This is the second part of a two-part series on music fasting.
In my previous post I talked about the idea of music fasting: removing all music from the worship service for a period of time. We did this last summer, and in my post I noted a lot of the things we did instead of music. This week I’m going to discuss how it went, what we learned, and other thoughts on our experience.
First, I want to give some background on why we decided to have a fast. Our congregation was going through a transition. We are a multi-generational congregation, which is a great blessing to all our parishioners. With that blessing comes the struggle of making sure everyone feels connected. To address this issue, we were overhauling several of our ministries, with our music front and center in the situation. In our discussions as a staff, we felt many members were placing too much emphasis on the style of our music. We felt our members, both young and old, were putting music in the wrong place. We needed to get everyone to focus on the essence of being a church. We saw a music fast as an impactful tool in communicating this message and effecting a change of attitude. It was a memorable experience.
- Song lyrics sound way different without music. That may sound obvious, but the difference was more significant than we had expected. Words that we had sung many times felt strange and foreign when we spoke them. When you speak, you have the opportunity to savor the words, to enhance their meaning through inflection and cadence. Singing doesn’t afford that freedom. Sometimes the lyrics had more power, sometimes less. The stronger the rhyme and meter, the less impactful when spoken. Longer phrases worked better as prose; shorter phrases worked well as responsive reading. It was a good experience, and I encourage everyone to do this once in a while.
- We learned we like (relative) quiet before the service. We had numerous people tell us that when we went back to “normal” they really missed the few moments of serenity in the sanctuary, even with a prelude. Ever since the fast, we have asked that those in the sanctuary keep their voices down while waiting for the service to start. There are plenty of other places in the church to talk. It’s not always completely quiet (think: children), but on the whole most people respect this request.
- Some people cannot abide a music fast. Even though we tried to make it clear to everyone why we were fasting from music, and what we hoped the value would be, there were some members who decided to worship elsewhere. Some just didn’t see the point of the fast; some understood it, but didn’t want to be part of it. That’s okay. I think no matter what a church does, some people will feel it’s not exactly what they need at that time. In a way, that’s exactly why we had the fast - to get everyone to think about why they come to church, why they belong. Is it for the music? Would you belong to this body if you weren’t a huge fan of the music? Is the Church just for you? Mind you, I think it’s great to love the music at your church; you should still try to answer these questions for yourself.
- It can be weird for visitors. It’s an unavoidable reality. It’s hard for visitors to connect with anything you do in your services that is primarily for your church’s own members. Whether it’s prayer requests or references to previous sermons, it’s not as meaningful to visitors. We knew this would be the case with the music fast, so we had a choice to make. Should we avoid anything that might seem strange to visitors or do what we thought best for our members? We chose the latter, deciding that supporting the health of our congregation was too important. We know that it was difficult for visitors to understand what we were doing. Our only recourse was to let God take care of it, and he did.
- One family joined our church. One family started coming to our church during the fast. Yes, it was strange for them. But they saw the fast as a sign that we were very committed to our congregation. The fact we were willing to risk some visitors being turned off was a positive for them. Most churches wouldn’t take that risk, even for three weeks.
- We discovered some things that were missing. As I noted in my previous post, we replaced music with a number of different things during the fast. This exercise revealed to us just how much we don’t do very often. The two things that stood out most to us were sharing time and small group prayer. Both of these also happened to be somewhat challenging for some members, which indicated, to us at least, that we needed to do them more often.
- We discovered hidden talents. Prior to the fast, I’d never been witness to improvisational theater by a usually reserved, semi-retired physician in his seventies. That life-void was filled by the skit performed on the second Sunday of the fast. Through that skit, and numerous readings and prayers, God blessed us through talents that many of us had never seen before. Unless they self-identify, it’s not always easy to be aware of and make use of the many talented people God places around us. This is true with music, of course, but it’s especially true with non-music talents. The music fast forced us to involve different people and do different things. It was the Holy Spirit at work because we did not foresee it.
