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5 Benefits of Starting a “Family Choir”

Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

 

5 Benefits of Starting a “Family Choir”

When I took my most recent music ministry post, part of my job description was to start a children’s choir. At the time, the children’s music ministry had been on hiatus for almost a decade and the number of families with young children in the parish was dwindling. The ground did not feel particularly ripe for starting a children’s choir and the task felt daunting, to say the least. After much thought I decided to start what eventually became known as Family Choir. Family Choir is for children under age twelve with an accompanying adult. We practice once a week and the children sing for church about every other month. We sing traditional hymns as well as praise choruses, music you hear on Sunday morning as well as fun Sunday School songs with movements. The group is thriving, so below I’m sharing five benefits our community has experienced by starting a Family Choir. Please add your own thoughts in the comment section!

 

1. Families stay together

From my own experience and from talking with other parents of young children, I hear that families do not have enough quality activities that they can do with their children. Many families have two working parents, and it’s not always appealing to have yet another obligation that requires children to be separated and looked after by someone else. Parents are longing to bond with other parents and have quality time with their children in an atmosphere that welcomes children and takes their needs into account. At family choir, parents and grandparents share songs from their own childhoods with the children, and children share their favorite Vacation Bible School songs with their parent or grandparent.

 

2. Family choir is inter-generational

As congregation sizes shrink (especially in many mainline churches) it is no longer feasible to split a small number of people into a bunch of age groups. Even if it was possible, I believe part of our strength as faith communities is in our ability to form family-like bonds amongst each other, where people of all ages are loved and included. Americans are also living away from their extended families more than ever before; our churches have the unique opportunity to fill that void for people. Family choir is one way to form and maintain those loving bonds.

 

3. Family choir is not obsessed with numbers

Working in a church, I often find myself becoming obsessed with numbers. How many people were in worship this week? How many showed up for choir? It’s exhausting and it drains me of my love for ministry and music. The nice thing about Family Choir is that, with myself and two other adults who were excited about the group, we had critical mass almost right away. The adults added volume to the songs and their children added energy; with those things combined, our little community had life right from the start. With such a large age range–and always with at least one tiny child present (even infants!)–it doesn’t occur to us to be discouraged by who isn’t there. There is always joy when we are making music together!

There is always joy when we are making music together!

4. Families enjoy worship more

Sunday morning music at my particular mainline church can be hard to sing for a young child, especially one who cannot yet read! In Family Choir, children are able to hear more repetitions of the songs that come up in worship and thus are able to participate and enjoy more of what happens on Sunday mornings. That’s a win for the child’s engagement in worship as well as her family’s! Added bonus: so many young parents at my church are new to my denomination, or to church in general, and they also appreciate more chances to hear the music!

In Family Choir, children are able to hear more repetitions of the songs that come up in worship

5. Family choir has a broader reach

It is not necessary that Family Choir participants establish themselves first as regular attenders of your church’s worship service. It can be very intimidating to walk into a worship service for the first time, especially if you have children in tow. It can also be intimidating, as a church member, to invite a friend to church. Family choir is on a weeknight. There are often several stuffed animals present. It’s low pressure. You can come to Family Choir and get to know the inside of the church and the people who go there before you decide you’re ready to come on Sunday morning.

 

In these five ways–and I’m sure there are more–Family Choir is doing a great job of responding to my church’s challenges, which I know are challenges many churches are facing. Whatsmore, it is not just an honest response but a faithful one. So many times we look at what our church has and say, “But we used to have so much more….” I appreciate that Family Choir celebrates what we do have. God is still very much alive in every person, in every moment. It’s an amazing thing and it’s worth jumping for joy over. Family Choir has helped me remember that!

