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Text Comparison: It Is Well

Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.


Reworking hymns and music of the past

Church musicians have always used, referenced, altered, and/or been inspired by Christian artists of the past. Our current age is no different, and so a common thread in some very popular contemporary…”praise and worship”…CWM…CCM (what do YOU call it!?) songs reference some of the great hymns of the past. One popular example of this in our current song repertoire is the added refrain to “Amazing Grace” which starts with “My Chains Are Gone.” The added refrain is written by Louie Giglio (of the Passion Movement) and Chris Tomlin (probably the reason you know this song). Another well-known example of this type of congregational song is “It Is Well” by Kristene DiMarco, which is the subject of today’s blog.

These types of songs always fascinate me. I end up asking why they felt the need to add or change the hymn. An age-old question asked of every hymnal editor since the beginning of time…How does what they added, subtracted, or altered change the meaning of the hymn? Let’s look at these songs side-by-side to see what’s going on.

Here is the hymn written by Horatio Gates Spafford (1873) and found in over four-hundred hymnals so far. The video below is a lovely TTBB arrangement.


Here is the new version of the hymn that heavily references the original but is certainly an original song written by Bethel’s Kristene Elizabeth Dimarco.

Text Comparison

When Peace Like A River (It Is Well)
Horatio Gates Spafford (1873)

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control:
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and has shed his own blood for my soul. Refrain

My sin oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! Refrain

O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend;
even so, it is well with my soul. Refrain


It Is Well
(as performed with Kristene DiMarco)

Grander earth has quaked before
Moved by the sound of His voice
Seas that are shaken and stirred
Can be calmed and broken for my regard
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all
It is well
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
It is well with me
Far be it for me to not believe
Even when my eyes can’t see
And this mountain that’s in front of me
Will be thrown into the midst of the sea
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all
It is well
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
It is well, it is well
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name
The waves and wind still know His name
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all
It is well, Lord
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
And it is well with me


Stanza One

The opening stanza of Spafford’s hymn uses two creation-based images to describe the ups and downs of life. This is immediately followed by “whatever my lot” which alludes to God’s providence and control over all things including one’s station in life. The end of stanza 1 and the refrain then give us the basic idea of always giving praise to God by trusting in God’s love and care. This is the powerful idea that is likely why the hymn continues to be known and loved today. DiMarco’s first four lines double-down on that same idea that God is 100% in control and can (does?) move any part of creation for the sake of a single person. The refrain, while slightly different in text, does not change the essential message of Spafford’s original.

So, after the opening stanzas and refrains, the two songs are tracking well together with no substantial theological changes.


Stanza Two

In stanza two, Spafford introduces the idea that Satan is the one who creates the trials and temptations (the “sorrows like sea billows”) which need to be overcome. Indeed, Spafford goes so far as to say that we are helpless in the face of Satan’s trials and temptations. But, it is through Christ’s death that our souls are kept safe (For more on the “ransom atonement theory,” here’s a simple handout from a class at Notre Dame University). And so it is in stanza two that Christ’s saving acts are brought into play.

DiMarco’s text does not move on from stanza one, but rather moves into the responsibility of the believer. “Far be it for me to not believe | Even when my eyes can’t see | And this mountain that’s in front of me | Will be thrown into the midst of the sea” seems to be pulling ideas from John 20:29 (the story of Thomas not believing in Christ’s resurrection and Jesus responding with “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” ) and Matthew 17:20-21 (where Jesus says, “I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do.”).

So it is at stanza two that we have a departure. DiMarco moves into the importance and power of the individual’s faith while Spafford moves to the power of Christ’s salvation over the works and power of Satan. Neither of these are wrong, but they are certainly different.


Stanza Three

In stanza three Spafford doubles down on the importance of Christ’s crucifixion with “my sin…is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more” and follows it with words of praise. The focus of the text remains the work of Christ and not the work of the individual.

DiMarco’s text continues to focus on the faith of the individual by entreating the singer’s soul to “let go” and “trust in Him…The waves and wind still know His name” multiple times. This desperate plea seems to have resonances with the story in Mark 9 where the father of a demon-possessed child is told by Jesus “All things are possible for the one who has faith” to which the father cries back “I have faith; help my lack of faith!”. There’s a noticeable difference, though, in that DiMarco’s text placing the responsibility of belief on only the singer while the Gospel of Mark seems to be acknowledging the complexities of faith when we do believe…but we still need help from God to fully believe.


