Join Director of The Center for Congregational Song and a variety of Athens and Atlanta based artists in a hymn-singing and improvisatory concert. It’s free and open to the public. The first half of the event will be a sharing session of hymns and congregational songs from a variety genres. The second half of the concert will be in the style of “circle-singing,” which is a style of vocal improvisation that includes the entire audience under the leadership of Brian Hehn and some friends.
Many of you may feel like this lady. Stressed…worried…nervous…tired. This is just a reminder that…
But seriously, folks. Strive for excellence. Make sure you’re prepared and have worked to do your best. But if someone misses a note, starts the wrong song, or the mics give feedback in the middle of something important, the Good News remains the same. Christ’s work of salvation occurs not just in spite of but because of our human failings. Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.
Blogger Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.
For someone graduating high school who wants to serve as a music minister or worship leader, what would you recommend that they do for their education?
Let me first say that I don’t think there’s a single program out there that will fully prepare someone to successfully navigate being a church musician in the 21st century. What music ministers are being expected to do over the course of their careers in the 21st century church compared to what the current academy offers reveals a huge gap. Broadly speaking, universities and seminaries continue to train musicians in a 20th century model when the church has already moved on. Congregations have new, higher, and more diverse expectations of those they hire than ever before.
So here’s what I would recommend to a young student wanting to pursue a music-ministry career:
First, attend an undergraduate school as a music education major or a music performance major. Regardless of your future ministry settings, a knowledge of how to manage large groups (“classroom management” and “group dynamics”) and the skills to teach and empower the musicianship of others will certainly be at the core of your responsibilities. A music education degree is the best route to gain and refine those core skills. The other important skill your degree can give you is to become highly skilled at your instrument, which is where a performance degree might come in handy. Being a good performer (whether instrumental or choral) will serve you well in various ways, including understanding the powerful nature of musical performances to stir the human soul.
While doing your degree, make sure you are active in ministry in some way. Depending on your situation, that may look different. Campus ministry opportunities, “church hopping” to experience a broad diversity of worship styles and leadership, or joining a local congregation and/or taking an internship at a local church can all be ways to begin the journey into ministry.
Second, attend a seminary with an emphasis in worship and/or sacred music. Make sure the program you attend is intentional in connecting theological training with music-making in worship. Too often our university and seminary systems attempt to isolate or silo students into particular disciplines. This will rarely serve a 21st century music minister well. When touring programs and speaking with program directors, ask them how many courses are shared with MDiv or other theology majors. Ask them what types of interactions the sacred/church music students have with the students who will eventually be pastors. Sit in on a church music course. Do they talk about theology and worship as much as they do musical practice? Finally, does the advanced degree program give emphasis or opportunities for you to experience a variety of instrumentations, worship styles, and genres?
Finally, attend conferences and continuing educations opportunities that continue to stretch your understanding of church and church music. Don’t always attend conferences that speak to your wheelhouse. If you’re an organist, go to a multicultural worship conference that doesn’t include organ. If you’re a praise & worship leader who primarily uses guitar, go to an ACDA conference to hear great choral music. Etc…
Ultimately, the journey is yours, and my recommendations could never contain a universal answer. The church needs highly specialized musicians who are masters of one particular thing, so maybe you need to do three degrees in instrumental performance. But the majority of us will be expected to do so much more than just one thing. So listen to God’s call, do what you love, but make sure your education is preparing you to be adaptable to wherever your ministry journey might lead. Remember, our job descriptions always include that pesky phrase, “and other duties as assigned.”
