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Lessons and Carols for the Small Congregation

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.


Lessons and Carols

My church has a tradition of doing a service of Advent Lessons and Carols every year. To me, the term “Lessons and Carols” brings to mind King’s College in all its perfection, so planning my first service felt a bit daunting. I serve a small congregation with a small, but capable, volunteer choir. I knew the level that King’s produces was not attainable for us, so I embraced this as an opportunity to get creative. I ended up having a ton of fun crafting something that allows my choir to shine and encourages more active participation from the congregation. Below are some helpful tips for anyone who is still crafting Advent and Christmas services at your church.


Add some more prophets

Lessons and Carols is much like an Easter Vigil service in that it retells the Christian story of salvation: both services start with the Genesis stories of Creation and The Fall and end with stories of Jesus from the Gospels. As long as you start and end correctly, you can insert almost any readings, and any number of them, in between. The readings of the canonical nine Lessons and Carols connect Genesis to the Gospels via two passages from Isaiah. In my congregation, we enjoy hearing from several prophets in addition to Isaiah, which is perfectly fitting. I don’t mean to criticize the curators of those original nine lessons (okay, maybe I do), but the Israelites waited a long time for their savior! We should hear from more than one prophet before we jump to the Gospels.

In addition to it being historically appropriate, adding more prophets makes for a more exciting service. Start out joyously after the story of Creation and have the mood drop dramatically after The Fall. Then, make your congregation wait a bit before the star of Bethlehem dawns on the horizon. Jesus’s arrival will have much more impact.


Engage the congregation

When I’m worshiping as a congregant, I confess that I often get so caught up in the music that I miss the message. That is definitely the case when I attend a traditional service of Lessons and Carols; you’ll find me humming “Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day” for days afterward. I wanted to be sure the members of our congregation were engaged in the story of salvation from beginning to end, so I picked several congregational songs to fit with the additional prophetic readings. “Deep Within” by David Haas has a hauntingly beautiful melody and a refrain that is easy for congregations to pick up. The words about God writing a new covenant on the people’s hearts are taken directly from Jeremiah 31:31-34. “People, Look East” by Eleanor Farjeon is a common carol sung in Advent; most people don’t realize these words are based on the prophet Baruch (4:36). The prophet Micah also foretells a savior (5:2-4), and you can pair this with any number of Advent or general Parousia hymns (I often use “Soon and Very Soon” by Andrae Crouch). Finally, it is gratifying to hear from John the Baptist, as in John 1 where he foretells the coming of Christ. Pair this reading with “There’s a voice in the wilderness crying” by James Lewis Milligan using the ASCENSION tune.

Having plenty of congregational music also makes it easy to add in the odd musician from your congregation: flute sounds lovely on “Deep Within,” and “People, Look East” benefits from one or more brass players. Having more congregational music and musicians engages people in what is happening, and aids the service in feeling more like worship and less like a concert. If you’re doing Lessons and Carols on a Sunday morning, which we do at my church, it is fitting (and fun!) to engage your congregation more.


Make your choir shine

When taking a creative bent on Lessons and Carols, the more difficult job can be finding the right anthems for the choir to sing. Certain anthems have carved a special place in my heart, and my choir members feel the same way. After the reading from Genesis 3, for instance, it’s hard not to hear Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree.” “To Dust” by Karen Marrolli (a living composer!) is a new anthem that I’ve tried in this slot with much success. It makes an impression on listeners and has become a favorite of my choir. Since I like hearing from as many prophets as possible, I sometimes add Zephaniah 3:14-18 and have the choir sing a setting of Psalm 96 or 98 (perhaps your choir already knows a setting of one of those they can dust off and perform with gusto). Pitoni’s “Cantate Domino” worked well for us. Stainer’s “How Beautiful Upon the Mountains” and Carl Schalk’s “As the Dark Awaits the Dawn” work well with any prophetic passage, are fun to learn, and allow volunteer choirs to shine.


The King’s College version of Lessons and Carols is not feasible for the vast majority of us who work at modest churches with volunteer choirs. This isn’t a bad thing. Tinkering with their version to make it fit your congregation is quite enjoyable. In the process, you’ll learn a lot more about the individuals you’re working with and the message of the service you’re planning. Happy planning, and happy Advent!