Stanza Four

Spafford concludes the hymn as many great hymns do, with an eye towards the coming kingdom of God. This eschatological turn using images from the Book of Revelation reminds the singer that the struggle between Satan and God, the persistence of evil and pain and suffering are not the end of the story. The final stanza ends with an acknowledgement that even though we live in a time when evil and pain and suffering do still exist, “even so, it is well with my soul.”

DiMarco does not provide a fourth stanza but rather moves into a repetition of “It is well with my soul” as somewhat of a mantra. Those familiar with meditation or the power of cyclical song forms such as those from Taize or parts of Sub-Saharan Africa understand the power that the repetition of a single phrase can have. As is common in many songs in the CWM/CCM/Praise&Worship genre, the emphasis of the song is to experience God through the making of music together rather than by the attempted explanation of God through words.



While the two songs share a common refrain, the trajectory of the texts and the ultimate purpose of the songs are different. Spafford’s text places the majority of the agency on the salvific works of Christ with an eschatological hopefulness. DiMarco’s text is an statement of God’s power followed by a mantra designed for the singer to manifest a belief in that powerful God. With that conclusion, my recommendation is this: do not replace one song for the other! Spafford’s hymn is a powerful text that keeps us focused on the work of Christ that was done, is still being accomplished, and will ultimately be completed. DiMarco’s song provides a powerful opportunity to sing our faith into being. If I had it my way, I’d use DiMarco’s song near the beginning of the service and use Spafford’s hymn for a sending song. If I had to choose one or the other, I’ll stick with Spafford’s consistent focus on Christ.


Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.


In a very thoughtful and collegial Facebook Group I’m a part of, a member asked this question:

Contemporary congregational song: who would you say is doing stuff that if fresh, original, breaks the mould maybe, different from the rest, and good for congregational song?

Here’s the list of recommendations from folks in that group in the order they appear.

Porter’s Gate


Common Hymnal


Wendell Kimbrough


Civic Club


City Alight


Caroline Cobb Smith




Ghost Ship


Sojourn Music


Poor Bishop Hooper


St. Benedict’s Table


“The Heart of God” by Alana Levandoski


Rivers and Robots


“Come to Me” by David Baloche


“Our God Is All Over” by New Life Worship


I hope you found something new and useful for your worshiping community! Post your recommendations in the comments below.




This episode is with ethnomusicologist and professor at Baylor University Monique Ingalls. Recorded at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship during their annual Worship Symposium, host Ben Brody once again hosts a lovely conversation that is both informative and challenging.


Season 2 – Episode 2

In this interview with Dr. Monique Ingalls, she shares her story about a home church that struggled with worship music style changes and her journey to becoming a ethnomusicologist focusing on modern worship music and congregational singing.



Listening time: 43 minutes


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Blogger Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.


Lots of Questions

As the director of The Center for Congregational Song, I’m often asked questions for which I don’t know the answer. There’s usually one of two reasons for me not knowing the answer. First, I’m only one person with limited knowledge and experience. The answer is out there and I just don’t know about it. One of the advantages of my position (and a benefit of serving an organization like The Hymn Society) is that when I don’t know an answer, I often know somebody who does! The other reason I might not know the answer to a question is that there isn’t a singular answer. Music ministry and congregational song is often so contextual and/or multifaceted that one person’s answer can be another person’s mistake. My simple hope for this series of columns entitled “Questions for the Director,” is that my answers will be helpful beyond the individual who originally asked.


The Question

Dear Center Director,

We are currently working on a hymnal for our denomination and we have noticed that the list of contributors for the CCM/Praise-and-Worship music we’ve selected is overwhelmingly by white males. Can you point us to songs written for praise bands and or in the style of Contemporary Worship Music that are written by women?