 

For more blogs by Ginny and our other writers, go to our main blog page: https://congregationalsong.org/conversations/blog-connections/

 

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

 

 

 

 

Worship War

There have been many varied but regular attacks posed by opponents of contemporary praise and worship since its inception in the middle of the 20th century. These attacks have been intense enough to call it a ‘worship war’–and many people have been wearing their battle fatigues to worship every Sunday for the last 25 years. ‘The lyrics are trite or too shallow, ‘the music too repetitive or boring’–or alternatively, ‘too upbeat’ or driven by rhythm (i.e., too similar to the evils of Rock music)—the list goes on. Is contemporary praise and worship a threat to the right worship of the Christian church and its hymnic/theological orthodoxy? Most recently, the critique has revolved not around musical style per se but around congregational participation. Do the speaker stacks and ‘wall of sound’ stun the congregation into silence? Do the performance practices of contemporary praise and worship hinder congregational participation rather than enliven it? Has this always been the case for contemporary praise and worship?

 

Now, I don’t consider myself an outright advocate of praise and worship, but I do consider my task to be that of dispelling myths and misunderstandings. In this post I want to suggest that, historically, contemporary praise and worship has had the opposite take on its relationship to the issue of congregational participation.

 

Dispelling Myths and Misunderstandings

The old guard of praise and worship leaders suggest that praise and worship music allows for, creates the space for, even the most unmusical of persons to be involved in musical worship, both singing and playing instruments. Whereas the text-heavy and musically-challenging hymns of old were seen as not-all-that-singable to many untrained musicians, the new, simpler song forms of praise and worship were easily taught and learned. No longer would congregational song be reserved for the specialists (whether a formal choir or the trained singer) as had developed in some circles, but it would be given back to the congregation.

No longer would congregational song be reserved for the specialists

To say that this was simply a change in musical style or in worship practice would be to understate the shift. It wasn’t a shift just in worship practice, but in the relationship between music, persons, and worship. Out of the praise and worship movement came a very important theological anthropology which holds that the core identity of Christians, writ large, is as ‘worshippers’—a trope still very common in many evangelical, charismatic, and pentecostal circles today. This theology was developed in part through a reading of scripture that linked Old Testament worship closely with music-making and was often combined with a strong eschatological vision of worship derived from the book of Revelation. To participate in the heavenly worship, one must sing and make music to the Lord. Singing wasn’t simply the act sine qua non of worship, but singing was part of becoming a right worshipper (cf. John 4:24 “God is seeking worshippers…”), and becoming a right worshipper was an essential to Christian faith and practice as a person. You can see why participation is such a critical issue for praise and worshippers–if singing and music-making were being withheld from the congregation by way of increasing musical difficulty and professionalism, a core component of Christian identity was also being withheld.

 

This two-fold shift toward making music more accessible and the musicalizing right Christian worship has had an indelible mark on Protestant worship across North America.

 

Reforms

Often without understanding the basic impulse of praise and worship, one of the primary responses to it has been, “What congregations need [to preserve certain kinds of hymnody] is better music education, not simpler music!” This response, you might recognize, is one that has spurred on educational reforms time and again in the history of church music. Inevitably, reforms of church music and practice have their upsides and their downsides regarding the question of participation. In many instances, especially in the American cultural context, various traditions have generated a subgroup of (semi-celebrity) leaders and performers to whom Americans have allowed to make music on their behalf: the choir’s cantata, the praise band’s set list, the vocalist’s sung testimony, the organist’s Fantasy on [fill in the blank]–not to mention pseudo-liturgical moments like “Special Music,” “Choral Offering,” or “Organ Preludes,” but I digress…

 

Maybe it’s a cultural thing, maybe it’s a musical thing, or maybe it’s a deeply human thing, but we love to hear expert leaders and performers regardless of our musical or liturgical traditions. And there’s probably nothing wrong with that.

