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Common Hymnal

David Calvert is the Creative Arts Director for Grace Community Church in rural North Carolina and a PhD graduate in Theology and Worship from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He writes the album reviews for The Center for Congregational Song.




Authentic Community

One of the deep longings of the human heart is for authentic community. This longing stands in stark contrast to one of the hallmark features of our current culture: convenience. In the world of music (even congregational song), we are caught in the tension. Following an artist on Twitter or Instagram and watching their instantly-accessible videos on YouTube is not necessarily the way to build community with that artist. It is frustratingly tempting, however, to simply pull up an artist’s albums on Spotify and stream them in whatever location we desire, immediately at whatever time we want. By interacting with them in a digital space at our convenience, we perpetuate the illusion of community.



The resurgence of the vinyl format for albums is one way that artists, and music lovers, are fighting through this tension. Listening to an album on vinyl is a deliberate exercise, requiring the focused attention of the listener and the space that sustains a turntable and speakers. In many cases, putting on a record causes the listener to slow down. Listeners may even choose to listen to these records in community, with other like-minded aficionados who are willing to put down their smartphones in order to enjoy the sounds carved into the vinyl.

I recently encountered another way that an artist, or group of artists in this case, is using technology to be counter-cultural. What if an album of songs was released one-at-a-time, over the course of months, instead of immediately uploaded in its entirety to all streaming outlets? Most artists tend to favor the plan that leads to most exposure, with simultaneous uploading to every streaming platform and digital downloads available in multiple online spaces. The collective Common Hymnal has intentionally chosen a different path.



In March, Common Hymnal announced an album on YouTube. In late April, they announced it on Facebook with a little more detail. Rather than marketing a targeted release date and hitting the viewer with slick branding and crafted teasers, the various artists used selfie-videos to share their obvious joy for the task of writing songs for the Church to sing. Common Hymnal is an ethnically diverse group of songwriters and worship leaders. In the prevailing polarization and politicization of the Church, the members of Common Hymnal found themselves in an emerging “spiritual underground” seeking to worship “with a social conscience.” The forthcoming album, being birthed from a recent gathering, reflects the raw, genuine, joyful, communal energy of Common Hymnal.

As an eager listener, who loves the ability to access innumerable artists with just a few taps on my phone, I have been caught off guard by the tactics employed by Common Hymnal. My initial, culturally-informed reaction was, “Wait, when can I get the whole album?” The answer to this particular question is “over the next several months.” In the month since the announcement of the album, 3 songs have been released on YouTube with over a week between them. This method invites the listener/viewer to rest in each individual song and the accompanying visual context and to sit with Common Hymnal and let the song(s) breathe. The simple videography helps the viewer feel like they’re in the room, not as a fly on the wall but as a fellow participant at the table.


Table of the Lord

The table of the Lord is the focus of the songs released thus far, with contributing songwriters such as Leslie Jordan (of All Sons & Daughters), David Brymer, Mark Alan Schoolmeesters, and Jenny Wahlström. With Lent and Holy Week freshly behind us, it has been especially meaningful to listen to these songs during this season. The implications of the Lord’s Supper extend beyond mere symbolic remembrance, and although I don’t intend to drift into academic/theological ideas, it is notable that the songs from Common Hymnal are a much-needed anchor in the embodied experience of coming to and partaking at the Lord’s Table.

I invite you to consider “Subscribing” to the Common Hymnal YouTube channel so that you too can anticipate with me the development of this new album. Make note to check your favorite streaming or purchasing outlet over the next several months. Feel with me the tension of waiting for the songs to be released and feel with me the peace of seeing/hearing these worshipers with diverse backgrounds gathering in safe yet vulnerable spaces to sing to God and to each other. My typical gig here at The Center for Congregational Song is as writer for the Album Reviews, and I will certainly be posting a review of this album whenever it finishes in November. Already, the 4 songs released on YouTube have memorable melodies and rich, biblical lyrics; and they are pitched well for folks to sing along. I may be showing my hand a little early, but I’m very excited about this album and the larger potential for Common Hymnal.


Listen with Intention

In the meantime, even if you aren’t prone to put a vinyl on the turntable, consider finding a small way to listen to music in a counter-cultural way. Choose to listen with intention. Slow down and breathe in and out as you let your body become a resonant chamber for the sound. If you’re in a congregational space, notice how the voices around you merge together. Celebrate the ways that our common humanity leads us to bear witness in song to the work of God in us and in the world.


Common Hymnal Facebook announcement

Common Hymnal YouTube channel




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.


