When I first moved to Bend, I had no real sense of identity, especially when it came to religion. A few years in Catholic school had taught me I wasn't a Catholic and a few different Christian day camps and Bible studies made me realize that I wasn't sure if I was religious, spiritual, or none of the above.
But even through all of my own personal searching, I always appreciated some good gospel music. The smooth and calming delivery from a choir of beautiful voices put me in a place where I was envious of everyone who believed in something so deeply that they felt compelled to sing their praises.
So, as I settled in, I decided to try again and went to all kinds of different places to see what my brain would tell me to latch onto. The last place I landed was a church with a pulpit made out of welded together skateboards and I realized that maybe none of it was for me and I needed to age up a little before I could truly understand what I believed. But still, that envy remains.
As we come closer to Christmas, church choirs start putting on performances, usually fairly late on Christmas Eve. Through the years, choral performances became sparser, with churches seeking out new demographics by updating the organ/vocal combo by throwing in some electric guitars, bass lines, and drums. Initially the change felt disingenuous to me, like a last ditch effort to appeal to a youth that was ever so swiftly shrugging of the strictures of organized religion for something a little more casual.
But everything else is given a chance to evolve, so why not church music? It shouldn't need to stay traditional if the people playing the music don't want it to. When talking with different people from different churches, I learned everyone involved with church music comes at it from a different angle.
Ben Emory Larson runs the music/worship program at Antioch Church. His experience with music is wide and varied. Growing up, he studied primarily classical piano, clarinet, and voice, while dabbling in worship music and jazz, and studied theater and music at Portland State University. But despite receiving a scholarship offer to do graduate work in theater writing at New York University, Larson opted to come back to his roots.
"I turned it down to stay in Bend and work at Antioch Church—I was originally hired to start the choir," Larson explains, "and ever since I've been playing a mix of rock, classical, folk, country, and musical theater, with the occasional dash of Dixieland jazz."
Antioch isn't the only congregation that has moved away from traditional hymnals to incorporate a broader range of musical styles and influences. The result is a richly varied tapestry of worship music.
"It varies widely from church to church, denomination to denomination, city to city, and even region to region," Larson says. "Churches develop their services and practices from past traditions and their founders' instincts about the culture their spiritual community is attempting to reach. There's no perfect formula for doing church the 'right' way; it's the heartbeat and message of a church that matters, not the style."
As such, he explains, the shift from organs and voices to drums and guitar, doesn't change the message or even necessarily reduce the amount of singing that happens in services. But that evolution isn't without growing pains.
Eileen Heaton, director of Traditional Music Ministries at First Presbyterian Church, says that church communities across the globe are struggling with balancing the history of the traditional hymns with a more modern interpretation that keeps congregants engaged. It's a feat that requires particular flexibility from longtime church members—Heaton says some members have been singing with First Presbyterian's choir for more than 40 years.
"I am humbled by the dedicated service the choir provides by the camaraderie—communion—that is the result of struggling with the 'page,' with the composer's intentions, with truly being of service, with expressing the theme of the service in a way that only music can," she says. "They incorporate praying with their bodies with their musical knowledge and with their hearts. It's an 'all in' experience."
It's this camaraderie that played a large role in attracting new Bendite Julie Brown to the choir. She moved to Bend from Japan this past May and is singing at the First Presbyterian candlelight service on Christmas Eve. Even though this is her first Christmas singing with a church choir, her connection to church choirs is life long.
"I have been extremely interested in gospel church choirs and people who have been singing with a choir since childhood—the heavenly acoustics in churches are also an attractive feature," Brown explains. "I consider myself more spiritual than following the religious path, but I am very much attracted to the inclusiveness of the church choir of the First Presbyterian Church. Also, attending a church seems to be the most fitting place to be on Christmas Eve, doesn't it?"