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On “Faithful Feelings”

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. 


God’s Story

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.


Get There

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.


Solo Assessment

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.


Short Answer

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?


Spectrum Responses

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!


The Center for Congregational Song, Centered in Song, Blog, Church Music, Song

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.


Center for Congregational Song, Centered in Song, Blog, Hampton, Atlanta, Church Music

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.


Center for Congregational Song, David Bjorlin, Centered in Song, Blog, Singing, Church

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 might aspects 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.


Potential Challenges:

  • 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.





Worship War

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.



Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.




Nevertheless, It Was A Blessing

A few weeks ago I had the blessing of working with an ad hoc choir who gathered out of the student body of Duke’s Summer Course of Study program. Many were second-career local pastors in often very small congregations. For some, it had been a while since they were able to enjoy singing with a choir during worship. It was also a challenge for them to come to an hour-long, afternoon rehearsal following a grueling schedule of classes. Nevertheless, it was a blessing for all of us to share in choral song.

They were visibly tired, but excited to sing. As they shuffled in for rehearsal at Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School, the major themes of (and complaints about) their courses of the day pattered off the stone and glass. One drawback of being in an academic setting where new ideas about God, the church, worship, identity, mission, etc. are being impressed upon them all day, everyday, is that students can start to become hyper self-critical of the way they interact in those spaces: ‘Did I use that –ology word correctly?’ ‘Did I unintentionally shut down my fellow students’ earnest reflection?’ ‘Does the teacher think I am a fraud?’ ‘Am I a fraud??’

They were visibly tired, but excited to sing.

Though this kind of environment can become quickly tiring, there was a hidden and unexpected blessing in it: they brought that awareness and teachable (but discerning) spirit to choir. The choir members were ready to think and talk about the music beyond ‘where can we take a breath?’ and ‘are you going to give us a cut-off?’


North Carolinian

One moment in particular stood out. As we were working on our consonants for Richard Smallwood’s arrangement of Isaac Watts’ “I Love the Lord,” one of our sopranos openly apologized that she kept (aggressively) rolling the r on the line “and troubles rise.” After rehearsal she came up to tell me that she would practice it overnight and would definitely get it right for the following day’s chapel service. She explained that it is hard for her to not roll the ‘r’ because she’s always been taught that soft or swallowed ‘r’ sound was the correct way to sing. Upon further investigation and conversation, she said that she had learned (either explicitly or implicitly) that the sound of a North Carolinian/southern accent was not an appropriate one for group singing, i.e. choir.

Now I’m no expert in vocal technique, but it pained me to hear her say the equivalent of ‘the sound of my voice is not fit for the worship of God, so I have to change it.’ I realize that I too have uncritically internalized a deep sense that there are good and bad, beautiful and… um… less beautiful accents for singing. On what basis can and should we make these judgments? In singing any English language text, I regularly hear the encouragement to sound ‘more British,’ as though there is only one British English accent and all of its sounds are ‘pure.’

…it pained me to hear her say the equivalent of ‘the sound of my voice is not fit for the worship of God, so I have to change it.’

In any case, this soprano’s comments caused me to reflect using my theological toolkit. What theological rationale did I have for both affirming that it was appropriate to modify the sound of her voice to fit the style of music and suggest that she let the sound of her own voice shine through?

I turned to thinking about the sound of our voices as incarnational.


Incarnational Sound

Of course, the voice is by nature part of the fleshy stuff of our bodies that God knit together and that makes the sound of our voices incarnational in a generic sense. But I think we can take it further: for our music to honor God more fully, it needs to honor our bodies more fully. Our sounds have to be more truly of us and the stuff we’re made of—even (especially?) when that stuff is result of social and cultural formation. Christ’s incarnation reminds us that God’s glory is revealed in a specific person in a specific place at specific time in history. If “in our music God is glorified” (thanks Fred Pratt Green), it is when these voices we’ve been given sing God’s praise.

On the other hand, an incarnational perspective also encourages us remember not just we ourselves, but the contexts within which the music was originally created and intended: the urban streets of protest, the revival-era camp meeting, the gothic cathedral, the Rhineland convent, etc. The sounds of our voices should seek to honor the languages and peoples for and from whom the music is gifted. In doing so, we delight in, build empathy for, and gain perspective on the ways in which the beautiful sound of God’s glory is incarnated in other times and places.