Author – Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song
When the “other” sings the Gospel
As someone who is a life-long church musician but who cut(s) his teeth on Ben Folds Five, the Goo Goo Dolls, Nirvana, Ray Charles, The Beatles, and other secular pop/rock artists, I quickly became fascinated with the idea of sacred and secular. What makes a song sacred and what makes it secular? Can a sacred song be turned evil? Can a secular song be holy? I got to really dig into this topic during seminary when I began my formal theological training and was presented with various definitions of what the word “theology” means (thanks, Dr. Rebekah Miles of Perkins School of Theology!). This topic has continued to be one of my favorite subjects to dwell upon. Over the last decade I’ve realized how many things in my life have informed how I approach the topic, and that’s probably why I find it such a fascinating exercise to grapple with. Here are a few moments/ideas/circumstances that might help illustrate where I’m coming from:
I grew up Presbyterian (USA) and was formed through the catechism class during which we were introduced to the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The first question (and my favorite) is “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
The answer to this question was ingrained in me early in my life. And, I think, it’s the reason why I quickly see the holy in children playing in sprinklers on a hot summer’s day…or how sacred it can be to just laugh together with a group of friends. Enjoyment is a part of our highest calling to be a holy people.
My dad is a physician. He heals people (and/or keeps them healthy) for a living. In his medical practice, he doesn’t do that through anointing or prayer. Rather, he heals people using science.
As I grew up and learned about what he did, I also learned about why he was a physician. It quickly became clear that his job was a holy thing informed and guided by his faith in a God who wants humanity to be whole and healthy…not just in spirit, but in body and mind as well. His job was a sacred one, but not because he was talking about Jesus or God, but because he was living out his calling.
My favorite Broadway production is Les Misérables. I grew up listening to it, singing it, and learning how to play its songs on piano. It was one of the first shows I ever saw in a big theatre, and it was even quoted at my wedding. It’s not a sacred play…it’s not about God. It’s set during one of the French Revolutions and centers around the protagonist, an ex-convict turned mayor turned adopted father.
While the play is certainly not a “sacred” play, it begins and ends with some stunningly sacred moments. Near the beginning, when Jean Valjean has yet to get on his feet, he steals from a priest. Instead of sending him back to jail, the priest sends him away with more silver than what had been stolen and a blessing to make a better life for himself. . Then, one of the last lines sung in the entire production is the phrase “to love another person is to see the face of God.” Forgiveness (from the priest) makes the entire plotline possible by giving Jean Valjean a chance to live out in the world. Love of his neighbor transforms Jean Valjean into the loving father and hero of the story.
When I combine these life experiences with scripture, the line between secular and sacred continues to shift, morph, and sometimes even disappear.
The book of Esther
The book of Esther, found in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), is obviously “sacred,” right? It’s a part of scripture, for goodness sake! When I learned that God is never mentioned, I found that fact curious and instructive.
Mark, Chapter 7 – The Syrophoenician Woman
In Mark 7 (and Matthew 15) we find the story of a Gentile (Syrophoenician) woman challenging Jesus when he would not heal her daughter. She was not Jewish, but because of her deep faith in Jesus, her daughter was healed. At that moment, it didn’t matter what religion she was. It only mattered that she believed Jesus could heal and bring wholeness.
Matthew 8 – “Lord, I am not worthy”
I currently serve a Roman Catholic parish. It strikes me that every time they prepare to take communion, the last words used by the assembly are “Lord, I am not worthy to come under your roof; but only speak the word, and your servant will be healed”- an adaption from Matthew 8:8. The words are those of a Roman Centurion – once again, not one of Jesus’ disciples and not a Jew. He was an outsider, and yet his words are included in the Gospel and are now spoken weekly by millions of Christians around the world.
Bridging the Gap
So, here are some songs that bridge the gap of secular and sacred for me. Some mention God, others don’t. They don’t come from the church, but they do come from a place or speak of a place that I find sacred.
Bob Marley – One Love
One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right
Regina Spektor – Laughing With
No one’s laughing at God, we’re all laughing with God
Ben Folds – The Luckiest
I love you more then have ever found the way to say to you
Belinda Carlisle – Heaven Is A Place On Earth
In this world we’re just beginning to understand the miracle of living
Les Misérables – Epilogue
To love another person is to see the face of God
In collaboration with the Center for Sacred Music at Virginia Wesleyan University, we are excited to be singing together this Veterans Day. The festival, “In Times of Trouble, O God of Peace,” will include a hymn written during World War I, great hymns of the faith, and some new hymns written about God’s kingdom of peace. We hope you’ll join us for this festival of song in which we’ll pray and sing together.
