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Whistle while you worship

The takeaways abound during PAM’s Worship and Music Conference

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Rafik Wahba via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — One Sunday morning, Tom Trenney, the Routley Lecturer this week for the Presbyterian Association of MusiciansWorship and Music Conference and the minister of music at First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, invited the choir and whoever wanted to in the congregation to whistle during the hymn “Lord of the Dance,” except during the somber fourth verse. He tried the same thing Tuesday, inviting class participants to pucker up behind their masks and whistle.

“I’ll bet you feel a little different in your body or your spirit than you did a few minutes ago,” he said. But on that particular Sunday morning, Trenney received unexpected feedback from a woman in the congregation, who after the service grabbed Trenney’s arms through his choir robe and told him, with tears in her eyes, “Thank you so much. This morning, when you let us whistle — that was the first time I ever heard my husband make music in church.”

Tom Trenney

Trenney has a knack for illuminating his daily talks during this week’s in-person and online conference with illustrative stories from his musical experience. When he was in his 20s and 30s, Trenney played organ recitals all over the country. When he’d arrive at a concert stop, typically his host would want to show him a few church organs around town. One day in upstate New York, he was taken to an organ reconstruction project. A full rank of pipes — 61 of them — lay scattered on the floor. The organ builder lifted one of the pipes and told Trenney about his dilemma: “We are still trying to figure out what these pipes want to do.”

“How many times,” Trenney wondered out loud, “do we want our choir to be another sound?”

Worship leaders “get to choose each week what words will be on people’s lips and hearts,” Trenney said. “We can get so concerned about everything in our service fitting together. I think that kind of care and thoughtfulness is beautiful, because the opposite of that is anarchy.”

However, he noted, “We can watch a sitcom and follow three storylines at the same time. In worship, people can track more than one storyline.”

Taking it to the church

With Tuesday’s downpours soaking the scenic grounds at Montreat Conference Center Tuesday, the Rev. Meg Flannagan opened her talk by sitting down at the piano to play and sing “Rain Down.”

the Rev. Meg Flannagan

Flannagan is co-pastor of St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C.

Flannagan’s class, designed to give participants ideas from the conference they can take home with them, allowed participants time to talk about Sunday services as churches return to in-person or hybrid worship.

One student said her congregation has become “over-zealous with passing the peace. We are trying several different things. It’s an awkward moment for us.”

Calling those zealous greeters back into worship can be tricky, Flannagan said.

“How you call people to worship matters,” she said. “’The Lord be with you’ are not meant to be shush words … Preludes and postludes are not piano bar music. Help your people understand this is what we’re doing and why. We ask you to be seated quietly so you can prepare your heart for worship. The average pew sitter may have never had reason to think about it. Help them think that what we’re doing has intention and purpose.”

Flannagan discussed both baptism and communion as churches re-enter in-person worship. During children’s time, Flannagan said she enjoys from time to time touching children lightly on top of their head with a few drops of baptism water on her fingertips.

As to communion, “Jesus is the host at every table, with every meal, and has given you the gifts you need for that day,” she said. “We are not breaking one loaf, and people are scrounging [for communion elements] at home [during online worship].

“I know people who are not receiving communion at home because they feel it’s not authentic,” Flannagan said. “That is a long time to abstain from the holy feast.”

Preaching, teaching — same thing, right?

the Rev. CeCe Armstrong

During her class, conference preacher the Rev. CeCe Armstrong, the associate pastor at St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C., told the story from several years ago of visiting a Brazilian community that had been devastated by floods. One woman was excited to host the visitors “because we knew God and she knew God too,” Armstrong said. “We were family, and she invited us into everything she was doing.”

When she returned home from the 10-day trip, Armstrong saw that her own townhome had flooded after a bathroom pipe had burst. “The tears were dropping from my eyes. I didn’t know who to call first, so I called my mama,” Armstrong said. “She said, ‘Stop crying. You’re adding water to the water that’s already there.’”

Of course, the Brazilian woman who offered her visitors hospitality leaped into Armstrong’s mind, giving her peace. Soon her pastor “sent some people over, and the next thing I knew, everything was in order.”

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