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Denominationally Promiscuous: Lessons From My Ecumenical Journey

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


Denominationally Promiscuous

Although not verified through any written text, it is common for hymnologists and church musicians to quote the 20th century hymnological giant Eric Routley as saying that church musicians are “denominationally promiscuous.” I must confess that I fall into that category. Raised in South Georgia, my father was a former Roman Catholic and my mother a former Southern Baptist. So when it was time to raise us in a church family, they found a liturgical compromise by attending a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation with solid children’s and youth programs. Upon entering college, I found myself attending and eventually serving as a music intern for a Cooperative Baptist church. After four years there, I entered a United Methodist School of Theology and served United Methodist Churches as director of music for over seven years. Finally, my last two posts as associate director of music have been in a suburban Roman Catholic parish followed by a Roman Catholic Cathedral, where I currently serve. I should mention there was a 1-year period in there when I attended an ELCA Lutheran congregation with my family on Sunday mornings when my primary leadership role was for Sunday afternoon Catholic masses. While serving churches as a church musician has always been a part of my professional life, the other part has consisted of serving ecumenical non-profits and doing conferences/workshops for a variety of churches and organizations.

After working for and worshiping with so many different denominations, I have often asked myself questions like, “wouldn’t it be better to work for the denomination I actually resonate most closely with?” and “is it authentic for me to lead worship in a denomination with which I have some clear-cut theological and/or social disagreements?” These are important questions. But, for me, there’s just nowhere to serve that wouldn’t put me in the same position I’ve been at in every church/denomination I’ve served so far. Every denomination and/or tradition gets some things right and gets some things wrong. Every denomination and church has members that are closer to sinner and closer to saint at any given time. But what I have found in every context so far is that every denomination is full of clergy who have given their lives to try and lead God’s people, every church has staff who are trying their best to lead worship in spirit and in truth, and every worship service has congregants who are trying their best to find the Holy somewhere in this world and in themselves.

I’m grateful for my ecumenical journey, and I’ve learned a lot about my faith and the church universal by spending time with those who think and worship differently than I do. So here are the top three things I’ve learned from each denomination/church I’ve served so far, and the one thing I wish I could tell them.

Testimony is powerful.

Presbyterians (PCUSA)

What I Learned:

  1. The tradition of strophic hymns and hymn-tunes from the 17th to the early 20th century is rich and important. A particular example that sticks out the most from my childhood is “God of Grace and God of Glory” set to CWM RHONDDA. It’s glorious.
  2. The reliance on God because of God’s eternal nature and providence. Our long-time pastor started every service for years by reading Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” This simple truth about God’s nature is ingrained in me, giving me a perspective that helps see me through times when the church, other people, or I mess up. God is bigger than our mistakes, always.
  3. The organ’s primary role in worship is to lead the people’s song. I was blessed with two dedicated and talented organists during my time growing up who understood this and put it into practice week in and week out.


What I Wish I Could Tell Them:

  1. It’s okay to use your body in worship…really…it’s ok. In fact, it’s a good thing. Loosen up a little bit for goodness sake!


Baptists (Cooperative and otherwise)

What I Learned:

  1. Having a different theological or social stance on issues is okay, and you can deal with those disagreements in a healthy way. The first Sunday I attended my Cooperative Baptist Church involved a congregational meeting where folks were testifying about what they did and didn’t believe about God, the church, and certain social stances…and they all listened and respected each other’s thoughts and finally voted on a decision. They moved on as a cohesive congregation who believed in each other’s sincere desire to follow God’s will.
  2. Testimony is powerful. The number of testimonies I heard over those four years was amazing, and they held power and spoke truth because they were rooted in that community and their collective faith story. The hymn “I Love to Tell the Story” finally became meaningful to me because of their constant witness and testimonies.
  3. The Holy Spirit is a real thing that moves in ways that can often be surprising! Trusting that the Spirit is actively working and moving is important and powerful.


What I Wish I Could Tell Them:

  1. Stop identifying yourselves through denominational structures (American Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, Southern Baptists, etc…). It’s undermining the beautiful congregational system that you all have and is a PR nightmare in the 21st Century.


United Methodists

What I Learned:

  1. The importance of Chuck. Charles Wesley’s hymn texts are one of the greatest gifts to the church universal in the last 300 years. They are beloved by Methodists, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, ELCA Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians alike.
  2. New and/or radical theological stances by a denomination can/does spur a flurry of musical output. The open table in United Methodist Worship has inspired a significant number of composers and authors to create new texts and tunes to sing. Some of these hymns and songs have already been picked up by many other denominations and traditions for frequent use…including those who do not profess an open table officially but are doing so in practice.
  3. Liturgical flexibility can be empowering. When used well, the willingness to be flexible liturgically can allow for powerful worship moments that address modern issues head on and challenge the way congregants think, pray, and act. The United Methodists I’ve hung around with tend to do a good job of honoring inherited worship patterns, while allowing space and time to explore new ideas.


