One of the first things we did when launching The Center for Congregational Song in the Fall of 2017 was to put together a team of young bloggers who had a solid education under their belts, lots of new ideas, and energy to crank out lots of great posts. I was constantly amazed at the depth and breadth of the content they created on our behalf and am so grateful for the many years they all put into volunteering their time and expertise. It’s been almost six years since the team began and they’ve written 120 blogs over that time. Many of them have now taken faculty positions, changed to new churches, had children, and…wow life moves quickly! So it is time to say thank you to the authors who made up our team from 2017 through 2022:
Rosa Cándida Ramírez, Adam Perez, Ginny Chilton Maxwell, David Bjorlin, Felicia Patton, Rylan A. Harris, and Emorja Roberson
As we move into the post-pandemic world, we get to welcome a new set of writers for our blog. I’m excited to see what new insights they will bring and what ideas they will challenge us with. So, welcometo our new blog team!
After obtaining her first and second bachelor degrees in Translation and Chinese (HKPU), and Music (CUHK) respectively and worked in music related work in the government and later in the church in Hong Kong, Yvette Lau furthered her study at Calvin Theological Seminary for M. A. in Worship (2008-2010). She served as a worship pastor in Hong Kong for several years after her graduation at Calvin. She also served as one of the executive committee members of the Hong Kong Hymn Society from 2011-2017. She served at the Worship Committee for the CMA Church Union of HK from 2006-2021. In 2017, she founded Anabas Ministry which is an organization for worship renewal and started to work as a freelancer for worship related ministries including consultancy work. Her passion lies in choral conducting, song writing, hymn translation from English to Cantonese (main translator for New Youth Hymns), event organization, translation of books on worship including The Art of Worship, Beyond the Worship Wars, The Worship Architect, and Glory to God, and training and teaching on worship. She has been the guest instructor on Worship for Alliance Bible Seminary, China Graduate School of Theology, Bethel Bible Seminary, and Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary. She is now pursuing Doctor of Pastoral Music at Perkins, SMU under the direction and supervision of Prof. C. Michael Hawn.
Shannan Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in music and digital humanities at Baylor University, where she recently finished her Ph.D. in Church Music (2022). Her research interests focus on contemporary worship. She studies the theology and content of the lyrics, the music of the songs, the worship music industry, and how contemporary worship is used in the church. While her current role focuses on research, she searches for ways to connect that research practically to the church. Recently, she received the Vital Worship Teacher-Scholar grant from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship which allowed her to start the contemporary worship training workshops for the Church Music program at Baylor.
While Shannan currently lives in Waco, Texas, she is originally from Michigan. She received her B.A. in Music (Worship Arts) from Cornerstone University (2016), and an M.A. in Worship (2018) and Th.M. with a concentration in worship (2019) from Calvin Theological Seminary. Also in Grand Rapids, she served as the worship director for Monroe Community Church for three years. Currently, she volunteers at her local church where she leads worship and plays various instruments including drums, keys, acoustic guitar, and bass.
Mykayla Turner is a Master of Sacred Music student attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. Under the direction of Dr. Marcell Silva Steuernagel, her thesis research focuses on the role of music in rural congregations. Mykayla has completed graduate coursework at Conrad Grebel University College and Southern Methodist University in both theological studies and church music. She is an active church musician and liturgist in both Mennonite and ecumenical contexts. In 2023, Mykayla obtained her A.C.C.M. in Piano Performance.
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Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
Pandemic and Grief
It goes without saying that the past year has had a lot to lament. The pandemic and personal grief attend to every congregation. Social isolation and financial burdens can be found near and far. And yet, Sunday morning worship around the world is marked by seemingly careless songs of praise that resound from tall steeples, mega-campuses, small storefronts, or on the livestream at home.
Is the music of our worship services numb to the cry of the needy? Or is there something else at work in why many congregations are deeply invested in the project of praise?
There is certainly something to be commended here. There’s a testimony to praising God’s faithfulness regardless of our circumstances. There’s a witness to offering ourselves and our lives and our world to God no. matter. what.
But there’s also something to be reconsidered. We should recognize and remember the history of how we got here. It wasn’t by chance or by virtue alone that worship leaders have quietly adopted a lament-avoidance. The high pedestal of praise has a theological past to be remembered. It is part of the story of who contemporary/modern worship leaders are today and what they are expected to do. Answering the question in the title of this article requires a short jaunt into the recent history of contemporary praise and worship.
In the early 1950s, a theological revolution began that took Psalm 22:3 as a promise: God will be present when we praise God. It was the seed of a biblical theology of worship that is dominant today. Though its initial teacher, Reg Layzell, focused on simple spoken or shouts of praise, the primacy of praise came to be highly musical by the late 1970s. If your congregation wanted to experience God’s presence, it had to sing praise. Psalm 100:4 was a model for organizing the music of a service: thanksgiving, praise, and worship. King David is a chief “praise-er” and the Psalms are the primary source for praise songs. You can find the marks of this tradition all over worship services today, regardless of denomination. In some ways, this was embedded in the so-called worship wars just under the veneer of conflict over musical “style.”
This model for worship spread like wildfire through powerful events and eventually through recorded music. Perhaps you, like me, imbibed deeply of one source that helped spread the message of praise: Integrity’s Hosanna! Music tapes that were everywhere in the late 1980s through the 1990s. Or perhaps the growing influence of CCLI impacted your repertory choices because of the way it initially catalogued and made available praise and worship songs for congregational use.
While the progenitors of praise and worship were giving voice to the deep, personal involvement that God wants to have with humans in worship—not unlike what the Liturgical Renewal movement was aiming for in the 60s and 70s too—they overlooked the ministry of lament. Some even spurned it. When I watch videos of pastors and teachers speaking on praise and worship in the 80s and 90s, they highlight again and again how it “changes your perspective; how praise helps you overcome your personal and emotional challenges. Many talk about praise as the cure for seasons of depression and grief in their own lives—even to cure diseases that they argue are psychosomatic. Indeed, they recommend praise precisely because it can transform our grief and because it celebrates our victory over it. The closest they often get to acknowledging it as part of worship is through settings of Psalm 30:11: “You’ve turned my mourning into dancing” (for Easter, check out Ron Kenoly’s version on his 1992 album “Lift Him Up”).
