Song leader says ‘Singing gets into people’s souls’

While searching for another church-related piece, I came across this article I wrote that originally appeared in the The Shenandoah Journal, (Dayton, VA) – Tuesday, February 24, 2009. Although my personal taste in music varies from opera, classical, folk, blues, classic rock, southern rock, roots, old country, bluegrass, world music, etc., the four-part harmony acapella singing is still what gets into my soul. It was in the first setting described in this article of the Old Order Mennonite Church where I first felt the connection to Someone/Something way bigger than myself. It was where I first found God. 

I’ve included a poor-quality cell phone video of the described four-part harmony singing during our Hickory Hollow School reunion in 2011.

Song leader says ‘singing gets into people’s souls’

Author: Regina Cyzick Harlow ; STAFF WRITER

ROCKINGHAM COUNTY – Enter one church where stoical parishioners sit on slatted wooden benches and quiet children rest on their parents’ laps. The minister calls a hymn number from behind the pulpit and reads the first verse from a small hymnal. Then a man from the congregation begins singing the first line and slowly others join in. By the end of the first verse, the church echoes with four-part harmony.

Down the street in another church, several people gather on a carpeted stage. The worship music begins with keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars, drums and bass. The congregation joins in with the singers, sometimes clapping to the beat and reading the words from a projector.

Two churches – two styles of worship – praising one God.

While different congregations follow different musical doctrines, they all agree that music is an expression of worship and plays an important role in their services.

Even among conservative Mennonite congregations, the style of music varies. According to an Old Order Mennonite minister, instruments are not allowed in the service “for fear of honoring man the creature more than God the Creator.”

However, acapella singing is an important part of their worship. Joining in song is one of the only times during an Old Order service in which the congregation participates; the rest of the service is conducted solely by the ministers.

Singing “gives you a measure of unity you would not have otherwise,” said one song leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It allows you to become a participant.”

The congregation uses several tunes for many sets of lyrics. The first meters of the tunes are depicted in shape notes in the back of the small black hymnbooks.

The importance of singing together is emphasized among the youth who gather nearly every Sunday evening for singings in a church member’s home.

Calvary Mennonite Church, in Mount Clinton, shares some doctrinal beliefs with its more conservative Old Order roots. Instruments are used only on special occasions.

Pastor Paul Emerson said music is important as a preparation to teach the scriptures. His congregation generally sings hymns and gospel songs, with the aid of hymnbooks familiar to most Sunday church-goers.

Music is not viewed as an evangelistic tool and Emerson thinks an emphasis on its selection and presentation to draw congregants is “unfortunate.”

Emerson isn’t opposed to contemporary music, but he “can’t see leaving two thousand years of history behind for a passing fancy.”

“It’s not a question of old versus new. It’s a question of musical structure and harmony,” he said. “We’re talking about a good and best comparison, not a right and wrong.”

He thinks there are distinct disadvantages to its performance-oriented structure. Most praise and worship music is “not well-structured” and appeals only to one generation, he said. In addition, congregants do not participate as much. While listening, they tend to focus on the people on stage.

Mainstream traditional Protestant churches often add piano or organ accompaniment to their songs and hymns are led by the choir or song leader, but do not use church music for entertainment purposes.

“It is to praise God and to communicate and proclaim the gospel,” said Jeffery Sonafelt, pastor of Reformation Evangelical Lutheran Church in New Market, adding that many of the Lutheran hymns are “Biblically-based.”

The Rev. Kathleen Miko, with St. Paul’s Lutheran and Rader Lutheran in Timberville, said while the congregation generally sings hymns during worship, they occasionally add a guitar, violin or flute.

People are drawn to certain styles of music, Miko said.

“I’ve seen people move from church to church because of music.”

Praise and worship music is a major part of the services in some inter-denominational and non-denominational churches such as New Beginnings in Bridgewater and The Potter’s House Worship Center in Harrisonburg. Both churches open the service with several worship songs, accompanied by a full band.

The Potter’s House music information on their Web site references II Chronicles 5:13-14 where the “choir and the trumpet made one voice of praise and thanks to God…”

Although the majority of songs at New Beginnings are modern praise songs, they try to incorporate a hymn into their service weekly.

“The culture we live in now does not really appreciate hymns from the early church,” New Beginnings Pastor Ed Heatwole said. “With a band, we can jazz up the music without changing the lyrics.”

A multimedia projector displays images that correlate with the theme of the words being sung. For example, if the congregation is singing a song about God the Creator, scenic images are played, and if the congregation is receiving communion, images of a cross might be used.

“The background themes are important,” Heatwole said. “We give a lot of attention to that. It draws worshipers into the presence of God.”

According to Heatwole, their worship band is also a tool of evangelism. Nonbelievers in the band have developed a relationship with the Lord because of the music.

“We sing songs that really speak about the person and character of Christ and how he relates in our everyday life,” he said.

Heatwole believes that music touches people’s emotions, regardless of its form of delivery. “God inhabits the praises of his people,” he said, “and that can be all forms of singing.”

The praise and worship band at Potter’s House Worship Center uses contemporary music, and seldom sings a hymn.

“I think that because there are so many different churches and so many different tastes, people gravitate to a church that plays the music they like best,” said Renee Garber, co-pastor and worship leader.

Although there are different preferences in the style of music, most churches share the philosophy that sacred music is an expression of worship and a preparation for the message to follow.

“It’s a form of worship and connecting with the Lord,” Garber said. “It’s also an act of prayer. Songs are musical prayers.”

“Music is one of the most important things we do in church,” Heatwole said. “It draws you into the presence of God.”

“Music is one’s expression to God in worship,” Emerson said.

Singing allows the congregation to participate in the service in whatever style the church uses.

“Singing gets into people’s souls,” said a song leader for an Old Order Mennonite congregation. “It adds a charismatic spirit, some involvement. I guess it brightens the soul.”

Record Number: 10032360 Copyright (c) 2009, Byrd Newspapers, All Rights Reserved.

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