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A Pastor’s Music Question

One of the joys of my position as the Director of The Center for Congregational Song is to be asked interesting questions from people who are working week in and week out to get their congregations singing. This series of blogs will take some of the questions I’ve been asked and post the answers publicly.

 

 

THE QUESTION

Hi Brian,

Hope all is well!

I’m at a new church now! Woot! It isn’t technically a new church plant, but we are starting from the ground up. The numbers are at an all-time low, but the remaining few in the congregation are excited about the future and re-making their congregation into one that is vital and active in their community. It’s a Presbyterian (USA) congregation in a major metropolitan suburb.

One of the first things we need to do is establish a worship culture. What will our worship look and sound like? So here are a few things I’m curious about:

  1. How to hire a new music director. We have an interim right now, but we need a new music person who knows congregational singing, percussion….ways to layer and texture music.
  2. Now that I’m settled in here and driving this liturgical ship, I want to resource myself around music. I worked with a wonderful church musician at my previous church, so I didn’t need to think about resources for music. He brought them to the table. I’m the only staff person right now, so I’m looking for music resources for a small congregation–like 35 people right now. Congregational singing type stuff that doesn’t all fit into Western, colonized music sound yet we are predominately white.
  3. Choir! Shoot me with this. The church’s choir used to be 40 people, blah, blah, blah it was awesome. Now we have 4-5 solid people. What to do!? How to do it!? What are the shapes music leadership can take in a small church?

Thanks!

Pastor Jane

 

THE REPLY

Hey Pastor Jane, thanks for reaching out. Here are my preliminary thoughts and I look forward to having coffee with you to talk more in depth about all of these questions…

 

Three things to look for in a good candidate:
  1. Are they musically talented and relatively well-trained? If not, even the best ideas can’t be brought to life. They need to have some musical “chops” to accomplish solid liturgy and music-making, especially since there’s a small staff and congregation.
  2. Are they sensitive to liturgical context? They don’t have to have a liturgy degree, but do they understand how a worship service flows? Do they have a basic knowledge or experience with the general liturgical calendar and seasons? For instance, when choosing a song for communion, would they know it’s a good idea to look for texts that either specifically mention communion or have references to bread, grapes, wine, or covenant?
  3. Do they place the congregation’s voice as the #1 priority? If the choir (or any instrument) is more important than the congregation’s voice, their priorities are whack and will cause problems. If their focus is on the congregation, then they’ll really minister rather than fall into the trap of providing great “performances.” Here’s an article on that topic in particular: https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/four-functions-church-choir/

 

Liturgical Music Library

If I were to purchase a simple liturgical music library for you…a “small-church music starter kit,” here’s what I would send you:

 

Small Choir Resources

Small choir resources are tough, especially when people are still working off the old model of “we used to be…”. I think this is where placing the congregation’s voice as #1 is really helpful. It changes the choir’s “job” from singing a solo anthem every week to supporting the congregation’s music-making. I think we do a disservice to ourselves, our choir members, and our congregation to expect a small volunteer group of singers to sing a published anthem every week with enough musicality and precision that it truly edifies the congregation and singers. But, if we re-frame the choir’s role as supporting the congregation, here’s what can happen:

  • “We should sing and anthem every week” –turns into– “Every week we help the congregation sing better”
  • “We have to sing this even though it’s a little rough” –turns into– “We feel confident about this piece, so now we’ll share it with the congregation”
  • Weekly rehearsal plunking notes –turns into– Faith formation through the study of our weekly hymnody & learning a few anthems for special occasions
  • Identity as a choir member –turns into– identity as a congregational music leader

This can look many different ways (because each congregation is unique), but here are some opportunities for a small choir to serve a congregation:

  • The choir introduces new hymns by singing the first stanza, singing the verses with congregation on the refrain, or by sitting behind the congregation (instead of in front) on Sundays where a new hymn is being introduced.
  • Instead of expecting the choir to sing an anthem every week, the weekly role of the choir is to sing the psalm every week. This could be an anthem, something from a psalter, or a verse-refrain congregational psalm setting where the choir acts as the cantor to sing the verses.
  • Choir members take turns announcing and leading hymns throughout a service, so the leadership of the congregation’s song is continually shared.
  • Following the worship service, choir members take communion and sing a few selections for/with home-bound congregants once a month.

