In response to what has now become Part 1 on this subject, I was asked some searching questions by a friend, ministry colleague and brother in Christ. They were worthy of a serious response, so please see the dialogue below as follows.
Q: Are you aware of a time within UK Adventism, when the depth of musicianship you desire, has ever been a reality? If not, can you point to some Adventist locales that are successful; what do you think their reason is for success?
A: There is one outstanding example in my mind – in terms of what I have personally experienced for myself. The output of the London Adventist Chorale from 1994 to 2002 was, in a word, outstanding. But that was a time when they were rehearsing for 3 Sundays a month from 1-5:30pm, doing serious sectional rehearsals and then full choir (tutti) rehearsals. That was the only way a bunch of mostly non-music-reading singers were able to learn whole two-hour concert programmes from memory – in eight parts. It was a phenomenal achievement in any language and it remains one of the highlights of my life (for two years I was part of that).
There were some others – and one also belongs to Ken Burton. In 1994 the Croydon Gospel Choir hosted a concert at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, and I can remember some of the music that was sung and played to this day. It was hard to believe that one local church could work to that standard, and then when Ken played a solo piano version of When Peace Like a River – and received an entirely justified standing ovation – I just became increasingly determined to emulate him.
Apart from that, other groups have come close to excellence. Mahlon Rhamie directed a choir called New Hope that did some wonderful things in terms of contemporary gospel music from c. 1997-2002, and for a period of time in the last decade another gentleman called Clive Shepherd was Music Director for the London Youth Federation and for a few years they sang really well.
No instrumental groups have come close to the standard of excellence I would ideally desire. A tiny number of classical ensembles are now doing a few things, but there is a huge amount of work to do there. The gospel bands have really improved over the years, and if one of two of them keep going they will eventually become excellent. But at their best, the London Adventist Chorale were actually world-class, and that is a big, big thing. We have a handful of individual instrumentalists who have achieved real excellence on their own terms. For the sake of political harmony I will not cite any of those, but they know who they are.
Outside of the UK, there is much more to celebrate in the USA and also Europe. And even in the Philippines, where one of our Adventist Universities produced a choir that won a very big award at a recent Eisteddfod in Llangollen, and they worked hard for that. In the USA, it is the departments of music at our big universities who produce very strong choral ensembles – the chamber choir of La Sierra have sung to an outstanding standard at times. The Andrews University Singers do very good work, as do the choral groups of Southern University. I have also heard one or two choirs from Adventist universities in Latin Americe which were not mind-blowing, but they were light-years away from almost everything we do here in the UK. But although their stylistic range is more limited than many appear to accept, on the basis of my own ears and my own experience (and I have not heard everything in the entire Adventist world), the most outstanding ensemble in global Adventism right now is at Oakwood University. Jason Max Ferdinand is a very, very well-trained conductor, and his blend of maverick intuition and well-trained musicianship is perfectly suited to the Aeolians. At their best, they do achieve a superlative standard, but they cannot always reach that. I have not heard a single instrumental ensemble that plays as well that the Aeolians sing from any of our universities. And if there is a better choral ensemble in the world church, I cannot wait to hear them for myself!
On the African continent, it seems that in some areas the ‘traditional’ choral singing tradition is being kept alive and also being nurtured and developed by Adventists. In 2010 I was in Lagos, Nigeria, teaching for the Royal School of Church Music (which was being inaugurated in Nigeria) and in that time I was exposed to all sorts of different church music contexts from Pentecostal to classical. But I had to wait until Sabbath to hear ‘traditional’ and sure enough, on Sabbath in the Adventist church there was a 60/70 strong choir in four parts, resplendent in purple from head to toe, singing ‘traditional’ African Christian sacred music, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Seems that in Nigeria the Adventists are keeping that flame burning…
Unfortunately, many of the most outstanding classical music performers from Europe in Adventism are much more theologically liberal than would be ideal, but these are the hazards of life. And on the Continent, there are some outstanding musicians. The Adventist Church also has one legendary conductor – the two-time Grammy Award winner Herbert Blomstedt – who is simply an amazing musician and someone who I want to emulate as far as possible artistically whilst being true to who I am. But Blomstedt is not in the church conferences trying to inspire people to be Levites – he is working with world-class orchestras and living out his calling in that arena. I used to be very wary of some of what he was doing, but as I have grown as a conductor, I have had to change my perspective on certain things that he does. Without going into detail, let us say that I don’t judge him anymore in the way that I did, and now I watch what he has done as I find my own way through the classical music world.