What I Wish I Could Tell Them:

  1. You’re not as big and important as you think you are. While most (all?) denominations seem to suffer from this in some way, my experience has been that United Methodists are particularly keen on believing that they are one of the “big dogs” in world-wide Christianity. In reality, you are just one of the many pieces of the pie. Important, yes. More or less influential than many other Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox denominations…probably not.

Brian Hehn, Congregational Song


Lutherans (ELCA)

What I Learned:

  1. There was wisdom in maintaining the order of the Mass during and after the Reformation. To pull vocabulary from the prominent Evangelical worship theologian Robert Webber, there is something “Ancient Modern” about Lutheran Worship because they’ve maintained the Mass structure but have spent the last 500 years contextualizing it to the modern world.
  2. Taking pride in your denominational identity can be a powerful way to motivate people to study church history and dig into theology. I happened to be attending a Lutheran congregation during the “Reformation 500” year. This celebration was a wonderful exploration not only into what it means to be a Lutheran, but also what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
  3. The “Lutheran Chorale” is a rich legacy of hymn singing. Like the hymns of Charles Wesley, this tradition of congregational song has become an ecumenical unifier. They are a gift to the church and are used well beyond churches that call themselves Lutheran.


What I Wish I Could Tell Them:

  1. Stop pretending that Luther sang Bach harmonies…he didn’t. Dig further into your own history of performance practice to inspire yourselves on how innovative you could be in the 21st century by following in the footsteps of all those great Lutheran musicians of the past who innovated and connected your tradition of singing together to the world around them.

People often ask me where I see the future of congregational singing going.


Roman Catholics

What I Learned:

  1. There is a timelessness to what we do. Singing chant that is over 1000 years old during a Mass whose structure is equally ancient in a building that contains pictures of the saints from the ages reinforces the timelessness of God and of worship.
  2. A wonderful term for what we (clergy and other worship leaders) do is a “leader of prayer.” If your primary question as a leader is, “how can I lead the people in prayer,” then you’re off to a good pastoral start.
  3. Even a denomination that prides itself on being the “first church” is often (and usually unintentionally) ecumenical through its congregational song. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Roman Catholics since Vatican II have been relying on other traditions to help them sing, and they are the better for it.


What I Wish I Could Tell Them:

  1. You will soon no longer represent the majority of Christians around the world, and you’re already more ecumenical than you realize…just name it, own it, and lead the way into the age of ecumenism.

Brian Hehn, Congregational Song, The Center for Congregational Song

*This chart taken from:


The Future of Congregational Singing

People often ask me where I see the future of congregational singing going. Like the general world-wide trend of Christian denominations and the general population trend of the U.S., I think that we are shifting (or possibly have already shifted) away from a culture of majorities to a culture of pluralities. There won’t be songs that we can identify that the majority of Christians sing. There won’t be genres that the majority of Christians sing. There will be many identifiable trends that are equally interesting, useful, problematic, and complex within the church’s song. And, to me, that means we’re getting that much closer to singing what God sounds like: an intermingling of different pitches, rhythms, and timbres from all times and places that create something beautiful and unexpected.


A future post will deal with the pedagogical implications of working in the church when pluralities are realities.



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

Launch Event Recap

We began our time together in just the way you might expect for the launch of the Center for Congregation Song: by singing! In fact, singing was the ligature that bound us (and our lovely schedule) together at Harmony!

In the elegant setting of The Room on Main in downtown Dallas, we began in worship with Ana Hernandez. She lead us into contemplation through song—not for turning inward, but for turning and tuning our ears to the beautifully diverse voices around us. Accompanied by simple shruti box or guitar, the breath carried our song together. It was a beautiful microcosm and model for the rest of the weekend.

After opening worship, attendees shared round table discussions where many were able to connect and converse with various affinity groups before heading down to our “Gospel Sing in the Park.”

Main Street Garden Park and the Dallas skyline

Joslyn Henderson leading our song









Down at Main Street Garden park, Joslyn Henderson lead our worship with songs from across the spectrum of Black gospel music. In the late afternoon light, as dogs barked and city buses bumbled past, it was a deep joy to see so many pause to share in our song. In the late evening, attendees gathered for a relaxed time of socializing and sharing (and in my case, stumble upon some help for a research project—thanks Ben Brody!).

