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Modern Justice Songs

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

 

The Question

Dear Brian,

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

Thanks,

Joe Youth Minister

 

The Reply

Dear Joe,

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

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

 

The Convergence Music Project

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

 

Mark Miller

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

 

Common Hymnal

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

 

Wendell Kimbrough

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

 

Sandra McCracken

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

 

The Porters Gate Worship Project

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

 

Liz Vice and Others

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

 

Urban Doxology

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

 

Matt Maher

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

 

Andrew Peterson

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

 

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

 

The Hymn Society Annual Conference 2019

This year’s Annual Conference theme is “Each Breath Is Borrowed Air.” Join over 300 of the nation’s top hymn scholars, teachers, and practitioners to learn and sing together.

Dallas, TX

July 14-18, 2019

 

For more information about this amazing event, click here.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hymn Society’s Annual Conference, the premier congregational song conference each year in the U.S. and Canada, has opened registration. Speakers include Ysaye Barnwell (formally from the ensemble “Sweet Honey On The Rock”), David Bailey (founder of Arrabon), and Cuban hymnologist Amos Lopez. Hymn Festival leaders include Ysaye Barnwell, Paul Vasile (Executive Director of Music That Makes Community), Urban Doxology, and more! Check out the full conference website here:

http://www.thehymnsociety.org/2018-st-louis

Make sure to check out all our other events here!