In our current churchwide worship series, Sanctuary, we are progressing through the various elements of what makes a space sacred — and the effect of being in a sacred space for worship.
“It’s not just one thing,” Thomas says. “It’s several things coming together at once in that space. The music, of course, is key, but also the space itself, the creeds, the prayers, the resonance of our traditional order of worship, the people gathered there to worship God together.”
Thomas, who will begin his direction of Choral Union this Sunday, May 2, says that he looks at his role as directing not one choir, but two — Choral Union and the congregation. “Congregational singing is such a huge part of the worship experience,” he adds. “When we sing hymns that have been around since the 500s we are singing the same words sung by our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond. There’s such a rich tradition in hymnology, and I really think those words become a part of you in such a multisensory way that they really stick, even more so than the spoken word.”
While the leadership of the choir is extremely important to the overall experience of worship, Thomas says it is when those voices blend with the congregation (the unsung choir that is actually the mass) there is a moment when all those voices ring out and reverberate together that can be quite overwhelming. “It feels like church,” he emphasizes. “There’s a moment when you’re singing with a choir that you just feel the music resonating deeply within you. I want our congregation to be able to feel that moment, too.”
He relates the story about when Martin Luther, often called the primary catalyst of Protestantism, was being excommunicated by the Catholic church in 1521. Pope Leo X was far more concerned about Luther’s hymns than he was about his sermons. “That was because the theology within hymns sticks with you,” Thomas explains, “and that’s still the same for us today.”
To this story Thomas adds that every person has a gift they bring to church, and using that gift in worship is to glorify God. For those who love to sing, church offers a place to sing every single week, not only enriching the worship experience for others, but also for yourself as you enjoy using that gift. “We also have a lot of people in this church who either play or used to play an instrument,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be fun for them to come play in a small ensemble with other church members from time to time, offering their own gift and interest back to God as part of worship?”
This idea began, he says, in his former role at Aledo United Methodist Church, where he had friends who were musicians looking for a place to play. So, he began to organize small ensembles to play along with preludes, postludes, and with hymns during worship. “It was fun for me to choose the instruments I wanted, and then find the orchestration that would work for those musicians.”
It is this idea of getting more people involved in the FUMCFW music ministries, he says, that is just one of the things that excites him about his new role at First Church. “With a priority on continuing our current level of excellence,” he assures, “I’m excited about helping more people connect through music and helping those who are interested in playing or singing to move from spectator to participant.”
To this end Thomas is busy already meeting and connecting with as many people as he can — paying special attention to those who checked the “interested in music” box on their new member paperwork. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he quips, “it will take some time to build. I’m invested in helping people become invested in this ministry.”
As his ensemble dreams grew at Aledo UMC, Thomas says he expanded this idea out into the community to draw upon local interest and talent to create small orchestral ensembles — and bring new people to church. “I posted a notice that I needed a certain number of players of several specific instruments and people just appeared,” he says with a grin. “People came from all over DFW to play in little Aledo — and some stayed with me for nine years, including one brass player who traveled from Austin to Aledo to play on Easter Sunday!”
As for the sacred space we all call home as a church family, Thomas says he is also very excited about two other things in his new opportunity to serve. (He adds that he had wanted to apply for the job during our last transition, but lacked a master’s degree that was then a requirement; so he went to seminary and got one so he’d be ready if the job ever came open again.)
First, he says, is the church itself with its history and legacy of excellence in music. “You can feel the actual presence of God when you just sit in this sanctuary.” He pauses, then adds, “the organ is just . . . stunning. When the music surrounds you in the beauty of this architecture — you’re in worship.
Second, Thomas says, is not having to wear so many musical hats; he is looking so forward to focusing on what he loves and what he knows best: traditional worship. In his previous positions, Thomas says, laughing, he was often tapped to lead contemporary worship music. “That’s always so funny to me,” he says with a smile, “because I’ve only ever served in traditional music. It’s all I know and what I love.”
He theorizes that because he was young and does play the keyboard (along with several other instruments) people sometimes assume he favors contemporary worship and praise music. “I do own a guitar,” he adds with a smile, “but I don’t even know how to play it.” (it’s an Elvis relic).
Adding that the emphasis on timeless theology embedded in hymns and sacred music is what attracts him most to this genre over the beat, instrumentation, and somewhat transient lyrics of contemporary Christian music, Thomas says that he also especially values the role of our our creeds and prayers in traditional worship.
“I love the timeless resonance of our Gloria Patri and Doxology, and that our Order of Worship has followed more or less the same progression since the early Middle Ages,” he says. “In following that deeply resonant sequence of Gathering, Proclaiming, Responding, and Sending Forth — we find the sustenance of generations; ritual that cements our connection to our faith; and everything we need to go out and be God’s people in the world.”