Brian Hehn is an inspiring song-leader equally comfortable leading an acapella singing of “It Is Well” as he is drumming and dancing to “Sizohamba Naye.” Experienced using a variety of genres and instrumentations, he has lead worship for Baptists, Roman Catholics, United Methodists, Presbyterians, and many more across the U.S. and Canada. He received his Bachelor of Music Education from Wingate University, his Master of Sacred Music from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and is certified in children’s church music (K-12) by Choristers Guild. He has articles published on sacred music and congregational song in multiple journals and co-authored the book All Hands In: Drumming the Biblical Narrative, published by Choristers Guild. While working for The Hymn Society as the Director of The Center for Congregational Song, he is also Associate Director of Contemporary Music at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, Maryland, and adjunct professor of church music at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina. Brian lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with his wife, Eve, and son, Jakob.
INVITATION TO BROOKLYN
The “Centered in Song” launch tour for The Center for Congregational Song is coming to Brooklyn! Join organist, composer, and master song leader Mark Miller for a day celebrating the importance and power of congregational song. There will be sessions on justice in music-making, introducing The Center for Congregational Song, and a closing hymn festival. Come join in the song!
Mark Miller believes passionately that music can change the world. He also believes in Cornell West’s quote that ‘Justice is what love looks like in public.’ His dream is that the music he composes, performs, teaches and leads will inspire and empower people to create the beloved community. Mark serves as Assistant Professor of Church Music at Drew Theological School and is a Lecturer in the Practice of Sacred Music at Yale University. He also is the Minister of Music of Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey.
Jacque Jones has been writing in various forms all her life and in recent years has taken up the challenge of writing hymn texts. Her hymn text collection Songs Unchanged Yet Ever Changing was published in 2015 by GIA. Jacque has been a member of The Hymn Society since 2003, and is currently serving as its Immediate Past President, having served previously as Treasurer and President. A native of Texas, Jacque lives in New York and is an active member of the laity at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.
Ana Hernandez is a composer/arranger, workshop facilitator, author, and mischief maker. She works with people to create beautiful liturgies in many different styles; from early music to contemplative, to drummy and participatory. She facilitates deep and meaningful conversations using the Art of Hosting modalities.
Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.
Invitation to Toronto
Join us to learn about our ground-breaking new resource The Center for Congregational Song! You will hear from some of Toronto’s top song leaders and hymnologists and sing together in a “Big Sing,” celebrating the diversity of the church’s song.
Registration is free, but required so that we can make sure that our venue has enough space to house everyone.
RSVP for this event using the form below:
Dr. Lim Swee Hong is the Deer Park Associate Professor of Sacred Music at Emmanuel College, and the Director of the Master of Sacred Music Program. Before joining Emmanuel on July 1, 2012, Swee Hong served as an Assistant Professor of Church Music at Baylor University, Texas. Prior to his work at Baylor, he served as the Lecturer of Worship, Liturgy, and Music at Trinity Theological College in Singapore. He is also the Director of Research for the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.
We are excited to have an all-star lineup of Toronto-based leaders!
Rev. Denise Gillard is the founder and Executive Artistic Director of TC3 and The HopeWorks Connection, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to empower youth through the performing arts, academics and relieving poverty.
Jason Locke is a church musician, choir director and composer, living in Toronto, Canada.
Hussein Janmohamed is a Toronto-based choral artist, composer and music facilitator/conductor passionate about excellence in the choral arts as a medium for cultural dialogue, building positive relations, and accessing the human spirit.
Lori-Anne Dolloff is Associate Professor of Music Education and the Area Head for Choral Music at the Faculty of Music in the University of Toronto. Her research in music education has also served to support music education in First Nations communities. Dolloff is also a composer/arranger with many choral pieces published with Boosey & Hawkes, and is frequently sought out as a guest conductor for choral festivals and workshops.
