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Questions for the Director – A Problem In My Aging Church

Does your church choir look something like this? A small number of people, mostly aging, many dealing with health and well-being issues? Here’s a question that came into my inbox last month that I know many of us are struggling with:



The Question

Dear Brian,

I have a growing problem in my aging church.  We just began having choir again in September, and my choir has always been small—if I have 8, that’s a big Sunday.  Three of my choir members are now struggling with early stages of dementia and Parkinson’s, and I have a lot of difficulties that I’ve never had before.

We moved our rehearsal time to 9:00 AM Sunday morning, and we sing for about 30 minutes.  Often, they forget to come, and show up at about 9:45 wanting to sing.  (Their phones confuse them, so texted reminders are not helpful.)

It seems that the best I can do is try to roll with it.  We no longer use published sheet music—we sing hymns, and I copy them on colored paper so I can tell them to look for the green one, the yellow one, etc.  They each have a notebook with their name on the front.  We sing every other Sunday, and we only sing songs that they have done in the past.  Learning something new is just an exercise in futility.

Are there any resources for this?  I have no budget, and try to purchase a St. James Music Press membership myself, every couple of years.

Two of them will probably be going to assisted living/memory care soon, and the third has a husband who takes care of her.  I realize that this is a problem that will resolve itself, but until then, what are some things that I can do to help them continue to enjoy singing?

The Answer

Dear Sibling in Christ,

First, let me say that you are not alone. In the year 2000, 45% of churches had fewer than 100 in weekly attendance. Now, that number has climbed to over 65%. Many churches either have small choirs or no choir at all. And, of course, many of our choir members are also aging and dealing with the health and well-being issues that come with age.

The first part of my answer is going to rely heavily on an earlier article I wrote entitled “The Four Functions of A Church Choir.” The article argues that before we emphasize singing “beautiful and challenging music to praise God and edify the congregation,” there are three other aspects of the choir that must be prioritized:

  1. The church choir leads and enlivens the congregation’s song
  2. The church choir sings music that the congregation cannot
  3. The church choir serves as a small-group within the church for faith formation


Function #1

It’s important to remember that a church choir’s number one priority is to be from and for the larger congregation. So never feel badly if your group is simply there to rehearse and support the hymns your congregation sings each Sunday. That is an important role! Beyond just singing the hymns as written, there are some easy but creative ways to utilize a choir to enhance the congregation’s song/singing.
Here are a few examples:

Look for changes of voice in a hymn text and use that as an opportunity for choral and/or solos for your group. The hymn “Here I Am, Lord” by Dan Schutte is a well known and beloved hymn. The unusual thing about that hymn is that the text’s point of view changes between the verses and the refrain. The verses are God speaking (“I, the Lord of Sea and Sky”). The refrain is the response by the people (“Here I am, Lord”). This is a great opportunity to point that out to your congregation and let the choir represent God’s voice by singing the verses and let the congregation respond to God by singing the refrain.

Think of hymn singing as an orchestration with the congregation, choir, soloists, and instruments as options for your symphony. There is something powerful in music that can bring people on a journey. One of the things I lament is when I attend a service where every hymn is played at the same dynamic with generally the same sounds throughout the morning. Let’s use “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” as an example. The opening stanza is a plea to God:

Come, thou Fount of every blessing

Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above

Stanzas two and three are faith statements and the response to God’s overwhelming grace:

Here I raise my Ebenezer

Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God

here’s my heart; O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above”.

So what if you orchestrated  it like this:

  • Piano Introduction – Melody only, a little slower than normal
  • Keep stanza 1 relatively slow and heart-felt
  • Soloist 1 – “Come, thou Fount of every blessing; tune my heart to sing thy grace”
  • Soloist 2 – “streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.”
  • Full Choir – “Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above; praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
    mount of God’s unchanging love!”
  • Piano interlude – Play the last phrase “mount of God’s unchanging love” in the new upbeat tempo
  • Congregation sings stanza 2 with choir and piano at new upbeat tempo
  • Stanza 3 – Piano drops out on third word “grace” so that the rest of stanza 3 is a capella with congregation and choir
  • Choir and piano do a tag on the end by repeating “Seal it for thy courts above” while slowing down.


