Lift every voice and sing
I’m so glad they prayed.
I’m so glad they prayed.
I’m so glad they prayed for me.
The words of the song flowed easily from the mouth of Ken Nafziger, a Mennonite music professor leading a selection of a cappella spirituals at Pepperdine University on a recent weekday morning.
Sunlight that reflected through 105 hues of stained glass at Stauffer Chapel, Pepperdine’s “little chapel on the hill,” cast colorful shadows over Nafziger.
Over my head, I hear music.
I hear music. I hear music. I hear music in the air.
There must be a God somewhere! There must be a God somewhere!
Nafziger stood before 50 or so worshipers drawn to Pepperdine — an idyllic campus perched on a mountainside overlooking the Pacific Ocean — for The Ascending Voice, an international symposium of sacred a cappella music.
The men and women seated on the chapel’s wooden pews came mainly from Church of Christ, Orthodox, Mennonite and Reformed Presbyterian backgrounds. All believe in the power of human voices as instruments of God. Most sing exclusively a cappella at home.
But few from the diverse groups were familiar with each other before the recent symposium.
“The people I speak with are my fellow human beings. The people I sing with are my family,” said Nafziger, who teaches music at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia and has helped edit two Mennonite hymnals.
At times, he closed his eyes and clasped his hands, as if the lyrics were pouring from his soul and he were drinking in every word. At other times, he moved his arms rhythmically, his motions quickening as the voices crescendoed in perfect harmony.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus in the morning.
Jesus in the noontime.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus when the sun goes down.
FROM CHANTS TO SHAPE NOTES
The four-day symposium — touted by organizers as the first-ever international gathering focused on the study, celebration and performance of a cappella worship music — drew an estimated 400 to 500 scholars, theologians, musicologists and singers.
The program mixed scholarly presentations on topics such as “A Comparison of Singing Among Crow and Cheyenne Indian Christians of Montana and Euro-American Mennonites of Indiana” with more practical sessions with themes such as “A Hymn of Praise, a Joyful Noise or the Song of Fools? Evaluating Contemporary Christian Hymns from a Musical Standpoint.”
Performances ranged from Gregorian chant and classic hymns to shape-note harmony and contemporary gospel. Singing groups from Pepperdine, Harding and Lipscomb universities — all associated with Churches of Christ — joined a Spanish-speaking choir from Medellin, Columbia, in performing hymns newly written for a cappella congregational singing.
“As far as I know, no one has ever assembled Christians of such diverse backgrounds before,” said Frederica Matthewes-Green, an author and speaker who is the “Khouria,” or spiritual mother, of Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Baltimore. “It was exhilarating to meet with other believers and worship in song in so many varying styles.”
For Denny Kruse, a member of the Rocketdyne Road Church of Christ in Neosho, Mo., the symposium provided an emotional reminder of why a cappella singing has survived 2,000-plus years of church history.
“In a time when some in our fellowship seem to be running from our tradition of congregational a cappella singing, the Pepperdine symposium embraced it as our strength and warmed our hearts in powerful ways through scholarly presentations and especially the singing itself,” Kruse said. “I, for one, am hoping to take a glowing ember home with me and rekindle a passion for the beauty and power of a cappella singing in our area congregations.”
The symposium represented the brainchild of Darryl Tippens, provost of Pepperdine and a lifelong Church of Christ member.
Tippens grew up in southwestern Oklahoma among Mennonites who sang, like he did, without instruments.
Through his personal experience and reading about other Christian groups, Tippens knew Churches of Christ were far from alone in the use of a cappella music.
“So, the idea began to form in me,” he said. “What if we heard from one another?”
Tippens, with help from Pepperdine music professor N. Lincoln Hanks, endeavored to bring together groups that use no instruments, along with others that maintain a cappella services, even if the groups are not exclusively noninstrumental.
“It’s not a tiny little group in one corner of the world that has this idea,” Tippens said of a cappella singing. ‘It’s a worldwide phenomenon.”
WHY WORSHIP WITHOUT INSTRUMENTS?
The Christian Chronicle asked several speakers at the symposium to discuss the rationale for a cappella music in their faith.