The Answer

Dear Friend,

I’m so glad you’ve reached out and am encouraged by your intentionality as you develop your new hymnal. Representation matters! I’ve reached out to friends and colleagues to crowd-source my response below. I hope you find it helpful. Each artist/band is given a simple 1 to 2-sentence description. If I’m aware of a particular song that I think is particularly good for congregational singing or representative of their style, I’ve linked to it as an example of each artist’s work. But don’t let the first example stop you from exploring the rest that each artist has to offer. I offer this list (in no particular order) as a conversation starter, not as a definitive list.


  1. Audrey Assad – “Your Peace Will Make Us One” is a new text for an old standard, flipping the original on its head to celebrate the peace that Christ brings. Audrey is a Syrian-American Roman Catholic sing-song writer.
  2. The Many – A folk ensemble focusing on inclusivity, “All Belong Here” is a great communion song. Also, “These Bodies” is a unique and important song.
  3. Darlene Zschech – One of Hillsong Church’s main song writers and worship leaders for many years, she has written and co-written a huge number of songs. Her most popular song is certainly “Shout to the Lord” from 1994.
  4. Lisa Gungor – 1 of the two “gungors” who made up the popular band. One of their breakout songs, “Beautiful Things” continues to be one of their most influential and singable.
  5. Laura Story – Best known for her song “Blessings” which showed up on more than just Christian Radio Stations. She has many other songs that have congregational possibilities.
  6. Amy Grant – Known for songs like “El Shaddai,” I think one of her most useful congregational songs is “Thy Word” which is flexible in its instrumentation and easily transposable into a singable key.
  7. CeCe Winans – A well-known gospel artist. Just google her to finds lots of songs.
  8. Sandra McCracken – A Nashville-based singer/song-writer whose recent work has focused on psalm-singing and congregationally friend songs. Check out “Trinity Song” and “All Ye Regufees.”
  9. Liz Vice – A Christian artist who focuses more on secular concert venues, some of her songs non-the-less carry over into congregational repertoire. A recent collaboration created “Away from the Manger,” which is stunning.
  10. Casey J – A well-known gospel artist best known for her song “Fill Me Up.” A simple chorus and call-and-response lends itself to congregational participation.
  11. Karin Simmons – Her setting of “out of the depths” utilizes a Chopin Nocturne as the accompaniment. It feels modern and ancient simultaneously.
  12. The McMakens – A husband/wife duo with a soft folky style. A good example of their work is “Rend Your Hearts.”
  13. Rachel Wilhelm – Her most recent album “Songs of Lament” is an important addition to the praise-band oriented repertoire.
  14. Geraldine Latty – A soft-rock ballad focusing on God’s compassion, the chorus of “Lord, You Hear the Cry” is super singable.
  15. Bernadette Farrell – Well-known and well-published in the Roman Catholic world (OCP page here). This British song-writer has some must-sing songs that aren’t strophic hymns but still feel natural for those who sing that style. Similar to Marty Haugen, David Haas, etc…
  16. Jenna Martin – A Nashville based singer/song-writer who isn’t easy to find but who has some lovely songs. The one recommended to me was her Christmas song “O Come, Be Born Again.”
  17. Leslie Jordan of All Sons and Daughters – A former group based in Nashville who came out with some wonderful hits that are both catchy and congregational-friendly. I particular enjoy “All the Poor and Powerless” for use with congregations.
  18. Lynn DeShazo – One of Integrity Hosanna’s early-generation song writers. A good singable chorus by her can be found in her song “Mercy.”
  19. Deanna Witkowski – A jazz artist who loves congregational singing and re-vamping hymns. She recently won The Hymn Society’s annual hymn search with her setting of Psalm 100 “We Belong to God.”
  20. Andra Moran – Some simple but beautiful songs in a soft country-western style, I think one of her most congregational song is surprisingly “Lullaby,” which could be included in a night prayer or benediction section of a hymnal. A playlist of her most popular songs is here.
  21. Sandra Montes – The Spanish-Language Consultant for the Episcopal Church, her song “todo lo puedo hacer” made quite a splash recently at one of their denomination’s annual gatherings.
  22. Danielle Rose – One of her best songs is “Touch Him,” which is a lovely setting of one of the Gospel narratives, though it would be tough with a congregation. The chorus of “Pursue Me” is very singable, however. So checking out her catalogue may be fruitful.
  23. Kiran Young Wimberly & The McGraths – Their collections of “Celtic Psalms” are traditional Irish tunes set to psalm texts. One of my personal favorites that works really well with congregations is “Sing to the Lord.”
  24. Sally Ann Morris – Published through GIA, her work floats between classic strophic hymn settings that would feel at home on the organ and driving songs with refrains that need a band to bring it to life. One of my favorite selections is “If Jesus Is Come” from the collection Stars Like Grace and is begging for an awesome band-driven arrangement.
  25. Mary the Mother of Jesus – The Psalms are great. New songs are great. But one of the most important and most sung songs of all-time was written by a woman. Make sure to include a setting of the Magnificat some time this year, and take that time to thank God for women poets, composers, and prophets!