The Suffering Christ
During this season of Lent the worship leader should also remember that “Christ walks with us in our grief” and that the presence of the Christ who suffered is with us in our suffering. Worship leaders can follow King David’s example by not only praising but also giving voice to lament, both personal and communal. The Psalms offer us the words for more than praise and congregational songwriters have been bringing them to life for millenia.
Sometimes it is hard—nearly impossible!—to see the water in which we swim as worship leaders. I worry it’s marked by an attention to praise that can be overly harsh. The culture of worship leading can be co-opted into an image of Church that doesn’t recognize the deep suffering of those who gather. Its repertoire can mute our awareness to the presence of a Christ who still abides in a minor key.
Let’s take a note from the pages of praise and worship history and from the model of the Psalms. The storm is not yet passed. On this Lenten journey—and in all of life–there’s still time for songs that grieve and gather up our suffering and offer it to God until Christ comes again in glory.
This blog is co-authored by David Bjorlin and Adam Perez. David is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter. Adam is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
It didn’t take long for The Porter’s Gate’s first two albums, Work Songs (2017)and Neighbor Songs (2019), to become a mainstay of my (Adam’s) listening and song leading repertoire. Those albums gave voice to themes not often found—or easily captured—in a worship song world dominated by positivity and recycled tropes. For the same reasons, I expect The Porter’s Gate’s two new albums, Justice Songs and Lament Songs to likewise become part of my standby repertoire.
The Porter’s Gate (TPG) is a collective co-founded by Isaac and Megan Wardell. I (Adam) first encountered them at the Calvin Symposium on Worship after the release of Work Songs in 2017. Across their discography, they’ve featured some new and well-known singers and songwriters among their collaborators: Latifa Alattas (Page CXVI), Audrey Assad, Urban Doxology, Sandra McCracken, Liz Vice, Paul Zach, and others. A quick look at these two new releases shows the majority of songs are co-written with often four and up to seven(!) collaborators. TPG is unlike the big box collaborations (Hillsong, Bethel, etc.) that have a roster of writers within their team that co-author the majority of their songs. Admittedly, there are some TPG pairings that have become familiar, but new names and contributors have been added on each successive album.
The Porter’s Gate was founded to help worship leaders respond theologically to the pressing questions of our times through the writing of new worship songs and the creation of new liturgical resources.” – theportersgate.com
TPG places a strong emphasis on the benefits that come from sharing time and space in the process of producing songs. I (Adam) had the pleasure of being invited to the weekend gathering that resulted in the Neighbor Songs album, alongside other theologians, text writers, pastors, industry leaders, worship musicians, and tunesmiths. I love that TPG is invested in creating a formational space that feeds into the songwriting process that then feeds back into the church’s formation through song. That level of dedication and collaboration is all-but-unheard-of in the worship music scene, and it shows in the depth and quality of the texts coming out of TPG Worship Project. It’s almost a coup d’etat that TPG is now being distributed by Integrity Music, a giant in the worship music industry.
Justice Songs and Lament Songs
If the previous two albums were built around particular themes, Justice Songs and Lament Songs are a direct and forceful response to the ongoing injustices on full display in 2020, particularly those perpetrated against people of color. With the Bible in one hand and the heartbreaking headlines in the other (to paraphrase Barth), the songs on these albums use the prophetic tradition of scripture to address the murder of George Floyd (“O sacred neck now wounded, / pressed down by blows and knees”); police brutality (“They’re meant to protect us but kill us instead…/ and they’re meant to defend us, but step on our necks”); mass incarceration (“we will turn away from destructive politicians, overflowing prisons, corruption in our system”); and the case for reparations (“Much I have gained, but I’ll give even more, / half of my wealth it was robbed from the poor. / Oh this injustice, help me restore…”). Even the chants heard at protests around the country—“Say his name!”; “No justice, no peace!”; “What do we want! Justice! When do we want it? Now!”—are deftly woven into the lyrics.
For those who have wondered whether contemporary praise and worship music could directly address weighty themes of injustice and inequality, these albums are an unequivocal and affirmative response.
As the titles suggest, Justice Songs tends toward an explicit response to oppression with songs of protest, anger, and hope, while Lament Songs is often more plaintive in tone, singing both its grief and consolation in a minor key. Yet, both share a common commitment to naming the present injustices in our world and proclaiming the hope of God’s coming reign, which calls us to the work of justice and peace now.
Indeed, after I (Dave) reviewed the album several times, I looked through my notes and realized how many times I had written some derivation of “Good song for Advent” in the margins. Some songs have obvious connections to Advent, like the lament “How Long?” that closes with the repeated refrain, “Amen, Jesus come!” But more generally, these are Advent songs because they are apocalyptic, uncovering injustices like white supremacy that many, especially those of us in white evangelical churches, have tried to hide. These are Advent songs because they lament how far we now are from the vision of God’s kingdom where swords will be beaten into plowshares and we will study war no more. They are Advent songs because they hope and long and pray and sing for that kingdom where justice and peace will finally reign, and we’ll sing, “Behold! Behold! His kingdom now has come!”
Moreover, for any who still believe that justice is an addendum to the “true” message of the gospel, these albums root their call deeply within the biblical narrative. Drawing particularly on the Psalms, the Prophets (particularly Isaiah), and the Gospels, many songs are veritable pastiches of scriptural references and allusions. For example, on the opening track of Justice Songs, the “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!),” every line is taken almost directly from scripture (not to mention it’s all sung to an infectious groove reminiscent of the Tony Award-winning Hadestown):
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness cannot overcome. (John 1:5)
Behold! behold! His kingdom now is come. (Matthew 6:10; Luke 17:21)
The valleys will be lifted
and the mountains will be brought down low. (Isaiah 40:4; Luke 3:5)
Hear the voice cry from the highway,
“Make for the Prince of Peace!” (Isaiah 40:3; Luke 3:4; Isaiah 9:6)
God of justice, righteous judge, (Isaiah 30:18; Psalm 7:11; Psalm 50:6)
behold, behold, behold!
Our defender, Price of Peace, (Psalm 18:1-3; Isaiah 9:6)
behold, behold, behold!
