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We’re not called to sing everything

While reflecting on my experience as a graduate student in Dallas and preparing for work as a church musician, I wrote, “I just spent two years studying at a Methodist seminary, and in that environment, faculty and students spend a lot of time talking about being “called” to ministerial work. Honestly, I’m not very compelled by this idea. While it’s true that Perkins School of Theology was a great fit for me, I would have enjoyed working elsewhere. I seriously considered working in other fields and/or studying at other schools, but in the end, I earned a Master of Sacred Music degree at a seminary in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Regardless of how my “calling” fits into that equation, that choice was mine. By making that choice, I was able to visit Mennonite, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, and non-denominational churches. I made Texan, Korean, Brazilian, Kenyan, Tanzanian, El Salvadorian, and Dominican friends. I ate new foods, saw new sights, and heard new ideas. Our choices curate our relationships and experiences. Some things are not within our control, but in many cases, we choose the stories that we hear. We don’t have the bandwidth to listen to all of them, so we must be selective. We also choose between dismissing those stories (perhaps privileging the sound of our own voices?) or allowing relationships to form out of them so that they shape how we think, speak, and act.”

Now, it strikes me that church musicians make similar choices.

This month, I started working for a Mennonite congregation in rural Ontario. I serve as a “worship coordinator,” meaning that I select music, develop service themes and orders, and equip congregants for various liturgical roles. The congregation selects repertoire from Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA’s most recent hymnal, Voices Together (Kauffman 2020). This hymnal made headlines in the world of congregational song for its richly diverse repertoire deriving from a variety of linguistic, stylistic, and cultural sources.

Despite the efforts of the editorial committee to carefully curate songs for inclusion in Voices Together, local congregations will not sing all of them (Johnson 2023, 132). Especially in Anabaptist and other Free Church traditions, congregational leaders make selective repertoire choices for their communities. The result is often a body of song that represents the congregation well, but it fails to account for the wider denomination in North America and worldwide. Is that a problem?

As Sarah Kathleen Johnson remarks in the preface to the Worship Leader Edition of Voices Together, “this book was created with the recognition that not every resource in it is the right fit for every community” (Johnson 2020, vii). However, Johnson also challenges leaders to allow “changing cultures within your community, neighborhood, and the wider world” to “inspire changes to your worship practice. For example, bilingual worship may develop if a new language group becomes prominent in your neighborhood or if older and younger generations in your community use different languages” (Johnson 2020, 2). Evidently, music leaders make critical choices about what to sing and whom to include in singing it.

When we sing, we both envision and enact a future for ourselves.

Just as it was not reasonable (or even possible) for me to listen and respond to all the stories I encountered while living in Dallas, it is not reasonable for a congregation to sing every song in a hymnal. Again, we must be selective, which means that different congregations and their leaders will make different choices, further resulting in different outcomes. Leaders must therefore ask themselves:

  1. What kind of community do I wish to create through song?
  2. What are its characteristics?
  3. Who does it include or exclude?

When we sing, we both envision and enact a future for ourselves. When we sing familiar songs, we might reinforce existing beliefs, norms, and boundaries—for better or for worse. When we sing songs that seem new or different to congregants, we might challenge beliefs, disrupt norms, and stretch boundaries—again, for better or for worse, although I maintain that it makes a good deal of sense for discerning leaders to shift the status quo to reflect the emerging realities of faith and life.

Do we succeed in these efforts? Earlier, I stated that, in addition to choosing if we will devote ourselves to hearing the stories of those around us, “we also choose between dismissing those stories (perhaps privileging the sound of our own voices?) or allowing relationships to form out of them so that they shape how we think, speak, and act.” As someone who works in a fairly homogeneous neighborhood, it feels like a daunting task to form relationships with members of the Black and Asian communities from which songs like “Total Praise,” and “Ososo (Come Now, O Prince of Peace)” derive. After all, the two BIPOC members of our congregation relocated to an urban area within two weeks of my start date. On the other hand, according to the most recent Canadian census, there are several Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking residents of our region, so it might be feasible to connect with these neighbors and, in doing so, foster deeper engagement with songs like “Perdón, Señor” and “Cantai ao Senhor (O Sing to the Lord).” In this new role, then, I will utilize my connections, recognizing both that I am not connected to everyone and that I am connected to more people than I realize. I’m also looking forward to The Hymn Society Annual Conference and other events that enable me to strengthen existing connections and form new ones with members of other communities. Several additional questions are instructive for this work:

  1. Whose stories do I choose to tell? Do we have a connection? Could we form one?
  2. When I tell the stories of other communities through music, am I muffling or distorting the sound? How much of that distortion is inevitable?
  3. What kind of research, relationships, and rehearsals must ensue for our songs (or the songs of others) to shape our future for the better?