This perspective is not a zero-sum endeavor. There is no perfect, sonic balance to avoid tipping the scales from accurate reproduction to appropriation or from authentic and sincere to manufactured and performance.



As you reflect on how this theological perspective might impact your music ministry, I pray that it will keep us on our toes when it comes to the sound of our voices and simultaneously put us at ease, knowing that our attention to these concerns is a sincere act of faithfulness in its own right.

This perspective is not a zero-sum endeavor.

As that soprano and I walked out of rehearsal, our minds and voices were noticeably tired. She wondered aloud why she’d never been asked to sing more ‘North Carolinian.’ Without an answer, we began mimicking our best/worst over-the-top-British-boy-soprano sound we could muster—laughing and contented with the exhaustion of having bitten off more than we had time to chew.


For more thoughts on incarnational music-making, check out these blogs:

“Navigating worship as Universal and Incarnational” by Tanya Riches

“Patriotic Music on Sunday Morning: Yes or No?” by Ginny Chilton



Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.


One of the hardest things for me in planning worship is constructing the overarching narrative of the service. From the very first word to the last, I want the worship services I plan to take the congregation on a journey of encounter with God and each other. I want it to seem effortless and inevitable, like each element couldn’t possibly lead into any other than the one that’s been chosen. If you’re in the work of actually planning any or all of worship, you know that achieving such an ideal can often be elusive (for encouragement, see Ginny’s blog last week about ‘Success’).


Worship As Narrative

I call worship a narrative because I think it needs to go somewhere thematically, logically, spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. It needs to have a plot, and some subplots. Key characters who are developed over time. It needs to generate conflict and resolution, tension and release; it needs to have some small climaxes and some big ones too. It needs a range of emotional engagement. Not every story is told the same way. Narrative can take on a diversity of styles, as we know about the best books in a variety of genres; scripture also shows a diversity of genres.

My commitment to narrative for worship comes from scripture. Aside from the cosmic view of the Bible as one big narrative from Genesis to Revelation, it is true in more micro-cosmic ways. In the Old Testament, God’s people are encountered by God who (via the prophets) reminds the people of God’s story about them and they respond (e.g. Joshua 24). In the Gospels, Jesus himself tells stories (parables) to teach about the kingdom of God.


Hymn Sandwiches and Thematic Planning

But not all worship services or their patterns seem to have a clear direction to them. The classic ‘hymn sandwich’ service can feel like a game of ping-pong that never has a winner. ‘Thematic’ planning, where a simple theme is chosen to orient the service (e.g.  “Grace”), can sometimes generate services that have many smaller elements that point to the central theme, but are disconnected from one another. Thematic planning can especially impact services with extended song sets, resulting in an opening time of musical worship that spins its narrative wheels. Even in congregations where the liturgy is (supposedly) ‘set,’ the sense of overarching narrative can be overlooked in the midst of the structure–a forest missed for the trees. Worship planning in these settings can often feel like a ‘fill in the blank’ exercise. In all of these examples, the question remains the same, ‘How can a worship narrative more deeply embed the congregation in the story of God?’


Here are a few simple suggestions:

  1. Think about the genre of the scripture story for the day. Ask how the music and the whole service can inhabit that storytelling mode in its structure and content.
  2. Choose a song that uses scripture paraphrase or quotation and use it in place of one of the readings for the day (rather than a reiteration of the same text). In your worship bulletins, mark those songs as scripture or scripture paraphrase.
  3. If you’re only responsible for music choices, ask the worship leader, reader, or pastor, to say a one sentence introduction to a congregational song you’ve chosen. If speaking would be too cumbersome, put a note in the back of the bulletin. If you’re doing choral music, this is a great way to key in the congregation for how to listen well to the piece as part of the service. Why did you choose it, what are its virtues at that point in the service? What does the song express that can’t be expressed with words alone?
  4. If you’re responsible for the whole service, I can’t stress enough how the use of ‘in-between-words’ can help tell the big picture story in worship. See Paul Ryan on this (of Calvin, not the WI politician!).
  5. Avoid redundancy in music! If you have a song that acts as a confession, don’t also read a confession–let the song do its part in the worship story.
  6. Assess your choral music based on function–from week to week, an anthem’s text and music might not always best serve the narrative of worship by being sung during the offering. Ask, “What is this text and music doing and where might if fit better”?