Function #2 & #3

The second function of a church choir “The church choir sings music that the congregation cannot” might be hindered by the health of your group, especially if many of them are showing signs of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s. At that point, it’s really important to lean into the third function of a church choir “The church choir serves as a small-group within the church for faith formation.” A church choir, and especially their leader, must be more concerned about each other’s well-being than they are with the beauty of the music they want to make. Don’t get me wrong, I love excellent music-making, but I don’t remember Jesus saying “heal the sick…unless you want to make some awesome choral music in which case leave those folks behind.” The call of discipleship means that there are times or seasons in life when being Christ to one other means creating less-than-perfect music.

Like you said in your message to me, “It seems that the best I can do is try to roll with it.” Exactly. Your consistency and presence with those choir members is likely one of the balms that is healing their minds and hearts each week. There will probably come a time when navigating holding music and arriving on time and remembering how to read music becomes more of a frustration than a blessing for some of these folks. At that time it’s important to have a trusting relationship with them and their caretakers so that a good decision can be made about their weekly activities. But until then, never underestimate the importance of what you’re doing by simply being there to sing a couple of hymns with them.


Let me close by pointing you to a few good practical resources for small church choirs that I hope will be useful to you in the short term:
Brian Hehn, Director of The Center for Congregational Song



The Prompt

I’m sure 99% of you reading this have heard about the new “ChatGPT” ai chatbot. I decided to give it a whirl, so on Friday, March 3rd, 2023, I typed into the promt:

Write a daily news article about congregational song

Below is the brief article the chatbot wrote. I was impressed but skeptical. Upon further research, I could not confirm where the quotes were from and could also not find the article the chatbot cited from the journal Psychology of Music. I reached out to the only “Sarah Johnson” I know of in the field of congregational song scholarship. Dr. Johnson wrote in their email reply to me:

I definitely have not published in Psychology of Music. Furthermore, I do not think I have written these specific sentences, although I have been known to say things like this sometimes.

So it seems that both the quotes from “Dr. Sarah Johnson” and the journal article were made up…they’re a lie.

While I agree with pretty much the entire article and could see myself writing something almost exactly like it, I wince at the reality of the situation. This article, on its surface, is in service to the church for the glory of God. But the God I love and believe in does not communicate in lies. God works through truth. The author of the article below is not human and cares nothing about God or the human beings that might or might not be influenced by its writing. Truthfully…I’m not sure what to do next or what to think about it.


The ChatGPT Article

The article between the dotted lines is the unedited ChatGPT article.


Congregational Song: The Power of Music to Bring People Together

March 3, 2023

In today’s fast-paced world, people often find it difficult to connect with one another. However, there is one thing that has the power to bring people together like nothing else: music. Specifically, congregational song, or singing together in a religious context, has been shown to have a profound impact on people’s sense of community and belonging.

According to a recent study published in the journal Psychology of Music, congregational singing has a unique ability to foster a sense of togetherness and belonging among participants. The study, which surveyed over 1,000 people from a variety of religious backgrounds, found that those who regularly participated in congregational singing reported feeling more connected to their communities and more fulfilled in their spiritual lives.

“Congregational singing has the power to unite people across differences,” says Dr. Sarah Johnson, one of the authors of the study. “When we sing together, we create a shared experience that transcends individual differences and brings us together as a community.”

This sense of togetherness and belonging is particularly important in today’s world, where many people feel isolated and disconnected from those around them. Congregational singing provides a sense of connection and purpose that is often lacking in other areas of life.

But congregational singing isn’t just important for spiritual fulfillment; it also has physical and emotional benefits. Singing has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve overall wellbeing. Additionally, singing in a group has been shown to increase feelings of happiness and satisfaction.

Of course, congregational singing isn’t without its challenges. Many religious communities have struggled to maintain their singing traditions in the face of changing demographics and evolving cultural norms. However, many communities have found creative ways to adapt, using technology and other innovations to make congregational singing accessible to everyone.

For example, some churches have started hosting virtual sing-alongs, where members can participate in congregational singing from the comfort of their own homes. Others have started using social media to share recordings of congregational songs, allowing members to sing along even when they can’t be physically present.

