By Linda Sappington
For 24 years, Gary Craig has relied entirely on the National Church Music Conference to locate the right music for his church choir, explore new sound and multimedia software, and offer insight into problems common to choir directors.
He never attended Bible college. His musical background included singing in a high school choir and a barbershop quartet. But from his first music conference, God made a way for Craig to attend, and the volunteer choir director of Dive Christian Church, Bedford, Indiana, eagerly gleaned insight from conference resources.
Craig draws most of his choral music from the reading sessions, where participants sight-read a variety of choir arrangements from an array of publishers.
“With so many trained voices singing, the Spirit intervenes, and the reading session often turns into worship,” Craig said.
But the most priceless resources are the relationships formed with the workshop leaders and participants during each three-and-a-half-day conference. When Craig needs help solving a problem during the rest of the year, workshop leaders and peers are just a phone call or e-mail away.
Resources and Renewed Enthusiasm
The many-faceted conference offers resources for God’s people who serve in any area of music ministry, whether they conduct the choir or run the sound system.
Participants serve as creative directors or choir members or children’s music ministers. Some volunteer, and others are paid. Some hold doctorate degrees in music or theology; others are simply untrained servants called to perform tasks for which they feel uncomfortably inadequate.
Yet they learn from accessible workshop leaders and speakers who come from accomplished backgrounds with notable experience, and are often well-known in the musical field. Workshop leaders freely share their talents, skills, and knowledge in small-group sessions—and one-on-one during lunch.
“I’ve never felt intimidated,” Craig said. “Just amazed and astonished and terribly blessed.”
Whether coming to Plainfield, Indiana, from churches of 6,000 people or churches with choirs of 16 untrained voices, participants are united with a heart to serve Christ.
After attending workshops, worship services, and music reading sessions, attendees leave with renewed enthusiasm and resources to aid their ministry.
“I am so bursting out with ideas, I can’t wait to get back and put them into practice,” said Anita LaVallee Hughes after attending a workshop that offered numerous ideas for multisensory worship.
“We cannot reach this generation with an AM radio,” she said. “This class was an idea book packed into one session.”
Workshop leader Greg Atkinson, director of Worship House Media, explored the positive and negative aspects of worshiping with all five senses.
For instance, filling the church with the welcoming aroma of baking bread to be used later for Communion is a successful use of smell, but lighting scented candles or incense could cause allergic reactions in some members of the congregation.
Atkinson discussed the problem of sensory worship crossing the line and becoming manipulative, rather than simply allowing the Spirit to work. “Start with the message, and don’t let the sensory experience override it,” Atkinson said. “Don’t let the tail wag the dog.”
Each 75-minute workshop provides ideas and training by people willing to use their talents for God and freely share them with others. This year, 10 workshops were offered simultaneously each morning and afternoon.
In the piano lab, accompanists learned to step beyond their comfort zone to play intuitively.
Choir directors gained hands-on tips as they conducted side-by-side with Dr. Richard Sowers, professor of music with Anderson University. Students heard solutions to common choral problems, such as how to get everyone to start practice on time or to watch the director instead of the music.
Jen Johnson, a children’s music minister from North Liberty Church of Christ in Indiana, spent each session with Ken Meade, Rockville, Maryland, who served as conference pastor. With the tender heart of a servant, Meade led morning devotions and breakout sessions.
“He relates well with people, and challenged me in my personal relationship with God,” she said.
Johnson’s music-minister husband, Aaron, agreed. “The one thing this conference does is focus on personal interaction and your ministry,” he said. “The leaders encourage you to strive for excellence in what you do, and to not settle for the same old routine.”
Trends and Techniques
New trends in worship were explored in an open-forum discussion led by CHRISTIAN STANDARD Editor Mark Taylor.
“Those who lead music ministries are trying to cope with changing expectations and demands,” he said. “This conference is perfectly poised to address that trend and encourage it.”
Participants brought up questions shared by music leaders who try to meet the needs of multigenerational congregations: Should we offer contemporary or traditional worship, or a blended style to meet all needs?
What should drive the decision? Is God using it? Is it meeting the needs of the people?”
Are we drawing people to God or drawing them to a performance? Is Christianity about what the consumer wants or what God wants?
“If the truth is presented, no matter what the flavor, we have done our job,” said one workshop participant. “But we can’t focus on style to the detriment of substance.”
Focusing on Scripture and illuminating passages through storytelling methods is Bruce Kuhn’s forte. In one 90-minute evening performance, the actor and workshop leader presented an engaging portrayal of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension—verbatim from the King James Version. He presented the words of Scripture without costume, set, or props.
Kuhn encouraged his workshop participants to memorize Luke 7:11-17, but in different translations, and then recite the Scripture from an eyewitness’s perspective.
Student Teresa Lowe presented her newly gained storytelling skills in front of nearly 200 conference attendees in the closing devotional service. “Bruce was very inspiring . . . and his workshops were fabulous,” Teresa said. “If I could, I would be here every year.”
While Kuhn presented the gospel with gusto, featured author and speaker Ken Gire stood on solemn ground as he reminded church leaders not to forget the hurting people in the pews.
“Church needs to be a place where people can tell their sad stories,” Gire said. “We keep dark emotions absent from Sunday morning services. We try to make it a Vitamin B-12 shot to make them feel good through the week, and take out melancholy notes. Is there no music that fits our brokenness? It’s too light, joyful, and affirming.”
Often those who are mourning feel shunned by the upbeat music, and don’t feel comfortable sharing their pain with others, he said. “Aloneness accentuates the agony,” Gire explained. “When someone shares his or her heart honestly, a community is formed. Church needs to be a place where we can share the heartache without putting a little bow on it.”
The conference provided times for participants to huddle around cookies and coffee, sharing their hurts and joys, building friendships and jointly bringing their concerns to the cross in prayer.
The conferences are successful, according to participant Diane Ware, because they “make you focus on getting your perspective back so you remember why you are doing what you’re doing,” she said. “It’s a combination of ‘how,’ very carefully and constantly coupled with the ‘why.’”
And that’s one of the compelling reasons Gary Craig returns, year after year. “This conference is a testament of how God works, and how he has given it the ability to continue through the years,” Craig said. “God has placed his unique thumbprint on this conference.”
Linda Sappington is a reporter with the Valley Journal in Ronan, Montana.