Father to the fatherless, (Psalm 68:5)
our strong deliverer, (Psalm 140:7)
behold, behold, behold!
He’s troubling the water (John 5:4)
and we’re marching through. (Exodus 14:21-22)
His kingdom now is come!
While the views on justice and lament expressed by The Porter’s Gate might fall outside the norm of theology expressed in the majority of the “mainstream” evangelical praise and worship genre, their use of scripture clearly demonstrates the biblicism that is purportedly at the heart of evangelicalism.
One of my (Adam) primary concerns when looking at new songs is the question “Where in a worship service could I use this?” For planning special services of lament or justice, there is naturally much to work with here. Songs from these albums would be at home in loud courthouse protests and at quiet, neighborhood vigils. I appreciate deeply that the songs never stray from a particularly Christian witness as they name and confront the injustices of the world.
For the week-in, week-out rhythm of worship planning to accompany lectionary or other themes, using these songs in their entirety may be more challenging. Given the thoroughgoing Advent themes of hope and preparation, I found myself slotting many of the songs as “sending” songs. Indeed, both the lyrical content and the diversity of musical styles felt energizing for “doing the work,” especially on tracks like Justice Songs’s “Justicia.”
Times of prayer, too, seem fitting liturgical homes for the songs on both albums: “We Will Make No Peace,” “Illuminate the Shadows,” “All Your Ways are Peace,” “Drive Out the Darkness,” and “Wake Up, Jesus” all immediately jump out. These are ready-made for pastoral and congregational prayers in a variety of moods.
At least one benefit of popular song genres is clear: great refrains and choruses. In fact, many refrains would work well as standalone pieces. If you’re like me and pull bits and pieces from various sources to plan worship, these albums will be a great resource to adapt from.
On the other hand, songs like “Wake up, Jesus” and “The Zacchaeus Song” are closely tied to the scriptural narratives from which they are drawn and would be best sung in full. Each would make a fitting post-sermon song. Indeed,“The Zacchaeus Song” has the marks of a contemporary, short-form cantata. And though the songs themselves already lend themselves to quick use, the good folks at TPG have also made all the lead sheets publicly available on their website. That fact alone makes me want to sing them.
Yet, when examining these albums through the lens of congregational song, there are a couple issues that might make it difficult to use in particular contexts. First, while the songs are on the whole extremely well crafted, written, and performed, some of them seem better suited for a solo or small group performance than corporate singing. For example, “In Times of Trouble” is hauntingly beautiful, but beyond the refrain, the average congregation would have a hard time joining in (and certainly couldn’t in the current key). Second, for those congregations influenced by postcolonial liturgical theology or Critical Race Theory, the use of gender exclusive language (e.g., kingdom, Father) and light/dark and gender binaries will make it difficult to use a few of the songs where these images and metaphors predominate.
Yet, with that said, there is no doubt that Justice Songs and Lament Songs are not only a much needed Christian response to the events of 2020, they are a gift to the church—especially those churches who desire to sing about justice in a contemporary praise and worship style. These songs were written “for such a time as this,” and our churches should be brave enough—and faithful enough—to sing them.
Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
In this blog post, I want to offer some simplified responses to the question, “Why do Christians sing in worship?” My response is not simply my own, but a compilation and summary of a wide variety of church music and worship textbooks, ethnomusicology books, popular worship books, and other commentary I’ve encountered in the adventure of preparing for my doctoral exams. I offer this not to recommend any one of these rationales, but so that we can see a fuller picture of why faithful Christians across the spectrum of denominational and ecclesial tradition have found it fitting to sing as an act of worship. (N.B. I’ve likely left something out, so fill in the gaps by commenting below!)
Scripture’s Model and Command
Throughout Christian scripture, music-making is regular. Unfortunately we don’t know very much (if anything) about the actual musical sounds or music-making practices. However, some scriptural examples seem to expressly command the practice of music making in worship. One important reference is Paul’s recommendations to the Christians in Colossae (Col. 3:16, also Eph. 5:19) to “sing Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual songs to God.” The presumed context for this command is corporate Christian worship (and possibly simply as a way of being in community in general). Likewise in the Psalms, the Psalmist commends the reader/singer to “come into God’s presence with singing” (Ps 100), to “sing to the Lord a new song” (Ps. 98), and many more.
Beyond commands, scripture models song and singing. Job suggests that the stars sing, Psalm 150 suggests that all creation praises in song, and in the OT prophets and in the NT scriptural canticles, song is modelled as an appropriate action for Christians. In particular, some songs are presented as fitting responses to God for God’s actions in salvation history: the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis as well as the heavenly chorus’ song in Revelation 4, 5, 7. Paul also potentially embeds song lyric in the ‘kenotic hymn’ in the letter to the Philippians chapter 2.
Especially in the scriptural canticles and in the Psalms we see that song is an appropriate action for responding to God’s mighty acts of salvation—the logic that is preserved in the so-called “Great Thanksgiving Prayer.” Because God has acted for the salvation of God’s people, God’s people sing praise in response. Many commentators from various backgrounds assume that when God is praised in the OT, some musical activity is presumed (i.e. the traditions of interpreting “the seven Hebrew words for praise”).
These examples point to one last, related point: song is part of telling God’s story to others; in song, God’s actions are preserved, remembered, and communicated. In this way, singing to others can be part of sharing or witnessing to the Gospel.
The Human-ity of Music
A second set of rationale for using music into Christian worship is two-fold: music is deeply human and it has great potential for forming social/ecclesial relations. Some authors go further and suggest that singing is part of becoming more fully human. They suggest that given that such a marginal portion of the population is, scientifically-speaking, ‘tone deaf,’ it is safe to assume that the capacity to produce differentiated pitches in song is part of being human. We might call this simply an anthropology that centers singing.
But it is not simply limited to the idea that individuals are able to sing, but that their singing nature is able to help them participate in a larger web of social relations. Take, for example, the fact that singing has an especially important role in the history of social movements and reforms, from the Reformation to Civil Rights to Hong Kong. Song and singing capacitate humans toward action outside of themselves (both for good and for potentially for ill).