Hilary Seraph Donaldson is a congregational song enlivener with a passion for strengthening community through shared song, global music, and paperless worship.
Becca Whitla works as a community music maker and organizer in Toronto and is the Director of Chapel at Emmanuel College. For Becca, music is a critical, vibrant and healing part of any community.
We are grateful to our co-sponsors for this event, the Southern Ontario Chapter of The Hymn Society, or “SOCHS.” For more information on SOCHS, you can go to their website: http://sochs.org/
Author – Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.
Words Words Words
We get so caught up in what a song or hymn says through its lyrics/verses. I’ve watched debates rage on about what a text means and whether it has “good theology.” There are books written on analyzing texts, and pastors often analyze a song or hymn’s appropriateness for their congregation based on the words alone. We are fixated on words and the words are the primary and often only metric we use to determine theological content. But this overemphasis on words (or neglect of other aspects of congregational singing) misses the point. Let me give two scenarios to consider:
Imagine, if you will, a congregation standing up to sing the opening hymn for their Sunday morning service. They wait for the instrumental introduction as usual and then begin singing. Their singing could be described in the following ways: partial interest, partial participation, mezzo piano dynamic, lazy and at times indiscernible diction, slumped shoulders, heads down, no bodily movement, a few smiles but mostly neutral facial expressions.
As they sing, the instrumental accompaniment goes like this:
Praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise God in his sanctuary; [Generic organ registration preset 1]
praise him in his mighty firmament! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise him for his mighty deeds; [Generic organ registration preset 1]
praise him according to his surpassing greatness! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise him with trumpet sound; [Generic organ registration preset 1]
praise him with lute and harp! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise him with tambourine and dance; [Generic organ registration preset 1]
praise him with strings and pipe! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise him with clanging cymbals; [Generic organ registration preset 1]
praise him with loud clashing cymbals! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1]
Praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1 with added crescendo pedal and long last chord]
The theology of the words is hard to critique since they’re straight out of scripture. So I’m assuming the majority of you who are reading this would not attempt to argue the theology of the words. This song has “good theology,” right?
I recently attended a “Circle Songs” retreat at the Omega Institute in New York State. The leaders were Bobby McFerrin and his colleagues that make up the group “Give Me Five.” In what they call “circle singing,” a group standing in a circle is led in multiple improvised repetitive parts usually using an improvised (made up) language by the leader, very similar to scat in jazz singing. Here’s an example of a circle song in that style:
Now imagine a worship service emphasizing the creativeness of God and God’s creation that includes a song like this. There are no “words” per se, but rather the song contains made-up syllables that provide the mechanism for the improvised melodies to interlock with each other. The singing is embodied and joyful. The singers make eye contact with each other and everyone is engaged in the music making. The textures of the sound change constantly as new layers are being added or subtracted or as the leader improvises a melody over the top.
Using the typical conversations I’ve seen to determine whether this song has “good theology,” it would quickly become apparent that this song not only doesn’t have good theology, it has no theology.
By hyperfocusing on a hymn or song’s words without considering who is singing it or when/where they’re singing it (both historically and liturgically) is missing out on a whole lot of theological content that goes beyond the written word.
Expanding Our Metrics
I’d argue that both scenarios help us see how the current conversations surrounding whether a song has “good theology” are woefully unsubstantial. By hyperfocusing on a hymn or song’s words without considering who is singing it or when/where they’re singing it (both historically and liturgically) is missing out on a whole lot of theological content that goes beyond the written word.
Scenario 1 contains words that have what most of you would consider “good theology.” But if the hymn is led and sung in the way described above, I would argue that the song has terrible theology. By singing in that way, we’re telling God, “I’ll praise you a little bit…but not with ALL my being…that would be ridiculous.” We’re telling God, “I’ll praise you with 40% of my being…that’s all I can muster right now.” We’re telling each other, “I love God, but not as much as I love watching the game and eating wings.” This, my friends, is bad theology. I don’t care what the words say.
