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The Illusion of Unity

Mykayla Turner holds a Master of Sacred Music with a Liturgical Musicology concentration. She recently obtained her A.C.C.M. in Piano Performance from Conservatory Canada, and she is currently completing a Master of Theological Studies. Mykayla has presented research at conferences in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Apart from her academic work, she is an active church musician and liturgist. She works as a worship coordinator for a Mennonite congregation in rural Ontario.


When we sing in unison, we embody unity in Christ. Don’t we?

It was only a few years ago that I first encountered this interpretation of singing with other Christians. I soon realized that it is anything but novel; on the contrary, “commentators from the fourth century onward mention unison singing as expressing symphonia (sounding together, i.e., acclamatory agreement)” (Flynn 2006, 772). The logic is simple: To sing the same thing at the same time, our voices must move in the same melodic direction. It is impossible to sing in unison without unifying our voices, or at least attempting to do so, which equips us for unified action in other areas of life.

That wasn’t my understanding, though. I once made the opposite claim in an assignment for one of my courses. I contended that Christians embody unity by singing in four-part harmonies. Upon reading my work, my professor alerted me to what seemed to be a consensus among medieval Christians: At best, singing in unison unifies us; at the very least, singing in unison serves as a figurative reminder of the concord that should characterize our communities.

How did I develop such a different idea? Where is the logic in my argument?

When I suggest that unity results from singing in four-part harmonies, I am applying the ecumenical concept of “unity-in-diversity” to congregational song (Wendlinder 2018, 390). Rather than prescribing uniformity across all Christian groups, some ecumenists root their vision of the Church in Paul’s description of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:14–20:

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members yet one body.

While maintaining our diverse beliefs, abilities, or commitments, everyone claims Christ, the head of the Church, as the source of their faith. We represent this inter-ecclesial vision in our congregations when we sing different parts of the same song at once. Diverse musical assignments arise from the same source and contribute to the same goal. Furthermore, by singing different harmonies, a congregation accomplishes more than an individual might achieve alone. In real-time, an individual cannot sing more than one musical line. When it comes to live, sung harmonies, individuals must join their voices together to move in the same harmonic rather than melodic direction. Just like singing in unison, it is impossible to sing in four parts without unifying our voices. The difference lies in working together to build the same chord rather than land on the same note.

I am defending a mode of congregational song to which some Mennonites hold dear. Although I do not descend from sixteenth-century Anabaptists, whether Swiss-German or “Russian” (Dutch and North German), I spend a great deal of time with other Euroamericans who do lay claim to that heritage. For a variety of reasons, most of them untenable, Mennonites in these circles seek to “maintain what they understand to be a Mennonite tradition of a cappella, four-part hymn singing” (McCabe Juhnke 2018, 45). Community ranks high on our list of priorities, but we express our commitment to one another through the sound of diverse voices coming together to form something more than a single melodic line. It’s a beautiful image. It’s also a deceptive image for several reasons that are becoming increasingly apparent to me:

  1. Isn’t it ironic that a thoroughly uniform group of Mennonites (at least in an ethnocultural sense) embraces a kind of singing that embodies unity in diversity? The multifaceted image of the Church that forms through our song dissolves as soon as we shift our attention to congregational demographics. (I suspect that I’m not just naming a Mennonite problem here. Does anyone else belong to a homogeneous congregation wrestling with the realities of self-contradiction?)
  2. On the other hand, some Mennonite congregations are not so uniform. I work for a majority-White congregation affiliated with Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, but many of our members did not grow up in Mennonite communities, nor are they able to trace their family lineage to sixteenth-century Anabaptists. Consequently, these members feel less comfortable singing in four-part harmonies. In fact, on a Sunday morning, I often fear that I am distracting or intimidating some of the melody-bound congregants around me if I choose to sing an alto line. (Once again, I suspect that this range of musical abilities is not unique to Mennonite congregations. Are there any other church musicians who worship alongside untrained singers?)
  3. On a global scale, non-Western Mennonites far outnumber those of European descent. Even in North America, Mennonite congregations that were once ethnoculturally homogeneous are experiencing demographic shifts to reflect global realities (Graber 2022, 193). (I’ll say it one last time: Am I describing a solely Mennonite phenomenon, or are other denominations moving in a similarly diverse direction?) When one adopts this global perspective, it is no longer true to assert that four-part harmonies are ubiquitous among Mennonites (or Christians of any tradition, for that matter). On the contrary, for instance, Katie Graber conducted a project that enabled her to visit a wide range of Mennonite Church USA congregations and observe their diverse musical forms: “I heard a cappella singing, and singing accompanied with piano, keyboard, guitar, drums, and recordings. I heard songs influenced by traditions from around the world, and European and North American hymns translated into many languages.”

Several instructive comments arise from this discussion. On one hand, if congregations in North America are becoming more diverse, it is not so ironic to sing in four-part harmonies after all. When our ecclesial bodies are visibly diverse, consisting of various ethnocultural “parts,” four-part singing symbolically affirms those differences and asserts that unity can still emerge from them.