 

Conclusion

The three questions you asked are wonderful ones and something that many pastors and search committees grapple with on a regular basis. What I hope you’ll find grounds all my answers is this: hiring, working with, and resourcing a church musician and/or worship leader should be framed as a discernment process. Who, what, and where is God calling your congregation to be? How can a candidate help lead the congregation there? Who, what, and where is God calling your choir to be? How can a candidate help lead the choir there? Discernment takes prayer, community involvement, and imagination.

 

Good Luck!

Brian

 

One of the joys of my position as the Director of The Center for Congregational Song is to be asked interesting questions from people who are working week in and week out to get their congregations singing. This series of blogs will take some of the questions I’ve been asked and post the answers publicly.

 

The Question

Dear Brian,

I have a deep desire to write songs. But I can’t…it’s not my gift. But here’s what I want: modern justice songs. New songs that are today’s equivalent of “We Are Called” (Marty Haugen), “Beatitudes,” or “They’ll Know We Are Christians” or some of the great justice hymns. I’m fully aware that those songs are great and classic hymns and are important to our tradition (Roman Catholic). But I want to create a new genre. Not hymns, but praise songs (focused on God) that somehow still speak to the communal nature of our church. There are a few of these out there, but not nearly enough. Are there groups or artists out there who are working on this?

Thanks,

Joe Youth Minister

 

The Reply

Dear Joe,

First, thanks for your question! So many people are asking themselves the same thing. The church is always changing and learning. While we love the songs that speak to who we were and are, we’re also called to create hymns and songs that speak to who God is calling us to be. Like you referenced by mentioning Marty Haugen, many members of The Hymn Society (as well as others) who write mainly strophic hymnody have been writing songs and hymns with these topics in mind for decades. Authors that come to particularly to mind are Shirley Erena Murray, Adam Tice, Dan Damon, Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, Ruth Duck, and many more…there are too many to name here. However, since you asked about a “new genre” and specifically mentioned “praise songs,” I’m thinking that you’re wondering about music written for praise-bands but which have socially-progressive texts.

Below is a list of artists, groups, and other things to look at concerning social-justice oriented music that comes from or is designed for a more praise-band oriented style. When listing an group or artist, I’ve tried to link to a specific song that I think is a nice representation of their work/style. I hope this is helpful. Feel free to reach out anytime with other questions.

 

The Convergence Music Project

is a conglomeration of artists, many from the United Church of Christ and other socially-progressive denominations, who are writing theological liberal and/or social-justice oriented music. There are lot of great artists in that group, so make sure to look through their full catalog, but today I’ll point you to The Many, especially their song “These Bodies” https://www.convergencemp.com/artist/the-many/these-bodies.html

 

Mark Miller

while often published as looking like traditional music, is often a go-to for me because I’ve found it works equally well with an organ/piano/choir set-up as it does with a praise-band. You can learn about Mark and his music here: http://www.markamillermusic.com/

 

Common Hymnal

is a group of mostly evangelical, Anglican, and Reformed singer/song-writers who are moderate to liberal socially/theologically, but still rooted in their more conservative traditions. Where do they turn? This is a group trying to nurture each other’s musical and spiritual lives in a safe place where the CCM marketplace and/or their denominational bodies won’t stifle them. One of my favs from this group is Dee Wilson, whose song “Rose Pedals” is a powerful witness: https://commonhymnal.com/exchange/rose-petals-story

 

Wendell Kimbrough

is an Anglican worship leader. Because of his focus on the Psalms, much of his music has a social-justice flare. Check out: https://wendellk.bandcamp.com/album/come-to-me

 

Sandra McCracken

is a nashville singer/song-writer who is writing some great music. Because of her focus on the psalms and her own personal journey, many of her songs are justice-oriented. Check out: https://sandramccracken.bandcamp.com/track/all-ye-refugees

 

The Porters Gate Worship Project

is a group The Center for Congregational Song recently collaborated who are writing some justice-oriented music. A new album will be coming this Fall. Their first album on “work songs” is pretty cool: https://www.portersgateworship.com/ The group includes a few of the people already mentioned above.

 

Liz Vice and Others

A recent collaboration between a few artists and theologians gave birth to a new song called “Away From the Manger,” which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThaVvxuFCP8&feature=share

 

Urban Doxology

is a song-writing and worship-leading group centered around race reconciliation in Richmond, Virginia. Their songs are genre-bending goodness while staying rooted in Black Church styles and experiences. http://www.urbandoxology.com/

 

Matt Maher

has a recent Advent/Christmas album (which I find problematic in a few places) that includes this gem with a very singable refrain of “There’s hope for everyone” after each line meaning this could easily be sung as a call-and-response: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-ThP8qEio4

 

Andrew Peterson

writes music that is not always congregationally focused, but sometimes it is. This is one of my favs from him, focusing on fighting inner voices that say our bodies and efforts aren’t good enough to be loved by God: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYiM-sOC6nE

 

Have fun with exploring all that! I hope at least a few things will be new to you and maybe something will be helpful?

 

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.

Date: Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Location: Seney-Stovall Chapel, Athens, GA

Time: 6:30PM to 8:30PM

 

 

 

 

 

Many of you may feel like this lady. Stressed…worried…nervous…tired. This is just a reminder that…

Holy Week, Christ, Musician

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

QUESTION

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?

 

ANSWER

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:

 

UNDERGRADUATE

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.

 

GRADUATE SCHOOL

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?

 

YOUNG PROFESSIONALS

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:

 

Catechism

  • 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.

Careers

  • 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.

Broadway

  • 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.

 

Scripture

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

 

 

Invitation

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.

 

Date, Time, & Location

4PM on Sunday, November 11th, 2018

Wycliffe Presbyterian Church, 1445 N. Great Neck Road, Va Beach (ph: 757-496-2620)

 

Festival Leader

Brian Hehn song leading, Brian Hehn, Hehn, Centered in Song, Center for Congregational Song, The Hymn Society, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Let Justice Roll Down, Improvisation

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!

LEADERS

Mark Miller, Composer, Organist, Centered In Song, Brooklyn, NY, Center for Congregational Song, Let Justice Roll Down

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.

Hymn Writer, Poet, The Hymn Society, Congregational Song, Singing, Let Justice Roll Down, Centered in Song, Brooklyn, NY, Brooklyn NY

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REGISTRATION

 

 

 

 

 

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

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:

 

Plenary Speaker

The Hymn Society, Director of Research, The Center for Congregational Song, Toronto

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Presenters

We are excited to have an all-star lineup of Toronto-based leaders!

Song Leader, Hymn Leader, Denise Gillard, Toronto

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, Toronto, Composer, Organ, Organist, Church Music

Jason Locke is a church musician, choir director and composer, living in Toronto, Canada.

Toronto, Singing Together, Hussaein Janmohamed, Composer, Conductor

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conducting, Church Music, Lori Anne Dolloff, Singing

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.

Church Music, Hilary Donaldson, Song Enlivener, World Music, Transforming Every Guest, Music That Makes Community, Toronto, United Church

Hilary Seraph Donaldson is a congregational song enlivener with a passion for strengthening community through shared song, global music, and paperless worship.

Church Music, Becca Whitla, Toronto, United Church, Congregational Singing

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Event Co-Sponsors

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:

 

Scenario 1

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?

 

Scenario 2

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

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?