Music also has the capacity to both create and communicate group identity. Because music is a part of culture, it can embody the particularity of a local community and extend that community’s identity beyond itself. Music and song have an important role in the cultural preservation of diasporas as well as in forming new communities. For this reason, it is also essential in the multicultural worship conversation that diverse musical practices are led by persons who are able to ‘authentically’ represent the communities from where those songs come. In this way, cultural communication and authenticity are intimately intertwined with music-making in worship.
Musical style in particular has been contested because it carries with it the capacity to structure social relations in very specific ways and thus is a site of ethical formation. One great example of this is in Monique Ingalls book Singing the Congregation (Oxford, 2018). She describes how worship at the Passion and Urbana conferences is the prime way in which the community is formed as an ‘eschatological’ body. The musical worship practices situate social relations both now and as a reflection of future heavenly social relations.
Lastly, music is seen as uniquely able to evoke or embody emotional responses. As such—and insofar as this is a desirable goal of Christian worship—music is capable of creating or generating emotional responses in persons and groups. For the sake of the “warm ups” of Finney-esque revivalism, music is seen to ‘plow the [emotional] soil’ so that the seed of the Gospel can be planted and take root. This same is true, though in a different musical register, in church contexts where so-called “art music” is presented for detached aesthetic contemplation. The logic is this: because people are naturally vulnerable to emotional states produced by music, music might make them receptive to a certain kind of Gospel message.
One additional note here of historical importance: the creaturely or emotional effects of music have been highly contested. In the Protestant Reformation, for example, there was deep suspicion from Zwingli and Calvin (drawing on Augustine) on music’s capacity to move the emotions. It was also seen as being able to affect the internal humors of the body and have effects on the health of the hearer. In metaphysics, it was understood that earthly music could sync up with the cosmic ‘harmony of the spheres’ (Plato, Boethius, and neo-Platonists around the time of the Reformation) through formal mathematical relations. Some Reformation debates on the topic of music can be summarized as to the question of the extent to which music was tainted by the effects of sin (especially pre- or post-lapsarian). To render it simplistically: is music inherently good or bad? The answer has some determination on the utility of music for Christian worship today. Luther, for example, saw it as inherently good and therefore trusted that it was good for humans to participate in it for Christian worship. The issue lingers on today when, for example. mid-20th century evangelicals resisted Rock-n-Roll music on the basis that the rhythm was evil or could conjure up undesirable, ecstatic, emotional frenzies among ‘the youth.’ This fear of particular musical styles was rooted in a not-so-veiled musicalized racism–only their music is tainted by sin and evil, ours is pure.
For Doing Worship
The final rationale for the use of music is in music’s capacity to help facilitate the doing of worship. A number of authors advance this basic position, though there is some divergence as to what exactly the essential actions or dispositions of Christian worship are or should be.
On the most basic level, historically-speaking, singing has been useful for carrying the voice through worship spaces and for facilitating group proclamation (eg. chant). Admittedly, electronic amplification now serves to carry the voice in many spaces regardless of one’s ecclesial tradition.
Traditionally, music also has enjoyed a close relationship with, and is especially fitting for the activity of praise. Whether that praise is enacted by the entirety of the gathered worship assembly, or on their behalf by clergy. Again, Christian worship’s model here is the scriptural witness in songs and canticles.
Evangelical church music texts especially highlight the capacity for music to convey a text while rendering music subservient to the text. Music is seen to function primarily in its instrumental capacity to support the communication of a text and aid in the text’s comprehension. Specifically the musical poetic form of the hymn is useful for unfolding doctrine in poetic form as well as telling the story of the gospel in successive, storied stanzas. The church music literature especially likes the hymn form for its capacity to produce inter-textuality as a kind of exegetical tool—again, revealing the emphasis on communicating texts.
On the other end of the spectrum, some theologians suggest that music (especially non-texted music) can disclose something about God in a way that goes beyond a reliance on words. This “non-discursive disclosure” is a counterpoint to the potential heresy that God and God’s character can be totally understood through language alone. Pointing to the person of Jesus Christ as “The Word [who] became flesh” is an important underpinning for this idea.
Music is also an aid to prayer. The phrase “he who sings prays twice” has been attributed to Augustine and is a commonly-invoked rationale (though undeveloped). I’m compelled to note here that the quote from which this adage is drawn might more appropriately be rendered as ‘he who sings well prays twice,’ but that is merely a quibble. Music helps worshippers attend to the Spirit and to the text in such a way that it can aid congregants in quiet contemplation on the one hand, or ecstatic experience on the other. In both cases, music making provides the frame for holistic attention to God. Of course, many songs themselves are prayers to God and thus they function dually in that way.
Lastly, I turn to contemporary praise and worship. While contemporary praise and worship is far from a monolithic tradition, there are some common themes that are shared. The most critical of these is that music and song itself is the essential action when Christian worshippers gather. This goes hand in hand with the way that the mainstreaming of praise and worship has engendered a collapse between the words ‘music’ and ‘worship’ in so many settings. The significance of this is understood by some because it is based on a musico-theological anthropology. Being a Christian means being part of the priesthood of all believers who, like King David and the order of OT Levite priests, minister to the heart of God through musical worship.
In contemporary praise and worship, rather than think about how music can serve some other worship action, music is the essential act that other actions might serve. For charismatics and pentecostals, other ministry time (exercising spiritual gifts) within the service is regularly accompanied by music, if not directly facilitated by it. Experiences of prophecy, healing, deliverance, or other products of the direct encounter with the manifest presence of God are often supported or facilitated by music-making.
While not comprehensive or inclusive of every strand of Christian thinking on the role of music, the above three areas are lenses through which many leaders today see the importance of music and singing in Christian worship. It’s important to note that music and song are not necessary for Christian worship (a variety of Christian traditions attest to this), but that Christians have found lots of thoughtful ways of understanding the role of music in Christian worship: as a commanded and commended by scripture, for deeply human reasons, and for engaging in the acts and encounters of Christian worship.
Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
If the so-called “worship movement” has accomplished anything, it has helped to make Christian worship more emotionally expressive. Where some of the “frozen chosen” (I’m from the Reformed tradition, for the record) used to stand in icy staidness, faithful feelings are now expressed with hands upraised and hearts attendant to an intimacy with the person of Jesus Christ who becomes present to us (somehow) in worship. I’d call that a “win” in many ways. The bread and butter of contemporary songwriters (and, as some have argued, what rock-inflected musical styles do well) has been to help worshippers feel something. That’s often been achieved and expressed by inviting worshippers into the personal piety and conviction of the songwriter enshrined in the lyrics and music of the worship songs. This is also a “win” in my estimation. [Side note: this is part of why worship leaders publicly losing their faith is so scandalizing!]
But to what end are these feelings faithful, and how do we know? Only that they are true to us personally or only to our congregation? Or is there some other metric for evaluation? Some other sounding board against which are feelings can be heard and felt?
I think we find some help when we make it clear what it is, more exactly, that our feelings are responding to.
I’ve noticed something that I want to lift up and laud for other songwriters out there: songs that tell God’s story in salvation history–not just their personal history of deeply felt, and deeply faithful, feelings toward God. Even better are songs that bind up personal stories into the bigger and more communal salvation history–songs that re-express the love for a God who we only know is for us because God has always been for us. There is a particularity and a specificity to that history. We find its contours in Christian scripture.
This has been done in every age of the church’s song and it’s happening now, too. I’m thinking of incredibly popular songs like Hillsong’s “Oceans” from a few years back as well as their more recent song “Another in the Fire.” Hillsong isn’t, of course, the only group doing this. But what’s noticeable to me about these songs is that they’ve taken the biblical story and put the singer alongside the biblical characters. It’s a classic way of reading and interpreting scripture. It’s typology for today. It’s like a contemporary, musical, Ignatian Spiritual Exercise. As such, it’s pretty, well, orthodox.
A Common Complaint
It’s a common complaint in nearly every generation to decry the biblical (il)literacy of “people today” and express the need for deeper catechesis. Whether our generation is worse than any other generation is, well, debatable. In any case, maybe we need to double down on the power of singing to internalize scripture—and not at the expense of finding faithful feelings for God. We can tap into this power for more than the explication of dogma and doctrines and open up the scriptures as powerful stories that elicit our response; deeper than purple-prose paraphrases of prooftexted Psalms to songs that help us experience our place in the contours of God’s story of the salvation of all of creation. From Genesis to Revelation. From the first Adam to the second coming of the New Adam so that even this author (whose name happens to be Adam) can more fully sing–and feel!–the great song of God’s salvation.
It’s not an issue of “what’s been lost” but of what we stand to gain: faithful responses to the God whose story is told in scripture and who is revealed in Jesus Christ.
Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
Worship Across the Spectrum
There are few places where the who’s who of worship across the spectrum get together in public. For the last while, the Calvin Symposium on Worship has been that place. While other worship and music conferences have bloomed and faded (National Worship Leader Conference, anyone?), the Symposium on Worship has continued to grow and diversify and attend to the new challenges that face local worship leaders and pastoral liturgists of all varieties.
One thing I love most about the symposium (my 8th? time in 10 years): Symposium doesn’t easily fit into a category–it’s nearly as diverse as the use of the word ‘worship’ itself. It is not simply about music nor is it simply about theology, though it includes those things. It’s a space where songwriters, lay liturgical leaders, pastors, missionaries, chaplains, theologians, retreat leaders, professors of all kinds, get together around that source and summit of the church’s life: worship. It not only draws them in as attendees, but highlights their voices as expert leaders in their respective areas, offering each of us the opportunity to learn and grow outside the week-to-week rhythms of our often insulated local communities.
And don’t let the name fool you: it goes far beyond the purview of Calvinists. It is an ecumenical smorgasbord, a feast for the liturgically hungry, an international party for worship practitioners. It’s like Sunday School on steroids—and all of it is designed for worship planners and leaders; with over 125 presenters from all over the world, you can imagine the breadth and diversity involved.
A snapshot of an ordinary day at Calvin Worship Symposium:
After a morning service with music led by the Netherlands-based Psalms Project (rock-band based metrical psalm settings) and a plenary session where the new One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (African American ecumenical hymnal published by GIA) is showcased, you hit up the hallway of music and book tables. Moving into the midday breakout sessions, you attend “Top Ten Choral Techniques for Church Choir Directors” (Pearl Shangkuan) in the A block, catch “The ‘Brown Church,’ Christian Identity, and The Ordinary Practices of Christian Worship” (Robert Chao Romero and John Witvliet) in the B session—who had time for lunch?—before Sarah Jean Barton’s “Baptism and Christian Identity: Shaping Liturgical Practice from the Perspective of Disability” in the C block. For the late-afternoon Vespers, you pick from a variety of Minor Prophets-themed services led by groups from Western Seminary, Grace and Peace Church (Chicago), and others. The evening programming closes with yet another worship service that incorporates a diversity of musics and the exquisite video work and environment projection of Stephen Proctor. Exhausted from learning, you crash for the evening–only to hurry back in the morning to do it all for a second day.
Reflecting the increasing diversity of the cultural context of the U.S., while also providing for guests and the Christian family from beyond the Border Wall, I was so encouraged to see the increasing number of sessions offered for Spanish-speakers: a full day Thursday seminar, at least three sessions, and a Spanish-English bilingual vespers service, not to mention the many more on topics from and relating to global christian expressions.
Reflejando el crecimiento de diversidad en el contexto cultural de EE. UU., mientras que también proveyendo por visitantes y la familia cristiana más allá de la frontera, me sentí muy motivado al ver el incremento de sesiones ofrecidas para hispanohablantes: Una conferencia el día entero de jueves, por lo menos tres sesiones en español, y un servicio de vísperas bilingüe en Ingles y español, además de muchos mas temas relacionados a expresiones globales cristianas. En conjunto, este ofrecimiento constituye un currículo para hispanohablantes en el Symposium.
From Kathmandu to Scotland and Los Angeles to the Netherlands this annual global gathering is vision to behold. (I personally met groups of leaders and learners from both Brazil and the Ukraine—incredible). In the realm of congregational song, a number of giants were present, from James Abbington to Judith Christie McAllister, from David Bailey to Eddie Espinosa, from James Bobb to Tony Alonso, Anthony Ruff to Emily Brink. I could go on (…Greg Scheer, Eric Sarwar, Glenn Packiam…) but I’ll quit there. (Oh and Liz Vice. I’ll stop now. For real this time). The roster is bursting at the seems. The same could be said of the preaching and community leaders, theologians and multicultural worship planners present.
