Echoes in the PUC Church

James A. Kempster

 

The first time I walked into the PUC Church I was awe struck by the spacious feel, the new smell, and the beams of light through the jewels of stained glass. The church had been open for use for a mere six months and the elegant newness urged me to move cautiously.

It was 1968, and I was interviewing for the college choral/vocal position which included planning the church music each week. I had never worked in a church this large and was eager to hear what a choir would sound like in this sanctuary. The next fall I found out. I carefully prepared a new choral work ("The Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee") that was making the rounds of all the national choral competitions and I was quite pleased with the debut performance. Then, the senior pastor, Art Escobar, gave me a note that had been placed in the offering plate. It read, "Are we going to have to listen to this weird music every week?"

I suppose many such notes were delivered to the pastorís office over the next thirty-five years. Musical orthodoxy easily generates more debate than theological orthodoxy. Most of us can defend our musical tastes with an assuredness our theological beliefs never reach.

Over the next three decades, music within the church changed in ways few of us ever envisioned. The introduction of 45 rpm and 33 rpm vinyl records, which had happened in the late 1940ís, coupled with the advent of stereo in 1958, made recorded music available to everyone at bargain prices. Some smart record executive had an "aha" moment and began targeting the youth market. Music has never been the same.

But an even more profound though subtle change occurred in the general realm of aesthetics. Prior to WWII there was a basic assumption that music and other fine arts were an edifying influence-they made us better people. It was believed that the right notes joined with the right words had the power to lift our minds and our souls to new spiritual insights.

Today, only a few traditionalists hold to that belief. The majority goes with the popular culture and its creed of "anything goes" and the idea that music "means" only what we say it "means." The individual and his or her desire for "self expression" or excitement thus become the sole arbiters of taste.

In 1968, when the new PUC church first opened its doors, traditionalism was still the norm. A choir was expected to sing each Sabbath. College groups and visiting choirs from other schools and community groups were an integral part of worship. Most of the time they sang from the balcony because that was where the old Allen organ was and the old Irwin Hall chapel had had the choir in the rear - it was the tradition. With the opening of the new church, plans were made to install a pipe organ. Designersí concerns over the tendency of the balcony to shake led to the organís placement in the front of the church.

Now relocated to the front of the church, the 80- or 100-voice choir provided anthems and hymns for the church services. We sang music by Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn or more contemporary works by Berger, Rutter, and Distler. A Christmas performance of Handelís Messiah was a long-standing tradition.

We musicians had visions of an increasingly sophisticated church body that would foster the arts. There were even plans to establish a national-level Adventist musical group in the Washington, D.C., area that would rival The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We thought we were coming of age.

But as the Vietnam War was winding down, popular culture became increasingly youth-oriented. This influenced church music and worship styles as well. I began to notice a subtle difference when I auditioned singers for choir. For years I had prospective choir members sing Fairest Lord Jesus because it tested the voice and everyone knew the song. Then, in the late seventies about one in four would say, " I donít know that song, can we do something else?" By the 1980ís less than half knew that hymn and eventually I had to find another song.

I switched to Amazing Grace, but by the time I retired very few knew that hymn. Hymn singing in the home, in the classroom and in the Youth divisions in church had almost ceased, to be replaced by campfire songs or choruses.

Interest in choral singing waned also. I tried to keep it alive by using musical stunts. As each new fall quarter began I would invite anyone in the congregation who had ever sung in a choir, or, who had ever wanted to sing, to come to the front and sing an anthem with the organ. I would get a huge crowd up on the stage and we had a great experience. What many did not know, though, was I would get singers I knew and newly registered choir members to rehearse two or three times before the service - it was "planned spontaneity."

After one such performance a young lady came up to me and said, "Oh, I just loved doing that. That gave me goose bumps! I love to sing in choir, but I hate to attend rehearsals and I donít want to commit my weekends, so this is just perfect."

That was the new attitude. Spontaneity was the key. If something required training, practice and polish it must not be "authentically" felt - or was too much bother. Nike captured the spirit perfectly with the slogan, "Just Do It!"

In the í80s, a group of students came to the pastoral office with plans for a "collegiate-led church service." It started in Paulin Hall and was a lively contemporary service with guest speakers, contemporary Christian music and skits. Yet there was no cross-generational church fellowship, nothing to foster the developing of a sense of community on the campus.

In the early 1990ís, students and community church members were persuaded to bring the separated services back together in an early and late service. But the early service was still designed to be more traditional while the second, now attended by both community and students, was more contemporary.

Student committees worked diligently at designing the second service. Though integrated into the program, choir and organ music became the exception rather than the norm. Choirs usually sang no more than once a month. When hymns were sung they were usually projected on a screen so that members did not have to look down while singing. The planning sessions were long and involved. Spontaneity is hard to plan.

I really donít know what the future holds for the PUC church, although some churches are rediscovering the usefulness and beauty of traditional choir and organ-led services.

I am reminded of a story a choral colleague recently told me. He had just finished a church-music-festival concert with a rousing version of A Mighty Fortress, complete with choir, pipe organ and brass ensemble. A hirsute young man - described as having everything pierced that could hold metal - came up to him and said, "Man, that was so great! That just blew me away! Who wrote that?"

"Martin Luther did," my colleague replied.

"Man! Do you think Martin would mind if I made a Xerox copy of that?"

 

James Kempster taught music at Pacific Union College for 32 years. This article was reprinted, with changes in the 2005 Winter/Spring issue of Notes, a publication of the International Adventist Musicians Association, with permission from Viewpoint, the PUC alumni magazine.