Martin Luther, a theologian known for his involvement in the Protestant Reformation, considered music “the greatest treasure in the world” next to God’s Word.
The Bible stresses that praising the Lord can involve various instruments of praise – voice, harps, trumpets, drums and others.
“Handbells and pipe organs are often considered instruments associated with traditional church music and foreign to band driven modern worship,” said Kenny Lamm, worship and music consultant for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC). “For churches that want to fully embrace the standard contemporary worship sound, then those instruments would have no place.”
BR photo by Dianna L. Cagle
Handbell choirs are one of many ways to engage more people in music ministries at churches. The Baptist State Convention hosts handbell festivals each year for youth and adults to practice as a choir and perform with other choirs. Members learn new techniques and how to follow a different conductor.
The BSC offers training for churches related to a variety of music outlets, including audio training. Lamm organizes worship boot camps throughout the year to help churches improve music programs.
For handbells, there is a youth handbell festival and two adult handbell festivals (East and West); all were held in February this year. Every five years the adult handbell festival merges to form PraisRing, a larger gathering with even more training opportunities. This year’s East festival was held at Salem Baptist Church in Apex and involved 203 people in 16 choirs while the West’s event in Shelby drew 35 choirs totaling 445 people. The youth festival in Greensboro attracted 80 ringers stretched over seven handbell choirs.
The festivals involve a Friday night and Saturday practice times and a final concert of the music and techniques learned.
“For those churches that seek to bridge the old and new, the ancient and future, etc., and those churches that want to use a tapestry of musical worship expressions in their times of corporate worship, they will find ways to utilize a variety of instruments and talents of the people God has brought together in that specific local church,” Lamm said. “Vocal choirs have fallen to the wayside in many contemporary expressions of worship.”
Lamm says the blame doesn’t fall on the choir members but on the purpose of the choir. Sometimes he notices that happening when the choir becomes more of a performing body rather than a worship-leading group.
“In many more contemporary settings, choirs are still vital to the worship experience,” he said.
“Eliminating vocal choirs, orchestras, handbell choirs and other groups not considered to fit with the band-driven model perhaps disenfranchises many people in our local church bodies from using the gifts God has given them to aid the corporate worship experience of the church. A sensitive worship pastor can find ways to utilize the giftedness of the whole congregation and plan times of corporate worship that will tastefully provide a multi-generational, multi-ethnic worship service that incorporates a tapestry of styles, while staying very in tune to the missional context of the specific congregation.”
Lamm says he tries to blend a variety of music, especially when planning the BSC annual meeting. He recalls the 2011 meeting where the messengers were led in “Our God.”
“It began with a high energy band made up mostly of teenagers, was joined by full orchestra, handbell choir, and a large formal choir to show the diversity of our congregations and the way that all these different expressions can come together in one voice,” Lamm said.
N.C. Baptist Singers and Orchestra has 153 participants representing 82 churches for the 2015-2016 concert year. A senior adult choir festival in fall 2015 had 195 participants representing 13 churches. This year’s event is planned in October. This year’s All-State Youth Choir – made up of 91 students from 30 churches – just finalized its choir, which will tour July 17-24.
With three weekend services, Salem Baptist Church in Apex uses handbells in its two Sunday morning services. Jeff Olds, pastor for music and worship for Salem, called the church’s Saturday service “casual contemporary” and not a place for handbells.
The first service on Sunday is considered a classic service while the second Sunday worship time is called blended.
“Our congregation is really flexible and loves hearing the bells ring, so I’m not aware of any problems,” Olds said. “Because of the objectives we’re trying to accomplish with our Saturday evening service and the worship leading style, the bells would never play there.”
Olds, who has been at Salem since 1994, was asked to begin a handbell choir when he began his ministry there. Within a year the church had raised the funds to buy bells, and they have been ringing ever since.
The bells provide the call to worship and offertory music in some of the Sunday morning services. Olds leads 13 ringers in the adult handbell choir as well as eight ringers in the youth choir.
Salem recently served as the host for one of the annual handbell festivals hosted by the BSC.
“We were glad to share our facility and resources,” said Olds, who shared that the church’s new multipurpose facility that was completed in 2010 opens the congregation up for more ministry opportunities.
“We participate to learn new music, to learn new approaches to ringing the bells, and fellowship with other ringers. It’s a great experience. I really think participating hones our skills – it helps us identify how to some things better and reinforces what we are doing well.”
With most church plants, a praise band is the only music outlet for members, and that generally is only open to the best singers and musicians.
“Sometimes it’s easier with a new church plant to use a small ensemble,” said Chris Haire, minister of music at First Baptist Church (FBC) in Cary. “What ends up happening is people with a certain caliber of voice are asked to use their gifts. I think there is a place for small, very expert praise band. I think there is also a tremendous avenue for very gifted people to sing alongside people maybe without as much training.
“For churches with large congregations, I think it’s a real shame to not have larger ensembles or choirs.”
Each Sunday, FBC holds an 8 a.m. traditional service and a 10:30 a.m. contemporary service. The church offers a variety of options for musicians
For small churches, Haire suggests a rotation of the praise band would allow more people to have the opportunity to serve.
Haire works with another minister on staff to plan music for the services. Danny Poyner, minister of family life, handles the contemporary service, while Haire organizes the worship calendar, which allows him to plan special emphasis days like Annie Armstrong Easter Offering or Cooperative Program Sunday as well as schedule special music such as soloists, instrumentalists, etc.
FBC’s music program starts with two-year-olds “until the time the Lord calls them home,” Haire said.
“One of our goals for children’s choirs is not only to sing and lead music in a service but to teach them to sing praise to God,” he said, who insists the melodies will remind them days, even years later of the scripture they sang about in their youth.
Haire says he tries to maintain some continuity between the earlier and later services.
“Our choir generally sings an anthem in both services,” he said. “Congregational singing generally fits the genre for each service.”
Haire believes worship wars need to be set aside for the good of the church.
“There are so many issues that are so much more important,” he stressed. “There are some real issues within our church family and within our world.”
He wonders why we spend “so much time and agony dealing with the style of music we are using” when “there are wonderful songs of the faith across all these styles of music.”
Haire and Poyner work together to help their church learn new songs as well as mixing in the standards during a service.
It might start with the choir singing the song as a special one Sunday. Another week, the choir might sing the first stanza and verse and lead the congregation in singing the rest.
“It’s a shame we can’t pull from the heritage of ancient songs … to fresh songs being written today,” Haire said, after all, God’s “the same yesterday today and tomorrow.”
It helps to know the personality of your church and that the song is written in a range that is not too hard for the average member.
“They have to be comfortable singing it so they can focus on the words,” he said.
“People have many opportunities to use their time, to use their talents [and] gifts,” Haire said, but many new churches especially, aren’t using them. “If the church doesn’t give them an opportunity to use that gift, they use it somewhere else outside of the church. I think the church really misses an opportunity when they do away with ensembles.”
Having a variety of musical groups within the church provides the congregation with a “dedicated group of people who will be consistently be at church,” Haire said.
“On a cold winter morning or a rainy summer morning when it’s just as easy to pull the covers back up over your head, it gives them that extra incentive to get out of bed and make it to church.”
Visit ncbaptist.org/worship to find out more about BSC events and training across the state.