Despite the challenges, congregational singing remains a powerful force for community building and spiritual fulfillment. As Dr. Johnson puts it, “When we sing together, we create a space where people can come together, share their experiences, and feel a sense of belonging. That’s something that’s desperately needed in today’s world, and it’s something that congregational singing can provide.”



Like any tool that humans have made, they contain the potential to help us love or to help us hate, to help us truth-tell or to help us lie, to help us heal or to help us hurt. As we all have fun with the new ai tools that are being created and published, let people of faith proceed with caution that whatever we do is done in Love and Truth.


Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song


Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.


Reworking hymns and music of the past

Church musicians have always used, referenced, altered, and/or been inspired by Christian artists of the past. Our current age is no different, and so a common thread in some very popular contemporary…”praise and worship”…CWM…CCM (what do YOU call it!?) songs reference some of the great hymns of the past. One popular example of this in our current song repertoire is the added refrain to “Amazing Grace” which starts with “My Chains Are Gone.” The added refrain is written by Louie Giglio (of the Passion Movement) and Chris Tomlin (probably the reason you know this song). Another well-known example of this type of congregational song is “It Is Well” by Kristene DiMarco, which is the subject of today’s blog.

These types of songs always fascinate me. I end up asking why they felt the need to add or change the hymn. An age-old question asked of every hymnal editor since the beginning of time…How does what they added, subtracted, or altered change the meaning of the hymn? Let’s look at these songs side-by-side to see what’s going on.

Here is the hymn written by Horatio Gates Spafford (1873) and found in over four-hundred hymnals so far. The video below is a lovely TTBB arrangement.


Here is the new version of the hymn that heavily references the original but is certainly an original song written by Bethel’s Kristene Elizabeth Dimarco.

Text Comparison

When Peace Like A River (It Is Well)
Horatio Gates Spafford (1873)

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control:
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and has shed his own blood for my soul. Refrain

My sin oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! Refrain

O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend;
even so, it is well with my soul. Refrain


It Is Well
(as performed with Kristene DiMarco)

Grander earth has quaked before
Moved by the sound of His voice
Seas that are shaken and stirred
Can be calmed and broken for my regard
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all
It is well
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
It is well with me
Far be it for me to not believe
Even when my eyes can’t see
And this mountain that’s in front of me
Will be thrown into the midst of the sea
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all
It is well
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
It is well, it is well
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name
The waves and wind still know His name
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all
It is well, Lord
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
And it is well with me


Stanza One

The opening stanza of Spafford’s hymn uses two creation-based images to describe the ups and downs of life. This is immediately followed by “whatever my lot” which alludes to God’s providence and control over all things including one’s station in life. The end of stanza 1 and the refrain then give us the basic idea of always giving praise to God by trusting in God’s love and care. This is the powerful idea that is likely why the hymn continues to be known and loved today. DiMarco’s first four lines double-down on that same idea that God is 100% in control and can (does?) move any part of creation for the sake of a single person. The refrain, while slightly different in text, does not change the essential message of Spafford’s original.

So, after the opening stanzas and refrains, the two songs are tracking well together with no substantial theological changes.


Stanza Two

In stanza two, Spafford introduces the idea that Satan is the one who creates the trials and temptations (the “sorrows like sea billows”) which need to be overcome. Indeed, Spafford goes so far as to say that we are helpless in the face of Satan’s trials and temptations. But, it is through Christ’s death that our souls are kept safe (For more on the “ransom atonement theory,” here’s a simple handout from a class at Notre Dame University). And so it is in stanza two that Christ’s saving acts are brought into play.

DiMarco’s text does not move on from stanza one, but rather moves into the responsibility of the believer. “Far be it for me to not believe | Even when my eyes can’t see | And this mountain that’s in front of me | Will be thrown into the midst of the sea” seems to be pulling ideas from John 20:29 (the story of Thomas not believing in Christ’s resurrection and Jesus responding with “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” ) and Matthew 17:20-21 (where Jesus says, “I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do.”).

So it is at stanza two that we have a departure. DiMarco moves into the importance and power of the individual’s faith while Spafford moves to the power of Christ’s salvation over the works and power of Satan. Neither of these are wrong, but they are certainly different.