While doing research for my previous blog posts this summer I came across a group called “Music that Makes Community.” If you’re reading this blog it’s possible you’ve already heard of them. They are a nonprofit that works on a number of things related to communal singing, and I highly suggest you check out their website, but what I wish to highlight here is that everything they do is based on the belief that singing together is particularly effective at building community. This is an idea that may feel foreign to us in 21st century America but, in the not-so-distant past, you needed other people in order to have any music in your life at all. Before recorded music, everyone played an instrument or at least sang. Nearly everyone could keep a steady beat and hold a pitch (You have to be able to do those things if you want to create music together!). Think of how much certain songs or bands shaped who you were at different times in your life. Now, imagine you lived before recording technology was made available, and you and your friends and family had to make all that music yourself. We would all be much better musicians, (Yay!), but I’m more struck by how much more time we would have spent face-to-face with one another. I can’t help but wonder what a difference that would make in terms of belonging and community building.



Church is one of the few places that people still gather to make music together en masse. Recorded music has become so ubiquitous that we rarely even listen to music with others, nevermind sing it together; we each have our own self-curated list of songs on our smartphones which we listen to with earbuds on, keeping us from being able to enjoy even listening to music together. I think it’s pretty awesome that we church folk are so proudly countercultural that we will still sing together each Sunday morning (and during the week, too!). When we sing together, we are closer to each other. When we are closer to each other we cultivate a sense of belonging, we can provide for each other’s needs, and we can better communicate with one another. In a society that feels increasingly polarized, you might say making music together can be one way to start solving our problems.


Knitting Hearts Together

Creating places where people feel close to one another, where people are known and feel like they belong, is some of the most important work of the church. Communal singing is not just a fun activity, it is a way of knitting hearts together over time. When we are close to someone, we are seeing Christ in them and we are being Christ to them. If you are involved in music at your church, whether formally or informally, you are doing what Jesus called you to do. That is sacred stuff.


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

Welcome to the fourth entry in the Center for Congregational Song blog: Centered in Song. I’m Ginny, a 30-something organist and music minister living in Tidewater, Virginia. I’ve worked mostly for Episcopal Churches in my 13 years in church music, and I’m a cradle Episcopalian, so I was excited to be able to attend a conference at Virginia Theological Seminary two weekends ago, and I’m excited to share a few tidbits with you. The conference was called “The Once and Future Hymnal;” it was two days of lectures and conversations about the possibility of compiling a new hymnal for the Episcopal Church. Our current hymnal is from way back in 1982. “Was that a long time ago?” asks the girl who was born that year. Yes, yes it was.

Here are three takeaways from that conference that I want to talk about briefly: uncertainty, diversity, and community. Uncertainty was the word buzzing in my head after the first day of the conference. In 1982 we were coming out of the cold war and Vietnam War. The economy was recovering after a downturn in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Things were much more stable than they had been in 60 or 70 years. In contrast, things are vastly more uncertain in 2017. Globalization and rapid changes in technology have changed our world and our environment, such that, as we look ahead to the next 30 years, we are much less sure what to expect. That makes it difficult to compile a hymnal that we hope will last a long time!

Some of those gathered for the “Once and Future Hymnal Gathering”


Diversity and community are the other two subjects I have been mulling over since the conference. The Rev. Dr. Frank Wade made a wonderful point in his plenary lecture — and perhaps he’s not the first to say this — that diversity is the raw material, but the end goal is community. Currently, we are in a place as a church, and perhaps a society as a whole, that is more diverse than ever but has a crisis of community. That creates quite a challenge for us as we try to compile a hymnal, or simply lead a community in song each week. In a world that is so uncertain and diverse, how do we bring people together around shared song? What does that look like in 2017, as opposed to 1982, or 1882?

I can see how much things like uncertainty and diversity affect my work here in Virginia at my Episcopal parish. Many of us cherish our Episcopal hymnals because they formed us, while those who are new to the community bring songs from other cultures and denominations. Some want to delve into music that addresses imminent societal issues; others wish to anchor ourselves in the words that sustained our mothers and grandmothers. It sounds like a congregation in conflict, and we have our share of that. But really, all these things are good and we need them all as we work towards being God’s diverse community! We want to address hunger in our song while also singing songs that have knit us together for generations. We want to cherish our denominations’ hymns while also asking how we can reach out and include more.

As I reflect on it here, I realize my church’s diversity is beautiful, but the day-to-day work of planning worship is still really tough! How are all of you dealing with uncertainty and diversity as you lead your communities in song? Those of you who have been doing church music a long time — do you find you face more or fewer challenges now than in the beginning? Those of you who are new to song leadership — is it what you expected? What excites you about the next 30 years of congregational song? Share your ideas in the comments below. Let’s support and inspire one another as we sing our way into the future.


For more information on the gathering, you can see the Facebook page of The Center for Liturgy and Music at Virginia Theological Seminary, where they have posted some Facebook Live videos such as this: