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An Incarnational Sound

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




Nevertheless, It Was A Blessing

A few weeks ago I had the blessing of working with an ad hoc choir who gathered out of the student body of Duke’s Summer Course of Study program. Many were second-career local pastors in often very small congregations. For some, it had been a while since they were able to enjoy singing with a choir during worship. It was also a challenge for them to come to an hour-long, afternoon rehearsal following a grueling schedule of classes. Nevertheless, it was a blessing for all of us to share in choral song.

They were visibly tired, but excited to sing. As they shuffled in for rehearsal at Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School, the major themes of (and complaints about) their courses of the day pattered off the stone and glass. One drawback of being in an academic setting where new ideas about God, the church, worship, identity, mission, etc. are being impressed upon them all day, everyday, is that students can start to become hyper self-critical of the way they interact in those spaces: ‘Did I use that –ology word correctly?’ ‘Did I unintentionally shut down my fellow students’ earnest reflection?’ ‘Does the teacher think I am a fraud?’ ‘Am I a fraud??’

They were visibly tired, but excited to sing.

Though this kind of environment can become quickly tiring, there was a hidden and unexpected blessing in it: they brought that awareness and teachable (but discerning) spirit to choir. The choir members were ready to think and talk about the music beyond ‘where can we take a breath?’ and ‘are you going to give us a cut-off?’


North Carolinian

One moment in particular stood out. As we were working on our consonants for Richard Smallwood’s arrangement of Isaac Watts’ “I Love the Lord,” one of our sopranos openly apologized that she kept (aggressively) rolling the r on the line “and troubles rise.” After rehearsal she came up to tell me that she would practice it overnight and would definitely get it right for the following day’s chapel service. She explained that it is hard for her to not roll the ‘r’ because she’s always been taught that soft or swallowed ‘r’ sound was the correct way to sing. Upon further investigation and conversation, she said that she had learned (either explicitly or implicitly) that the sound of a North Carolinian/southern accent was not an appropriate one for group singing, i.e. choir.

Now I’m no expert in vocal technique, but it pained me to hear her say the equivalent of ‘the sound of my voice is not fit for the worship of God, so I have to change it.’ I realize that I too have uncritically internalized a deep sense that there are good and bad, beautiful and… um… less beautiful accents for singing. On what basis can and should we make these judgments? In singing any English language text, I regularly hear the encouragement to sound ‘more British,’ as though there is only one British English accent and all of its sounds are ‘pure.’

…it pained me to hear her say the equivalent of ‘the sound of my voice is not fit for the worship of God, so I have to change it.’

In any case, this soprano’s comments caused me to reflect using my theological toolkit. What theological rationale did I have for both affirming that it was appropriate to modify the sound of her voice to fit the style of music and suggest that she let the sound of her own voice shine through?

I turned to thinking about the sound of our voices as incarnational.


Incarnational Sound

Of course, the voice is by nature part of the fleshy stuff of our bodies that God knit together and that makes the sound of our voices incarnational in a generic sense. But I think we can take it further: for our music to honor God more fully, it needs to honor our bodies more fully. Our sounds have to be more truly of us and the stuff we’re made of—even (especially?) when that stuff is result of social and cultural formation. Christ’s incarnation reminds us that God’s glory is revealed in a specific person in a specific place at specific time in history. If “in our music God is glorified” (thanks Fred Pratt Green), it is when these voices we’ve been given sing God’s praise.

On the other hand, an incarnational perspective also encourages us remember not just we ourselves, but the contexts within which the music was originally created and intended: the urban streets of protest, the revival-era camp meeting, the gothic cathedral, the Rhineland convent, etc. The sounds of our voices should seek to honor the languages and peoples for and from whom the music is gifted. In doing so, we delight in, build empathy for, and gain perspective on the ways in which the beautiful sound of God’s glory is incarnated in other times and places.