The reason why all these other musical achievements even exist is very simple – those involved had a very, very high regard for music and a genuine willingness to diligently apply themselves to their craft. That is also true for all the UK examples I have cited. But the vast majority of UK Adventist musicians have stopped trying, and still received high praise from congregations. As such, excellence is now impossible for most.
Q: Do you believe the current state of musical affairs, is retarding renewal and hampering effective witness in the UK?
A: Absolutely. This has been my contention for at least ten years when I began to try and get involved with actual music ministry in Adventist church settings. I could see the real problems with the lack of true spiritual integrity in the professional gospel world and how this was impacting the church itself – including my own church (the Adventist church). So I tried to do something about it. In 2004 I had a praise team and band that achieved some really wonderful things, but there were maggots at the core of certain people’s spiritual lives and that fell apart from the inside out. In 2007/8 there was another group that also found the right Levitical standard, and my own spiritual life changed working with them – but they were so ferociously criticised by their own Adventist peers that this also crashed and burned.
When non-Adventists come to our churches, they (often) see experimental praise teams chucking together setlists by the piano on the morning, blagging harmonies, clashing with keyboard players who often have given precious little thought to how their keyboard harmony relates to what the singers are trying to do. Sometimes they see two keyboard players and bass all clashing together beautifully, and not really supporting the singing – but they still say that it is really good. And people with ears wonder how anyone can say that this is good. Non-Adventists also see that in our concerts, the least well-prepared musical items also get more praise than those that are really well-drilled.
They will also see that we only sing what we know and what we like. It’s not about ‘singing a new song unto the Lord, all the earth.’ It is about singing what gives us the ‘feel-good factor’ and to hell with anyone else (yes, I did just say that in a serious blog post, because that is exactly what I have experienced from some Adventist music-makers).
This makes a total mockery of ‘music ministry’ because it is usually neither spiritual enough to be actual ministry nor musical enough to be music. Our special items are often also weak and underpowered and no-one is motivated enough to really work hard, because they know that they will still get a rousing ‘Amen’ no matter what. This has led to the deadly reality where singers and instrumentalists work harder to prepare songs for WEDDINGS just because they don’t want to mess up the day for the bride and groom. I have myself rehearsed singers and musicians who were more keen to work on the music for weddings than for church services, and this has become intolerable.
What we really think of God is not necessarily revealed through the clothes we wear. That’s cultural and social. Or the food we eat (also cultural and social). Or our sermons (which can also be performances based on socio-cultural values). It comes out in how we speak to people on a one-to-one basis, and how we sing about God. If the song service is called ‘praise and worship’ and we talk all the way through it – or the pastors watch their congregations instead of joining in the praise themselves – this is all hurting our witness to people who are not all that interested in our clever doctrinal arguments as prima facie reasoning for joining this church. They want to see how being in our worshipping communities make a difference. And our general failures to adhere to the ethics of music itself have a greater impact on people’s willingness to accept the truth that we teach than many of our church members have understood.
I mentioned my Lagos experience earlier and it is time to make a point that will not fill me with joy. During my time in Lagos, I attended and worked with several denominational churches. Guess which one – despite the outstanding choir – had the least fervent congregational singing and was the least friendly and genuinely welcoming?
That’s right. The Adventist church.
This leads me to a final, devastating two-tag point.
Many of our church members have not said ‘yes’ to God. They have said ‘yes’ to religion. And this includes many music ministers, who are happier living an Adventist lifestyle than going through the agonising soul-searching that is the necessary provenance of all ministers. So it is the IDEA of God that they have accepted, as opposed to the reality. God has been re-made in our own image and we worship that.
Which begs the serious question: if they actually were to come face to face with the reality of God Himself, would they then actually say ‘yes?’ Or are music ministers building golden calves as they pander to the whims of the congregations, and then joining in the worship of those same golden calves that they have built?
All of this is why the world church has witnessed a 43% loss in our baptised members since 2000. Our worship services – along with our discipleship systems – are ineffective to the point of being dead in the water, never mind not ‘being fit for purpose.’ And that’s why Randy Skeete gets away with his little digs against music, and Mark Finley is negative about the role of music in evangelism…