Scenario 2 most certainly contains theology, but none of it can be ascertained by listening to the words. In fact, I’d argue that scenario 2 contains better theology than scenario 1. While the words don’t contain any explicit theological content, the embodiment of the singing and the spirit with which it is sung contains strong theological content. Furthermore, by placing a joyful improvised piece of music within the context of a service centered around the idea of God’s creativeness and the creativeness of God’s creation, we are telling God, “We are thankful for and enjoy the gift you gave us that is creativity.” We are telling God, “We will praise you in every way we can think of and in constantly new ways.” We are telling each other, “You are a part of God’s creation and we are in this together. I’m listening to you and want to be in community with you.” These are theologically rich statements, all made without uttering a single word of an established language.
The challenge for many of us is to listen.
The challenge for many of us is to listen. Before determining for ourselves or especially for others whether a song has “good” or “bad” theology, there must be a process of listening.
Listen to the experience of others. How are they experiencing a song?
Listen to the experience of our elders. How have they experienced a song in the past?
Listen to the community’s voice as it sings. Is it sounding? Is it silent? Is it anemic? Is it joyful?
Listen to the context. What surrounds the song culturally? What surrounds the song liturgically?
Listen to your own voice. Does the song resonate with your own faith journey? Does the song challenge your faith journey?
Listen to the words. Yes, of course words are important! They form our minds and shape our hearts. Are the words borne from scriptural waters? Are the words pastoral or prophetic? Do the words support or challenge God’s people on their journey? Do the words speak Truth?
INVITATION TO EL SOBRANTE
Join us for a day of celebrating the power and importance of singing together. This event is one of the last of many events during our year long nationwide tour to celebrate the opening of The Center for Congregational Song. The leadership will include some of the most skilled and forward-thinking song leaders and composers from the San Francisco Bay area.
A Special thanks to our sponsor and partner for this event, Music That Makes Community.
Registration costs $20 and includes lunch. We are happy to accommodate any dietary restrictions you may have if you indicate those restrictions in your registration form.
Eileen M. Johnson studied at Westminster Choir College (BMus) and Concordia University, River Forest (MCM), with further studies at Bethany Theological Seminary and Pacific School of Religion. Johnson holds the Colleague certification from the American Guild of Organists and is a former Executive Committee member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. She was on the editorial team for the hymnal supplement Spirit Anew: Singing Prayer and Praise (WoodLake Books) and has written hymn performance columns and reviews of hymn-based music for The Hymn. Johnson is a contributor to the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. She currently serves as Music Director at El Sobrante United Methodist Church, El Sobrante, California, where she plays organ and piano, directs an adult choir and handbell choir, and leads the Kairos Praise Band (while playing electric bass).
Donald Schell’s forty plus years experience as an Episcopal priest has included work as a university chaplain (with a daily, sung liturgy), as vicar of small-town mission church in Idaho, and (with Rick Fabian) as founder and rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church, San Francisco. In all these settings Donald has found music essential to building liturgical community and touching people’s hearts for mission. Since beginning Music that Makes Community as a project of All Saints Company, Donald worked with a network of clergy and church musicians recovering and renewing community-based practices of learning and sharing singing. In 2007, just after launching Music that Makes Community as a project, Donald joined All Saints Company full time in order to consult, publish, and lead workshops on the discoveries made at St. Gregory’s and develop Music that Makes Community workshops and network. For the program year beginning September 2014, Donald is serving as Interim Rector of Christ Church (Episcopal), Portola Valley, California. Donald has written My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago and has contributed chapters to Searching for Sacred Space, to What Would Jesus Sing? and to Music By Heart: Paperless Songs for Evening Worship.
Dan Damon is an internationally published writer of hymn texts and tunes, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Richmond, CA, and adjunct faculty in church music at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. Dan plays piano in clubs in the San Francisco area and studied piano and composition with Richard Hindman. Three collections of Dan’s hymns have been published, and his hymns can be found in many hymnals.
