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When Secular Is Sacred

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?

 

 

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

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.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER

 

PRESENTERS

The Hymn Society, Executive Committee, San Francisco

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).

St. Gregory's of Nyssa, Singing, Music That Makes Community, San Francisco

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.

The Hymn Society, Fellow, FHS, San Francisco

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.

 

Denominationally Promiscuous

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.

Presbyterians (PCUSA)

What I Learned:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.

 

United Methodists

What I Learned:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.

Brian Hehn, Congregational Song

 

Lutherans (ELCA)

What I Learned:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.

 

Roman Catholics

What I Learned:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.

Brian Hehn, Congregational Song, The Center for Congregational Song

*This chart taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_population_growth

 

The Future of Congregational Singing

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.

 

 

Author – Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.

 

Like any denominational hymnal committee, you are already being bombarded with people’s opinions –  support, attacks, sarcasm, and any other kind of feedback you can possibly imagine. While much of what you will hear is born out of fear, excitement, trepidation, recklessness, sentimentality, and/or prophecy, I hope most people are reaching out to you primarily out of a love and concern for their congregation’s song and, ultimately, your denomination’s spiritual well-being. All of those types of comments will continue until you’ve published the resource, which is when you’ll get even more feedback on all the wonderful and TERRIBLE choices you made, mostly to specifically spite the person currently giving feedback.

I know many of you. You don’t need my advice on what is “good theology” or “bad theology.” You don’t need to hear about what hymns I think are terrible or great. Many of the committee members will be spending this week at The Hymn Society’s Annual Conference. You will be meeting with colleagues, soaking up the plenaries and breakouts, and singing together every night at the hymn festivals. So my letter to you is this: what you are doing is so very important and is God’s call on your life at this time. Relax. Take this week to rest in the church’s song. Don’t worry about everyone’s thoughts and opinions on the committee’s work. Don’t worry about the nay-sayers and Debbie-downers.

My letter to you is this: what you are doing is so very important and is God’s call on your life at this time.

Here’s my “keep” list:

Keep: trusting in God. God got you into this and God will see you through it!

Keep: a discerning spirit. No matter what you do, people are going to be upset about something. Your job is to think beyond the short-term and truly discern God’s calling on your denomination. A big task, but one you can do by keep God at the center.

Keep: being you. You were invited into this work because of something somebody saw in you. Keep being the best version of you you can be. That is more than enough.

Keep: seeking out times and places of refuge. Like many ministry settings, this work will likely be grueling and by-and-large thankless. I hope that The Hymn Society and The Center for Congregational Song can be a place where you can find support and rest.

Keep: a sense of humor. Don’t forget to laugh throughout the process. God’s humor will surely work its way into the process. Enjoy those moments!

 

With love and support as you discern, create, and refine what we all hope to be a magnificent congregational song resource,

Brian

 

 

Author – Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song and not an expert in silence…but here we go!

 

 

 

Silence

How much silence is incorporated into your weekly worship services? In a world defined by continuous sound we are increasingly deprived of silence, and questions are arising about the spiritual implications this has on Christians today. A few years ago, I was serving a United Methodist Congregation in North Dallas and was bothered by the lack of intentional silence we incorporated. If there was silence, it was usually a mistake or was considered awkward by both the leadership and congregation. In a service with no silence, where is the opportunity for us to listen to God together? Where is the opportunity for people to explore their innermost confessions and desires with God without being told what to think, pray, sing, or do?

 

A Crazy Idea

So I had a crazy idea. You know that piece that all music majors learn about by John Cage? Yeah, the one that is all rests. It’s called 4’33” because the piece is designed to last 4’33” and calls for the performers to not intentionally play any musical sounds. Of course, Cage had many reasons for writing such a ridiculous piece of what most people would consider not music. There are many hilarious articles and reactions to the piece, which you can read about here. Ok, so you know that piece? We’re going to do it as a congregational song.

But what would the pastor say? What would the congregation do? Would there be riots…laughter?

 

Step One

I had to pitch the idea to the pastor. It’s unwise to do risky liturgical ideas without full support from the staff and your boss. He was skeptical of the idea, but I had spent two years with Pastor Jack and he knew he could trust me and that the congregation trusted me. So he ok’d the idea.