The Context

Hillsong Worship, not to be confused with Hillsong United or Hillsong Young & Free, is a behemoth in the “industry” of music for Christian worship. Considered individually, each team of Hillsong’s writers has a slightly different generational or demographical focus, with Hillsong Worship being the more “adult” or cross-generational of the three. Each release by Hillsong Worship contains several singles that are given heavy Christian radio airplay, although it is just as often that a new song makes the rounds on social media via a viral video clip. Most of the songwriters on this album are longtime contributors to Hillsong such as Reuben Morgan, Brooke Ligertwood, and Joel Houston.


The Content

Though these songs are ostensibly written for the Church to sing, the live versions on this album are arena rock—driving drums, soaring guitars, pads and synths, and lots of reverb. The final four tracks on the album are “acoustic” arrangements that are a bit more accessible for the average church and volunteers who serve in music ministry. In both cases, the key for songs may need to be adjusted, as these songs are intended to be sung in prime unison. Even songs led by Brooke Ligertwood are pitched low for men singing split octave. Average song length on the record is more than five minutes, so several of the songs would also need to be rearranged with less ambient space and/or repetition. As is often the case with Hillsong’s pop songs, the anthems of the song are found in both the chorus and the bridge of the respective song, with a jump of an octave or a fifth guiding the dynamic changes. Singles that have already been well-received from this album include “Who You Say I Am” and “So Will I (100 Billion X).” The strongest songs on this album are the ones that provide opportunities to sing Scripture—“God So Loved” is a powerful setting of John 3:16, “The Lord’s Prayer” adapts just that, and “Remembrance” celebrates the benefits of the Supper.


The Conclusion

Each Hillsong release usually contains one or two songs that have strong enough melody/lyric resilience to survive the rearrangement that smaller or more local churches must conduct in order use the song in corporate singing. Although the theological distinctions of Hillsong Church peek through in certain lyrical turns, the songs are rooted in biblical concepts and often paraphrase the Scripture in ways that are adaptable to many languages and contexts. It remains to be seen which song(s) from this album may take hold in the global church.





Review provided by David Calvert, who 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.


The Context

While in the midst of the regular production of arrangements of songs for worship through The Worship Initiative, Shane & Shane have taken a break to record an album of re-arranged hymns under their own banner. Shane Barnard and Shane Everett are prolific songwriters in their own right, with over a dozen albums to their credit, but over the last several years they have focused their efforts on songs for the evangelical church by releasing rearranged songs and musician tutorial videos through The Worship Initiative. This “Hymns” album is released under their name, but with clear influence of their work in The Worship Initiative.


The Content

“Hymns Volume 1” contains five “classic” hymns from the 19th-20th centuries, and five hymns from the 21st century. Of the five classics, three of them have newly-written refrains or “choruses.” This is a common songwriting element for re-arranged or re-tuned hymns, and is certainly a debatable practice, especially when a hymn already contains a refrain. Three of the new hymns are penned by Keith Getty, illustrating the growing connections between songwriters in the conservative, evangelical network. All 10 of the recorded songs have a very similar dynamic range and instrumentation comprised of guitars, pianos, drums, and ambient sounds elicited from all of the above. No song is less than 4:40, with lots of instrumental space serving as connective tissue for the vocal parts. The songs flow into one another as if the whole album is a “worship set,” and each hymn is slowed down from its original tempo (some considerably so), which leads to a listening experience of contemplation and reflection.