However, just as it takes considerable effort to bring four vocal lines into harmonic union, we should not assume that congregational unity comes without work. In all areas of congregational life, including the act of singing together, we must exercise hospitality and thoughtful discernment. Singing in four-part harmonies might exclude some individuals who struggle to sing anything other than a melody line. If that is the case, singing in unison might (ironically) serve as a better way to embody unity amidst people of diverse musical abilities. Some of this discernment unfolds at an individual level. When I am singing European hymnody alongside someone less confident in their abilities, I might sing the melody for two or three verses before attempting any harmonies that might distract them. On the other hand, I might be standing beside someone trying to sing the alto line with some difficulties. As a musical leader in my congregation, hospitality compels me to abandon the melody line and support them. When I am selecting music for a congregation representing various musical backgrounds, I might avoid European hymnody altogether, instead choosing contemporary songs that favor a melodic line while still accommodating extemporaneous harmonies. As a keyboardist, when I am accompanying a congregation, I might make careful decisions in advance about whether I should play a song as it is written (to encourage four-part harmonies) or deliberately alter those harmonies so that congregants must sing in unison.


When we sing, we embody unity in Christ. That statement might be true for a congregation that sings in unison. It might also be true for a congregation that sings in four-part harmonies. In truth, it depends less on how a congregation sings and more on how a congregation intentionally includes everyone in the act of singing, which may vary from one song or service to the next. After all, congregational song consists of all kinds of sounds. Sometimes it sounds rich with four or more textures, while at other times, it sounds strikingly smooth. At all times, though, it should consist of all voices or risk evoking little more than an illusion of the unity to which Christ calls us.


Felicia Patton is a lifelong Chicago native and worship leader at Urban Village Church. Felicia received an undergraduate degree from North Park University followed by two graduate degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.



We all have a history; a history that shapes who we are and what we believe. This is true for all aspects of our lives, including faith and music. During my time as a blogger with “Sing,” I will explore what happens when we go outside of our own faith traditions and navigate a new world of music and liturgy, starting with an interview of someone who was “adopted” into a church that is so much like the ones that I was raised and nurtured in. I will not speak for them; rather, I will have them answer questions about this experience and what they learned from it. I have chosen to keep this person anonymous in an attempt to focus on what was experienced, rather than whom it happened to. Hopefully, this will allow all of us to see this opportunity for a great community for ourselves.



What is your denomination?

My denomination is The United Methodist Church.


How would you describe your church community’s musical sound?

Most of my church community’s musical sound would best be described as “Traditional” Eurocentric hymnody.


Why was it important to you that you worship within a community that is culturally different than your own background?

Personally, I believe that experience is one of life’s greatest teachers. We can read all we want about things written in books, and while that is helpful to a certain degree, there are also limitations to that. It was important to me to worship in a community that was different than my own background, because there is something about having a culturally immersive experience that teaches us things we never knew and transforms us in ways we never thought possible.


What was your initial observation of the musical style of the church?

As soon as the pianist hit the keys, without fail, the feel of the entire room began to change as people began to sway back and forth, stomp their feet, clap their hands, and sing along to familiar songs—even the songs that were not all that familiar quickly caught on among the people and a similar reaction began to form.  I will never forget the first time this happened, my first Sunday there, as I was somewhat perplexed by what I was experiencing.  I personally love music and always have, so I had some sense of understanding in terms of the effect that music can have on a person, but I had never experienced it on a congregational level like that before. It did not take me long throughout the course of that service alone to notice the incredible impact that music has not only on the individual in worship, but on the church community as a whole.


How did you prepare for your introduction to this place of worship?

There was not a lot of preparation per se; at some point you just have to show up. I did have a mutual connection with the pastor of the church as they were an alum of the seminary I was attending and a friend of one of my professors, so I had been introduced to them at a different event prior to me attending their church.


What were some of the lessons that you learned from your time at this particular church?

When I first started attending, I knew that it was going to be a participatory experience; I just did not realize how participatory it was about to be! At first, I had not planned to join their gospel choir and looking back, I am still not entirely sure how they convinced me to. All I know is that I am grateful that they did.  This experience has helped me overcome the musical void in my life and has pushed me and challenged me in new and exciting ways that I never would have expected. Additionally, the choir has helped me come to a better understanding of music in the Black Church tradition through the spirituals, gospels, and other hymns they would sing.


Learning a new style of music can be difficult and intimidating, how did you prepare for this experience? How did you combat appropriation?