What would God do? I had no idea.

Step Two

I had to place the song in the liturgy. In our service, we incorporated a time of confession near the beginning of the service. Sometimes that time was a confession as in “I believe,” and sometimes it was used as a confession as in “I confess.” That time was followed by the scripture readings for the day. This seemed like the perfect time, but we needed a transition into the scripture readings…something to mark the end of the 4’33”. I came across a choral anthem which was a setting of “Come and Find the Quiet Center” by Shirley Murray. Even better, the last stanza had an opportunity for the congregation to join in. To see that anthem, you can click here.

 

Step Three

I had to prepare the choir. Don’t underestimate this step when doing something “out-of-the-box” at your church. Your choir can be your best advocate. Use some rehearsal time to explain to them what’s going to happen and why it’s going to happen. Let them ask questions and have reactions. Use that time to teach and encourage them to have equally open conversations with congregation members when they leave church that day. Empower them to help education and shepherd the congregation. Not only does this encourage their own ministry in music, it also helps keep your job secure!

 

Step Four

I had to figure out how to lead the song. I decided that the best way to lead the song would be to display the score on our screen, give a downbeat to the congregation, start the timer, and sit down. At the stroke of 4’33”, I would give the downbeat to the pianist which would cue the choir to stand. No explanations needed…in fact, I think if I explained it, then it would have killed the moment.

 

Last Step

Do it! Was I nervous? Yes. Was I excited? Yes. What would happen? What would the people do? What would God do? I had no idea. So I lead the song as planned. The score came up on the screen. I gave a downbeat, started my stopwatch, and sat down.

Minute 1 – shuffling, at least 3 giggles and 1 outright laugh.

Minute 2 – almost total silence with still a bit of shuffling.

Minute 3 – total quiet. The air conditioning starts up. A car honks its horn in the intersection nearby.

Minute 4 – total quiet….ambient noise continues.

Anthem begins – The choir begins its anthem, and I could hear the shuffling of feet and bodies in the pews. I turned around for the last stanza (melody & words in the bulletin) and invited the congregation into the song…

“In the Spirit let us travel,

open to each other’s pain,

let our loves and fears unravel,

celebrate the space we gain:

there’s a place for deepest dreaming,

there’s a time for heart to care,

in the Spirit’s lively scheming

there is always room to spare!”

– Shirley Erena Murray, Copyright 1992 Hope Publishing Used by Permission

 

Reaction

So what was the result? What did people experience? How did they react?

A few people didn’t like it, and they told me that it was “weird” or that they “didn’t understand why we would waste 4 minutes just sitting.” And a few people were weeping. They wept for reasons that I will never know. One first-time visitor to the church told Pastor Jack after the service that, “although she didn’t know it, the hymn of silence was exactly what I needed. Thank you.”

 

For other blogs from The Center for Congregational Song, go to: https://congregationalsong.org/conversations/blog-connections/

 

CLICK TO REGISTER

Come join Director of The Center for Congregational Song, Brian Hehn, and some of the nation’s top voices on worship as we introduce participants to all that new Center for Congregational Song has to offer, including our ground-breaking Resource Connection Tool. For $35, you’ll get to spend the day with Chuck Fromm of Worship Leader Magazine, Leaders of United Adoration, Wheaton Faculty including Tony Payne and John William Trotter, and Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary’s Center for Music and Worship in the Black Church Experience Advisory Committee Member, Dr. Alisha Lola Jones.

SCHEDULE

8:30AM – Check In

9AM – Greeting from Dean Michael Wilder & Round Tables Discussions Hosted by Conference Clinicians

10AM – Chuck Fromm on the borderlands between diverse practices of music and worship

11AM – Plenary Address – Dr. Alisha Lola Jones

Noon – Lunch (included in registration price)

1:30PM – Brian Hehn on The Mission of The Center for Congregational Song

2:15PM – Coffee Break

2:45PM – John William Trotter on Improvisation, Choral Music, Congregational Song

3:45PM – Closing Hymn Festival – John William Trotter and friends

4:30PM – Dismissal

5:30PM to 7:30PM – Optional Dinner, location TBD (Pay on your own)

 

CLICK TO REGISTER

 

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