Every Sunday All Saints Company Con-spirator Marilyn Haskel leads the congregation at St. Paul’s Chapel, made up of regularly attending parishioners and one-time visitors from all over the world, through the music in the Sunday liturgy. She also leads community sing events every few months at the chapel, where anyone is welcome to join in the adventure of group singing.
I can’t separate singing from church.
When I was in high school, I was very active in the youth group at church. We had district meetings where the surrounding communities got together. I was always the song leader. That was a kind of community sing and it was so tied into church, that I almost can’t separate the two. I was one of those people who knew early on what I was going to do with my life. What makes me happy and gives me joy is hearing a roomful of people sing like they mean it.
Singing together is about joy.
Whether it’s Sunday morning or a community singing event, I want people to take away a feeling of joy after singing together. It may seem simple, but so little of what we do together in groups is about joy. I’m not talking about just being happy. I’m talking about a deeper experience, a sense of well-being and satisfaction. Of course there are times when joy is tempered by grief or longing or even despair. As Christians, our underlying joy is our faith in God that sustains us through the difficult times.
People are looking for something.
When people come in here for a community sing or for worship, they’re looking for something. They want to connect with other people in a different way. Church has gotten to a point in some places where people don’t have to say hello to anybody. But that’s not how we do liturgy at St. Paul’s. At the community sings, once people get over their initial “I don’t know if I want to sing in this big space” reaction, then there’s a lot of laughing and interacting, and people who don’t know each other talking to one another.
The liturgy is for everybody.
If I say to a congregation, “you’re going to learn some music,” I can see the panic on people’s faces. So I just stand up and say, “Repeat after me.” Once they realize they have a job to do in the liturgy, it breaks down the feeling that they’re there to watch “us” do the service. It’s a lot of my job, the time spent to find the right music that works. And sometimes I try things that don’t work. As soon as the congregation realizes we’re all in it together, then we’re becoming a community even for just an hour or so.
People want to sing.
The thing that I know and the thing that I have to trust is that people want to sing. If you create an environment where they can do so and don’t worry about embarrassing themselves, then they’ll join in, they’ll enjoy it, and they’ll want to do it again.
Group singing encourages new, spontaneous leadership.
At a recent community sing, a participant asked if she could teach the dance that went along with a particular song. I didn’t know there was a dance, so she took over the leadership for that song. It’s an exciting thing that happens in group singing. It’s key to the way we do church at St. Paul’s. During a service, I have to be aware when the community is ready to take a song on their own. I have to step out of the leadership role. That kind of thing doesn’t scare me to death anymore, but it used to.
It’s a Gospel imperative.
A regular visitor at St. Paul’s told me recently that she feels so at home at St. Paul’s. She’s not just talking about the music, she’s talking about the community. She feels like she belongs here. I think of the community sings as an outreach of what we do on Sunday mornings, even when we don’t sing sacred songs. It’s the creating community that is key. That’s a Gospel imperative; it’s what we’re called to do.
Originally published at Trinity Wall Street's Blog June 6, 2010.