via email. Below is a portion, pasted nearly verbatim, from my original response to a question regarding To Announce or Not To Announce Hymns. Of course, that is not an issue in many denominations. This one is Presbyterian:

“I think we might try to define the duty of the hymn announcement. Is it to make sure everyone has the right hymn number and the right stanzas? Is it to make the transition from what has come to what follows? Is it a necessary link between speaking and singing? Is it a necessary link between silence and sound? Is it just an encouragement to sing? I like your word “calling” the people to sing, rather than, say, “instructing” them.

“Perhaps the announcement of the hymn itself is not as important as providing a link between what has come and what will follow. Something like, “Let us stand and sing to God,” might serve the purpose well enough, without announcing the more mundane information such as hymn number or omitted stanzas, which can be found in the bulletin. We could even use different approaches within a single service: Hymns at the more powerful moments might launch better with no announcement, such as the opening hymn or the Doxology (never announced, anyway). Other hymns that serve as a transition themselves (such as after the Children’s Sermon or after the Sermon) might be well served by an announcement. If the opening hymn follows an informal Welcome rather than a more formal Call to Worship, it might need an announcement just to avoid confusion among those who are waiting for a Call to Worship. If the Sermon ends with a prayer, then that prayer might be transition enough.

“With rare exception, I use a moment of silence to let something ‘settle’ before moving on, such as moving from a prayer into a hymn or moving from Moment for Mission into a hymn. I ALWAYS let the Offertory settle for a moment, just so there’s no question to anyone that the Doxology is, in fact, gearing up. I allow much less silence to move from the Call to Worship into a hymn. It depends on the context of the moment, and I think that the context would allow mixing and matching hymn announcements within a single service without being confusing.

“The strongest opinion I have lies in maintaining 1) a routine and 2) a high liturgical IQ among the congregation. I want them to be in the habit of checking their bulletin for service information without waiting to be told, just as we all want them to refer to the inserts and the church newsletter to make note of their duties and opportunities without having them pointed out. If there is no hymn announcement, I always provide enough introduction of the hymn so that everyone has time to find it, stand, and get ready. I’m confident in my ability to provide them enough time to prepare in body. If we feel that some sort of announcement would further prepare them in mind and spirit, I have no problem with it.”


Only someone like me would give something like this so much thought, huh! Nevertheless, it can be a recurring, awkward moment week after week that we’re too used to to do anything about. But as my flight instructor used to say, “Take care of [whatever] now, before it turns into a problem.”


I'm not making this up, you know

Have any of these ever happened to you?

1. The preacher of the day asks you to push hymn tempos along, using vague words such as “upbeat,” “fast,” “energetic,” “peppy,” or “lively.”

2. A hymn is cut from a Sunday service because the preacher of the day doesn’t recognize it.

3. A hymn in a minor key is cut because the preacher of the day deems minor a downer.

4. The preacher of the day wants to insert a hymn into the service (the very same one he inserted the last four times he preached).

5. The preacher of the day insists that the solo or anthem after the first hymn never be slow or in a minor key.

6. The preacher of the day refuses to walk in the procession because it distracts him from his preaching duties that day.

7. Someone makes announcements while you are playing: “Jill and Brantley would like to invite you to the reception in the fellowship hall…” “License plate SYC5483 has left lights on…” “Will the parents of…”

8. The preacher of the day fills up time at the next service just because the previous service ended early.

9. The congregation can’t get enough of you or the organ, but the pastor asks you to pull back on the volume.

10. The preacher of the day turns up his mic and sings at the top of his lungs – in a tempo at the other end of the spectrum from your introduction to the hymn.

11. The associate pastor is already into the first words of welcome and announcements while the final chord of the prelude is still reverberating in the rafters.

I’m not making any of this up! All this and more has happened to me and surely to other Readers. As evidenced in my list of complaints above, I tend to complain most about liturgical clumsiness and lack of professional respect. Bumbling, haphazard approaches to liturgy, music, and worship are unacceptable to me. And preachers do things during our music that they would never tolerate during their sermons.

It is tempting to complain and stop there, as witnessed by blogs and listservs that have longer lists of complaints than solutions. But what might be some solutions to achieving professional deference in both directions (not to mention helping that preacher overcome being victimized in the past by minor keys and slow tempos)?

It helps me to define the balance in my approach between the ministerial and the professional. Am I a minister of music, or am I a professional musician that day, that conversation? That balance moves back and forth, depending on the situation. Once I have defined the parameters for a conversation, then I can find a compassionate solution, which does exist. Trouble is, these things often come up so fast that there is no time to talk them all through with the perpetrators. Often, I must live with a certain baseline level of continuing snafus.

Clergy don’t know as much as we do about liturgy and music, but we don’t know how many people have complained to the clergy about the organist. Everyone hang in there and keep searching for solutions. The solution is a two-way street. Drive on the correct side, and don’t park in the No Parking zones.

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