It’s a small congregation. Forty members, about twenty-five at Sunday worship. Many are elderly, a significant minority struggle with mental health issues. We can’t cover every necessary job in the church.
One such area is playing music for worship. We can’t find someone to sit on the organ stool every week. Some weeks we have to use CDs of hymn tunes. For convenience, we’ve ripped them on a laptop and one of our members creates a playlist when he knows what songs the preacher has chosen.
Sunday was one of those days. It was harvest festival, and I had picked five well-known harvest hymns. This should be easy, I thought.
Usually there is an organist for my services. Kicking off with the definitely well-known ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’ we soon hit a problem. Our singing was an aural car crash by the end of the second verse, and I don’t mean that I’d forgotten to switch off the radio mic during the hymn. (You wouldn’t want to hear me sing. No, really.) However familiar the hymn was, the congregation was not singing at the same tempo as the recorded organist. They couldn’t hear it well enough in order to do so.
I asked for the volume to be turned up, but that wasn’t possible. We had a clarinettist accompanying the MP3. A real live one. She was altering her tempo to match the congregation, and was able to make her volume a little louder than the recording.
But that risked conflict with the laptop operator. We wouldn’t have had an outbreak of fisticuffs in Christian love – the two people in question are too lovable for that – but you could feel the tension rising.
What was the difference? The real live human musician could adjust to the congregation’s rate of progress. An inaminate recording couldn’t. (Yes, I know you can get software and gadgets that can vary the tempo of music and keep the pitch the same, but we don’t have the riches for swish gizmos.) And that’s the skill of musicians who accompany worship. It’s not a performance: it’s an enabling of the congregation. They may believe a hymn should be sung at a certain rate of knots, but if the worshippers are not up to it, they adjust, in order to achieve the goal of sung praise to our Maker and Lord.
Which in my opinion makes for a parable of church life and leadership. How many of us know how something should be done and at what speed, and won’t adjust for those who are coming along more slowly? If they are coming along and not resisting, why are they a problem? Are the best leaders like the live musicians, who instinctively adjust to the pace of the congregation in order to take them forward?
Yes, conversely, there is a time to urge a congregation forward and get them out of a rut – I don’t deny that. But in our fast-paced always-on culture, we sometimes miss the truth of which Eugene Peterson has often reminded his readers, namely that pastoral work is slow work.