Monday morning we turned our hearts and our hands outward. John Bell lead us in songs and stories about the very real issues of food and justice worldwide. Simultaneously, Kids Against Hunger partnered with us to prepared dry meals for hungry persons around Texas and around the world.

Swee Hong Lim and Cynthia Wilson shared the Plenary Address. Their talks constituted a broader conversation about the relationship between congregational song and culture. On one hand, Swee Hong Lim asked how we, as congregational song practitioners, can prevent “ethno-tourism” and work against a kind of new colonialism enacted through music. Lim also used some examples of fusion musics to highlight the way we often project our own normative values onto what music from ‘other’ cultures should sound like. Likewise, Cynthia Wilson turned her attention to the margins, examining how congregational song can be appropriately contextualized with both the input of the ‘other’ and their full incorporation so as to be agents of transformation. For Wilson, this is especially important as music in the Africana context is part of a rich incarnational theology.

Just before lunch, CCS Director Brian Hehn introduced the mission and programs of the CCS. The guiding postures that pervaded his presentation included ‘conversations’ and resourcing. The afternoon practitioner talks also highlighted the practice of conversing or sharing over topics that can sometimes be either difficult, such as across lines of race and culture, or even taboo, like the struggles in one’s faith or spirituality.

After lunch, the community was graced by shorter talks from four excellent practitioners, Father Ray East, Amanda Powell, Jan Kraybill, and Tony Alonso. Each encouraged the group to push past norms and common boundaries: from using the Organ as an anti-bullying tool to bringing rap music and poetry more fully into realm of urban Christian ministry. We concluded the time with a panel discussion that included all the presenters. Questions related to music, songwriting, and pastoral concerns extended the groups conversation. The event closed with another contemplative time of singing and listening under Ana Hernandez’s leadership.

The world was a better place this morning thanks to your efforts.  Every segment of the launch was highly professional, inclusive, and engaging.  At no time was I tempted to sneak out for a nap or a bit of shopping!  My choir got a taste of paperless singing today and they were so excited!  One girl exclaimed, “Wow! this is so creative!” – Nancy Graham, Memphis, TN


Continuing the Conversation: Dissonance?

Over the course of the weekend at the launch event, “Harmony,” I found myself stuck on a phrase that was used by a few of the presenters as they reflected on their hopes for the future of congregational song. It’s a great one, really—eminently tweet-able. One that seems to bring together so much of religious life and experience. It goes something like this, ‘We need to be writing congregational songs that people will be singing on their deathbeds.’ The sentiment is well taken: we need to write songs (or ‘hymns’ if you prefer) that persons and communities can carry with them through their whole lives, ‘even unto death.’

The challenge is daunting. Many have asked the question over the years, ‘what is it that makes a text or text-tune pairing so long-lasting?’  It’s not like there is a formula for generating that je ne sais quoi—the one we find in songs like “Amazing Grace,” or “It is Well/When Peace, Like a River.” Of course, those two examples do share a certain comforting quality that makes them especially fitting for the harder times of life and it goes without saying that songs of comfort are especially fitting for those deathbed moments. But to take the commendation seriously, is the ‘deathbed’ the norm by which we should measure congregational song?

The other end of the spectrum seems to have been expressed by John Bell as he introduced the “Serve and Sing” session. Bell remarked upon the fact that we North Americans have very few songs that address the occasion for which we were gathered that morning: to address the problem of lack of food, rather than its bounty. Why is this the case?

In my ears, Bell’s reflection and lament about the state of song stood in stark contrast to the other laments about the (perceived lack of) longevity of song. While others seemed to be asking for songs that would transcend time and space, Bell seemed to be asking for songs immanently and intimately tied to lived experiences and issues of justice. Should this be the norm by which we measure congregational song? Can the transcendent and immanent co-exist? Can we ‘have our cake and eat it too?’

Okay, I know I’ve probably taken the sentiment farther than they intended, but I think it sheds a discerning light on our imagination of the ‘future’ of congregational song that we reflected on so richly at Harmony. It comes together, I think, around regular theme from the event: the power of story. One important reason those above-mentioned songs are so comforting at the bedside of the ill or distressed is that those same songs have been with us in those places before. Those songs not only have their own stories of comfort in the face of fear and distress, but we have woven our stories into them too. In some sense, the songs about hunger and justice are also part of stories and narratives in which we are involved. We must weave our diverse experiences of want for justice and plenty in the kingdom of God with those for whom food itself engenders this sentiment. The song can then become part of the script in our inclusive drama of life, death, deep hope, and justice in the kingdom of God.