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Disciples Musicians are denomination’s best-kept secret (8/13/08)
Renowned organist David Cherwein played the piano and organ for the hymn festival and concert during the Association of Disciples Musicians conference in Tulsa, Okla., July 19-24. Photo: DisciplesWorld (click to enlarge)

By Verity A. Jones, DisciplesWorld editor and publisher

TULSA, Okla. — (8/13/08) I don’t understand why the annual conference of the Association of Disciples Musicians (ADM) isn’t attended by hundreds if not thousands of people every year.

It must be the best -kept secret in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), otherwise more than this year’s 103 registrants would’ve been here.

This year’s event at First Christian Church in downtown Tulsa, July 19–24, featured fabulous performances, opportunities to rehearse with remarkable musicians of all kinds, and meaningful worship experiences to boot.

Not to mention the workshops exploring the many facets of Emerging Worship, including controversies that this and other changing worship styles pose to the world of American religious music today.

Oh, and there is the fellowship. This is a group of Disciples, professional and volunteer, who really like each other and enjoy getting together year after year. Some have been doing so for more than 20 years. Go figure.

It could’ve been the heat. Perhaps folks were deterred from attending by the Oklahoma summer. A hairdryer in the face is not everyone’s idea of pleasant.

It could’ve been the economy. Fuel costs have made almost everyone rethink travel plans this summer, and church budgets aren’t what they used to be.

But attendance has been slipping over the last decade, Kim Clowe of First Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas, and member of the ADM Council told me. Over the course of its 47-year history, ADM annual conference attendance peaked in the early 1990s at around 350, but has declined steadily since then.

DisciplesWorld has never attended an ADM conference, and so we decided it was high time to write about this significant, if small, organization in the church.

Little did I know how much I would enjoy myself.

After brief opening remarks, David Cherwien, the music director of the National Lutheran Choir and a reknowned organist , urged the crowd gathered for his Sunday evening hymn festival and organ concert to “buckle in, tray tables up.” And we were off on a rollicking tour de force of American hymnody from the traditional favorite, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” to the contemporary works of Brian Wren to the African-American spiritual, “Everytime I Feel the Spirit” which Cherwien played on the piano.

On the stunning organ at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in downtown Tulsa, Cherwien even played the dainty chimes during the introduction to the finale, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” much to the delight of my eight-year old daughter who was traveling with me.

Outgoing ADM President Greg Nunn, of Midway Hills Christian Church in Dallas, said the hymn festival and organ concert is the highlight of the annual event for him because he’s an organist. “But for most, it’s the ADM Chorus because they don’t get to sing like this very often.”

Every year, choir directors from around the country leap at the opportunity to sing in the choir rather than direct it. The ADM Chorus is always led by a well-known choral clinician such as this year’s director, Don Studebaker of Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla. The chorus rehearses for several hours every day in preparation for a final concert on the last evening of the conference.

Perhaps it is the opportunity to practice the ministry of music that is so compelling about this event. Anyone who attends can try their hand at handbells for beginners, sing in the ADM Chorus or daily chapel choir, plan worship in a variety of styles, attend a master class in organ, or even get moving in a liturgical dance class.

I tried handbells with Phyllis Kirk of Birmingham, Ala. Kirk, a highly sought-after handbell clinician, was exceedingly patient with me.

Planning team member Claire Meredith of First Christian Church in Bartlesville, Okla., said that the study of worship in this conference sets it apart from other denominational music conferences. “Some have said that’s why they come this one, to get the spiritual dimension.”

Not only do ADMers gather for worship every day during the event, but an entire early morning study track explores issues related to worship.

John Thornburg, a fourth generation United Methodist minister who travels the country with what he calls, “A Ministry of Congregational Singing,” led discussions on topics such as “Moving Beyond the Consumer-based Model of Worship,” and “The Real Fear: Seeing God in the Emerging Forms of Worship.”

Thornburg sees connections between mission and worship. “What’s true in the mission field is true in church music,” he said. “The key is to listen to each other’s song and honor the passion behind it instead of spending time deciding whose music is right.”

Thornburg urged worship leaders not to ask, “Do I like it,” because that’s a consumer-based question. Rather, he said, “Let’s ask what God can do with and through this music.”

I wondered to myself, why I didn’t attend ADM conferences when I was serving a pastor of a congregation. There is so much here for clergy and other church leaders involved in planning worship.

Jennie Churchman, pastor of The Way, a new church plant nested at Northway Christian Church in Dallas, leads an Emerging Worship style every week. Churchman offered numerous workshops to ADMers, exposing them to Emerging Worship and how it can be put to work in other settings.

She bases much of her work on that of Leonard Sweet, who said that all worship should be EPIC — Experiential, Participatory, Image driven, and Connected.

After hanging out with this welcoming group of Disciples, most of whom I never see at other national Disciples events, I thought perhaps they actually prefer the smaller attendance of ADM conferences because it helps preserve the familial feel of the event.

But there was nothing insular about their hospitality to first-timers, and certainly the economics of hosting on an annual conference suggest that higher attendance would be better.

The ADM council is considering moving to a shorter biannual event in order to save money.

But next year’s conference in Greencastle, Ind., just days before the 2009 General Assembly in Indianapolis will proceed as planned. I hope to be there, too, with bells on hand.