Rosa Cándida Ramírez is the worship Pastor of La Fuente Ministries, an intercultural, intergenerational bilingual ministry in Pasadena, California. As a second generation Latina, she is passionate about the role of language and culture in worship, and the creation of bilingual worship resources. During her time as a student, she worked with Fuller Theological Seminary’s All-Seminary Chapel in helping create intercultural worship and is currently working as a consultant with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.
Author – Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.
Although not verified through any written text, it is common for hymnologists and church musicians to quote the 20th century hymnological giant Eric Routley as saying that church musicians are “denominationally promiscuous.” I must confess that I fall into that category. Raised in South Georgia, my father was a former Roman Catholic and my mother a former Southern Baptist. So when it was time to raise us in a church family, they found a liturgical compromise by attending a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation with solid children’s and youth programs. Upon entering college, I found myself attending and eventually serving as a music intern for a Cooperative Baptist church. After four years there, I entered a United Methodist School of Theology and served United Methodist Churches as director of music for over seven years. Finally, my last two posts as associate director of music have been in a suburban Roman Catholic parish followed by a Roman Catholic Cathedral, where I currently serve. I should mention there was a 1-year period in there when I attended an ELCA Lutheran congregation with my family on Sunday mornings when my primary leadership role was for Sunday afternoon Catholic masses. While serving churches as a church musician has always been a part of my professional life, the other part has consisted of serving ecumenical non-profits and doing conferences/workshops for a variety of churches and organizations.
After working for and worshiping with so many different denominations, I have often asked myself questions like, “wouldn’t it be better to work for the denomination I actually resonate most closely with?” and “is it authentic for me to lead worship in a denomination with which I have some clear-cut theological and/or social disagreements?” These are important questions. But, for me, there’s just nowhere to serve that wouldn’t put me in the same position I’ve been at in every church/denomination I’ve served so far. Every denomination and/or tradition gets some things right and gets some things wrong. Every denomination and church has members that are closer to sinner and closer to saint at any given time. But what I have found in every context so far is that every denomination is full of clergy who have given their lives to try and lead God’s people, every church has staff who are trying their best to lead worship in spirit and in truth, and every worship service has congregants who are trying their best to find the Holy somewhere in this world and in themselves.
I’m grateful for my ecumenical journey, and I’ve learned a lot about my faith and the church universal by spending time with those who think and worship differently than I do. So here are the top three things I’ve learned from each denomination/church I’ve served so far, and the one thing I wish I could tell them.
Testimony is powerful.
What I Learned:
The tradition of strophic hymns and hymn-tunes from the 17th to the early 20th century is rich and important. A particular example that sticks out the most from my childhood is “God of Grace and God of Glory” set to CWM RHONDDA. It’s glorious.
The reliance on God because of God’s eternal nature and providence. Our long-time pastor started every service for years by reading Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” This simple truth about God’s nature is ingrained in me, giving me a perspective that helps see me through times when the church, other people, or I mess up. God is bigger than our mistakes, always.
The organ’s primary role in worship is to lead the people’s song. I was blessed with two dedicated and talented organists during my time growing up who understood this and put it into practice week in and week out.
What I Wish I Could Tell Them:
It’s okay to use your body in worship…really…it’s ok. In fact, it’s a good thing. Loosen up a little bit for goodness sake!
Baptists (Cooperative and otherwise)
What I Learned:
Having a different theological or social stance on issues is okay, and you can deal with those disagreements in a healthy way. The first Sunday I attended my Cooperative Baptist Church involved a congregational meeting where folks were testifying about what they did and didn’t believe about God, the church, and certain social stances…and they all listened and respected each other’s thoughts and finally voted on a decision. They moved on as a cohesive congregation who believed in each other’s sincere desire to follow God’s will.
Testimony is powerful. The number of testimonies I heard over those four years was amazing, and they held power and spoke truth because they were rooted in that community and their collective faith story. The hymn “I Love to Tell the Story” finally became meaningful to me because of their constant witness and testimonies.