 

Praise and Worship

But to return to the issue of praise and worship, it seems that the question of participation has begun to rear its head again in the 21st century as the production value of highly visible churches and events has come into question. Though praise and worship initially provided a strong response to this issue, the dissemination and development of it as a tradition has caused transformation in some arenas. We can only speculate the reasons for this, and they are surely many. Some long-time insiders suggest the song composition style is too complex, the influence of recording stars too great, the broader influence of the popular music industry, a disconnect between leaders and congregation, broadening of the teaching on the theology of praise and worship—the list goes on. So to say, yes, this tradition of music and worship may need to re-affirm its commitment to congregational participation—and it is not alone in that need.

Praise and worship is, in its heart of hearts, about and for congregational participation.

Praise and worship is, in its heart of hearts, about and for congregational participation. Though in some very visible manifestations the congregation’s participation seems to have become somewhat tempered or muted, this is not the case for all times and all places. Unfortunately, contemporary praise and worship suffers no more from the cult of celebrity in music and leadership than do many other Protestant churches, mainline or evangelical, conservative or liberal. Likewise, there is no clear correlation between a church’s musical style and the degree of participation in congregational singing, so let’s not pin the issue of participation solely on musical style alone.

 

 

Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

 

I tried to pay attention to the music at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church this year, which took place in Austin. The worship planners did a good job of blending the old and the new, and of the new I noticed–by reading through the bulletins, which are available online– that the name Scott Chard came up several times. Much of the music was written by him and he was the artistic director for worship. A quick Google search reveals that Chard is the Praise Chorus Leader at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Oklahoma City. There is surprisingly little else to be found about Chard on the internet, except that he has one studio-length album that you can purchase online or stream for free on YouTube. The album, which was released in 2013, is called Sanctus and includes re-tuned hymns as well as fully original songs by Chard himself.

 

We haven’t talked about re-tuned hymns yet among these blog posts. In the church music world, a hymn is called “re-tuned” if it is an old text with a new, contemporary-style musical setting. Everyone knows the tune to “Amazing Grace,” for instance, but Chard has written a completely new tune to go with this text. Many listeners find it jarring at first to hear such a familiar text set to a new tune. The idea behind any new tune, though, is for the timeless words to hit the listener’s ear in a fresh way. Re-tuned hymns always use a modern, popular style of music, so as to appeal to listeners whose tastes tend more toward rock-n-roll than classic hymnody.

 

Chard’s re-tuning of Amazing Grace is reminiscent of the 90’s band Guster, with its light percussion, acoustic instruments, and relaxed pace. “Crown Him with Many Crowns” has acoustic guitar played with a Spanish flair, backed by Guster-like percussion. “God Himself is There” reminded me of Sixpence None the Richer, also a 90’s band.

 

Deliver My Soul” is my favorite track. It has a driving beat and highlights Chard’s gentle southern accent. The whole album is very gentle. I would even call it chill. CD Baby, Chard’s label, says you will like Chard’s music if you like James Taylor and I would agree with that. Now that I’ve heard the album a few times I would say it stands out mostly for its inoffensiveness. Like Guster or James Taylor, Chard is very relaxed. Relaxed is good. I enjoyed listening to the album and found myself humming the tunes throughout the day. Nothing really stood out to me, though. I was hoping to find something new and irresistible. I was hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, I thought I’d find something catchy. I didn’t find it on Sanctus.

 

Relaxed and Re-tuned: Scott Chard’s album, Sanctus

Album: Sanctus by Scott Chard

Label: CD Baby, released December 2013, produced by Erick Alexander

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’d like to welcome our latest guest blogger, David Bjorlin. David is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago, seminary faculty member at North Park Theological Seminary, and a published hymn writer. David has found a wide range of outlets for his passion for worship and the church. His interests include hymnody, connections between liturgy and ethics, and children in worship. He loves being able to plan worship so that a congregation may enact and indwell the redemptive story of God in worship week after week. – Brian Hehn, Director of The Center for Congregational Song

A Key Question

Over the past few decades, one of the key questions that liturgists have been asking is how what we say and do in worship shapes our theology and ethics. Because we are liturgists and need to show just how out of touch we are with contemporary trends, we even use Latin shorthand to describe this connection—lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Literally this saying means that “the law of prayer [is] the law of belief [is] the law of living.” That is, prayer/worship shapes theology shapes ethics. While debates rage over how the three are connected, most would agree that worship helps form our understanding of God and the way we live in God’s world with one another. If this is the case, it means the words we say and sing in worship are vital to Christian formation.