Among the responses:
• Valerie Yova, president of PSALM, a national organization of Orthodox church musicians based in Santa Cruz, Calif.: “We use only the human voice in worship because we believe the purpose of the music is simply to carry the text of the hymnography to the ears, mind and heart of the listener. Text is supreme. Musical instruments cannot transmit the word.”
• Mary Oyer, professor emerita of music at Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Indiana: “The Anabaptists — soon to be called Mennonites and, much later, Amish as well — emerged in the 1520s around the time of Luther’s early activity and shortly before Calvin’s. Their beliefs were rejected by the Roman Catholics as well as the Protestants — Lutheran and Reformed. They were outlawed, hunted down and persecuted so that they needed to worship in secret. Their earliest hymns were sung in prison or in secret places of meeting which did not encourage the use of instruments for worship. Many of the educated leaders were killed, and the remaining congregations tended to retreat from the culture around them.
“My particular group of Mennonites in the U.S.A. did not accept the use of instruments in worship until around 1970, and then with clear restrictions.”
• Paul Kilpatrick, professor of linguistics at Geneva College, a Reformed Presbyterian school in Beaver Falls, Pa.: “The Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter) tradition has used Psalms sung a cappella exclusively in worship. … The Psalms’ enduring qualities have often been lost in favor of other songs of praise. The full range of emotions are explored in the Psalms — for example, anger, frustration, doubt, impatience with God, questioning God’s justice and mercy, etc. — in ways that are often avoided in popular praise expressions. … My sense is that people need to be able to yell at God occasionally, and the Psalms give voice to our fears and deep concerns. … A cappella worship allows full voice to the congregation and ordinary person in the pew.”
• Everett Ferguson, distinguished scholar in residence at Abilene Christian University in Texas: “As a historian, I find the strongest argument for a cappella church music to be the historical argument. My book A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church sets forth the historical evidence that the early church did not use instruments, although there was religious instrumental music available, both in the Jewish temple and in paganism, a fact recognized by music historians.
“In determining Christian practice today, I would put alongside the historical argument the theological argument from the nature of Christian worship and the purposes of the assembly. Those who advocate instrumental music in most cases have a misunderstanding of the purpose of the church’s assembly. The New Testament and early Christian literature place a positive emphasis on what vocal music accomplishes, most of which cannot be done by instrumental music.”
• John Price, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, a Reformed Baptist congregation in Rochester, N.Y. (while unable to attend the symposium, he wrote a book making the case for a cappella singing): “During my training for the ministry in the early 1990s, I wrote several papers relating to the regulative principles of worship and music in the church. In 2003, several churches … began to introduce multiple musical instruments into their worship. This motivated me to make a more in-depth study of this subject, and my book Old Light on New Worship was the final outcome of this study.
“Since my conversion to Christ, I have worshiped for over 20 years in churches where the piano was the only musical instrument used. The stated reason for its use was always to aid singing. Though I could not find any such practice in the New Testament, I accepted this explanation for some time.
“After doing my study on music in the church, I came to the conclusion that the use of a musical instrument was not to be a part of New Testament worship. It was at that time that my church made the change to a cappella singing.”
‘BEAUTIFUL, POWERFUL’ WAY OF SINGING
Before the symposium, 20-year-old Karen Mannino of Spokane, Wash., had no idea that some Christians believe in a cappella singing only.
Mannino performed at the symposium with the Gonzaga University Gregorian Schola, an ensemble whose members sing chant and Renaissance polyphony at the Catholic university’s weekly Gregorian chant Mass.
She said she left the symposium with “a renewed love for the simple songs of prayer and praise that speak, in their very simplicity, to the deepest levels of our souls.”
“I’m a violinist as well as a singer so I can never put an exclusive value on a cappella as the only music suitable for worship,” she said. “But there is something very special and powerful about the unaccompanied human voice lifted up to God. I would like to celebrate that kind of worship.”
Tippens said he hoped the symposium would inspire churches to look at congregational singing with fresh eyes.
“I think we have too long emphasized the fact that everyone else is doing church music wrong,” he said. “We have said far too little on what’s right — beautiful, powerful and spiritually formative — about a cappella singing.”