If you haven’t been to Symposium yet, get there. Whether you’re a volunteer choir member or the leader of a multinational ministry, don’t let the uncomfortably cold clime of Western Michigan in late-January deter you. Get there. Next year. Put it on your calendar now. Pre-register. You’ll be glad you did. More importantly, your church will be glad you did. [Conference Website Click Here]
Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
I hope that you, dear reader, had a wonderful season of music and worship during Advent and Christmas. In my experience, it is the most difficult season of the year for worship planning. It is tiring to navigate all the… er… “needs and desires” of our congregations, liturgical and cultural calendars, and family vacations—whose kid is going to play Joseph in the pageant if the Perezes are out of town? (definitely not a real example from my childhood)—along with the ideas and desires of other church leaders. It makes for a ton of emotional and physical labor for worship leaders and planners. The experience of relief can be euphoric after the last Christmas decorations are torn down, photocopies recycled, and the last specks of glitter finally stop appearing out of nowhere.
We do all this because of how important the season is to the life of the church. Sure, sometimes it falls into the ditches of sentimentalism and consumerism, but the season is central to our faith. The event of Christ coming into our world and being “born in us today” is something worthy of every single exhausting hour of preparation. We did it last year, we did it this year, and we’ll do it again next year. You may not quite be over the exhaustion from this holiday season, but your planning for next year begins right now. Yes, right now—before the last Christmas lights are put away, before the poinsettias have wilted, and before the clarity of collective memory goes with them. Next year’s planning begins by giving your Advent and Christmas season services a liturgical post-op evaluation.
Our liturgical post-op begins with a review of what goals we set before the season began. Did you have a range of clear goals, some concrete and very achievable and some more ambitious? (Maybe you didn’t establish any goals beforehand, and that is the first thing to note for next year: set goals.) If the idea of having goals for your worship services sounds odd, let me suggest some broad Christian discipleship-related questions to frame your song planning:
Over the course of this Advent and Christmas season,
– Do your songs both embody the piety (or “heart song”) of your congregation and seek to stretch it? If so, how?
– Do your songs reflect a Psalm-wide engagement with God specific to the season?
– Do your services include songs from a range of diverse sources, periods, and styles (within and across hymn traditions)?
– Is there an appropriate balance between the familiar and the new?
– Do your songs address all three persons of the Trinity? Do they reflect variety in orientation (to God, to self, to others, to creation)?
You can probably go back through your services and answer these questions on your own. From there, develop some goals for next year (make your 2019 planning folder today!).
Draw the Circle (of Reflection) Wide
Deeper questions on the congregation’s experience of worship are harder to answer on your own. You’ll need to do that one thing that many of us avoid the rest of the year: ask the congregation for their input. There’s no better way to know how the services impacted the faith and discipleship of the congregation than to ask. I’m not suggesting you ask for generic thoughts and opinions on the season—that’s probably a terrible idea. What I am suggesting is that you create some pointed questions based on your explicit or implicit goals for the season. Crafting good questions will prime the pump for more meaningful answers and help to avoid the hurtful feedback that is often lobbed at music and worship leaders. It can also encourage a positive environment for reflection and feedback that might be a model for Christian lives out in the world.
Yes or No?
One way you can solicit feedback is with simple yes-or-no questions. These kinds of questions make it easy for others to get involved in the feedback loop. Yes or no questions aren’t necessarily bad. While they do limit feedback, they can be helpful for questions about the nuts and bolts of your services. There are also better and worse ways of using these kinds of questions. For example, if you introduced new songs this season, avoid asking a preference-based question with a yes-or-no response (e.g., “did you like the new song(s)?”). On the topic of new music, you might ask something like this: “Was enough time given to teaching new songs in the service?” and a companion question, “Was enough information provided for learning new songs outside of the service?” You might need to use more than one question on a given topic to get feedback that is actually meaningful. With all feedback—and especially with yes or no—it is helpful to collect some personal, anonymous info on the respondent to help you understand their responses.
Opportunities for slightly longer written responses increase the meaningfulness of the feedback but may also limit the number of persons willing to do it. When asking open-ended questions, it is helpful to frame the question for a positive answer. Following on the topic of new music, “How did [the new song] enable your deepened participation in worship this season?” This framing puts up a higher fence between you and those who want to offer careless critical feedback. (The most vocal will still find a way to jump that fence and tell you how they feel about things, but they’d probably do that anyway, right?) You can also be more constructive: “How quickly were you able to join in singing [the new song]? What could be done to more effectively introduce or teach new songs?” It would be good to ask about the relationship between the music and the rest of the worship service: “How did the singing help you understand or respond to God’s call to [name a service/sermon theme] this Advent/Christmas season?” What other questions might it be helpful to see ask in order to assess whether you’re accomplishing what you hope to?
Somewhere between the yes/no and the open-ended questions is to provide a spectrum between two responses and ask respondents to place an x along a line between the two. In Designing Worship Together, Norma deWaal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell have some wonderful examples of how to do this (and a variety of other evaluation forms!). Benefits of this method include that it has a relatively low threshold for participation, more nuance than a yes/no question, and you get to frame the kinds of responses that are given. Check out that book for tons of other resources and methods for worship pre- and post-op.
Sharing reflective and evaluative practices with the congregation can help them gain an appreciative glimpse behind the worship planning curtain (sharing opportunities for feedback means, at the very least, a sharing). The congregation may also surprise you with the kinds of connections they make that were unforeseen and unintended (hopefully positive ones!). I’m reminded of Mark Porter’s excellent research on how congregants relate idiosyncratically (in ways peculiar to themselves) between worship music and their everyday lives. Regardless of how your congregation responds, the act of making space for the liturgical workers to reflect on their leitourgia is integral to your role as the one(s) in whom they’ve put their trust.
What were your goals in worship and music and how will you assess whether you’ve achieved them? Asking the congregation for feedback doesn’t have to be a fearful event—it’s just another opportunity for Christian discipleship. In 10 months, you’ll be glad you did. For pastoral musicians as much as for anyone, one aphorism still applies: don’t ask a question if you don’t want to know the answer!