Stanza Three

In stanza three Spafford doubles down on the importance of Christ’s crucifixion with “my sin…is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more” and follows it with words of praise. The focus of the text remains the work of Christ and not the work of the individual.

DiMarco’s text continues to focus on the faith of the individual by entreating the singer’s soul to “let go” and “trust in Him…The waves and wind still know His name” multiple times. This desperate plea seems to have resonances with the story in Mark 9 where the father of a demon-possessed child is told by Jesus “All things are possible for the one who has faith” to which the father cries back “I have faith; help my lack of faith!”. There’s a noticeable difference, though, in that DiMarco’s text placing the responsibility of belief on only the singer while the Gospel of Mark seems to be acknowledging the complexities of faith when we do believe…but we still need help from God to fully believe.


Stanza Four

Spafford concludes the hymn as many great hymns do, with an eye towards the coming kingdom of God. This eschatological turn using images from the Book of Revelation reminds the singer that the struggle between Satan and God, the persistence of evil and pain and suffering are not the end of the story. The final stanza ends with an acknowledgement that even though we live in a time when evil and pain and suffering do still exist, “even so, it is well with my soul.”

DiMarco does not provide a fourth stanza but rather moves into a repetition of “It is well with my soul” as somewhat of a mantra. Those familiar with meditation or the power of cyclical song forms such as those from Taize or parts of Sub-Saharan Africa understand the power that the repetition of a single phrase can have. As is common in many songs in the CWM/CCM/Praise&Worship genre, the emphasis of the song is to experience God through the making of music together rather than by the attempted explanation of God through words.



While the two songs share a common refrain, the trajectory of the texts and the ultimate purpose of the songs are different. Spafford’s text places the majority of the agency on the salvific works of Christ with an eschatological hopefulness. DiMarco’s text is an statement of God’s power followed by a mantra designed for the singer to manifest a belief in that powerful God. With that conclusion, my recommendation is this: do not replace one song for the other! Spafford’s hymn is a powerful text that keeps us focused on the work of Christ that was done, is still being accomplished, and will ultimately be completed. DiMarco’s song provides a powerful opportunity to sing our faith into being. If I had it my way, I’d use DiMarco’s song near the beginning of the service and use Spafford’s hymn for a sending song. If I had to choose one or the other, I’ll stick with Spafford’s consistent focus on Christ.


This question recently came in to The Hymn Society staff. It’s a variation on a question we get asked a lot, so I thought it would be a great blog post to share more widely.


The Question

Good morning,
I’m writing on behalf of the Racial Justice Task Force at St. ________ Episcopal Church in ______.  As a predominantly white congregation seeking to become a more Beloved Community, we are exploring ways we can be more respectful, inclusive, and accountable in including Negro Spirituals into our worship services, as well as in our music and educational programs. Would you know of any written or video resources to guide us in best practices of other predominantly white congregations on this same journey?  We’d appreciate any recommendations you may have.
We are already looking forward to Dr. Eileen Guenther’s visit and presentation to our congregation in early 2023.  In preparation, we are reading her book (In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals) and hoping to do some additional research and learning on the subject.

The Answer

Dear sister in Christ,

First, I’d like to thank you for the work you and your congregation have done and continue to do concerning racial justice. The sins of white supremacy and Christian nationalism continue to take precious lives and the church must repent and run tirelessly towards God’s kingdom on earth. Please be encouraged that you are doing Godly work and that when you fail (and in doing this difficult work you will most certainly fail or take missteps), it is an opportunity to learn and keep moving! Below is a list of resources (most of which are congregational song focused since that is our area of ministry) that I hope you’ll find helpful.

I hope this list of ideas and resources help in your journey. God be with you!
Brian Hehn, Director of The Center for Congregational Song

Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.


One of the things I love about my job is that it is my responsibility to find new great resources, artists, and communities who are doing the work of creating, leading, and encouraging congregational song. Below are three new communities and a songwriter that I want to make sure you are aware of. Like many  who write new songs, they are doing work with specific goals and communities in mind, responding to that group’s perceived needs and/or distinct calling. So, if you look at one of these and think “this isn’t for me,” that’s okay! You might know someone else for whom it might be perfect, so please share it with them.