This perspective is not a zero-sum endeavor. There is no perfect, sonic balance to avoid tipping the scales from accurate reproduction to appropriation or from authentic and sincere to manufactured and performance.



As you reflect on how this theological perspective might impact your music ministry, I pray that it will keep us on our toes when it comes to the sound of our voices and simultaneously put us at ease, knowing that our attention to these concerns is a sincere act of faithfulness in its own right.

This perspective is not a zero-sum endeavor.

As that soprano and I walked out of rehearsal, our minds and voices were noticeably tired. She wondered aloud why she’d never been asked to sing more ‘North Carolinian.’ Without an answer, we began mimicking our best/worst over-the-top-British-boy-soprano sound we could muster—laughing and contented with the exhaustion of having bitten off more than we had time to chew.


For more thoughts on incarnational music-making, check out these blogs:

“Navigating worship as Universal and Incarnational” by Tanya Riches

“Patriotic Music on Sunday Morning: Yes or No?” by Ginny Chilton



Guest Blogger Tanya Riches has published a number of well-known songs through Hillsong Music Australia, including ‘Jesus What A Beautiful Name,’ which reached #6 on Australia’s CCLI worship charts. Along with a team, she administrated one of the most successful worship bands in history, Hillsong United, for its first six years under Reuben Morgan’s leadership. Her song ‘Hear Our Prayer’ was on their second album, Everyday. She is now not only now a respected academic working in Pentecostal Studies and Missiology, but one of the world’s most respected scholars regarding the phenomenon of Hillsong Church. Her PhD research (Fuller Theological Seminary) is an attempt further reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, by bringing attention to the work of Indigenous Christian leaders in some of Australia’s major cities (The Gold Coast, Perth and Cairns). Her deep desire is for justice.


Picking Out Great Songs

I can still remember the very first time I heard the song “Oceans.” It was a blurry video performance posted on Instagram and recorded on an iPhone camera. Taya Smith sang it, with a single guitar backing her. Both the camera and her voice shook slightly, yet you could still tell it was an incredible song.

I’ve done a bit of informal research, and lots of songwriters, worship leaders, and publishers agree: it’s possible to pick out a truly great song well before any marketer gets involved. For example, you might remember the moment when “Revelation Song” was released onto video with a teenage Kari Jobe singing in her pink coat. There are so many Chris Tomlin or Michael W. Smith worship songs that became “hits” just by word of mouth after a worship service … it’s fascinating, isn’t it?!


Sharing Songs

There are many reasons as to why Christians share songs: they can be incredibly useful for teaching biblical and doctrinal content, they unify congregations in glorifying God, they can give prophetic words to particular moments, and they can allow us to grasp a sense of the church universal as we sing together words written by a fellow Christian. This is perhaps why the Christian music publisher Hillsong has largely abandoned the word “products” in favour of “resources” for their music.

Apparently, according to Amy Stillman from the University of Hawaii, the phenomena of song-sharing was even happening well back into the 1890s in Oceania. Well before the mass hysteria over The Beatles’ single releases, Christian songs were being passed from village to village around the lagoons in Papua New Guinea. Songs like “Onward Christian soldiers” developed a certain appeal in parts of the Pacific, and were sung until the missionaries couldn’t bear them any longer (and maybe even a little past that point).



Most worship leaders will understand the tensions that these missionaries must have faced. We tend to harness this kind of enthusiasm for sung worship. We know what is truly catchy, and what will assist the congregation in singing. This means that sometimes we use songs that we would prefer personally not to sing in order to encourage the congregation to magnify and glorify Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith. But it’s the age-old question for a worship leader: what happens if you don’t like the lyrics of a song, especially if it is just one line of an incredibly popular song?

There are so many instances of this, and many of the discussions seem to be about the use of contextual language. For example, it’s become clear to me, as an Australian, that some North American Christians just can’t bear singing the line “the darling of heaven crucified” or, for that matter, the word “hell” used in the vernacular sense in a worship song. For Australian Christians, however, the word “darling” and “beloved” are almost interchangeable. Similarly, our (over?) use the word “hell” is troubling for some and has even confounded Oxford Dictionary experts ( Even if you understand the meaning of the term in the Australian context, however, it may not be appropriate to use in your own congregational setting.