I appreciated the encouragement and blessing from the pastor, the worship team, and the choir of that church during my time there. What started as a place I planned to worship at for a few months turned into a few years that inevitably became my “adopted” church home. It was there that I truly learned first-hand what it is like living outside the “temple of my own familiar.” Needless to say, living outside the “temple of my own familiar” lasted more than a few hours or even a few days for me; it became a new way of life. Living beyond that which is familiar is rarely a comfortable feeling, especially at first, which in many ways is what contributed to my own intimidation and anxiousness about this experience in the beginning. There were a lot of factors at work here such as going to a new church for the first time and not knowing what to expect or what to do exactly, stepping outside of my own cultural familiarity and trying to be mindful of my place in that space, engaging with music again for the first time in years, and so on! In terms of cultural appropriation, I approached it with humility and sought to do everything with the utmost respect and integrity that I could. It sounds simple, but there really is something to say about simply using good judgment and knowing what is “appropriate” to do or not when experiencing a culture that is different than your own. Ultimately, what came out of this experience was a lot of incredible conversations and beautiful relationships that will last a lifetime.


What are some of the differences in the musical styles of your home church and your adopted church? Were there any “Ah ha!” moments for you while you were there?

Most of the songs the choir would sing, I had never heard before, so I was trying my best to learn the “new to me” songs before we would sing them together each Sunday.  There were many occasions when they would hand me a sheet of music or tell me what page it was on in The Songs of Zion in order to help me learn the music a bit faster.  As we began to sing, it certainly did not take me long to notice that while I was singing the same words as the choir, the notes I thought were “right” were most definitely not. What I came to realize was the choir director did not know at the time that I could read music, so it was never communicated exclusively that the version of “King Jesus Is a-Listenin” in The Songs of Zion was being sung in a different key entirely by the choir.

This was one of those “ah-ha!” moments where my ideas of what I thought or was taught over the years about what is “right” in worship were challenged.  In my own background, we were taught to sing standing still with our feet shoulder-width apart, leaning forward slightly, shoulders down, arms to the side, all while elevating our chests.  While maintaining our posture, we were required to sing the notes as they were written and only as they were written on the score we were handed months before the time we were to sing it.  Over the course of my life, I have heard the phrase, “If you aren’t going to do it right, don’t bother doing it at all” which I would say certainly limits the way one worships at all, let alone with music.  I did not realize how ingrained in to my mind and spirit all of that was until I began singing with the choir.

One of the most memorable moments I have had since singing with the choir has been learning how to shift from an individualistic mindset to a more communal one.  One week I finally admitted to myself the ways in which the sheet music was hindering my ability to sing with the choir as none of them had or needed sheet music to sing. I would get so focused on singing the notes correctly that I would forget to sing the song.  Before we went to practice our first song, I set the sheets of music to the side and began to sing in a way that I had never sung before. I sang with the choir, carefully listening to the words they were singing and for where my alto part would blend in with theirs instead of focusing solely on my own notes listed on a page.  One of the other altos sitting next to me noticed and turned to me to ask what it was that I had just done differently.  I explained to her that I stopped trying to convince myself that I could only sing if it was going to be “right.”  I realized that I had finally begun to free myself from this sense of perfection and had come to a place where I was able to begin deconstructing what all of those years of being told what the “right” way was that had been ingrained in me.  Immersing myself in a completely different community has taught me the importance of doing rituals differently and raised the question in my mind about what is “right” in terms of worship and who gets to decide that anyway?


Do you believe you learned the church’s musical style and the essence of its music?

I experienced the most gracious hospitality from the congregation, but especially from their choir.  During rehearsals, it was common for folks to share the background and stories behind the spirituals and the gospels they sing, as well as the ways in which those very songs have impacted them personally.  Given my own cultural background and recognizing my own privilege as a young, White, female in the United States, I know that nothing I have ever experienced can ever compare to the systems of oppression that are sadly all too prevalent in our society.  What I have come to learn is that through listening to personal testimonies and hearing the ways in which these songs have impacted their lives has been a very powerful experience for me.  It has without a doubt transformed the way in which I hear the music and has given me a whole new perspective than the one I had before. I have not left this experience the same.


Will you take any of the music you have learned to other churches?

Of course, but only when it is contextually appropriate to do so. Music is something that is rooted deep within my spirit, and this is no exception. The ministry of music among diverse faith communities is a transformational experience, no doubt. There are commonalities that can be found in the way that music functions within the Body of Christ. Ultimately music, when done responsibly and respectfully, can be a cross-cultural bridge among diverse races, ethnicities, faiths, generations, etc. I have experienced this time and time again and never cease to be amazed at the ways in which the Holy Spirit continues to show up in incredible ways. I truly believe that music can be a universal language that connects all of God’s people from all walks of life both from within and outside the walls of the church.  It is that sense of harmony in the music, as well as the occasional discord that adds flavor and a rich texture to the life of a community.



I marvel at this person’s ability to truly hear the community’s voice. Once we truly listen to what the community is trying to say, we can insert our own voices and blend with what is going on. It does not mean that we will not bring our own ideas and traditions that can add to the community; rather, it allows the visitor to become a part of the church family. The care we give to learning the traditions of other cultures within their own contexts and utilizing the ways in which they teach them I believe will reduce instances where cultures are appropriated.