As we worked toward the launch of The Center over a year ago, we developed a set of guiding stances for the work of The Center for Congregational Song. I’d like to highlight a few of those guiding stances that I think speak to what we hope to accomplish in 2019.
We celebrate the width and depth of variety in the church’s song throughout history, recognizing that each genre, like each culture or each person, brings unique gifts and challenges to the church.
My hope is that in 2019 The Center for Congregational Song will be a cheerleader for the church’s song and all those who work to lead God’s people in song. There is so much to celebrate, but during this time of overwhelming pain and hate it is easy to forget God’s love for us. Our events, while tackling difficult subjects and not shying away from controversy, will be places of celebration of God’s good gift of song and singing together. Likewise, our blogs, podcasts, and other content will be in the spirit of celebrating the goodness that comes from viewpoint diversity and deep listening.
Collaboration and teamwork honors each other’s different gifts and therefore makes everyone stronger by building up partnerships, strengthening relationships, and amplifying each other’s ministries.
My dream for 2019 is that the relationships and partnerships we’ve been building over the last 15 months will bear unexpected and wonderfully creative fruit. As a part of our ecumenical work to build bridges, we have been working hard to learn who is also working to encourage, promote, and enliven congregational song in every denomination, piety, and genre. This year we’re ready to begin building those bridges and already have a couple programs planned that will bring diverse groups of people together to meet, collaborate, and create.
At its best, singing together enables unity when perhaps spoken conversation is difficult or impossible.
Our original blog team [introductions here], made up of Rosa Ramirez, Adam Perez, Ginny Chilton, and myself conceptualized the content for the blog as a place where folk would be sure to find joy, optimism, humility, grace, and contextualization. The posts, like the blog team members, would represent a variety of viewpoints and skill-sets so that throughout the year you might encounter posts that speak directly to your own ministry challenges as well as open your eyes to the challenges and thoughts of others. With that in mind, we’ve expanded our blog team for 2019 to include three more voices. Each person brings a unique perspective that will continue to challenge and inspire us. We’re excited to welcome each of these new members to our team!
Felicia Patton is a lifelong Chicago native. Felicia received an undergraduate degree from North Park University followed by two graduate degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She was very active while at North Park, having served on worship teams, gospel choir, jazz choir, jazz band, and guitar ensemble. In her previous position, she was the director of traditional worship, where she directed three choirs. Felicia has continued to sing within the Chicago and surrounding areas as a solo artist and with her band, Chicago Soul Revue.
Min. Rylan Harris is a graduate of Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. While still active with the Hampton Minister’s Conference, he has recently moved to Atlanta, Georgia to pursue a Master of Religious Leadership with a concentration in Music and Worship at Candler School of Theology. He now serves as Minister of Worship & Arts at Ray of Hope Christian Church with Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale. Along with his passion for music ministry, he is a keyboardist, singer, and composer.
David Bjorlin is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) and currently serves as the worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago. In addition to his role as worship leader, David is a lecturer in worship at North Park University and a published hymnwriter. He holds a PhD in History and Hermeneutics (liturgical studies) from Boston University School of Theology. His academic interests include the history and practice of hymnody/congregational song, the connection between worship and ethics, and the incorporation of children in worship.
We hope you’ll join us in celebrating and collaborating. Here’s to a great 2019!
Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
The Future of Congregational Song
“What do you think the future of congregational song will be like?” This question was posed to me recently. Though the future is difficult to predict (I was hoping for flying cars by now), there has been no shortage of attempts in popular TV shows and movies–especially ones that seem less-than-ideal. Will wars and rumors of wars transform society into a dystopian, post-apocalyptic wasteland a la Margaret Atwood? Will advances in technology deliver us from this blue sphere by shipping us off onto other potentially habitable planets (thanks Elon Musk)? Why are these such popular themes today? Is general anxiety about the future and our world at fever pitch? The U.S. also has midterm elections on Tuesday, so there’s that.
I’m guessing the question of the future of congregational song came to me with a similar sense of anxiety: how mightaspects of congregational song that I have known and cherished in the past be challenged or lost in the future? Given the general uncertainty about the future, I want to offer some hopeful and challenging aspects about what might be the near future of congregational song in a broad swath of American evangelical settings.
Some Hopeful Observations
I have seen an increase in songwriters working from within their local churches, likely reflecting an increasing interest in local church musicians and worship leaders in writing their own songs for their own congregations.
Due to advances in streaming and sharing technology over the internet, local songwriters are able to ‘get their music out there’ beyond their local context for a wider community to enjoy and employ.
Because recording technology has become much more affordable, local congregations can produce their own music in-house to an impressive level, minimizing the gap between the recording industry and the local artist/church musician.
Attention has been given to songs and collections that lend themselves to specific extra-liturgical contexts and themes, especially in the prophetic mode (e.g., songs of protest, lament, and immigration).
The whole church has been blessed by an increase in accessibility to songs from across social and political boundaries in this increasingly globalized–though polarized–world.
Leaders of all genres of congregational song leaders should be encouraged by the ever-increasing attention given to music as a primary and vital aspect of congregational worship life.
Upsides and Downsides:
Recorded albums have become the primary way in which music is transmitted, aligning with the more aural musical culture of many settings and learners. This helps overcome some of the challenges that plague the transcription of certain music styles, including contemporary praise and worship, so-called “global song” (or non-western music), as well as music from Black church traditions that looks more complex on the page than it sounds.
Whereas music from aural cultures was passed through direct contact with other persons at gatherings, the recording and distributing of music does not require such human contact and face-to-face sharing. Likewise, the recorded artifacts may not do justice to the bodily practices that can or should accompany the music–as is the case in many non-Western musics.
Music production requires a higher emphasis on the quality of the performer(s) to attract listeners to the song.
Popular performers have a greater influence on song choices for better or worse based on their celebrity status rather than on the merits of a song alone.
The slow demise of printed materials for congregational worship should provide a richer bodily engagement in worship and may provide opportunities for a deeper internalization of songs and song texts.
The general increase in the last 60 years of the elision (or altogether collapse) of the words “music” and “worship.” If worship is expected to feel positive and encouraging, this precludes more nuanced and Psalm-wide affective engagements with God through music.