Community of Peace

Inspired by the Taize community in France, this new (founded in 2021!) community in central Virginia will “offer a warm welcome to all, a beautiful sung prayer, a dialogue for peace and racial reconciliation, solidarity with and service to the most vulnerable in society.” Led by song leader Brother Stefan Andre Waligur, this community promises to be a shining light and a place where song flourishes.


The Meek Squad

Based out of Durham, North Carolina, this community is committed to living together as friends and worshiping together as siblings in Christ with differing abilities. They recently teamed up with a producer to record an album of the songs that were born out of their lives together. I’ll be interviewing this group soon to talk about their album and their worship community. Watch for more details soon!


Q Worship Collective

This group describes themselves as “a fierce collective of divergent artists who have experienced parallel spiritual journeys delving into the intersection of holy and queer creative expression.” For Christ followers, churches, and denominations who are LGBTQ+ affirming, there is certainly a need for more and curated resources that speak with an authentic voice. This group is taking it upon themselves to fill that need.


Beverly Song Burton

I got an email from Beverly Song Burton about the new hymn she had written and recorded. These types of emails are not uncommon in my inbox! This song caught my eye and struck me as something immediately useful to a wide variety of churches. While the song is produced firmly within the black gospel genre, because of its strophic and four-part harmony structure this hymn could also be utilized in congregations who sing a capella or with a simple organ accompaniment. With Christ the King Sunday coming up in the liturgical year, this song would be a perfect fit.


Are there other communities and artists we should know about? Leave a link in the comments!


Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song, the outreach and resource arm of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.


Favorite Music Scriptures

When we talk about church music there are some go-to passages that we advocates for congregational singing love to quote and reference. Of course, the Book of Psalms is bound to come up. “Let everything that has breath,” am I right? One of my personal favorites is in Matthew 26 when Jesus “sang a hymn” with his disciples. Want to be like Jesus? Sing. But there is another mention of singing in the Bible that is relatively well-known but not quoted very often. That passage occasionally comes to mind and almost always shakes me to my core.

I hate, I reject your festivals;

I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.

If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—

I won’t be pleased;

I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.

Take away the noise of your songs;

I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.

(Amos 5:21-23, Common English Bible)

Wait, so you’re telling me that God can dislike my awesome songs of praise? God can…gulp…hate my amazing Easter service extravaganza that we rehearsed for months and spent half our yearly budget on? Well, Amos isn’t talking about me and my church. It’s the Old Testament, which we all know doesn’t really apply to us today, right? Right?!

To better understand this passage, we need to get some context. I’m going to be referencing two commentaries available online: the first is by Dennis Olson, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, which gives good background on the prophet and his context; the second is by theologian Marcus Borg, who gives some personal testimony about Amos’ influence on his own spiritual journey and then synthesizes Amos’ teachings for Americans today.



So, who was Amos and why was he so upset at Israel? Olson tells us,

“Amos worked full-time for much of his life as ‘a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees’ (Amos 1:1; 7:14) in the village of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah. One day God called this rancher and arborist to leave his vocation in order to become God’s mouthpiece and prophet to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos came as an outsider with strong warnings of God’s imminent judgment upon the king, the politically powerful, the wealthy and well-connected, and the religious establishment… Amos spoke at a time when Israel seemed to be flourishing. The economy was prospering, at least for some. The king maintained law and order, however skewed to the rich and powerful. Worship attendance at the king’s houses of worship was high.”

The description of Israel, in many ways, feels familiar. While we are in a global pandemic, things for some are going better than ever. Even though hundreds of thousands have lost their lives, lost their livelihoods, or are just struggling to make it day to day, the stock market is at an all-time high. Mortgage rates are at an all-time low making it easy, for some, to afford bigger and better houses. According to this article from Investopedia, “in 1962 the wealthiest 1% had net worths equal to approximately 125 times that of the average American household. Their net worths were shown to be approximately 225 times the net worth of the average household in 2009.” The gap today is even larger, and if you really want to dig into the injustices of our current economic situation, read this article from Forbes in 2020 on the racial wealth gap in America.