In addition, there are also various theological issues. One famous example is the Stuart Townend and Keith Getty song line “the wrath of God was satisfied” which, some congregations have claimed, paints a particular picture of the relationship between God and Jesus which betrays the Trinity’s inter-mutuality and love ( ). The authors, however, disagreed that this was the correct interpretation of their work. So what can you do if you deem one line of a song theologically incorrect?

We tend to harness this kind of enthusiasm for sung worship. We know what is truly catchy, and what will assist the congregation in singing.

In order to sing contemporary worship songs, it seems, some global cultures are expected to learn to adapt more than others. Yet the context of some worship songs seem not to be a problem for people in the southern hemisphere who regularly sing about snow at Christmas time, sometimes even while packing their swimming costumes and preparing to head to the beach after church. Some of us can surely only imagine how incredibly hard it is to understand the line “his eye is on the sparrow” when you’ve never seen a bird that fits that name. It’s an exercise in trust to believe that not only does such a bird exist, but that God watches it with dedication. Yet such popular songs are regularly sung in Australia.


What To Do?

So what is a worship leader to do with these song texts outside of their original contexts? There are a number of ways to answer this question. Copyright law insists that the song is the work of the writer. That means that even if you love the tune, it would be inappropriate for a song leader to change the lyric “sloppy wet kiss,” for example, unless given expressed permission from the publisher. And yet, in this case, for example, David Crowder decided that there was enough outcry to allow for a new version of the song.

Still, despite the legalities in most countries and the publisher’s clear explanations that the author must be contacted, some worship pastors are under the impression that CCLI allows them leeway to change lyrics. Newsflash: it doesn’t, see:

Often, the church learns new worship songs through the radio, or online. So do you include a tune in the worship service at the recommendation of a congregation member who loves it? And do you omit the troublesome lines because you can’t stand to think that the believers would be led into theological error? The tension for the worship pastor is real! The worship leader can often get caught between the pastor’s teaching, the congregation’s expression, and the songwriter’s legal protections.

So what is the answer? On this the law is clear. You can omit lyrics. But you can’t change lyrics without the express permission of the author.

Therefore, rather than expecting songs to be able to do this work, perhaps worship leaders should see ourselves as missionaries to our own cultures.

But what is ideal in this instance? Well, perhaps we need to stop believing that we can and should all be singing the same repertoire globally? Although it is a beautiful thing for churches to share their resources, the agency to make decisions about what is included in worship still remains with (and has always been) with the local pastors to prayerfully consider song texts and decide whether they should be incorporated into the worship service. The best scenario is when the worship pastor or leader is given the right to negotiate with the various parties and set the right songlist for their context.


Different Ways of Speaking

The truth is, language is not universal. We recognize that we have differences in the way we speak, but we also have differences in the meaning of our speech. And so, unless we have verbatim quotes of the biblical text, we cannot expect that all songs will translate across all cultures —and even then we know that biblical translations carry various theological emphases. The Gospel, in contrast, is renowned for its translatability. This message can be told and retold in many different languages, and with a consistency that allows its essence to remain.

Therefore, rather than expecting songs to be able to do this work, perhaps worship leaders should see ourselves as missionaries to our own cultures. If we hold to the goal that the Gospel be understood by the people we serve, and that the scriptures would transform us as we gather in worship together as the people of God, then we can evaluate the usefulness of songs on this basis. This type of ministry, immersion into local culture, is based upon the model of the incarnation of Christ.

But we can certainly acknowledge that it is incredible that some songs do seem to manage to cross the language divides in order to unify believers of various nations. That’s enough to make you praise Christ, who promises “I will build the church” (Matthew 16:18).