For more blogs by Ginny Chilton Maxwell, go to the Centered in Song Blog Page.


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.


At my church we do three patriotic songs a year: one on the Sunday nearest Memorial Day,  one nearest Independence Day, and one nearest Veterans Day. We had to have a conversation about it when I first got here because the newly-appointed rector and I both bristle at patriotic music sung in church. Our church is in a military-heavy part of the country, and the rector and I both come from non-military backgrounds.


I have to say, she and I learned a lot from talking with a few members of our congregation about the place of patriotism in worship. We noted, for instance, that there are few institutions in our country that require the amount of sacrifice, obedience, and loyalty that the military does. The rector and I also noted that the people asking for patriotic music were some of the most generous and selfless people we had ever known. There was a gap in understanding there, and the rector and I came away from these conversations feel less confident that we were absolutely in the right. As a compromise, we decided to maintain a place for patriotic hymns as long as they are chosen by the music minister. My job now is to try to choose hymns that put our love of the United States in the proper context, and that has been harder than I thought it would be.


As I sat down this year to choose hymns for another Sunday-before-Independence-Day, I began wondering how other worship planners deal with this issue. Perhaps many of you have read Kevin DeYoung’s article from The Gospel Coalition, written in 2011. DeYoung criticizes both sides of the issue– those who adopt too much patriotism in their worship services and those who are too rabidly against it. I know I get immediately turned off at any mention of country in worship, but DeYoung is correct when he writes that “the church is not the state and the state is not God, but this does not mean the church must always be against the state.” Certainly God does celebrate with the United States when it does as Jesus would do. This was a point I took to heart.


I decided this year to go for a new tactic with my patriotic hymns task. Instead of doing a traditional hymn, like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” I chose hymns that used American folk tunes, like “Let Us Break Bread Together” (an African-American spiritual), and “Simple Gifts” (a Shaker tune). I thought it could be a way of celebrating America on Sunday without worshiping America. Turns out some of my colleagues already had the same idea. The Rev. Stephen Stacks, who is associate pastor at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church outside Raleigh, says they frequently sing freedom songs from the Civil Rights Movement, such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” on Sundays that fall near big patriotic holidays. Martha Burford, music minister at Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia, included spirituals, folk tunes, Shaker tunes, a Dakota Indian chant, and hymns by American-born composers for July 1st. “Today’s music also offers an opportunity to share in Christian musical narrative in these United States,” Burford wrote in the bulletin. So, it is possible to celebrate America without turning to the National Hymns section of your hymnal.


Some of us did national hymns on Independence day, some of us did American-born hymn writers or freedom songs. Another option is to include national hymns but try to put them in the proper context. My colleague Nellwyn Beamon, who works at a church just down the road from mine with similar worship style and demographics, made a more obvious compromise for July 1st. The readings and music focused on world peace and unity, but the final hymn was the Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father, strong to save.”) She feels that singing the Navy Hymn in a peace and unity context puts it in a new light.


Similarly, at my church, we put our patriotic song right after a collect for peace in God’s global kingdom, hoping that in doing so everyone present would know that our love of country is just part of our desire for peace and unity in the whole world. I chose a patriotic hymn with a familiar tune but with words that put the emphasis on God’s—rather than our country’s—power. “God Bless our Native Land,” is set to the tune of America but ends with these words:


For her our prayers shall rise to God, above the skies;

on him we wait;

Thou who art ever nigh, guarding with watchful eye,

to thee aloud we cry, God save the state!


But something Rev. Stacks said in our conversation made me think harder about my decision to do this hymn. People often think music is “innocuous,” Stacks said, “when, in actuality, it tends to grab your heart.” In other words, it’s difficult to sing any words to America without hearing the original words and feeling the more jingoistic contexts in which they are sung. That felt true to me when we sang it on July 1st, with or without the collect for peace and global unity. I still felt like we were about to break out the fireworks and tiny American flags.


The final hymn at my church on July 1st, “God of Our Fathers,” includes only a tiny mention of country (“in this free land”) so I programmed it without overthinking it. But because of the trumpet fanfare intro, and Sunday being only three days away from Independence Day, I felt like we were drumming up a military parade! This hymn definitely “grabbed at the heart,” and as such I think it made much more of an impression on the worshipers than the presence of American folk hymns and spirituals, which I put so much thought into!


Reflecting on our experiences this Independence Day with a few of my colleagues made me realize how important context is when it comes to patriotic music in worship. I got in touch with a seminary classmate, David Bjorlin, whose church context is much younger and more conservative than my own. Bjorlin, who is now pastor of worship and creative arts at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago, says that his congregational context is largely young, “recovering evangelicals,” and “as such, I would get way more pushback if I did include patriotic songs.” The fact that his church’s worship service on July 1st includes no mention of Independence Day makes a statement in itself. Bjorlin and I both have pastoral concerns for our congregation, and in terms of the music on July 1st, they ended up working themselves out in very different ways!


So it seems that there are a lot of options when it comes to patriotic music in worship, but each of them comes across differently depending on the song chosen, its place in the worship service, the setting, and a number of other factors. The songs you choose may even make a completely different impression on individual members of your congregation! It would be easy to say let’s just ignore the whole holiday, but I’m drawn again to the veterans in my congregation, who are as true as any true disciples and for whom a patriotic song on Sunday morning means so much. We’re all here because we love Christ and Christ’s insistence on justice and peacemaking. What is the best way to make that point on the Sunday closest to Independence Day? I’ll keep pondering it. What are your thoughts?


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.


One of my choir members was telling me the other day that every time she hears “Be Thou My Vision,” she can picture the outdoor chapel where she worshipped at sleepaway camp as a child. She can feel the miniature Episcopal hymnbook in her hands and see the faces of the two women–sisters– who ran the camp. I was struck by the image of her as a child and the power of the music, combined with the setting, to make such an impression on her (this took place over 50 years ago!). It made me ponder how important it is that we all take some sabbath time to refresh ourselves, and how singing and summertime naturally lend themselves so well to that refreshment.


Sleepaway Camp

My choir member called it “sleepaway camp” but I just called it “camp” when I was a kid. The only camp I ever attended as a child was St. George’s Camp, at Shrine Mont in the Shenandoah Valley. I think my favorite part of camp was the worship services, which were held twice a day, and the best part of that was the singing. We sang all the music by heart and had hand motions for nearly every song. There are so many things that you share at camp, but sharing song is so powerful because it engages all of yourself: your voice, your body (especially if there are fun motions!), your sense of hearing, sight, and touch. It was something you could share with the other people at camp, something you could look around and feel you had in common with folks who were strangers just a few days ago.


I was a “St. G’s” camper over 25 years ago, but when I hear those songs I can still feel the friendship bracelets on my wrist and taste the grape soda like it was yesterday. I’m trying to think what else but music would conjure up such vivid memories. Looking at a photograph or touching an old t-shirt can certainly send a wave of memories crashing down on someone, but I think music has a special ability to help us recall the past in such detail.


St. G’s was so important to my sense of sabbath as a child. I came home with a cassette tape which I played on repeat after a tough day at school, in an 8-year-old’s version of what I would now call self-care. I looked forward to that week (just one week!) away every summer to clear my mind. It restored my self-confidence and put the stress I experienced during the school year into perspective. And I cried my little heart out to say goodbye to all my new friends, friends I’d only known for a week! I think music–specifically, singing together– had something to do with how close we were all able to grow in such a short amount of time, how renewed I felt, and how vividly I can recall these memories some 25 years later.

She can feel the miniature Episcopal hymnbook in her hands and see the faces of the two women–sisters– who ran the camp.

Summer Conferences

I no longer fit the age requirements for St. George’s Camp, but my need for a summer singing sabbath is as important as ever. The Hymn Society’s annual conference is one place I’ve found to refresh myself through singing in the summer. No counselors or bunk beds at this sleepaway camp, but you can often stay in a dorm with a roommate! My first annual conference was in 2012 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I had never been to that part of Canada before, and I was struck by the vast expanses of prairie stretching out all around us as we rode the buses to and from the university for our evening hymn sings. So different from the east coast! The evening that sticks out in my mind the most was a hymn sing we did at a little Anglican church with a BIG organ. It was the first time I’d been introduced to the music of Thomas Pavlechko, who accompanied the hymn sing and played several of his hymn tunes and harmonizations. We had enough people there to fill nearly every seat in the church. I remember at one point I felt totally transported; everyone was singing with all their might, and our voices, woven together with the organ, filled every bit of aural space in the sanctuary. I got teary-eyed, and at the end, with uncharacteristic exuberance, I rushed up to have my picture taken with Mr. Pavlechko. I came home feeling refreshed, with a renewed passion for organ music and congregational singing. It was not just the music, but the fact that I could participate in it, and join my voice with so many others, that made this such a moving and refreshing experience for me.


Singing, Summer, Sabbath

I know there are many of us who read this blog who have had a similar experience at a Hymn Society annual conference. What year stands out in your mind? What about summers from your childhood, or the summers your own children are experiencing now? Are there summer camp experiences that set the precedent for your love of congregational song? What are you guys doing to refresh yourselves this summer?

…but when I hear those songs I can still feel the friendship bracelets on my wrist and taste the grape soda like it was yesterday.


Congregational Song, St. George's Camp, Summer Camp Worship, Worship

Ginny’s Summer Camp Worship Service

Hymnal, Song Book, Songbook, Church of England, Singing, Hymnals

“She can feel the miniature Episcopal hymnbook in her hands…”

Congregational Singing, The Hymn Society, Annual Conference, Hymn Festival

Ginny Chilton Maxwell and Thom Pavlechko after Thom’s Hymn Society Festival







Center for Congregational Song, Ginny Chilton Maxwell, Organ, Singing

The beautiful church where Thom Pavlechko’s hymn festival was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba.


Pipe Organ, Ginny Chilton Maxwell, Congregational Song, Singing, Church, Worship

The organ played for The Hymn Society’s hymn festival that evening in Winnipeg, Manitoba.



















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’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. At work I lament that I flubbed my postlude or that a new hymn went over like a lead balloon. At home sometimes I can’t seem to comfort the baby, and my dining room floor is covered in about a quarter inch of Cheerio dust. So I was energized to read the latest newsletter from the Center for Congregational Song, which talks about “success” and what that means to us who serve Christ. “So ultimately,” it says, “the answer to ‘how will we know we’ve been successful?’ is that we’re not 100% successful until God’s kingdom comes. Until then, we work and we sing!” Yes, Amen! This message came at a perfect time in my life. In this blog post are some ways my work in congregational song has taught me to celebrate failure as a necessary and even healthy part of that work.  Maybe you’ll see yourself in some of my reflections and be able to share your experiences below.

I start to wonder if this decline is a reflection on me; if I was a flashier performer or a more charismatic leader, would things be better?

Failures piling up…

Perhaps the thing that has been most persuasive concerning the power of failure is that I now basically work full time with very small children. Children under five are extremely active. I now pack more in before 9 am than I used to in a whole day! So, there are plenty of opportunities for failure. How many songs have I tried to teach them that never caught on? How many music classes went by where I struggled to keep my students focused? As I began reflecting, I realized that I was keeping better track of my failures than my successes. Though it feels like my failures are piling up, it is actually because of them  that I’ve become a better musician, a better curator of songs, and a better teacher. I am where I am today because I have failed so many times!


I found myself in that moment giving thanks to God for my failure. I was reminded of one of my favorite passages in Second Corinthians, where Paul tries to explain to his readers what it means to boast in Christ: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses…. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10. I’ve always liked this passage because Paul isn’t just saying, “It’s okay to be weak,” or “Be weak if you have to.” He’s really rejoicing in weakness! When I fail I am reminded to rely more fully on God’s grace, and I realize how much I need God and the support of other people. It is humbling and strengthening. It also gives me a chance to learn from my mistakes–if I’m not making mistakes, I’m probably not being bold enough each day.


“It used to be so much better than it is now…”

Failing to teach a song or manage a classroom of children is one kind of failure, but working in a declining church feels like another thing entirely. I know there are people reading this blog who work or worship in a mainline Protestant church, or another church that is experiencing decline. It can be deflating to worship with too few people in your sanctuary, to not see many young people darken your door or have many new members join your choir. I know I start to feel worn down when I have to constantly listen to parishioners talk about how much better things used to be. I start to wonder if this decline is a reflection on me; if I was a flashier performer or a more charismatic leader, would things be better?


I’m thankful for places like the Center for Congregational Song that remind me to put things in perspective: I didn’t decide to serve the church in order to make myself look good or to amass successes. I became a music minister because I want to serve Christ who came to earth because he was so crazy in love with each and every one of us. God calls us to emulate Jesus, whose entire life was lived out only for others, never for himself. As leaders and participants in congregational song, we work and we sing and we leave the rest to God. I’m reminded of another favorite Bible passage, Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” Prosperity and adversity will come and go, successes and failures will come and go; God remains God, and our call to serve God will be the same in every circumstance. Amen!


Sin(g) Boldly!

I was highly entertained by reading the blog post from May 16th, “A Profound Silence,” in which Brian Hehn describes performing John Cage’s 4’33” in his church’s worship service. Brian tells the story from when he first got the idea through the performance and the feedback, which was mixed: some snark, some gratitude. I appreciate that Brian blogged about something with such a real life outcome in a culture that tends to only want to publish filtered and polished success stories. This wasn’t a conventional success story, but I think it was still successful. It sounds like the Spirit spoke to Brian, he acted on it, and now he’s learned something from what did and didn’t go well. As I embrace failure and read stories like this, I’m reminded to sin(g) boldly and to act more on the Spirit’s leadership than on fear. I’m also reminded to focus more on building God’s Kingdom than on tallying my successes at the end of the day. Finally, I’m thankful to have a tribe like the folks I know through the Center for Congregational Song to remind me why I do this work. We work and we sing!


For more blogs by Ginny and the rest of our blog team, go to our main blog page.






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.

On Easter Day we celebrate that Jesus came back to life, but starting the day after Easter most of us in ministry, and music ministry specifically, feel anything but lively. Easter is meant to be more than just one day; in Western Christianity, at least, it’s a whole fifty days of celebrating. But how many of us actually treat the seven weeks after Easter as the festival season it is? In many of the churches in which I’ve worked and worshiped, we tend to take a few days or even the whole week after Easter off, and the rest of the Easter season never really regains its momentum. We’re exhausted, for goodness sakes, and our worship tends to suffer for it. This doesn’t seem to reflect the reality of the resurrection. What can we as musicians do to be more faithful to the spirit of Easter, without overtaxing ourselves and the people we work with?


The more we get together, the happier we’ll be…

The Sunday after Easter can often be a bit of a downer, not only because we’re all still recovering from Easter, but because many of us have to go from a very full church back to our usual, often much lower, number of worshipers. One thing that worked particularly well for my church this year was to plan a worship service with other churches in our neighborhood for the Sunday after Easter. Granted, ecumenical worship services can take a lot of effort to execute. But I found that with three music ministers working together, we were able to divide and conquer and not leave anyone with too much to do. With someone there to conduct, I could focus on the organ, and we had plenty of singers to fill the choir loft and make the anthem sound full.

I have to say, I’d forgotten how much having children around makes each holiday feel so special.

The nave, too, was full of worshipers to make the hymns and responses quite hardy. What’s more, it feels faithful to the good news of Jesus to break down our denominational barriers and worship as one. What better time to proclaim that message than during the Easter season.


On the road again…On the Road Again

For those of us who are church musicians, most of our work is for events that occur within the four walls of the church. What would happen if we took our show on the road for one or more of the weeks of Eastertide? The music is already learned; why not perform it a few more times in a location other than your church sanctuary? If your church is in a downtown or other highly visible location, consider doing some of the music you worked so hard on for Easter out on the front steps or the front lawn. You could even do the whole worship service outside, weather permitting, at your usual Sunday morning time. If your church is affiliated with a school or nursing home, ask if you can perform the anthem or other special Easter music at their weekly worship service. Or, team up with the school’s music teacher and make music class that week a special Easter “concert,” complete with a tour of the organ and an opportunity to sit with choir members and follow along with the music as they sing. Some of these options will be relatively easy to execute; others require more planning than most of us want to do the week after Easter. But I think you’ll find that just by changing the scenery you’ll be able to extend the life of the music you performed on Easter Sunday, and keep the Easter season alive while you’re at it.


Won’t someone think of the children?

In the past three years I’ve had two children and started a Children Singing Easterjob that involves working at the school affiliated with my church. I have to say, I’d forgotten how much having children around makes each holiday feel so special. Children have an enthusiasm for celebrations and traditions that is infectious to the rest of us. Easter Sunday may not be a good time for the children’s choir to sing, but it’s perfectly appropriate to have them sing an Easter song on the Sunday(s) after Easter. Small children delight in having songs to sing that go with whatever season it is, so even if you’re working with children in a less formal setting than a choir, you can keep singing your resurrection songs all through the season. (Sidebar: I’ve found there aren’t enough Easter songs to satisfy the appetites of young children. Which Easter songs do your children love?) You might find that you have more opportunity to discuss the true meaning of Easter with the children once the Easter bunny has faded away, too.


The Easter Season is meant to be one of overflowing joy and celebration. What do you find helps you maintain the spirit of Easter through the whole season?


For more blogs by author Ginny Chilton, check out all our blogs here.


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!


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:


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

The Beginning

Negativity. Pessimism. Insults. Arrogance. Blame. Simplifications…These are many of the characteristics that are easy to find when browsing the internet, scrolling through social media, listening to the news, and even walking the hallways of our churches. But when I read the Gospels, when I look to inspirational leaders who make a difference in this world, and when I interact with many of my colleagues and friends, I find:
Joy. Optimism. Praises. Humility. Grace. Contextualization.

The Center for Congregational Song (CCS) is a new endeavor that I pray will make a difference in our churches and our communities. But that difference cannot and will not be made through negativity. Why? Because there is too much to celebrate and too much good work to be done. There is so much inspiration out there; so many people who are serving faithfully and striving diligently to enliven the voice of God’s people. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” Our song must be a light. When people struggle with the darkness of despair or depression, our song must be like David’s healing music for King Saul. When our communities are invaded by the darkness of oppression or fear, we must join Jesus as he sings with his disciples in the upper room.

I hope that you’ll join us in this work. Join us by continuing to lead God’s people in song. Join us by sharing the good resources you have found with us so that we can connect others. Join us by telling your colleagues and friends about us. Whether you become a consumer, contributor, or cheerleader, we want you to become a part of The Center’s work.

As you explore all our initiatives and resources, it’s important to know that our work is guided by a series of “guiding stances.” These stances have been carefully crafted by The Center Director’s Advisory Group as well as The Hymn Society’s Executive Leadership. To read about these guiding stances, you can click here.
This blog begins with a core team of writers in place and ready to write. Each contributor comes from a different background, different tradition, and has a different skill-set. So what you’ll get by following this blog is a variety of ideas from a variety of viewpoints, and we view that as a strength. So let me introduce you to our core team:

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.

Ginny Chilton is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher. She enjoys the variety that comes with working in a church: organ music, worship planning, choir directing, children’s music, handbells, etc. Before moving to Virginia, she had been in Boston where she completed two master’s degrees at Boston University: a master’s of sacred music and a master’s of divinity.

Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies and music at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. A native of Miami, FL, Adam earned a B.A. in music education from Trinity Christian College (Palos Heights, IL) and a M.A. in religion and music from Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He has been involved in planning and leading worship in a wide variety of settings and styles, most recently as the Interim Minister of Music at All Saints’ United Methodist Church in Morrisville, North Carolina. Adam is passionate about vital corporate worship and is committed to helping communities and their leaders engage in worship with wisdom and hospitality.

Me! I am the director of The Center for Congregational Song and I love my job. Getting to spend intentional time seeking out and meeting people across the U.S. and Canada who are passionate about the church’s song and then connecting others to their work is a large part of what I do. I live and breathe congregational song and am beyond blessed to learn from and with musicians and pastors in a variety of contexts and denominations. I’m excited about what this blog and the entire Center for Congregational Song can and will do in the coming years to help encourage, promote, and enliven congregational song.