With these considerations in mind, let us become critical, curious, and considerate leaders who make relationships the fruit (and the labor) of our liturgical choices.



Blogger Mykayla Turner is a Master of Sacred Music student attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. Under the direction of Dr. Marcell Silva Steuernagel, her thesis research focuses on the role of music in rural congregations. Mykayla has completed graduate coursework at Conrad Grebel University College and Southern Methodist University in both theological studies and church music. She is an active church musician and liturgist in both Mennonite and ecumenical contexts. In 2023, Mykayla obtained her A.C.C.M. in Piano Performance.


The Prompt

I’m sure 99% of you reading this have heard about the new “ChatGPT” ai chatbot. I decided to give it a whirl, so on Friday, March 3rd, 2023, I typed into the promt:

Write a daily news article about congregational song

Below is the brief article the chatbot wrote. I was impressed but skeptical. Upon further research, I could not confirm where the quotes were from and could also not find the article the chatbot cited from the journal Psychology of Music. I reached out to the only “Sarah Johnson” I know of in the field of congregational song scholarship. Dr. Johnson wrote in their email reply to me:

I definitely have not published in Psychology of Music. Furthermore, I do not think I have written these specific sentences, although I have been known to say things like this sometimes.

So it seems that both the quotes from “Dr. Sarah Johnson” and the journal article were made up…they’re a lie.

While I agree with pretty much the entire article and could see myself writing something almost exactly like it, I wince at the reality of the situation. This article, on its surface, is in service to the church for the glory of God. But the God I love and believe in does not communicate in lies. God works through truth. The author of the article below is not human and cares nothing about God or the human beings that might or might not be influenced by its writing. Truthfully…I’m not sure what to do next or what to think about it.


The ChatGPT Article

The article between the dotted lines is the unedited ChatGPT article.


Congregational Song: The Power of Music to Bring People Together

March 3, 2023

In today’s fast-paced world, people often find it difficult to connect with one another. However, there is one thing that has the power to bring people together like nothing else: music. Specifically, congregational song, or singing together in a religious context, has been shown to have a profound impact on people’s sense of community and belonging.

According to a recent study published in the journal Psychology of Music, congregational singing has a unique ability to foster a sense of togetherness and belonging among participants. The study, which surveyed over 1,000 people from a variety of religious backgrounds, found that those who regularly participated in congregational singing reported feeling more connected to their communities and more fulfilled in their spiritual lives.

“Congregational singing has the power to unite people across differences,” says Dr. Sarah Johnson, one of the authors of the study. “When we sing together, we create a shared experience that transcends individual differences and brings us together as a community.”

This sense of togetherness and belonging is particularly important in today’s world, where many people feel isolated and disconnected from those around them. Congregational singing provides a sense of connection and purpose that is often lacking in other areas of life.

But congregational singing isn’t just important for spiritual fulfillment; it also has physical and emotional benefits. Singing has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve overall wellbeing. Additionally, singing in a group has been shown to increase feelings of happiness and satisfaction.

Of course, congregational singing isn’t without its challenges. Many religious communities have struggled to maintain their singing traditions in the face of changing demographics and evolving cultural norms. However, many communities have found creative ways to adapt, using technology and other innovations to make congregational singing accessible to everyone.

For example, some churches have started hosting virtual sing-alongs, where members can participate in congregational singing from the comfort of their own homes. Others have started using social media to share recordings of congregational songs, allowing members to sing along even when they can’t be physically present.

Despite the challenges, congregational singing remains a powerful force for community building and spiritual fulfillment. As Dr. Johnson puts it, “When we sing together, we create a space where people can come together, share their experiences, and feel a sense of belonging. That’s something that’s desperately needed in today’s world, and it’s something that congregational singing can provide.”



Like any tool that humans have made, they contain the potential to help us love or to help us hate, to help us truth-tell or to help us lie, to help us heal or to help us hurt. As we all have fun with the new ai tools that are being created and published, let people of faith proceed with caution that whatever we do is done in Love and Truth.


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