Reaching Out and Reaching In: Music Ministry as Community Engagement

The Elora Children's Choir is open to all.
 on May 30, 2024

Just before I came on-board as director of music at St. John’s Elora, the parish ratified a new vision statement for its next ten years of ministry. The outcome of a year-long discernment process under Canon Paul Walker’s leadership, the vision included the following statement:

Musical Outreach: We are being called to invest in our music programming to foster faith for people from all geographies, age groups, and those thirsty for spiritual engagement and fulfillment.

Welcome to the new music director; figure out how to do this!

At the same time, it was this vision that reassured me I was up to the task. As you may know, St. John’s Elora is a place steeped in musical tradition. Home to one of Canada’s finest professional church choirs, the parish has also been the birthplace of several other notable musical institutions, including a choir school and the Elora Singers and Festival.

No easy mantle to assume, and yet this vision expressed an openness to change and renewal that I found encouraging. A main focus of my own doctoral research had been on how choirs were using music to engage community partners and, in doing so, re-engage themselves. Here was an opportunity to contribute to a church with a desire to do the same.

While I believed, and continue to believe, in the substance of our vision articulated above, a distinction I sought to make early on was between the concepts of “outreach” and “community engagement.” In the non- profit arts sector, leaders are fast moving away from the outreach paradigm, typically associated with legacy education programs that are sometimes seen as paternalistic.

In its place, community engagement is more of a two-way street, with a focus on relationship-building and reciprocity. To be successful, organizations that seek to “reach out” must also “reach in,” allowing themselves to be changed by the relationships they seek with community partners. As arts administrator and author Doug Borwick puts it: “the simplest distinction is that outreach is (at best) done ‘for,’ community engagement is done ‘with’.”

And so, 2024 finds us three years into a journey to expand the ways that people are invited to engage with us musically at St. John’s Elora. Asked to reflect on this journey for the Niagara Anglican, a few examples of our work together stand out to me.

One of the earliest and ongoing initiatives we started together has been a once- per-month compline (night prayer) service open to anyone to come and sing. Comprising chant-based music accessible to singers of any experience, as well as more traditional choral works, the service has grown a committed and consistent new community of singers and attendees, many of whom are engaging with St. John’s for the first time.

This past year also saw the launch of the Elora Children’s Choir, now 25 young voices strong, under the direction of Kate Wright. In her words: “The program was designed to be accessible to all youth in our community, both musically (no singing experience required) and financially.” Funded by St. John’s but explicitly not a church choir, the program has filled a gap in music education for the local community and also provided an avenue for local families to meet the church on their own terms.

Another recent grassroots musical initiative is the Song Circle, facilitated by Stan Litch. Any given Friday morning, our parish centre is filled with the sound of communal singing of what Stan characterizes as “an eclectic selection of songs that most of us seniors already know.” What I admire most about Stan’s work is his ability to meet people, musically and personally, where they are, as the songs they sing spark memories, conversation, and bonding—a perfect example of reciprocity in action.

Amidst these new initiatives, the beating heart of music at St. John’s Elora continues to be the Parish Choir, St. John’s professional choir-in-residence. Active as a professional ensemble since the 1980s, the choir came to national and international attention in the 2000s through a series of recordings for the Naxos label and several international tours.

Today, stewarding this legacy through a time in which traditional benchmarks of musical excellence are changing and broadening remains our greatest challenge, one for which the lessons of community engagement are, I believe, essential. In particular, embracing newer repertoire—especially by composers reflecting the personal and cultural diversity already present and that we wish to make present within the living church—has been a source of immense inward engagement between myself and our singers.

One specific expression of this has been our Canadian Choral Evensong initiative, services foregrounding music by living, mostly Canadian, composers writing new sacred choral music for the Evensong liturgy. We have also welcomed several opportunities this year to collaborate on Evensong services with other church choirs within the Niagara and neighbouring dioceses, helping to re-start this uniquely Anglican tradition in churches where it had lain dormant since the pandemic.

Finally, we intentionally created opportunities for the various choirs to collaborate together on selected services each year, celebrating the many ways that many people contribute to the musical life of our community.

Initiatives like these remind me that the Anglican musical tradition is a living tradition. This means both the joyful recognition of how this music continues to connect people of faith (and otherwise) today, but also of our responsibility to shape this tradition in response to the social issues of our own time: in particular, calls for greater inclusivity within cultural and religious institutions and, in Canada specifically, efforts to redress the harms of our colonial heritage.

Music is, ultimately, a mirror of ourselves, both the community that we are (warts and all) and, at its best, the community we wish to be. While I have no definitive answers to these big picture questions above, I do know they cannot be solved by one leader alone. They will continue to require many voices to be heard, both in our singing and our decision making within musical ministry. And so, I close with a mantra that has been helpful for me: put people first, and the right notes will follow.

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