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English: Saraswati Puja Invitation cover

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When the congregation is invited to participate in new ways, the music in the church service becomes an experience that engages everyone‘s interest.

Part of my job as the Director of Music is to build the music program.  So I’ve been thinking about how to do that.  My plan is to involve both the choir and the congregation.  Each group has a great deal to contribute.

Why should the choir and the congregation always be separate?  Some congregations sing very well!

Does the congregation have to be restricted to singing only the hymns and a response or two?  Do they feel included when all they are doing is sitting there, watching the choir?

And what about the choir?  Do they always sing in the same spot during the service?  Could they sing an appropriate response once in a while?  Could they sing a verse of a hymn, or alternate verses with the congregation?

Two things I’ve tried that have succeeded:

Anthem

On a recent Sunday, the choir sang the hymn “Come, We That Love the Lord” as the anthem.

1.	Come, we that love the Lord,
	and let our joys be known;
	join in a song with sweet accord,
	and thus surround the throne. 

2.	Let those refuse to sing
	who never knew our God;
	but children of the heavenly King
	may speak their joys abroad. 

3.	The hill of Zion yields
	a thousand sacred sweets
	before we reach the heavenly fields,
	or walk the golden streets. 

4.	Then let our songs abound,
	and every tear be dry;
	we're marching through Emmanuel's ground,
	to fairer worlds on high.

Based on the text, they sang the 1st verse in unison, 2nd verse with unison men (“refusing to sing,” I thought, would sound more emphatic with men’s voices), 3rd verse soprano and alto (“sacred sweets” had me thinking of angels), and final verse SATB with the congregation (which tends to sing in unison).

The minister announced near the beginning of the service that the choir would like for the congregation to join them in singing the final verse.  He told them the hymn number then as well.  When it came time for the anthem, I happened to glance toward the congregation.  Not only did everyone have their thumb marking the page, but they were sitting on the edge of the pews!  Their participation was so enthusiastic and welcomed, one parishioner began applauding at the end!

Hymn

Just As I Am” is a well-known hymn with 6 verses.  I felt that it was important to find variety somehow, as the text calls for quiet singing throughout.

When the congregation knows a hymn so well they don’t need the music, let them sing a verse on their own!  Get them started, then play at least one more verse with them.  By that time, you will be able to tell how comfortable they are.  You can stop playing for an entire verse!  Of course, if problems begin to surface, you can jump back in.

1.	Just as I am, without one plea,
	but that thy blood was shed for me,
	and that thou bidst me come to thee,
	O Lamb of God, I come, I come. 

2.	Just as I am, and waiting not
	to rid my soul of one dark blot,
	to thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
	O Lamb of God, I come, I come. 

3.	Just as I am, though tossed about
	with many a conflict, many a doubt,
	fightings and fears within, without,
	O Lamb of God, I come, I come. 

4.	Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
	sight, riches, healing of the mind,
	yea, all I need in thee to find,
	O Lamb of God, I come, I come. 

5.	Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
	wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
	because thy promise I believe,
	O Lamb of God, I come, I come. 

6.	Just as I am, thy love unknown
	hath broken every barrier down;
	now, to be thine, yea thine alone,
	O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

In this case, I stopped playing after the 3rd verse, so the congregation and choir sang the 4th verse on their own.  I chose the 4th verse because the words express great vulnerability.  The outcome was wonderful!  No one perceived a sudden difference, as I had been playing quietly anyway.  They slowed down a little, but there was nothing that couldn’t be dealt with during the next verse.

Do you think church services should be participatory?

How have you involved your congregation in the music program of your church? 

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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August 2011 review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

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