If you do some of these things to support a narrative-based approach to worship planning and leadership, it will support worshippers’ deep engagement with worship. More importantly, it will support a deepening engagement with God who shows us love through the redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–the most important story worth telling.

How do these suggestions engage with your worship context? Share with us in the comments!


Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.


Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!


This past holy week, I was reminded of a song from Mumford & Sons’ triple-Platinum,[1] break out album Sigh No More (Glassnote Records, 2009). This folk/rock/bluegrass-inspired album is packed with religious material (both explicit and implicit). For me, popular music is often a great site for reflecting on the distinctives of Christian faith because it has a way of touching on very human desires and widely held notions of religion and spirituality. I’m thinking especially of a song on the album called Awake My Soul.” Here’s an excerpt of the pre-chorus and chorus:


“[…] In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die

And where you invest your love, you invest your life

Awake my soul [3x]

For you were made to meet your maker”


If you’ll pardon my somewhat literal (and possibly shallow) interpretation of these lyrics, you’ll see what I mean with the religious content and popular notions of religion and spirituality. The themes packed in to this little segment of the song include the life and death of the body, love and relationships, the duality of body and soul, and the nature and purpose of human life before God. There is much to commend to songwriters from this masterful lyricism, but maybe less to commend in the light of Easter where we celebrate Jesus’ life, death, and bodily resurrection. As the Apostle’s Creed summarizes, “I believe… in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

“In these bodies we will live / in these bodies we will die” and in these bodies we will be raised again to life everlasting. Christ is Risen!

But, for some reason, the resurrection of the body seems to be one of the hardest things for many Christians to believe in.[2] Maybe it’s a symptom of popular American Christianity’s penchant for concern over the condition of one’s soul and the “weakness of the flesh.” Admittedly, it is really hard to concretely imagine.

In both his incarnation (in Spanish: encarnación—literally, “enfleshment” or “inmeatedness”) and his bodily resurrection, Jesus affirms the significance of our bodies. I’m reminded of a passage from Luis Pedraja’s wonderful book on Christology, Jesus is My Uncle (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999) where he says,

“The Incarnation also makes it equally untenable to maintain that humanity can attain divinity on its own. It is only through God’s own initiative and action that this new reality can take place. But it takes place in human flesh… It also means that life in flesh and blood, our own incarnate reality, must be taken seriously as the place where we can encounter God… it affirms that our existence as flesh and blood is a part of God’s good creation—a part that is not alien to God.” (84)

What God affirms in the Incarnation, God fulfills in the bodily resurrection. If we thought human destiny was to ‘awake my soul,’ Jesus confronts us with his whole, embodied, new creation body. And, likewise, our bodies will be raised from the dead into the new heavens and new earth eschaton. This is a central hope of a truly Christian message at Easter and something truly worth singing about!

As the Apostle’s Creed summarizes, “I believe… in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

In particular, let’s sing more about the embodied encounters of the post-resurrection Jesus as a way of celebrating that Christian hope doesn’t look so much like the Mumford family’s dead body and ‘awakened soul.’ Rather, it is better expressed in song texts like  “These Things Did Thomas Count as Real” (Thomas Troeger), “Aleluya Cristo Resucito” (Luis Bojos), or “The First Place” (Matthew Westerholm). Sing—and write new songs!—about Jesus the apparent gardener, Jesus the Emmaus road traveler, Jesus who still has nail holes in hands, and Jesus the seaside fish cook.

And while we’re at it, let’s give thanks for the bodies of those labored to make our holy week (and every week) services possible in and beyond music:

Piano Tuning Tools

For all guitar techs, luthiers, organ tuners, electricians, and brass machinists who create and care for the instruments that allow make our music possible;

For the tired eyes, arms, lips, voices, and fingers of those who make music in praise of God and service to the Church;

Gardening Tools

For the gardeners and florists of our Easter Lilies and all the visual artists whose work enlivens our places of worship and turns our gaze toward God’s beauty;

For the farmers, growers, field workers, bakers, vintners, and cooks who offer us a foretaste of the Kingdom to come in the sharing of holy meals;

Communion Bread

And for all the bodies that make up the Church—shaking, plucking, bowing, beating, pushing, pulling, resonating, and otherwise making music to remind us that the hope we celebrate at Easter will one day be resounding in the fullness of our own resurrected bodies.

