Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Great Church Earthquake!

Cashel, Ireland
(Photo by H. Snyder)
Guest post by Dr. Howard Snyder

It happened in 1947. A great earthquake demolished a large church building that had been used for centuries by a devout Christian congregation.

The building was completely destroyed internally. The roof had collapsed, covering the basement with debris. But the stately stone walls remained, little damaged.

The ruins stood abandoned for nearly a century. But then a new and growing congregation called Lifesong, looking for facilities, discovered this wreck of a building and saw possibilities.

Lifesong bought the property, re-roofed it, repaired and modernized the interior, and made it their church home. Of course the sanctuary area was totally redone. Folding chairs in a semicircular formation, rather than pews; a large, low platform to accommodate musical ensembles and drama presentations; two large video screens at the front; a coffee station at the rear.

In remodeling the building the new congregation had installed a new floor, sealing off the old basement area. A few years later, however, a staff member named Merlin found a small doorway in the stone wall that opened onto a stairway leading to a storage room below ground—an area the church wasn’t aware of.
There was no light, so Merlin went to the church office, grabbed a flashlight, and went down to explore this subterranean storage room.

The first thing Merlin noticed was a large bookcase filled with dozens of books. They all looked the same; fairly large, dark blue, clothbound. What were these? He pulled one from the shelf and blew off the dust. He opened it and found it was full of words and musical notations. A strange book. Some of the words seemed to rhyme. And there were a hundred or more such books.

“What is this?!” Merlin wondered out loud.

He took the book back to his office and began leafing through it. It was quite fascinating. He saw by the cover that it was called a “Hymnal.” He had never seen one before.

He began reading some of the hymns. He was surprised how many there were—nearly a thousand! He noticed that they were written at different times and in different places over many centuries. The hymnwriters were men and women from varying church traditions, and he noticed that many hymns had been translated from other languages—Latin, Greek, German, French, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Japanese, Chinese. Quite amazing!

As Merlin examined the hymnbook further, he noticed it had been published many years ago by a Methodist publishing house, and that many of the hymns were by Charles Wesley. Also near the front was a page entitled “Directions for Singing,” written by John Wesley. Merlin thought he recognized that name; perhaps he heard it once when he took a church history course.

“I wonder what Pastor Sherry will think of this,” Merlin thought.

The next day Merlin met with Pastor Sherry and they examined the hymnal together. “My grandmother used to have a book something like this,” Sherry said. “I remember that it was kind of falling apart.”

“What is the book for?” Merlin asked.

“I think churches used to use them in worship,” Pastor Sherry said.

“Maybe that’s why there’s so many of them downstairs,” Merlin reflected.

“Probably so,” Sherry said. “In the olden days, people didn’t have video screens and such.”

Pastor Sherry arranged a meeting with Josiah, the church’s music coordinator. Josiah picked through some of the hymns on his keyboard while Merlin and Pastor Sherry followed along.

“Some of the tunes are kind of catchy,” Merlin said.

“Yes,” said Josiah; “some are fast and some slow; some are peppy and some more majestic. And most of them have four or more verses!”

“Look at this one!” Pastor Sherry said. “I kind of like the rhymes. And the doctrine is pretty deep.”

Merlin came across the hymn, “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.” Once he figured out what “wilt” meant, he was fascinated with the hymn. “‘I lay in dust life’s glory dead, and from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be.’ Wow!” Merlin said.

Well, that’s really how the revolution started. Josiah gradually introduced the hymns to his music team, and then to the congregation. It took awhile for the congregation to learn how to sing four-part harmony. Once the people learned, however, the music swelled marvelously. Sometimes Pastor Sherry could see tears in people’s eyes as this brand-new music, “hymns,” touched deep places in the hearts of persons who themselves had passed through deep waters.

Word got around. A buzz lit up Facebook and Twitter. “Have you heard about the new music at Lifesong?” a teenager posted. “Is this re-retro, or what?” someone from California asked. “This is the ‘new contemporary,’” someone else tweeted.

Lifesong gradually discovered the depth and breadth of the church’s long hymnic tradition. The full range of doctrine and experience; the flow of the church year; the depths of Trinitarian theology; the resonances of profound poetry. The God-focus that then enriches and clarifies the me-focus and the us-focus.

“No reason why good hymns can't be flashed on our video screens,” Josiah said.

With time, Lifesong learned how to blend the best of the church’s long singing, hymning tradition with a range of good new tunes and lyrics. Just as the church at its best has always done.

The Great Church Earthquake. That's how it happened. The result was a singing, celebrating, doctrine-learning, happy, deepening, mutually-encouraging, outreaching, world-conscious, missional church.

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Howard A. Snyder is the author (with Joel Scandrett) of Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace – Overcoming the Divorce between Earth and Heaven (Cascade, 2011) and other books, including The Problem of Wineskins. Website:

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