Of course, economic injustice is just one particular lens, but Amos is particularly pointed about that subject throughout his prophecy, so I think we should pay attention to it. In his commentary, Borg writes,

“Amos is not a solitary voice in the Bible. It is the voice of the exodus story of liberation from bondage to Pharaoh, of the laws in the Old Testament about land and debt, of Jesus’s passion for the Kingdom of God on earth. And of Paul’s proclamation of the lordship of Jesus over against the lordship of Caesar: a new creation, a way of being and living in this world brought about through life in Christ that is radically different from the lordship of Caesar, the lordship of domination.”



So how do we know if God hates or delights in our song each week? The inner critic in me (and the part of me who grew up Reformed with a thorough understanding of the whole total depravity thing) is terrified by this question. I wish I could just ignore Amos and carry on. But I can’t…he’s pesky.  The question will likely haunt me for the rest of my life, and I think that’s a good thing. After planning worship and singing heartfelt praise, it reminds me to check in.

  • Do the ideals I’m singing about line up with the way I’m living?
  • Am I on a journey towards the Goodness I proclaim God is, or am I wandering somewhere else?
  • Am I working towards the Kingdom of justice and peace?

When questioning whether God took delight in the worship I led or took part in, it’s easy to present myself with a dichotomy of yes/no. So, with gratefulness I turn to the wonderful Resurrection narrative of the walk to Emmaus. Jesus wasn’t upset that his disciples didn’t recognize him, nor did he lose his patience that they weren’t doing something more productive. Rather, he joined them on the path and continued to teach them until he dined with them and their eyes were opened.

God does not expect perfection from us, our country, the church, or the world. At the end of his commentary, Borg writes “Like every nation, every society, our future depends upon our present and how we shape our life together here and now.” Like the road to Emmaus, God is walking with us on this journey and expects us to continue learning from the Teacher: Learning how to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, Learning how to heal the sick, Learning how to share resurrection and life, Learning until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.


Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.



The United Methodist (UMC) organization “Discipleship Ministries” has just released a project that has been years in the making. As a denomination (like many mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S.), the variety of worship practices, music accompaniment styles, and song selection in the United Methodist Church is all over the map. For many genres that work well in printed song collections, the curation of hymns and songs has been handled through the creation of hymnals and hymnal supplements (The United Methodist Hymnal 1989, The Faith We Sing 2001, and Worship & Song 2011). For songs and genres that do not work as well on the printed page or that have been left out of those collections, however, there has been little guidance on which songs and hymns are best suited for congregational song in United Methodist worship services.

This situation is not unique to United Methodists, but is a broader issue that the majority of denominations find themselves in today.



A few years ago, a group of UMC musicians and theologians set out to “vet” the CCLI-Top 100 List in order to give UMC pastors and worship leaders guidance on which of those songs are well suited for United Methodist worship. After creating a rubric tool (found here) to use on each song in the top-100 list, the group published the results of that vetting process here: 2017 CCLI Top 100 Commended List January 2018.



After the completion of this first step and identifying some striking representation omissions and theological gaps in the CCLI Top-100 list, a new group was formed to bring the vetting project to begin working on creating another list called the “CCLI Top 100+ Beyond” project. The group and its work are described on the project’s homepage as…

…a diverse team of eleven United Methodist and pan-Methodist pastors, theologians, and contemporary worship practitioners who not only evaluated the latest CCLI Top 100 songs, but supplemented this list by evaluating and recommending other contemporary worship songs that more accurately reflect the richness of our United Methodist connection. This vetting team represents the diversity of our denomination; each member has a strong facility with contemporary congregational song (including Contemporary Praise and Worship Music, Contemporary Gospel Music, Global Song, and other genres/forms of contemporary song).

The project results were just released (Monday, March 8th, 2021) and can be found as two resources:

The first is the recommended song list of 89 songs from a variety of sources. Each song includes a YouTube link to a performance, a “key Wesleyan theological emphasis” found in the song, the song’s perspective (Personal, Personal & Corporate, or Corporate), a paragraph description of the song’s context, and finally links to additional arrangements of the song.