“In these bodies we will live / in these bodies we will die” and in these bodies we will be raised again to life everlasting.

Amen, may it be so. Hallelujah!



[2] See also this short article on the issue from Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:


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Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.

When I finally ascended to leadership in my college campus music ministry, one of my first tasks was to purge our music files. We’d been using a 3-inch, 3-ring binder system for organization. Over the previous decade+ our binders bloated to the point that they were no longer able to lie flat on a table. It’s hard to guess how many songs we had accumulated, maybe 300+?

Somewhere along the way in my church music training, I learned that an ideal size of a congregation’s repertoire should only be around 150 songs (give or take 50). So, we pared it down for quality and ease of planning—choosing from too many songs can be as paralyzing for me as too many burger options on a restaurant menu. The added benefit was that we were getting closer to that 150-song sweet spot that was supposed to aid in cultivating the virtues of song memory and congregational participation. I honestly don’t know where this teaching originated or even if I made it up—is it a calculation of # of songs per service multiplied by # services per year? Leaving out Christmas and Easter, 3 songs per service x 50 services = 150 songs… is it that simplistic? Alternatively, since there are 150 Psalms, it would stand to reason that 150 is a good, God-given number.

The point is that this ideal repertoire size was both a functional and pastoral one. If you went through the last year or two of your own repertoire, what would you find? Maybe you too have come up with a magic number fitting for your context.

I want to be able to sing something in the face of Death; to sing songs that help do something about it.

Beyond size, I’ve been thinking recently about repertoire size for an altogether different reason: the Las Vegas and Parkland shootings, #MeToo and #Blacklivesmatter, DACA and hurricane relief in Puerto Rico (or lack thereof), and the list goes on. The question is about function: what of my 150 songs do I have to sing for these occasions? Under the onslaught of injustice, only the simplest of Kyries seems to do. I’ve envied my colleagues and friends who, in the midst of street protest chants, have woven words of wit and vitality—words perfect for the moment, and likely only that moment. Those chants might live on or they might not. Either way, they’ve served their purpose; those rhyming, rhythmic shouts—songs in their own right/rite—were able to do something. Surely classic songs of comfort could work here, except for the fact that I don’t want to be comforted or even to mourn. I want to yell. I want to groan. I want to tear things apart. I want to be able to sing something in the face of Death; to sing songs that help do something about it.

Among a number of new music and worship events, books, podcasts, Facebook groups, etc. in recent years, I’ve heard this lovely encouragement: “Write/Lead/Teach songs that people will be able sing on their deathbeds.” I think the general sentiment is (at least) two-fold: a desire for songs that are able to ‘stand the test of time’ in style and content, while also lodging themselves in a person’s memory. I can get behind that sentiment. Life and Death tend to have a clarifying effect on one’s perspective. And Death has many masks—I named a few of them above.

I’m not so much worried about the songs I sing on my own deathbed (and who knows if I’ll be able to sing at all?). Instead, I’m wondering which of my 150 songs can I sing at the bedside of those victims of mass shootings, deportation, sexual assault, racism, natural disaster, and climate change? What songs can I sing marching in protest against these powers? What songs from Sunday morning can I carry to the specific needs of the world in which I live? 150 (or 200, or whatever) doesn’t sound anywhere near enough.

…this ideal repertoire size was both a functional and pastoral one.

Congregational singing is not an end in itself. Likewise, congregations committing a song to life/death-long memory is not an end in itself. Congregational songs do things. To what are we willing to employ their power? How will the breadth of our singing enliven the breadth of the church’s prayer for the myriad needs of the world? For our own felt needs? For the very real needs of the world that, though sometimes appear to be hidden, are actually and always all around us? What kinds of congregational song practices make space for the long-term and the short-term needs of congregational prayer and spiritual formation? And lastly, how many songs am I going to need to do all this?