Atonement Theology

Because this is true, I have grown more and more concerned about how our songs, particularly contemporary worship songs, sing about the atonement—the way we are reconciled to God through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. In the vast majority of contemporary praise songs, Jesus’ death is almost always portrayed as substitutionary: we should have been punished for our sins, but God took our place and the punishment that was rightly ours and saved us. In its most extreme forms, Christ’s death satisfies the wrath of God that we incurred through our sin (penal substitutionary atonement). While examples abound, here are just a few of the most well-known from CCLI’s Top 100 list:

 

“This is unfailing love / that you would take my place, / that you would bear my cross” (“This Is Amazing Grace”); “Behold the man upon the cross, / my sin upon his shoulders… / It was my sin that held him there / until it was accomplished” (“How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”); and the granddaddy of them all, “till on the cross has Jesus died, / the wrath of God was satisfied” (“In Christ Alone”). Lest we think this trend is only found in contemporary praise songs, many classic hymns rely heavily on the substitutionary trope as well. Take the second stanza of Philip Bliss’s “Man of Sorrows!”: “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, / in my place condemned he stood; / sealed my pardon with his blood: / Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

That is, if our central atonement theology claims that God needs retribution for his (male pronoun used purposefully) wrath or justice to be satisfied, it’s no wonder that our justice system would also be built on the idea of retribution rather than restoration.

To be clear, there are differences between substitutionary atonement and penal substitution. In my estimation, there is some biblical warrant for the former (much of the book of Hebrews, for example), while I find the latter to be less biblical and more pagan in origin. However, in both modes, the clear message of the atonement is the need for retribution for the sins of humanity. I have long understood how this myopic focus on substitutionary atonement has led to theological distortions. God the Father becomes an angry God of justice who must be won over by the merciful Jesus (God the Son saves us from God the Father); wrath often becomes the motivating force of the cross rather than God’s unrelenting love; and Christ’s life and resurrection seem to become unimportant additions to Christ’s death. I believe this overemphasis on substitutionary atonement theories is part of the reason why many Christians find it so much easier to believe in an angry God just waiting to punish them than a loving God seeking to reconcile all things through Christ.

Ethics

However, I was struck anew by how this singular view of the atonement can warp our ethical lives in reading Dominique DuBois Gilliard’s excellent new book Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores.

The entire book is a must-read for those who wish to understand and challenge the racism endemic to our justice system that continues to disproportionately target and incarcerate people of color. However, what struck me was the connection Gilliard drew between penal substitutionary atonement and the punitive way we treat those who are arrested and incarcerated in our society. That is, if our central atonement theology claims that God needs retribution for his (male pronoun used purposefully) wrath or justice to be satisfied, it’s no wonder that our justice system would also be built on the idea of retribution rather than restoration. A crime has been committed, and satisfaction must be paid for that crime even if we desire to show mercy. What happens before and what happens after is of little consequence; punishment is the key. And if we lay this theological system onto a racially-biased criminal justice system, Christians too often find themselves “theologically justifying racism.” In the end, if we distort our worship, we not only distort how we understand God, but also distort how we treat one another.

A Challenge

I think this is offers a challenge to worship leaders and songwriters to offer congregations different ways of understanding Christ’s atonement. We desperately need more praise songs that sing of Christ’s saving way of living in the world that challenged oppression and injustice and continue to challenge us to new ways of living in right relationship to God, others, and creation. We need more songs that celebrate Christ’s resurrection as an integral part of Christ’s victory over death, not just to save me from my sins, but to reconcile the cosmos. We need more songs that remind us that God’s death was motivated not by an angry God who scares us into obedience, but a God whose “love so amazing, so divine, / demands our souls, our lives, our all.”

