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Stay Tuned: An initial report on a study leave

This past June, my home congregation learned that we would be losing one of our two pastors, the adult choir director, and the organist. They all left for good and different reasons. But the joy of Pentecost Sunday was muted when I heard that day that all three would be leaving.

I wondered if I could help out with some of the worship planning, organ playing, or choir directing. However, I was also looking forward to a sabbatical. Ever since the Psalter Hymnal came out—almost ten years ago—I've been planning to take a break for some extended travel, reading, and maybe some teaching. I was eager to get away for awhile, far away, and then come back all charged up with new energy and insights. But there always seemed to be one more important project to get out of the way first.

Then I had a brainstorm. Perhaps I could combine my sabbatical with getting involved in my own congregation. Many of the issues and questions I would like to study are questions we're struggling with right at home. They are certainly issues we face in every issue of Reformed Worship. Consider the following:

What is a healthy balance between the church music of the past and more contemporary expressions?

Granted, contemporary music has a place in the church. The Reformed perspective has always included a calling to redeem the culture, to engage it, not to flee from it. Our congregation has an excellent organ and choral tradition, but we have also been singing more and more contemporary music, led often by an ensemble of guitarists, a violinist, a pianist, and assorted singers. Sometimes the styles mix and match rather well, other times not so well. A recent experiment with overheads bombed, but we frequently use bulletin inserts.

We have only one morning service. Should we try to separate out the traditional and contemporary: one service to honor the past, and another to rejoice in the present? Read Sally Morgenthaler's article in this issue with your eyes wide open to the important options she poses. And also read the moving interview with Pastor Anduwatju from Indonesia, who struggles with the very same issue in his own cultural context.

How important are "worship teams" to worship life today?

In our congregation our "small group" (this less-than-satisfactory label is at least better than "praise team" or "worship team"—which is what the whole congregation should be) has a young history and is still striving for musical excellence and good worship leadership.

Does the broader structure of worship leadership exemplified by "worship teams" fit in well with a Reformed concept of the priesthood of all believers? If so—and I think it does or at least can—a whole number of questions beg to be answered:

What is a good role for a worship team? (OK, I'll use the term because it will communicate.) How are worship teams best nurtured, developed, led, to take a place alongside—rather than replace—traditional organ and choral music? What are the best resources for contemporary music? How much technology is really appropriate? How can worship teams grow in musical and liturgical competence and integrity?

Ask me those questions about traditional organ and choral music, and I can point to a host of resources and degree programs. But when I get questions about more current styles of contemporary music, I draw too many blanks. So I asked one more question: Can this sister act with integrity in new directions?

Is it possible that I, trained as a classical musician, could make some contribution in my own congregation by exploring and experimenting with more contemporary styles with our "small group"? How about visiting other worship teams and then applying some of what I learn right in my home church?

Several meetings later, both at the office and at church, a plan was in place for a six-month half-time educational leave (this plan is anything but a sabbatical!). The first half of this year I'm half-time in the office and half-time on leave. I already started the choir and some organ playing in September, so I've had a full fall. I couldn't ask for a more congenial and welcoming congregation, a group who are supportive and challenging in many good ways.

As I write this editorial, I'm getting ready to visit other churches and sit in on some of their worship team rehearsals, learning from behind the scenes just how they prepare, how they choose music, what training and leadership they offer. Then I'll try to apply some of what I'm learning right at home. The best place to be. For now.

So far, I'm having a great time. My desk now sports a synthesizer, wired to my computer with a music software program. Not that I know what I'm doing yet.

Stay tuned for more reports.