Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Ecumenical funeral music

Over the weekend, I went to the funeral of an old friend of my father’s. He was both younger than my dad (by 13 years) and died at an older age (81 vs. 90), so I went to represent my father’s gratitude to someone who’d been very good to him.

The title of the church didn’t make it obvious, but in the pews the hymnals were embossed “First Assembly of God” which made this the first time I’d ever attended an Assembly of God service. (The local AoG church had rented its space in the past to the ACNA, and I’ve seen AoG televangelists on TV, but never actually attended a worship service). The preaching and use of the Bible matched my expectations (and I mean that in positive way).

The hymnal (Sing His Praise,  Gospel Publishing House, 1991), was little used by those attendees (two of us pulled it out), as the church had long since converted to praise band and projection screens. The drums were at the center of the stage, behind a plexiglass shield, for the next day’s performance worship music.

There was no choir, only a pianist. Other than her prelude and postlude, the music consisted of

  • “That Will be Glory,” solo by one of the pastors
  • “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” instrumental trio
  • “It is Well with my Soul” (#112, verses 1,3,4), sung by the congregation. It had the familiar harmony so in the refrain, I was able to do the men’s part in response to the upper (and unison) voices.
  • “How Great Thou Art” (#9, verses 1,3,4), sung by the congregation but interrupted by the pastor to make a point prior to the final verse
The pianist knew what she was doing. The pastor seemed to think changes in tempo made his singing more dramatic, which worked for the solo but not when he was leading 150 voices in singing. This approach to singing the music is undoubtably a local practice that would have been familiar to the many parishioners in attendance; I found it unfamiliar if not slightly confusing. 

It made me think that if you have a service with a large number of visitors — given how rarely non-Christians attend baptisms nowadays, that would mean a wedding or funeral — it's not just the choice of hymns (including tunes and words) that will make a difference on congregational participation. It’s also the style of performance.

Finally, it reinforced my prior prejudices: if you are going to have Christians in the room who are used to singing hymns, three hymns is the minimum and four is better. Those in attendance sang with gusto, and I think would have welcomed more verses if not more hymns.

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