The Conclusion

As a listening experience, this album leads those familiar with the hymns included to reflect on them differently and leads those unfamiliar with them to consider their lyrical value. The collection of songs chosen spans several generations of hymnody, unifying them with the acoustic-pop arrangements. Musically, the lack of dynamic diversity and the curious melodic choices may hinder this album from being more broadly useful for encouraging congregations to sing these hymns. Full disclosure: I am personally a fan of Shane & Shane’s music, and was a bit underwhelmed by this album from the perspective of a worship leader seeking new resources for encouraging singing in my local church.


Spotify Playlist



Review provided by David Calvert, who 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.



This episode is with composer, historian, and hymnologist Lim Swee Hong. Dr. Lim is the Deer Park Associate Professor of Sacred Music at Emmanuel College, and the Director of the Master of Sacred Music Program. Before joining Emmanuel on July 1, 2012, Swee Hong served as an Assistant Professor of Church Music at Baylor University, Texas.  Prior to his work at Baylor, he served as a Lecturer of Worship, Liturgy, and Music at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.

Swee Hong is widely utilized as a leader for global seminars and conferences dealing with worship and sacred music. Presently he is the Director of Research for the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. In 2013 he served as the Co-Moderator of the Worship Committee for the 10th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches for its meeting in Busan, South Korea and was a member of the Worship Planning Committee for the 2011 Ecumenical Peace Convocation sponsored by the World Council held in Jamaica. From 2006 – 2011, he chaired the Committee on Worship and Liturgy for the World Methodist Council, designed and supervised the worship services of the 20th World Methodist Conference in Durban, South Africa.

Swee Hong holds a PhD in Liturgical Studies from Drew University, where his dissertation won the Helen LePage and William Hale Chamberlain Prize for Outstanding Dissertation. He also holds a Master of Arts in Sacred Music from Perkins School of Theology. He completed his undergraduate work in Church Music at the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music in the Philippines. Swee Hong is well-published in global music, with his monograph, Giving Voice to Asian Christians, especially known among global musicians. He is also a prolific composer of hymnody.


Season 1 – Episode 3

An interview with hymn scholar Lim Swee Hong focusing on the history of praise and worship music.



Listening time: 27 minutes


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Every age segment of the population has their own playlist.


Contemporary worship at its beginning were songs of the people.


There is now a recovery of tradition within contemporary music…That to me is exciting.


Charles Wesley’s ‘And Can it Be’ speaks to me about the grace and the power of God’s love.  Even I can be redeemed and that is amazing!


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.



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

I am going to be upfront with you that, for some, this post may contain an unwelcomed or unpopular suggestion. And I know that I kind of “missed the boat” on the timing of this post—it probably would have been more appropriate before Advent, on Christ the King. Oh, one other thing to be candid about: this is a post that is going to suggest that if you don’t already sing some praise and worship in your congregation, now might be the best time, in this month and a half-ish between Christ the King and Epiphany. In fact, I won’t be suggesting you try on just any praise and worship from the last 40 years, but what we might call “classic” praise and worship. Better yet, you’re welcome to call it “traditional” praise and worship. I’m talking about the stuff from the mid- and late-1980s, the songs that came out before CCLI was a thing and before Christian bookstores picked it up and before the CCM industry saw the market value in it. I guess you might just call it “hipster” in that way—”traditional” praise and worship was doing it before it was cool.

You might be wondering what, exactly, this so-called “traditional” praise and worship was doing? And what that non-liturgical charismatic praise and worship stuff has to do with the so-called “liturgical” calendar?


It’s no mystery that the central themes of the Advent season revolve around waiting, anticipation, patience, preparation, and expectation. These themes are quite appropriate for this first season of the church calendar that celebrates the grand narrative of Christian hope that ended last week with Christ the King Sunday. The King has now crowned the liturgical year, and we’re back to the beginning of our story in time: Christ the King not-yet.

If your experience in congregational song is anything like mine, the deepest sense of expectation during Advent is actually for the opportunity to sing Christmas carols. Radios and shopping malls everywhere have long beat us to the punch, and it’ll be another three weeks before many communities let their O come‘s become has come’s. We (myself included) can often be quite zealous about our careful navigation of the liturgical calendar. We’ve got a cosmic story to tell and only 52ish Sundays a year to tell it, much less the four of Advent and the one Sunday after Christmas. Time is short. Choose carefully, choose wisely.