The increasing “celebrity” of the worship leader or church musician (and pastor, for that matter) is a detriment to lay participation in worship leadership.
The grey-out of tradition-specific or denominational accents in regard to theological, liturgical, and pastoral emphases will come at a heavy cost. Though these have been places of conflict in the past, they have also been reflective of the beauty of the incarnation and any one community’s capacity to fully articulate God’s ways in the world.
Congregational song styles and repertories that mirror and reinforce the divisions in the rest of society, especially socially and politically (even if the community is racially/ethnically mixed) will make unity in the church increasingly difficult.
On one hand, the hyper-localization of a particular community’s song and resident song-writer(s) can inhibit unity beyond the local body. On the other hand, a generic use of song from significant, CCLI-mediated, music-branded mega-churches and mega-performers (e.g. Hillsong, Bethel, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Chris Tomlin, etc.) can be detrimental to the local congregation’s voice and artistry. Both of these parallel contemporary practices of church organization and leadership, especially in the use of branding and marketing techniques employed in consumer, capitalist culture.
Given some of these reflections, what should congregational song leaders do? How are you negotiating some of these pressures and changes in your own context with wisdom and discernment? What potential futures do you see from your standpoint in the midst of the congregation? What do you feel are the most important and pressing issues?
Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
There have been many varied but regular attacks posed by opponents of contemporary praise and worship since its inception in the middle of the 20th century. These attacks have been intense enough to call it a ‘worship war’–and many people have been wearing their battle fatigues to worship every Sunday for the last 25 years. ‘The lyrics are trite or too shallow, ‘the music too repetitive or boring’–or alternatively, ‘too upbeat’ or driven by rhythm (i.e., too similar to the evils of Rock music)—the list goes on. Is contemporary praise and worship a threat to the right worship of the Christian church and its hymnic/theological orthodoxy? Most recently, the critique has revolved not around musical style per se but around congregational participation. Do the speaker stacks and ‘wall of sound’ stun the congregation into silence? Do the performance practices of contemporary praise and worship hinder congregational participation rather than enliven it? Has this always been the case for contemporary praise and worship?
Now, I don’t consider myself an outright advocate of praise and worship, but I do consider my task to be that of dispelling myths and misunderstandings. In this post I want to suggest that, historically, contemporary praise and worship has had the opposite take on its relationship to the issue of congregational participation.
Dispelling Myths and Misunderstandings
The old guard of praise and worship leaders suggest that praise and worship music allows for, creates the space for, even the most unmusical of persons to be involved in musical worship, both singing and playing instruments. Whereas the text-heavy and musically-challenging hymns of old were seen as not-all-that-singable to many untrained musicians, the new, simpler song forms of praise and worship were easily taught and learned. No longer would congregational song be reserved for the specialists (whether a formal choir or the trained singer) as had developed in some circles, but it would be given back to the congregation.
No longer would congregational song be reserved for the specialists
To say that this was simply a change in musical style or in worship practice would be to understate the shift. It wasn’t a shift just in worship practice, but in the relationship between music, persons, and worship. Out of the praise and worship movement came a very important theological anthropology which holds that the core identity of Christians, writ large, is as ‘worshippers’—a trope still very common in many evangelical, charismatic, and pentecostal circles today. This theology was developed in part through a reading of scripture that linked Old Testament worship closely with music-making and was often combined with a strong eschatological vision of worship derived from the book of Revelation. To participate in the heavenly worship, one must sing and make music to the Lord. Singing wasn’t simply the act sine qua non of worship, but singing was part of becoming a right worshipper (cf. John 4:24 “God is seeking worshippers…”), and becoming a right worshipper was an essential to Christian faith and practice as a person. You can see why participation is such a critical issue for praise and worshippers–if singing and music-making were being withheld from the congregation by way of increasing musical difficulty and professionalism, a core component of Christian identity was also being withheld.
This two-fold shift toward making music more accessible and the musicalizing right Christian worship has had an indelible mark on Protestant worship across North America.
Often without understanding the basic impulse of praise and worship, one of the primary responses to it has been, “What congregations need [to preserve certain kinds of hymnody] is better music education, not simpler music!” This response, you might recognize, is one that has spurred on educational reforms time and again in the history of church music. Inevitably, reforms of church music and practice have their upsides and their downsides regarding the question of participation. In many instances, especially in the American cultural context, various traditions have generated a subgroup of (semi-celebrity) leaders and performers to whom Americans have allowed to make music on their behalf: the choir’s cantata, the praise band’s set list, the vocalist’s sung testimony, the organist’s Fantasy on [fill in the blank]–not to mention pseudo-liturgical moments like “Special Music,” “Choral Offering,” or “Organ Preludes,” but I digress…
Maybe it’s a cultural thing, maybe it’s a musical thing, or maybe it’s a deeply human thing, but we love to hear expert leaders and performers regardless of our musical or liturgical traditions. And there’s probably nothing wrong with that.
Praise and Worship
But to return to the issue of praise and worship, it seems that the question of participation has begun to rear its head again in the 21st century as the production value of highly visible churches and events has come into question. Though praise and worship initially provided a strong response to this issue, the dissemination and development of it as a tradition has caused transformation in some arenas. We can only speculate the reasons for this, and they are surely many. Some long-time insiders suggest the song composition style is too complex, the influence of recording stars too great, the broader influence of the popular music industry, a disconnect between leaders and congregation, broadening of the teaching on the theology of praise and worship—the list goes on. So to say, yes, this tradition of music and worship may need to re-affirm its commitment to congregational participation—and it is not alone in that need.
Praise and worship is, in its heart of hearts, about and for congregational participation.
Praise and worship is, in its heart of hearts, about and for congregational participation. Though in some very visible manifestations the congregation’s participation seems to have become somewhat tempered or muted, this is not the case for all times and all places. Unfortunately, contemporary praise and worship suffers no more from the cult of celebrity in music and leadership than do many other Protestant churches, mainline or evangelical, conservative or liberal. Likewise, there is no clear correlation between a church’s musical style and the degree of participation in congregational singing, so let’s not pin the issue of participation solely on musical style alone.
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