- We broke the fast with a fest. After three weeks of no music, we wanted to bring it back in a big way. To celebrate the return of music, we had a sort of music fest. With a little less liturgy and a shorter sermon, we made room for nineteen congregational songs; a usual service has five or six songs. It was a tremendous amount of work for the worship team, but we did have three weeks to prepare. We made sure there was a broad mix of styles, instruments, and voices. It was wonderful. If you ever undertake a music fast, I highly recommend breaking it in this way.
- Most members got it. And what about the members of our own church? After three weeks of no music, did they have a better understanding of music’s place in worship? We think they did. We didn’t give a blue-book exam, but the feedback we’ve received has indicated that many started thinking about music differently. Most of our members have always loved music, and that hasn’t changed. However, they do seem more relaxed about music, more open to new or different styles, and more appreciative of old or traditional styles. So while a music fast is not the panacea for all inter-generational, blended-worship difficulties, we do think it was an overall success for us.
- It’s not something to undertake lightly or often. A music fast is a big deal. And the longer it is, the bigger deal it is. We were nervous, and for good reason. It’s hard to explain, hard to carry out, and hard to endure. So if your church is looking for a way to restart its music ministry, this may not be your first choice. Consider it carefully. If you’re tempted to get buy-in from your congregation before fasting, I would be careful. We had the approval of our council, but we did not canvas our members. I doubt a majority of congregants would be very supportive beforehand. Additionally, a music fast may be a one-time event. Unlike other types of fasting, it has a fairly narrow objective, and it either works or it doesn’t. In either case, there won’t be any value in doing another one.
Thanks for reading this long post. I hope it has given some insight into the concept of a music fast, the reasons for doing one, and some ideas for how to do it. Please share your thoughts and suggestions.
Let me add a few more things that I (the pastor) learned in response to this experience.
1) This was a good decision for our music transition. Christy did not mention that as part of our ministry overhaul we had a change in the staff leadership of the music ministry. The staff change was hard on everyone and was made with great pain. This music fast helped to make a clean(er) break between the two different directors. That clean break helped set up the new person for a fresh(er) start.
2) I (or we the staff) needed to communicate the purpose behind the music fast a bit better. We fasted for theological, philosophical, and stylistic reasons. Our hearts were in the right place. Yet I heard a number of people (most of whom did not attend our congregation during the music fast), "Why are you punishing us for not singing when there is a (fill-in-the-blank-style) song?" For some, the fast felt like a punishment instead of intentional discipleship. I don't think we could have eliminated all of that feeling, but we (I) could have done a better job communicating more frequently and more clearly the positive reasons for this fast leading up to it. Yet I recognize that when we began my thinking on this was not as clear as it is today - experience is often the best teacher.
3) Attitudes about music have improved! For at least a few weeks and especially during our music feast/festival, the singing was marvelous! What powerful worship in song. Many folks who would occasionally sing half-heartedly began to SYLO (Sing Your Lungs Out - from my days in High School Youth Ministry). This past Sunday (April 12, 2015) was our annual youth Sunday when the youth lead the entire service. A few people said to me things like - "I didn't know the songs that they picked and I had a hard time singing them - but the words were powerful." That was a refreshing comment!
4) Timing matters! For a number of reasons we picked the right time for our congregation. However, I may pick a more strategic time in the future. Because it was the Summer we had a number of families on vacation during various weeks so they missed the overall experience. One dear saint - who was initially very skeptical of our plan - said to me, "We should do this in the Fall because so many people are missing out. Everyone in our congregation should experience this." On the other hand some of our snow birds were back in town and one of our regular musicians (who also happens to be a snowbird) said, "It's really disappointing that I don't get to participate in music very much during my short time back in our congregation." I'd give more thought to the when if we did it again.
We love your comments! Thank you for helping us uphold the Community Guidelines to make this an encouraging and respectful community for everyone.