For so many, the songs themselves are the greatest reason for the season. I don’t mean to be harsh but—as you probably know from experience—no other season of the Christian year is so infused with popular demand for a certain repertoire of music. In the span of just a few days, many communities celebrate a Lessons and Carols service, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Church Christmas Pageants/musicals, not to mention all the concerts put on by schools and community organizations (also not to mention those of you who livestream musical events like those at St. Olaf College or King’s College Choir Cambridge—you know who you are).

In the midst of our waiting for this short flurry and flourish of appropriately Christmas-y repertoire, how can we infuse a deep sense of expectation for the coming of Christ himself? How can we help Advent sound its own part of the story? Do we commit to only the “traditional” Advent carols and the medieval church modes?


Pentecostal and charismatic traditions have something to teach the rest of the church about a fervent expectation and experience of God in worship. Sure, we have had some inter-Christian disagreements about what happens when God is “manifestly” present, and that’s fair enough. But what I think we in congregational song can learn is another musical way to celebrate the basic rhythm of Christian worship in revelation and response and in expectation and fulfillment and how we might more deeply join in the palpable sense of excitement that God is truly making Godself present in our worship and in the world, and God is doing so powerfully.

One thing traditional praise and worship does well is generate a sense expectation. In fact, the expressed goal of these songs and their use in worship is to facilitate the journey from expectation to fulfillment of God’s coming in Christ through the power of the Spirit. And not with the journey itself as the goal, but the celebration of the very presence of God.

Now, if there’s one thing that I feel confident in saying that this season of Advent to Christmas is about; one thing that matters for our participation in the present portion the Christian narrative; one thing that we can hang our discipleship hats on, it’s so that we have the palpable sense of expectation that is ultimately fulfilled with an enjoyment of God’s presence in the incarnation; Emmanuel, God with us. Traditional praise and worship can help us do this well, if we give it the opportunity and take it on its own terms.

Here’s one great example: go have a look/listen at the early Integrity’s Hosanna! Music tapes from the mid 1980s—a great place to start would be the tape “All Hail King Jesus”[1] from 1985 ( I mentioned in the opening that this would have been quite appropriate on Christ the King Sunday— “but wait, there’s more!”—listen to how chock-full the songs are with language of expectation directly from the Psalms and Prophets and invites our direct response to the great acts of God, especially in the person and presence of Jesus Christ. Over the course of the album, it moves from boisterous praise and confident statements of beckoning or expectation into quieter songs of response to the enthroned Jesus Christ. It’s a very cosmic—and very Advent-friendly—narrative.

Use these (or others from this repertoire), and make them your own. But also be sure to give them the space they need to do the work they were made to do. So to say, take some cues from this album as to how the performance practices might do as much work as the texts in generating a strong sense of expectation and fulfillment. The other great part about traditional praise and worship is that the instrumentation is highly adaptable. You can do it with virtually any arrangement of musicians that will suit your context and your services. Because these were originally done in orchestral settings, it makes for a much easier process of simplifying to suit your context than “complexifying” to suit. Take for example the title track mentioned above, “All Hail King Jesus” that Lifeway offers in lead sheet, chord chart, piano, vocal, and full orchestral versions (print or as digital files).[2] All very easily accessible. But don’t just do one song, do a whole set, musical transitions and all. It’s called “flow.”

All this to say: I hope we continue to reach across the musical boundaries that have grown up around us to celebrate the good in other traditions of congregational song in Christian worship by participating in them. “Traditional” praise and worship has something to offer all of us in learning how to deeply experience and rehearse the story of the coming of Christ in Advent and Christmas as more than a symbol of Christian unity, but an embodiment of it. As Rosa’s recent blog reminded us so keenly: our singing is an act of love, not just with our lips or ears but with our actions and our presence. We celebrate in sung prayer and presence as an act of love for each others’ diverse experiences of God. And all of this stems from the layers of hope, expectation, and ultimate fulfillment we find in this first season of the Christian year, and ultimately in God’s eschatological fulfillment to which the year so beautifully points.


[1] The title track of the album, “All Hail King Jesus” Words and music by Dave Moody. © Copyright 1978 Dayspring Music, LLC.