Singing the Past into the Future
Evensong as the Voice of Faithful Becoming
On a recent Saturday around sunset, a group of 40 people gathered in the chapel of our suburban Connecticut “tall steeple church” for “Evensong,” a weekly contemporary Christian service we have offered since September.
Imagined and led by our associate pastor, it is the kind of service that is flourishing in many other churches throughout the country—more informal, more musical, more creative in its use of space and lighting.
As one of our long-time members described it to another: “Drums, no robes, but really lovely.”
The shorthand is telling.
For some, such a description summarily conjures memories of church rock bands and the “worship wars” of the 80s and 90s—“There’s a drum in the Sanctuary this morning, honey. Let’s. Get. Out. Now.”
On the day in 1998 that my home church held an “alternative worship” Sunday, a whole group of members took one look at the lyrics projected on the back wall of the Sanctuary, and met in the parking lot to decide where they would all go for breakfast instead.
But Evensong is lovely in a way that those early attempts at reimagining music and worship often were not. That, or they proved hard to sustain once the initial novelty of the form faded.
That loveliness is part of the service’s implicit argument on its own behalf.
Instead of self-consciously trying to “be relevant” with a particular style of music as the means, the worship team for Evensong is more clearly focused on being faithful to musical forms that have hummed their way through the Christian tradition for centuries. But they are faithful in ways that remain open to new configurations, whether it is a new configuration of the chairs in the room, the lighting in the nave, or the particular combination of musicians brought together for a given service.
Veterans of the worship wars may well remember that the new music back then was typically led by a band—sometimes pop-rock style, sometimes jazz, or maybe indy-folk-ish. That was great if you liked their particular sound, but dispiriting, to say the least, if you did not.
Our Evensong largely resists having “a sound”—the musicians come from a rotating group, and are selected with the particular sound and feel of each unique service in mind.
Similarly, while much of the music consists of worship songs rather than traditional hymns (a distinction I did not know of until September), there are often judiciously chosen, well-arranged hymns that are included, revealing new expressive depths that a lifetime of hearing the same hymns on the organ alone might never uncover.
Saturday evening and weekly services have turned out to be important components, too.
We struggled with both at first.
Last summer, the Church Council wrestled with the cost of a new service with professional musicians each week, especially because “we already have an organist.”
Someone wondered if it wouldn’t be more prudent to start small, and see how the service took off before taking on the time and expense of doing it every week.
Another person emphasized that it was our main Sunday morning service that felt smaller. (Suggestively enough, her actual word was “emptier”…and she caught herself when she said it.) Her point was that we needed to grapple with how we might breathe vitality into the forms we already had in place. Dare I say it? To make the 10:30 great again.
But we quickly recognized that if we were going to offer a new service, it wasn’t worth repackaging the old, however alluringly. It seemed doomed from the start to imagine people coming to hear the same sermon and more or less the same music, just at a slightly different time, and only now and again, at that.
A key moment in the discussion came when a Council member reminded us all, “We have to plan as if this is actually going to succeed, not just dip our toes in the water.”
In some sense, the question was whether we saw this as a real service or not?
A related and deeper question was whether we had grown so attached to worship as we knew it that any other ways of worshipping were all but unimaginable for us now.
In the end, were we trying to share the gospel or just our particular family version of churchiness?
We decided to take the plunge.
And seeing who has decided to jump in with us has been fascinating.
At the outset, we had a vision that millennials would quickly spread the word over their (mysterious to us) social networks and flock to the service, then go out together to a local bar for fellowship.
That was overly optimistic. Maybe even delusional. It was also a return to the kind of thinking we most needed to outgrow: the approach of worship service as means rather than as an end. Do we ask who the main service is “for”? What about Christmas or Easter?
We’ve been reminded that growth is a more gradual, organic process. More to the point, we’ve been surprised to see who has found us.
In particular, we have welcomed a significant number of our own long-time members—people we never had in mind during the planning process last summer because we thought of them (pardon the phrase) as “happy customers.”
Does anyone else remember the 1979 Rupert Holmes classic “Escape” (also known as the “Pina Colada song,” which was made even more famous by Jimmy Buffett)? In it, a man decides his relationship has gone stale and decides to take out a personal ad to see if a better companion might be available. He turns out to discover that his significant other, also bored and dissatisfied, is the one who answers his ad.
At first, it felt a little like that song to see our own members eagerly showing up on Saturday night for Evensong. And indeed, many confessed that it felt a little bit like they were “cheating on the 10:30.”
This experience reminded us of how structures for worship, even beloved ones, can become confining in their routineness. If we’re really honest, often the daily press of work and the pastoral needs of the church in any given week can make creative worship planning an afterthought.
The challenge of bringing imagination to “ordinary time” is only as far as next Sunday. No wonder then, that so many of the prayers and hymns and other elements end up getting plugged into a familiar template—considered good enough, at any rate, for a week with nothing else special in it.
Of course, the point of worship is not to be always special, but to be always faithful.
Evensong is teaching us not to see specialness in expression and faithfulness to tradition as mutually exclusive. After all, part of being faithful is to stay open to new possibilities.
It’s also reminded us that new people don’t come into our community with an eye to entering the familiar church pipeline of “shopper” to “regular visitor” to “member” to “giver.” They come to have an experience—an experience of community, an experience of wonder, an experience of the holy that will carry into their everyday lives.
Over the last six months, our church has started to remember what it is to have those kinds of experiences—to be speechless at the end of a service, with your face in tears, and look over and see a stranger who is also speechless and covered in tears.
Will it change us? Let’s hope so. We hope, that is, we are becoming something new and vital that gives new voice—for the first time in forever, it seems—to our deepest, richest, and most precious traditions.