The Holy Spirit is a real thing that moves in ways that can often be surprising! Trusting that the Spirit is actively working and moving is important and powerful.
What I Wish I Could Tell Them:
Stop identifying yourselves through denominational structures (American Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, Southern Baptists, etc…). It’s undermining the beautiful congregational system that you all have and is a PR nightmare in the 21st Century.
What I Learned:
The importance of Chuck. Charles Wesley’s hymn texts are one of the greatest gifts to the church universal in the last 300 years. They are beloved by Methodists, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, ELCA Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians alike.
New and/or radical theological stances by a denomination can/does spur a flurry of musical output. The open table in United Methodist Worship has inspired a significant number of composers and authors to create new texts and tunes to sing. Some of these hymns and songs have already been picked up by many other denominations and traditions for frequent use…including those who do not profess an open table officially but are doing so in practice.
Liturgical flexibility can be empowering. When used well, the willingness to be flexible liturgically can allow for powerful worship moments that address modern issues head on and challenge the way congregants think, pray, and act. The United Methodists I’ve hung around with tend to do a good job of honoring inherited worship patterns, while allowing space and time to explore new ideas.
What I Wish I Could Tell Them:
You’re not as big and important as you think you are. While most (all?) denominations seem to suffer from this in some way, my experience has been that United Methodists are particularly keen on believing that they are one of the “big dogs” in world-wide Christianity. In reality, you are just one of the many pieces of the pie. Important, yes. More or less influential than many other Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox denominations…probably not.
What I Learned:
There was wisdom in maintaining the order of the Mass during and after the Reformation. To pull vocabulary from the prominent Evangelical worship theologian Robert Webber, there is something “Ancient Modern” about Lutheran Worship because they’ve maintained the Mass structure but have spent the last 500 years contextualizing it to the modern world.
Taking pride in your denominational identity can be a powerful way to motivate people to study church history and dig into theology. I happened to be attending a Lutheran congregation during the “Reformation 500” year. This celebration was a wonderful exploration not only into what it means to be a Lutheran, but also what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
The “Lutheran Chorale” is a rich legacy of hymn singing. Like the hymns of Charles Wesley, this tradition of congregational song has become an ecumenical unifier. They are a gift to the church and are used well beyond churches that call themselves Lutheran.
What I Wish I Could Tell Them:
Stop pretending that Luther sang Bach harmonies…he didn’t. Dig further into your own history of performance practice to inspire yourselves on how innovative you could be in the 21st century by following in the footsteps of all those great Lutheran musicians of the past who innovated and connected your tradition of singing together to the world around them.
People often ask me where I see the future of congregational singing going.
What I Learned:
There is a timelessness to what we do. Singing chant that is over 1000 years old during a Mass whose structure is equally ancient in a building that contains pictures of the saints from the ages reinforces the timelessness of God and of worship.
A wonderful term for what we (clergy and other worship leaders) do is a “leader of prayer.” If your primary question as a leader is, “how can I lead the people in prayer,” then you’re off to a good pastoral start.
Even a denomination that prides itself on being the “first church” is often (and usually unintentionally) ecumenical through its congregational song. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Roman Catholics since Vatican II have been relying on other traditions to help them sing, and they are the better for it.
What I Wish I Could Tell Them:
You will soon no longer represent the majority of Christians around the world, and you’re already more ecumenical than you realize…just name it, own it, and lead the way into the age of ecumenism.
People often ask me where I see the future of congregational singing going. Like the general world-wide trend of Christian denominations and the general population trend of the U.S., I think that we are shifting (or possibly have already shifted) away from a culture of majorities to a culture of pluralities. There won’t be songs that we can identify that the majority of Christians sing. There won’t be genres that the majority of Christians sing. There will be many identifiable trends that are equally interesting, useful, problematic, and complex within the church’s song. And, to me, that means we’re getting that much closer to singing what God sounds like: an intermingling of different pitches, rhythms, and timbres from all times and places that create something beautiful and unexpected.
A future post will deal with the pedagogical implications of working in the church when pluralities are realities.