 

David Bjorlin – Blog Author

 

 

Author – Ginny Chilton is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

It’s a struggle every year: how can I balance the quiet expectation of the Advent season with the rush and excitement of Christmas? You would think that as a church musician in an Episcopal church, I’d get plenty of Advent, but that’s not the case. As many of you know, I’m sure, if you’re involved in church, you’re spending the four weeks of Advent in a rush to be ready for Christmas: getting the kids ready for the pageant, prepping for the church Christmas dinner, practicing your Christmas choir music. Then you leave church, and our stores, radios, and neighborhoods are full of reindeer and bright lights. It feels like it’s Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. What can you do?

There are all sorts of answers to that question, but here I am writing a blog for the Center for Congregational Song, so I have to say: community singing can help set the mood for Advent. I’ve been angst-ing over how to bring more Advent into my family and church life this season, perhaps more so than in previous years. My son is growing up, and it feels more imperative than ever that I figure out how to bring Advent into our home—without being the “Scrooge” mom who won’t allow anything fun before December 25th. And in my work as a church musician, I help plan beautiful worship services of expectation on Sundays, but during the week I’m singing Christmas songs and ringing jingle bells with the children in our parish school.

I think many of us came feeling much like I was: stressed about everything I had to do at work, everyone I hadn’t found a present for, etc.

All of this came to a head this past Thursday. I’ve been leading a new weekday gathering at our church for parents and young children. Each week we have about a dozen parents and small children gather to sing songs, play instruments, and play or do a craft together. This past week we made plans to meet at the local assisted living facility to sing Christmas songs with the residents. I think many of us came feeling much like I was: stressed about everything I had to do at work, everyone I hadn’t found a present for, etc. It didn’t help that it was about 90 degrees in the facility, and there was a bit of a holdup before we could start singing. The children were getting restless, and the elderly residents were giving us a skeptical look. I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake in planning something like this so close to Christmas.

But then we started singing. The children calmed down. The residents perked up, and even those who had been confused a moment before, sang as loudly as anyone.

There’s something about making eye contact with others while you’re singing together that ignites a little flame in your chest. What do you call that? Love? Belonging? Joy? God? It brings a sort of hush even in the midst of commotion. It was the Advent moment I had been hoping for all month, and a perfect way to set our hearts in the right place as we wait for Emmanuel, God with us.

Do you struggle to experience Advent in the midst of all the busyness December brings? What have been your moments of Advent hush this season? Does group singing play a part in any of that? Happy Advent and Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

The Center for Congregational Song staff is working hard along with volunteers from across the U.S. and Canada to put together the final details for the “Centered In Song” launch events for 2018. Spring 2018 events include two February events in Chicago (Wheaton & Park Ridge), an April event in Washington D.C., and a Canadian event in Ottawa, Ontario. Clinicians will include some of the most talented song leaders and influential worship leaders from across the U.S. and Canada.

Along with the “Centered In Song” launch events, there are also other opportunities to learn about The Center and to sing with us. A January Ambassadors Program at the University of Arizona in Tucson, our display booth at the Calvin Worship Symposium, multiple ACDA Divisional Conferences where we’ll present interest sessions, and the Montreat Music and Worship Conference in June.

While all this is happening, we’re also planning many exciting updates and improvements to our Resource Connection Tool, continuing to write challenging blog posts, and launching our podcast!

With so many appearances and initiatives, it’s going to take a village to accomplish everything! We’re so grateful for everyone who’s chipping in to present for us, plan these gatherings, and for the generous financial support of the Christ Is Our Salvation (CIOS) foundation that is making this all possible. We’ll see you in 2018!