Click To Download The Song List

The second is a 14-page PDF entitled “toolbox for worship leaders” that includes short entries from the project team on topics such as the “History of The Project,” “Making Your Song Choices Contextual,” “Cultural Competence In Song Adaptation,” and more. While the project and this resource’s audience is certainly leaders within the United Methodist Church, worship leaders from any denomination should read it. The recommendations, insights, and practical advice contained within these fourteen pages are an excellent guide to thinking theologically, practically, and critically about congregational song.

Click To Download The Toolbox PDF



This project is a great first step in helping to prayerfully, critically, and intentionally curate the church’s song that has largely been missing from printed publications over the past few decades. While I’m sure the results of the project will be scrutinized and criticized by many (hey, I’ve got my own thoughts on the list, but that’s not what this blog entry is about), the main point is this:

Discipleship Ministries has given us a viable model for how denominations and/or organizations can provide ongoing guidance to pastors, worship leaders, and church musicians on how to faithfully choose band-driven and electronically available congregational song. For the health of the church’s song repertoire and to enable disciples who are intentional in living out their faith, I believe it is now an imperative that the leaders of other denominations (and/or organizations that resource and support those denominations) follow suit with similar projects. I’m looking at you Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and more…



Dear pastors,

I get it. The stress of 2020 is not only weighing on you from the normal personal levels, but the often-dysfunctional tendencies of your congregation members are being highlighted in particularly poignant ways right now. It’s a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” kind of year and you’re getting an earful about it at pretty much all times. Finances are tight, what used to be easy decisions are now difficult and contentious, and stress levels are through the roof. It’s hard and often unfair.

As you’ll probably know from various continuing education opportunities and personality tests used in training sessions (Myers Briggs, Enneagram, etc…), when people are stressed it becomes easy for our negative character traits to become prominent or take over our decision-making processes. In times like these, it’s easy to become reactive instead of proactive, hoping to put out the first few fires before the next few fires arrive. Because of these tendencies, the strength of your staff is of the utmost importance. Your staff can either work together to buoy each others’ ministries during this terrible time or they can become yet another fire to put out.

when people are stressed it becomes easy for our negative character traits to become prominent

As a music minister, I’ve experienced some wonderful leadership and friendships with pastors. I’ve also experienced some terrible leadership and relationships gone awry. Below is a list of things I hope you’ll take to heart from this music minister who has heard one too many stories of the pastor-musician relationships going wrong.

  1. Unless you’ve hired a total newbie, you can assume that your music minister is coming into the position having had experienced a bad pastor-musician relationship some time in their career. While this may not define them, there’s a history of being burned by pastors that many church musicians carry with them.
  2. We know you’re in charge and that you’re the boss. Seriously…if you have to tell your staff or music minister that you’re the boss, then something is already very very wrong with your leadership. We all know you’re in charge, but what we need right now is a leader, not a boss.
  3. 99 times out of 100 we know more than you do about music and have thought more deeply about church music and the congregation’s song than you ever will, and that’s the way it should be. If you’ve hired a music minister and find yourself making musical choices more often than not, then you need to step back and ask yourself why. The congregation needs you to be their pastor, not their music minister. That’s why you hired a music minister! When discussing music and worship, treat the conversations like those of two colleagues working as peers, not a boss and employee. If that is threatening to you, please see point #2 above.
    • Oh, and you can multiply this point by 1,000 if you hired someone with an advanced church music degree and you think your MDiv gives you more theomusicological training than them.
  4. Most people don’t know this, but we church musicians do: pastors are generally totally un-trained or inadequately trained in liturgy/worship. We know your secret…and we generally don’t tell anyone, but don’t try to pretend you know more about worship and liturgy than your average music minister because you probably don’t. Just like you would expect from you staff, do you homework, be humble, and work collegially. We’ll do the same.
  5. You know how you’re being expected to do tons of things you are unqualified and untrained to do because of the pandemic? Yeah, so is your church musician. They aren’t doing the job they were hired (or trained) to do right now…so love your neighbor as yourself.
  6. You know how church committees often want the professional services of someone qualified to be the pope but also want to pay minimum wage? Yeah, (if they haven’t already) they’re going to want to add a bunch of things to your church musician’s job description and pay them either less or the same as before the pandemic. Things like video editing and recording/mixing/mastering. Most church musicians have never been trained in any of those things and they are VERY different than other musical skills. Adding “video editing” to a job description without much thought may seem reasonable…but it’s not. Either leave it off or pay more.
    • Also, consider paying for continuing education for your church musician if you do add that expectation, because right now most of us are making this stuff up as we go along.
  7. You know how congregation members often wonder what you do with all that “free time” you have instead of doing what they want you to do? And you’re like…uh…hello, sermon prep! Yeah, musicians feel the same way when they’re paid for 4 hours of “work” because they only have a 2 hour rehearsal and 2 hours on Sunday morning. Uh…hello, prep and practice!

Your staff will have your back if you have theirs.

So, look. I understand you’re stressed. Just don’t take it out on your staff. Your staff will have your back if you have theirs. They’re probably on your staff because they have a passion and skill for ministering to the flock whom you love and shepherd. If you ask them to be on your team, 99% of the time they’ll jump on board and try their best to help in whatever ways they can. But if you micromanage and/or undercut their expertise, pay terrible wages, and criticize the work they do on things not in their job description or training….then you’re going to have problems. And you deserve them.


Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.


Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.


The Original Post

On September 25th, I posted this onto my personal FB wall:


My heart aches for my black sisters and brothers for yet another result that denies their basic humanness based on the color of their skin. This is the latest example of both an inherited and perpetuated trauma to our fellow humans and God’s creation. Racism kills in so many ways… #BreonnaTaylor is one of many. May her memory be blessed. While feeling helpless to enact real change in moments like this, the least I can do is re-dedicate myself to working toward being anti-racist and helping others along a similar journey. Now’s not a great time to ask for resources or ideas from your friends of color as they grieve and feel deeply this latest injustice. If you are beginning to work toward anti-racism or want to know what that is, feel free to PM me. I’m certainly not an expert, but I am learning and can point you toward good resources and people to follow.

Soon after, I got a message from a colleague that said this:

Hi Brian, in response to your Facebook post this week, who do you recommend I follow or read to develop an understanding of non-white hymnody, history of worship, and even church history more generally. Any suggestions or starting points would be amazing. Thanks.

Below is my reply, which I hope will be a helpful guide to anyone who is at the beginning of their journey.


The Reply

Dear Friend,

Thanks for reaching out.

Below are some resources that I hope will be a good start. If you’re looking for something in particular, let me know and I can be more specific. I don’t know what kind of tradition/piety you are coming from, which means some of these things might not hit the mark for you. It’s a bit all over the place as far as traditions/theologies represented. The important thing is that you’re engaging in this and that we’re here as conversation partners, not as experts! We’re all on a journey and have a lot to learn from each other. We at The Center for Congregational Song are grateful to have met lots of wonderful people along the way who we have learned from and continue to build relationships with.



Free Resources to Read/Watch/Use

Use these resources an entrées into expanding your vision for what God gets to delight in each and every day from Christians around the world. Pick one that sounds interesting, then explore the resources and ideas that they suggest to continue your journey.


Books/Resources to Consider Buying

Investing in resources by people of color and citing their work is an important and practical way to live into being anti-racist.


Music/Worship Organizations Doing This Kind of Work

For more resources and ideas from folks who are deep into this work, here are some places to continue learning.


People/Groups to Follow on Social Media or via their scholarship

Most of these folks don’t pull punches, so be ready! Some of them often speak directly to worship or music-specific topics. Others are not worship-specific teachers, but we are firm believers that good worship leaders must also have training outside of music and worship in order to be faithful leaders.


I’m sure I’ve left out a lot of helpful things/people/organizations, but this is what comes to the top of my mind. I hope this helps!




If you know of other worship leaders, scholars, hymnologists, and musician/groups who are actively engaged in teaching worship and anti-racism, please post them in the comments below. Thanks!


The Center for Congregational Song, in collaboration with Worship Design Studios and Marcia McFee, has just released a free resource for Advent & Christmas called “Park, Porch, and Sidewalk Sings.” This resource is an effort to equip people to sing this winter safely and with a new spirit. The resource includes 10 accompaniment tracks, a leader guide with safety guidelines and ideas for performances, and a song-book.

To access the free resources and learn more about the program, go to: