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2022 Annual Hymn Society Conference

Sing the World God Imagines

Washington, DC
The Catholic University of America

July 17-21, 2022


The Hymn Society’s Annual Conference is the premier conference focusing exclusively on congregational song in the U.S. and Canada. Each year it features top scholars from the U.S. and Canada as well as other international guests for plenary addresses, 4 hymn festivals planned and led by internationally recognized song-leaders, and over 40 breakout sessions on a variety of topics. The conference is held in mid-July each year at a different location within the U.S. or Canada.

To learn more about this year’s conference happening in Washington DC,
you can go to

Each of the 4 hymn festivals offered are always free and open to the public as a part of The Hymn Society’s mission to encourage, promote, and enliven congregational song in each location we host our Annual Conference.

Sessions include special breakouts for text writers, tune writers, and song writers with the opportunity to get written and verbal feedback from the leader on your submitted piece.

Those who attend The Hymn Society’s Annual Conference include church musicians, worship leaders, pastors & priests, composers, poets, publishers, and anyone else who is passionate about congregational song.

Recent Conference Leaders:
  • Rev. Dr. I-to Loh – Editor of Sound the Bamboo: CCA Hymnal 2000, Former Seminary President at Tainan Theological College, Ethnomusicologist, and Composer
  • Rev. Dr. Cynthia Wilson – Associate General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church, Director of the Center for Music and Worship in the Black Church Experience, and Award-Winning Singer
  • Dr. John Witvliet – Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Professor of Worship, Theology, and Congregational and Ministry studies at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Author of Over 7 Books
  • Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall – President and Professor of Theology and Spiritual Formation at Central Baptist Theological School, Past-President of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, Author of 3 Monographs and multiple book chapters and articles
  • Dr. Miguel De la Torre – Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology, Author of Multiple Books and Articles, Past-President of the Society of Christian Ethics
  • Jorge Lockward – Past Director of the General Board of Global Ministries for The United Methodist Church, Minister of Worship at Church of The Village in the Northwest Bronx, and leader of the ecumenical chorale Cántico Nuevo
  • Rev. Dr. Paul Westermeyer – Professor Emeritus of Church Music at Luther Seminary, Past National Chaplain of the American Guild of Organists, Author of 5 Books on Church Music
  • Dr. John Baldovin, S.J. – Professor of Historical and Liturgical Theology at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Author of Multiple Books on Roman Catholic Liturgy, Past President of the North American Academy of Liturgy
  • Mark Miller – Assistant Professor of Church Music at Drew Theological School, Lecturer in the Practice of Sacred Music at Yale University, Published Composer by Abbingdon Press and Choristers Guild
  • Rev. John Bell – Composer and Song-Leader for the Wild Goose Resource Group of the Iona Community, Fellow of the Presbyterian Church of Canada and Royal School of Church Music, Editor of the Church of Scotland’s Church Hymnary (Fourth Edition)
  • Dr. Marcia McFee – Ritual Artist and Creator of Worship Design Studio, Author of Think Like a Filmaker, Guest Professor at Universities and Colleges across the U.S. and Canada
Recent Conference Locations:
  • 2022 – Washington, DC
  • 2021 – Online
  • 2020 – Online
  • 2019 – Dallas, Texas
  • 2018 – St. Louis, Missouri
  • 2017 – Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
  • 2016 – Redlands, California
  • 2015 – New Orleans, Louisiana
  • 2014 – Columbus, Ohio
  • 2013 – Richmond, Virginia
  • 2012 – Winnipeg Canada

Learn More and/or Register at

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


The Original Post

On September 25th, I posted this onto my personal FB wall:


My heart aches for my black sisters and brothers for yet another result that denies their basic humanness based on the color of their skin. This is the latest example of both an inherited and perpetuated trauma to our fellow humans and God’s creation. Racism kills in so many ways… #BreonnaTaylor is one of many. May her memory be blessed. While feeling helpless to enact real change in moments like this, the least I can do is re-dedicate myself to working toward being anti-racist and helping others along a similar journey. Now’s not a great time to ask for resources or ideas from your friends of color as they grieve and feel deeply this latest injustice. If you are beginning to work toward anti-racism or want to know what that is, feel free to PM me. I’m certainly not an expert, but I am learning and can point you toward good resources and people to follow.

Soon after, I got a message from a colleague that said this:

Hi Brian, in response to your Facebook post this week, who do you recommend I follow or read to develop an understanding of non-white hymnody, history of worship, and even church history more generally. Any suggestions or starting points would be amazing. Thanks.

Below is my reply, which I hope will be a helpful guide to anyone who is at the beginning of their journey.


The Reply

Dear Friend,

Thanks for reaching out.

Below are some resources that I hope will be a good start. If you’re looking for something in particular, let me know and I can be more specific. I don’t know what kind of tradition/piety you are coming from, which means some of these things might not hit the mark for you. It’s a bit all over the place as far as traditions/theologies represented. The important thing is that you’re engaging in this and that we’re here as conversation partners, not as experts! We’re all on a journey and have a lot to learn from each other. We at The Center for Congregational Song are grateful to have met lots of wonderful people along the way who we have learned from and continue to build relationships with.



Free Resources to Read/Watch/Use

Use these resources an entrées into expanding your vision for what God gets to delight in each and every day from Christians around the world. Pick one that sounds interesting, then explore the resources and ideas that they suggest to continue your journey.


Books/Resources to Consider Buying

Investing in resources by people of color and citing their work is an important and practical way to live into being anti-racist.


Music/Worship Organizations Doing This Kind of Work

For more resources and ideas from folks who are deep into this work, here are some places to continue learning.


People/Groups to Follow on Social Media or via their scholarship

Most of these folks don’t pull punches, so be ready! Some of them often speak directly to worship or music-specific topics. Others are not worship-specific teachers, but we are firm believers that good worship leaders must also have training outside of music and worship in order to be faithful leaders.


I’m sure I’ve left out a lot of helpful things/people/organizations, but this is what comes to the top of my mind. I hope this helps!




If you know of other worship leaders, scholars, hymnologists, and musician/groups who are actively engaged in teaching worship and anti-racism, please post them in the comments below. Thanks!


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


In this blog post, I want to offer some simplified responses to the question, “Why do Christians sing in worship?” My response is not simply my own, but a compilation and summary of a wide variety of church music and worship textbooks, ethnomusicology books, popular worship books, and other commentary I’ve encountered in the adventure of preparing for my doctoral exams. I offer this not to recommend any one of these rationales, but so that we can see a fuller picture of why faithful Christians across the spectrum of denominational and ecclesial tradition have found it fitting to sing as an act of worship. (N.B. I’ve likely left something out, so fill in the gaps by commenting below!)


Scripture’s Model and Command

Throughout Christian scripture, music-making is regular. Unfortunately we don’t know very much (if anything) about the actual musical sounds or music-making practices. However, some scriptural examples seem to expressly command the practice of music making in worship. One important reference is Paul’s recommendations to the Christians in Colossae (Col. 3:16, also Eph. 5:19) to “sing Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual songs to God.” The presumed context for this command is corporate Christian worship (and possibly simply as a way of being in community in general). Likewise in the Psalms, the Psalmist commends the reader/singer to “come into God’s presence with singing” (Ps 100), to “sing to the Lord a new song” (Ps. 98), and many more.

Beyond commands, scripture models song and singing. Job suggests that the stars sing, Psalm 150 suggests that all creation praises in song, and in the OT prophets and in the NT scriptural canticles, song is modelled as an appropriate action for Christians. In particular, some songs are presented as fitting responses to God for God’s actions in salvation history: the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis as well as the heavenly chorus’ song in Revelation 4, 5, 7. Paul also potentially embeds song lyric in the ‘kenotic hymn’ in the letter to the Philippians chapter 2.  

Especially in the scriptural canticles and in the Psalms we see that song is an appropriate action for responding to God’s mighty acts of salvation—the logic that is preserved in the so-called “Great Thanksgiving Prayer.” Because God has acted for the salvation of God’s people, God’s people sing praise in response. Many commentators from various backgrounds assume that when God is praised in the OT, some musical activity is presumed (i.e. the traditions of interpreting “the seven Hebrew words for praise”). 

These examples point to one last, related point: song is part of telling God’s story to others; in song, God’s actions are preserved, remembered, and communicated. In this way, singing to others can be part of sharing or witnessing to the Gospel.


The Human-ity of Music

A second set of rationale for using music into Christian worship is two-fold: music is deeply human and it has great potential for forming social/ecclesial relations. Some authors go further and suggest that singing is part of becoming more fully human. They suggest that given that such a marginal portion of the population is, scientifically-speaking, ‘tone deaf,’ it is safe to assume that the capacity to produce differentiated pitches in song is part of being human. We might call this simply an anthropology that centers singing. 

But it is not simply limited to the idea that individuals are able to sing, but that their singing nature is able to help them participate in a larger web of social relations. Take, for example, the fact that singing has an especially important role in the history of social movements and reforms, from the Reformation to Civil Rights to Hong Kong. Song and singing capacitate humans toward action outside of themselves (both for good and for potentially for ill). 

Music also has the capacity to both create and communicate group identity. Because music is a part of culture, it can embody the particularity of a local community and extend that community’s identity beyond itself. Music and song have an important role in the cultural preservation of diasporas as well as in forming new communities. For this reason, it is also essential in the multicultural worship conversation that diverse musical practices are led by persons who are able to ‘authentically’ represent the communities from where those songs come. In this way, cultural communication and authenticity are intimately intertwined with music-making in worship.

Musical style in particular has been contested because it carries with it the capacity to structure social relations in very specific ways and thus is a site of ethical formation. One great example of this is in Monique Ingalls book Singing the Congregation (Oxford, 2018). She describes how worship at the Passion and Urbana conferences is the prime way in which the community is formed as an ‘eschatological’ body. The musical worship practices situate social relations both now and as a reflection of future heavenly social relations.

Lastly, music is seen as uniquely able to evoke or embody emotional responses. As such—and insofar as this is a desirable goal of Christian worship—music is capable of creating or generating emotional responses in persons and groups. For the sake of the “warm ups” of Finney-esque revivalism, music is seen to ‘plow the [emotional] soil’ so that the seed of the Gospel can be planted and take root. This same is true, though in a different musical register, in church contexts where so-called “art music” is presented for detached aesthetic contemplation.  The logic is this: because people are naturally vulnerable to emotional states produced by music, music might make them receptive to a certain kind of Gospel message. 

One additional note here of historical importance: the creaturely or emotional effects of music have been highly contested. In the Protestant Reformation, for example, there was deep suspicion from Zwingli and Calvin (drawing on Augustine) on music’s capacity to move the emotions. It was also seen as being able to affect the internal humors of the body and have effects on the health of the hearer. In metaphysics, it was understood that earthly music could sync up with the cosmic ‘harmony of the spheres’ (Plato, Boethius, and neo-Platonists around the time of the Reformation) through formal mathematical relations. Some Reformation debates on the topic of music can be summarized as to the question of the extent to which music was tainted by the effects of sin (especially pre- or post-lapsarian). To render it simplistically: is music inherently good or bad? The answer has some determination on the utility of music for Christian worship today. Luther, for example, saw it as inherently good and therefore trusted that it was good for humans to participate in it for Christian worship. The issue lingers on today when, for example. mid-20th century evangelicals resisted Rock-n-Roll music on the basis that the rhythm was evil or could conjure up undesirable, ecstatic, emotional frenzies among ‘the youth.’ This fear of particular musical styles was rooted in a not-so-veiled musicalized racism–only their music is tainted by sin and evil, ours is pure.


For Doing Worship

The final rationale for the use of music is in music’s capacity to help facilitate the doing of worship. A number of authors advance this basic position, though there is some divergence as to what exactly the essential actions or dispositions of Christian worship are or should be. 

On the most basic level, historically-speaking, singing has been useful for carrying the voice through worship spaces and for facilitating group proclamation (eg. chant). Admittedly, electronic amplification now serves to carry the voice in many spaces regardless of one’s ecclesial tradition. 

Traditionally, music also has enjoyed a close relationship with, and is especially fitting for the activity of praise. Whether that praise is enacted by the entirety of the gathered worship assembly, or on their behalf by clergy. Again, Christian worship’s model here is the scriptural witness in songs and canticles.

Evangelical church music texts especially highlight the capacity for music to convey a text while rendering music subservient to the text. Music is seen to function primarily in its instrumental capacity to support the communication of a text and aid in the text’s comprehension. Specifically the musical poetic form of the hymn is useful for unfolding doctrine in poetic form as well as telling the story of the gospel in successive, storied stanzas. The church music literature especially likes the hymn form for its capacity to produce inter-textuality as a kind of exegetical tool—again, revealing the emphasis on communicating texts.

On the other end of the spectrum, some theologians suggest that music (especially non-texted music) can disclose something about God in a way that goes beyond a reliance on words. This “non-discursive disclosure” is a counterpoint to the potential heresy that God and God’s character can be totally understood through language alone. Pointing to the person of Jesus Christ as “The Word [who] became flesh” is an important underpinning for this idea.

Music is also an aid to prayer. The phrase “he who sings prays twice” has been attributed to Augustine and is a commonly-invoked rationale (though undeveloped). I’m compelled to note here that the quote from which this adage is drawn might more appropriately be rendered as ‘he who sings well prays twice,’ but that is merely a quibble. Music helps worshippers attend to the Spirit and to the text in such a way that it can aid congregants in quiet contemplation on the one hand, or ecstatic experience on the other. In both cases, music making provides the frame for holistic attention to God. Of course, many songs themselves are prayers to God and thus they function dually in that way.

Lastly, I turn to contemporary praise and worship. While contemporary praise and worship is far from a monolithic tradition, there are some common themes that are shared. The most critical of these is that music and song itself is the essential action when Christian worshippers gather. This goes hand in hand with the way that the mainstreaming of praise and worship has engendered a collapse between the words ‘music’ and ‘worship’ in so many settings. The significance of this is understood by some because it is based on a musico-theological anthropology. Being a Christian means being part of the priesthood of all believers who, like King David and the order of OT Levite priests, minister to the heart of God through musical worship.

In contemporary praise and worship, rather than think about how music can serve some other worship action, music is the essential act that other actions might serve. For charismatics and pentecostals, other ministry time (exercising spiritual gifts) within the service is regularly accompanied by music, if not directly facilitated by it. Experiences of prophecy, healing, deliverance, or other products of the direct encounter with the manifest presence of God are often supported or facilitated by music-making. 



While not comprehensive or inclusive of every strand of Christian thinking on the role of music, the above three areas are lenses through which many leaders today see the importance of music and singing in Christian worship. It’s important to note that music and song are not necessary for Christian worship (a variety of Christian traditions attest to this), but that Christians have found lots of thoughtful ways of understanding the role of music in Christian worship: as a commanded and commended by scripture, for deeply human reasons, and for engaging in the acts and encounters of Christian worship.




This episode is with worship professor and author Constance Cherry. It was recorded by Ben Brody at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship during their annual Worship Symposium in January 2019.


Season 2 – Episode 6

In this interview with Constance Cherry, her journey to becoming a worship professor and scholar is explored. Hymns and congregational singing were central in that journey as a pastors kid.



Listening time: 32 minutes


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Also available on: iHeartRadio


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


Worship Across the Spectrum

There are few places where the who’s who of worship across the spectrum get together in public. For the last while, the Calvin Symposium on Worship has been that place. While other worship and music conferences have bloomed and faded (National Worship Leader Conference, anyone?), the Symposium on Worship has continued to grow and diversify and attend to the new challenges that face local worship leaders and pastoral liturgists of all varieties.


One thing I love most about the symposium (my 8th? time in 10 years): Symposium doesn’t easily fit into a category–it’s nearly as diverse as the use of the word ‘worship’ itself. It is not simply about music nor is it simply about theology, though it includes those things. It’s a space where songwriters, lay liturgical leaders, pastors, missionaries, chaplains, theologians, retreat leaders, professors of all kinds, get together around that source and summit of the church’s life: worship. It not only draws them in as attendees, but highlights their voices as expert leaders in their respective areas, offering each of us the opportunity to learn and grow outside the week-to-week rhythms of our often insulated local communities.


And don’t let the name fool you: it goes far beyond the purview of Calvinists. It is an ecumenical smorgasbord, a feast for the liturgically hungry, an international party for worship practitioners. It’s like Sunday School on steroids—and all of it is designed for worship planners and leaders; with over 125 presenters from all over the world, you can imagine the breadth and diversity involved.


A snapshot of an ordinary day at Calvin Worship Symposium:

After a morning service with music led by the Netherlands-based Psalms Project (rock-band based metrical psalm settings) and a plenary session where the new One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (African American ecumenical hymnal published by GIA) is showcased, you hit up the hallway of music and book tables. Moving into the midday breakout sessions, you attend “Top Ten Choral Techniques for Church Choir Directors” (Pearl Shangkuan) in the A block, catch “The ‘Brown Church,’ Christian Identity, and The Ordinary Practices of Christian Worship” (Robert Chao Romero and John Witvliet) in the B session—who had time for lunch?—before Sarah Jean Barton’s “Baptism and Christian Identity: Shaping Liturgical Practice from the Perspective of Disability” in the C block. For the late-afternoon Vespers, you pick from a variety of Minor Prophets-themed services led by groups from Western Seminary, Grace and Peace Church (Chicago), and others. The evening programming closes with yet another worship service that incorporates a diversity of musics and the exquisite video work and environment projection of Stephen Proctor. Exhausted from learning, you crash for the evening–only to hurry back in the morning to do it all for a second day.


Reflecting the increasing diversity of the cultural context of the U.S., while also providing for guests and the Christian family from beyond the Border Wall, I was so encouraged to see the increasing number of sessions offered for Spanish-speakers: a full day Thursday seminar, at least three sessions, and a Spanish-English bilingual vespers service, not to mention the many more on topics from and relating to global christian expressions.


Reflejando el crecimiento de diversidad en el contexto cultural de EE. UU., mientras que también proveyendo por visitantes y la familia cristiana más allá de la frontera, me sentí muy motivado al ver el incremento de sesiones ofrecidas para hispanohablantes: Una conferencia el día entero de jueves, por lo menos tres sesiones en español, y un servicio de vísperas bilingüe en Ingles y español, además de muchos mas temas relacionados a expresiones globales cristianas. En conjunto, este ofrecimiento constituye un currículo para hispanohablantes en el Symposium.


Get There

From Kathmandu to Scotland and Los Angeles to the Netherlands this annual global gathering is vision to behold. (I personally met groups of leaders and learners from both Brazil and the Ukraine—incredible). In the realm of congregational song, a number of giants were present, from James Abbington to Judith Christie McAllister, from David Bailey to Eddie Espinosa, from James Bobb to Tony Alonso, Anthony Ruff to Emily Brink. I could go on (…Greg Scheer, Eric Sarwar, Glenn Packiam…) but I’ll quit there. (Oh and Liz Vice. I’ll stop now. For real this time). The roster is bursting at the seems. The same could be said of the preaching and community leaders, theologians and multicultural worship planners present.


If you haven’t been to Symposium yet, get there. Whether you’re a volunteer choir member or the leader of a multinational ministry, don’t let the uncomfortably cold clime of Western Michigan in late-January deter you. Get there. Next year. Put it on your calendar now. Pre-register. You’ll be glad you did. More importantly, your church will be glad you did. [Conference Website Click Here]


Blogger Rylan A. Harris is Minister of Worship & Arts at Ray of Hope Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia while he pursues a Master of Religious Leadership with a concentration in Music and Worship at Candler School of Theology. He is a graduate of Hampton University in Virginia.


…sitting around the table music sounds so sweet, ‘til one day I heard the call saying, ‘get up on your feet! –Ken Medema


From the soulful sounds from the house band, Seaux Chill to the radical stylings of keyboardist, Colette “CC” Coward. Or perhaps, it was the timely shared messages from Drs. Christina and Mika Edmondson of Grand Rapids, MI or the impromptu story telling by Urban Doxology’s, David Bailey brilliantly set to music by songwriter extraordinaire, Ken Medema. Or maybe even the intentional yet necessary message of love and hospitality from Professor John Swinton. From the songs to the fellowship, the words of faith, hope, love and joy to the amazing periods of worship down to the quiet moments of reflection, the 2019 Porter’s Gate Worship Project was definitely a record-breaking weekend that no one will ever forget!

There was singing! There was dancing! There was clapping! There was camaraderie! There was study! There was practice! There was the Gospel message! There was prayer! There was unparalleled musicianship! There was community! There were tears! There was—worship!  I do not think that I am qualified to voice the vision of conveners, Isaac & Megan Wardell, of Charlottesville, VA., but I can say

Porter's Gate, Rylan Harris, Praise and Worship, Center for Congregational Song

that I am humbled and tremendously honored to have been invited to participate in perhaps one of the most eye-opening and life-changing weekends of my life.

It is hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, I stepped foot onto an airplane headed in a direction that I have never traveled to before to join my brothers and sisters whom I have never seen or met all for the sole purpose of sitting around the table in total celebration of the gifts, talents, voices and stories that each of us possess. I do not think that time and space will permit me to adequately put into words the incredible time that we all spent together but it is my sincere hope that in reading these reflections, you are enlightened, intrigued and most importantly blessed by our unforgettable experience.

Far too long, the table of fellowship has been segregated. Typically, whenever one writes or reads the word “segregated,” they immediately think of the relationship (or lack thereof) between ethnic groups and genders. However, I would like us to stretch our thoughts to thinking about the ways in which we have disassociated and disconnected ourselves from so many others because our songs sound different or because our expressions of and in worship may not match another. Or because our life experiences cannot be compared, side by side—parallel or horizontal. The vision and the mission carried out by the Porter’s Gate Worship Project changes this philosophy completely by selecting and inviting fifty persons from all over the United States and abroad to come to the meeting table to engage in intense conversation, practical and spiritual formation and reflection.

Brian Hehn, Joslyn Henderson, Rylan Harris, Porters Gate, Center for Congregational Song

After the preliminary work is done, the hands on practicum of each of the participants yields itself to an utterly remarkable three and a half hour collaborative song share that leaves witnesses and listeners in total awe of the unique power of music. Albeit by bus, train, plane, van or car, each of the participants of the project began to arrive on a chilly and rainy Thursday afternoon for what would be one of the greatest culminations of music and word that anyone could ever begin to imagine.

I would like us to stretch our thoughts to thinking about the ways in which we have disassociated and disconnected ourselves from so many others because our songs sound different or because our expressions of and in worship may not match another. – Rylan A. Harris

Dr. Tony McNeil, noted scholar, professor, and director of worship arts; musician, singer, songwriter and composer in a breakout session during the weekend stressed the importance of two vital components that are needed but often sacrificed within our various worship experiences: Proclamation and Response. As pastors, church leaders, musicians, songwriters, composers and most importantly as Christians, we are called to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all whom will hear it (proclamation) and in turn listen to not only the voices of the people but also watch their actions (response) to the message that they have just heard and received. If I were to coin the overall purpose of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project, I would say that its two biggest initiatives are for Proclamation and Response. It was not until the conclusion of Dr. McNeil’s plenary where those of us who listened were able to have a better understanding of our mission when we are praying and listening to God as He guides us in our writing and composing but more importantly, in our own private worship and meditation time with God.

Unlike other conferences, conventions, and workshops, Porter’s Gate chose a very simple but intentional approach to starting our time together. Instead of an informal mixer or meet and greet, so to speak, the weekend started with Praise & Worship. We gathered in a uniquely remodeled and renovated home that was formally a church situated perfectly on a hill and offered songs of adoration, exhortation, faith and preparation to Our God; that’s right—Our God! While we sang, prayed and worshipped together, denominational and cultural barriers were cast down. While we sat together and listened to the Message of Christ from the preachers and teachers among us and the untold stories of those who sat to our left and to our right, the fear of expressing ourselves in unfamiliar territory and the discouraging thoughts of inadequacy and ineffectiveness were dismissed and eliminated from our minds! In that moment, it no longer mattered who we were or where we were from and what brought us individually and collectively to the table. No, at that moment, we were seated in front of an audience of one and that, to me was the greatest display of intentionality that could have ever been displayed.

Professor John Swinton, of Aberdeen, Scotland focused our attention on the words spoken by God as recorded by the Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 43:18-19, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” I cannot think of a more befitting focus scripture to begin the weekend with than, “…forget the former things…!” I think that it was extremely important for us as ministers, musicians, singers, scholars, writers and parish leaders to understand and to learn firsthand that there is no room for closedmindedness at the table at which we sit both literally and figuratively. Yes, the past is real but we cannot dwell in it. Yes, we have experienced many different levels of hurt, Wendell Kimbrough, Centered in Song, Center for Congregational, Porters Gate, Songwriting Retreatpain and disappointment along the journey, but the important thing is to acknowledge it and move pass it without allowing the residue of it to determine how we interact with others. Swinton admonished us in his teaching that “…there is no such thing as a dislocated soul.” We will never be effective in our ministries if we are not first honest with ourselves that God loved us first and that love is meant to be shared and displayed in every way at all times to any and every one who comes in our pathway.

We are living in a day and time where hate and fear of change surrounds us and meets us at our doorsteps every day of the week. No one wants to participate in having the tough conversations that would probably make us angry or even mad before they make us happy. For many, it is totally okay to remain “separate but equal.” However, this experience in Nashville reshaped that theory altogether by making worship the centerpiece for our discussions and our interactions with one another. We were reminded at every turning point during that weekend that worship is not a sound, it is not a fancy lyric, and it is not a gender, a race, a creed, or a denomination. Worship, is a lifestyle! How I see, relate to and fellowship with my brothers and my sisters whom I do not even know is an act of worship because I do not see strangers but rather extensions of myself.Rylan Harris, Porters Gate, Center for Congregational Song, Nashville, Retreat, Songwriters

I had the opportunity to get to know many people while I was there and the connections formed are invaluable! I remarked at the end of our time together exactly what the atmosphere and the spirit of the entire weekend felt like to me—not a competitive bone in the room! I wholeheartedly believe that God was glorified the way He was because there was no one there seeking glory for themselves! Each of the guests had something to bring to the table; I needed my brother and my sister just as much as they needed me. This spirit hovered over the Art House. This spirit met us in our breakout sessions. This spirit awaited us every time we met for worship and the Word. This spirit carried us back to our homes and various assignments safely and better than we left them. This spirit was indicative of God’s grace—His amazing grace! I am tremendously grateful for the bountiful table set by the generous hosts of the 2019 Porter’s Gate Worship Project!



Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.


At my church we do three patriotic songs a year: one on the Sunday nearest Memorial Day,  one nearest Independence Day, and one nearest Veterans Day. We had to have a conversation about it when I first got here because the newly-appointed rector and I both bristle at patriotic music sung in church. Our church is in a military-heavy part of the country, and the rector and I both come from non-military backgrounds.


I have to say, she and I learned a lot from talking with a few members of our congregation about the place of patriotism in worship. We noted, for instance, that there are few institutions in our country that require the amount of sacrifice, obedience, and loyalty that the military does. The rector and I also noted that the people asking for patriotic music were some of the most generous and selfless people we had ever known. There was a gap in understanding there, and the rector and I came away from these conversations feel less confident that we were absolutely in the right. As a compromise, we decided to maintain a place for patriotic hymns as long as they are chosen by the music minister. My job now is to try to choose hymns that put our love of the United States in the proper context, and that has been harder than I thought it would be.


As I sat down this year to choose hymns for another Sunday-before-Independence-Day, I began wondering how other worship planners deal with this issue. Perhaps many of you have read Kevin DeYoung’s article from The Gospel Coalition, written in 2011. DeYoung criticizes both sides of the issue– those who adopt too much patriotism in their worship services and those who are too rabidly against it. I know I get immediately turned off at any mention of country in worship, but DeYoung is correct when he writes that “the church is not the state and the state is not God, but this does not mean the church must always be against the state.” Certainly God does celebrate with the United States when it does as Jesus would do. This was a point I took to heart.


I decided this year to go for a new tactic with my patriotic hymns task. Instead of doing a traditional hymn, like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” I chose hymns that used American folk tunes, like “Let Us Break Bread Together” (an African-American spiritual), and “Simple Gifts” (a Shaker tune). I thought it could be a way of celebrating America on Sunday without worshiping America. Turns out some of my colleagues already had the same idea. The Rev. Stephen Stacks, who is associate pastor at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church outside Raleigh, says they frequently sing freedom songs from the Civil Rights Movement, such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” on Sundays that fall near big patriotic holidays. Martha Burford, music minister at Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia, included spirituals, folk tunes, Shaker tunes, a Dakota Indian chant, and hymns by American-born composers for July 1st. “Today’s music also offers an opportunity to share in Christian musical narrative in these United States,” Burford wrote in the bulletin. So, it is possible to celebrate America without turning to the National Hymns section of your hymnal.


Some of us did national hymns on Independence day, some of us did American-born hymn writers or freedom songs. Another option is to include national hymns but try to put them in the proper context. My colleague Nellwyn Beamon, who works at a church just down the road from mine with similar worship style and demographics, made a more obvious compromise for July 1st. The readings and music focused on world peace and unity, but the final hymn was the Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father, strong to save.”) She feels that singing the Navy Hymn in a peace and unity context puts it in a new light.


Similarly, at my church, we put our patriotic song right after a collect for peace in God’s global kingdom, hoping that in doing so everyone present would know that our love of country is just part of our desire for peace and unity in the whole world. I chose a patriotic hymn with a familiar tune but with words that put the emphasis on God’s—rather than our country’s—power. “God Bless our Native Land,” is set to the tune of America but ends with these words:


For her our prayers shall rise to God, above the skies;

on him we wait;

Thou who art ever nigh, guarding with watchful eye,

to thee aloud we cry, God save the state!


But something Rev. Stacks said in our conversation made me think harder about my decision to do this hymn. People often think music is “innocuous,” Stacks said, “when, in actuality, it tends to grab your heart.” In other words, it’s difficult to sing any words to America without hearing the original words and feeling the more jingoistic contexts in which they are sung. That felt true to me when we sang it on July 1st, with or without the collect for peace and global unity. I still felt like we were about to break out the fireworks and tiny American flags.


The final hymn at my church on July 1st, “God of Our Fathers,” includes only a tiny mention of country (“in this free land”) so I programmed it without overthinking it. But because of the trumpet fanfare intro, and Sunday being only three days away from Independence Day, I felt like we were drumming up a military parade! This hymn definitely “grabbed at the heart,” and as such I think it made much more of an impression on the worshipers than the presence of American folk hymns and spirituals, which I put so much thought into!


Reflecting on our experiences this Independence Day with a few of my colleagues made me realize how important context is when it comes to patriotic music in worship. I got in touch with a seminary classmate, David Bjorlin, whose church context is much younger and more conservative than my own. Bjorlin, who is now pastor of worship and creative arts at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago, says that his congregational context is largely young, “recovering evangelicals,” and “as such, I would get way more pushback if I did include patriotic songs.” The fact that his church’s worship service on July 1st includes no mention of Independence Day makes a statement in itself. Bjorlin and I both have pastoral concerns for our congregation, and in terms of the music on July 1st, they ended up working themselves out in very different ways!


So it seems that there are a lot of options when it comes to patriotic music in worship, but each of them comes across differently depending on the song chosen, its place in the worship service, the setting, and a number of other factors. The songs you choose may even make a completely different impression on individual members of your congregation! It would be easy to say let’s just ignore the whole holiday, but I’m drawn again to the veterans in my congregation, who are as true as any true disciples and for whom a patriotic song on Sunday morning means so much. We’re all here because we love Christ and Christ’s insistence on justice and peacemaking. What is the best way to make that point on the Sunday closest to Independence Day? I’ll keep pondering it. What are your thoughts?


Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.


One of my choir members was telling me the other day that every time she hears “Be Thou My Vision,” she can picture the outdoor chapel where she worshipped at sleepaway camp as a child. She can feel the miniature Episcopal hymnbook in her hands and see the faces of the two women–sisters– who ran the camp. I was struck by the image of her as a child and the power of the music, combined with the setting, to make such an impression on her (this took place over 50 years ago!). It made me ponder how important it is that we all take some sabbath time to refresh ourselves, and how singing and summertime naturally lend themselves so well to that refreshment.


Sleepaway Camp

My choir member called it “sleepaway camp” but I just called it “camp” when I was a kid. The only camp I ever attended as a child was St. George’s Camp, at Shrine Mont in the Shenandoah Valley. I think my favorite part of camp was the worship services, which were held twice a day, and the best part of that was the singing. We sang all the music by heart and had hand motions for nearly every song. There are so many things that you share at camp, but sharing song is so powerful because it engages all of yourself: your voice, your body (especially if there are fun motions!), your sense of hearing, sight, and touch. It was something you could share with the other people at camp, something you could look around and feel you had in common with folks who were strangers just a few days ago.


I was a “St. G’s” camper over 25 years ago, but when I hear those songs I can still feel the friendship bracelets on my wrist and taste the grape soda like it was yesterday. I’m trying to think what else but music would conjure up such vivid memories. Looking at a photograph or touching an old t-shirt can certainly send a wave of memories crashing down on someone, but I think music has a special ability to help us recall the past in such detail.


St. G’s was so important to my sense of sabbath as a child. I came home with a cassette tape which I played on repeat after a tough day at school, in an 8-year-old’s version of what I would now call self-care. I looked forward to that week (just one week!) away every summer to clear my mind. It restored my self-confidence and put the stress I experienced during the school year into perspective. And I cried my little heart out to say goodbye to all my new friends, friends I’d only known for a week! I think music–specifically, singing together– had something to do with how close we were all able to grow in such a short amount of time, how renewed I felt, and how vividly I can recall these memories some 25 years later.

She can feel the miniature Episcopal hymnbook in her hands and see the faces of the two women–sisters– who ran the camp.

Summer Conferences

I no longer fit the age requirements for St. George’s Camp, but my need for a summer singing sabbath is as important as ever. The Hymn Society’s annual conference is one place I’ve found to refresh myself through singing in the summer. No counselors or bunk beds at this sleepaway camp, but you can often stay in a dorm with a roommate! My first annual conference was in 2012 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I had never been to that part of Canada before, and I was struck by the vast expanses of prairie stretching out all around us as we rode the buses to and from the university for our evening hymn sings. So different from the east coast! The evening that sticks out in my mind the most was a hymn sing we did at a little Anglican church with a BIG organ. It was the first time I’d been introduced to the music of Thomas Pavlechko, who accompanied the hymn sing and played several of his hymn tunes and harmonizations. We had enough people there to fill nearly every seat in the church. I remember at one point I felt totally transported; everyone was singing with all their might, and our voices, woven together with the organ, filled every bit of aural space in the sanctuary. I got teary-eyed, and at the end, with uncharacteristic exuberance, I rushed up to have my picture taken with Mr. Pavlechko. I came home feeling refreshed, with a renewed passion for organ music and congregational singing. It was not just the music, but the fact that I could participate in it, and join my voice with so many others, that made this such a moving and refreshing experience for me.


Singing, Summer, Sabbath

I know there are many of us who read this blog who have had a similar experience at a Hymn Society annual conference. What year stands out in your mind? What about summers from your childhood, or the summers your own children are experiencing now? Are there summer camp experiences that set the precedent for your love of congregational song? What are you guys doing to refresh yourselves this summer?

…but when I hear those songs I can still feel the friendship bracelets on my wrist and taste the grape soda like it was yesterday.


Congregational Song, St. George's Camp, Summer Camp Worship, Worship

Ginny’s Summer Camp Worship Service

Hymnal, Song Book, Songbook, Church of England, Singing, Hymnals

“She can feel the miniature Episcopal hymnbook in her hands…”

Congregational Singing, The Hymn Society, Annual Conference, Hymn Festival

Ginny Chilton Maxwell and Thom Pavlechko after Thom’s Hymn Society Festival







Center for Congregational Song, Ginny Chilton Maxwell, Organ, Singing

The beautiful church where Thom Pavlechko’s hymn festival was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba.


Pipe Organ, Ginny Chilton Maxwell, Congregational Song, Singing, Church, Worship

The organ played for The Hymn Society’s hymn festival that evening in Winnipeg, Manitoba.



















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


One of the hardest things for me in planning worship is constructing the overarching narrative of the service. From the very first word to the last, I want the worship services I plan to take the congregation on a journey of encounter with God and each other. I want it to seem effortless and inevitable, like each element couldn’t possibly lead into any other than the one that’s been chosen. If you’re in the work of actually planning any or all of worship, you know that achieving such an ideal can often be elusive (for encouragement, see Ginny’s blog last week about ‘Success’).


Worship As Narrative

I call worship a narrative because I think it needs to go somewhere thematically, logically, spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. It needs to have a plot, and some subplots. Key characters who are developed over time. It needs to generate conflict and resolution, tension and release; it needs to have some small climaxes and some big ones too. It needs a range of emotional engagement. Not every story is told the same way. Narrative can take on a diversity of styles, as we know about the best books in a variety of genres; scripture also shows a diversity of genres.

My commitment to narrative for worship comes from scripture. Aside from the cosmic view of the Bible as one big narrative from Genesis to Revelation, it is true in more micro-cosmic ways. In the Old Testament, God’s people are encountered by God who (via the prophets) reminds the people of God’s story about them and they respond (e.g. Joshua 24). In the Gospels, Jesus himself tells stories (parables) to teach about the kingdom of God.


Hymn Sandwiches and Thematic Planning

But not all worship services or their patterns seem to have a clear direction to them. The classic ‘hymn sandwich’ service can feel like a game of ping-pong that never has a winner. ‘Thematic’ planning, where a simple theme is chosen to orient the service (e.g.  “Grace”), can sometimes generate services that have many smaller elements that point to the central theme, but are disconnected from one another. Thematic planning can especially impact services with extended song sets, resulting in an opening time of musical worship that spins its narrative wheels. Even in congregations where the liturgy is (supposedly) ‘set,’ the sense of overarching narrative can be overlooked in the midst of the structure–a forest missed for the trees. Worship planning in these settings can often feel like a ‘fill in the blank’ exercise. In all of these examples, the question remains the same, ‘How can a worship narrative more deeply embed the congregation in the story of God?’


Here are a few simple suggestions:

  1. Think about the genre of the scripture story for the day. Ask how the music and the whole service can inhabit that storytelling mode in its structure and content.
  2. Choose a song that uses scripture paraphrase or quotation and use it in place of one of the readings for the day (rather than a reiteration of the same text). In your worship bulletins, mark those songs as scripture or scripture paraphrase.
  3. If you’re only responsible for music choices, ask the worship leader, reader, or pastor, to say a one sentence introduction to a congregational song you’ve chosen. If speaking would be too cumbersome, put a note in the back of the bulletin. If you’re doing choral music, this is a great way to key in the congregation for how to listen well to the piece as part of the service. Why did you choose it, what are its virtues at that point in the service? What does the song express that can’t be expressed with words alone?
  4. If you’re responsible for the whole service, I can’t stress enough how the use of ‘in-between-words’ can help tell the big picture story in worship. See Paul Ryan on this (of Calvin, not the WI politician!).
  5. Avoid redundancy in music! If you have a song that acts as a confession, don’t also read a confession–let the song do its part in the worship story.
  6. Assess your choral music based on function–from week to week, an anthem’s text and music might not always best serve the narrative of worship by being sung during the offering. Ask, “What is this text and music doing and where might if fit better”?


If you do some of these things to support a narrative-based approach to worship planning and leadership, it will support worshippers’ deep engagement with worship. More importantly, it will support a deepening engagement with God who shows us love through the redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–the most important story worth telling.

How do these suggestions engage with your worship context? Share with us in the comments!


Guest Blogger Ryan Flanigan is a liturgical folks artist and church music director at All Saints Church Dallas where this story of intergernational worship occurs. As an artist rooted in the Christian Story, Ryan works to create beautiful and believable sacred music for the sake of the world. He believes the church can be a credible witness of God’s beauty, truth and goodness to the whole world, not just Christians. Ryan lives in Dallas TX with his wife Melissa and their three kids Lily, Liam, and Noelle. He is the founder of Liturgical Folk and a core team member of United Adoration.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)


The Coffee Shop

Coffee Shop WomanOne Friday in late July my wife Melissa and I, along with our three young kids, got in the minivan and, as we do every Friday summer morning, headed to the coffee shop. The coffee shop is the epicenter of our neighborhood life. Without compromising the aesthetic of craft coffee culture, the owner, who also has young kids, built his coffee shop with the whole neighborhood in mind, not only hipster Millennials. He did not necessarily design it to be family-friendly; he just built a very good and pleasant place to gather. Sure enough, people of all ages flock there. For a couple hours that Friday morning we engaged naturally in conversation after conversation with neighbors coming and going, babies being passed around, and kids circling us playfully. It is always a truly unmanufactured intergenerational experience.

From the coffee shop we headed to lunch at the home of an older couple, spiritual parents to Melissa and me and honorary grandparents to our kids. We shared in a delightful spread of fruit salad, chicken salad, quinoa salad, potato salad, every kind of salad except salad, and homemade cinnamon rolls. The kids ran around in the beautiful backyard garden and, when it got too hot, came inside for crafts with the moms, while the men exchanged philosophical thoughts. Then we sat and listened to endearing stories, some of them for the second or third time, of the last half century of our mentors’ life together. Another unforced intergenerational experience.


Worship Wars

The worship wars have been wreaking havoc on the modern church for decades. As a result intergenerational relationships have suffered. Attempts at accommodating differing worship preferences have only widened this relational gap. It is not uncommon for a church to offer separate worship services for kids, students, contemporary worshipers, and traditional worshipers, each with its own music style and spatial aesthetic. Even midweek groups are often segregated into common interests or life stages. Although these strategies appear to be helping churches by increasing Sunday attendance, they may actually be stunting the spiritual growth of churchgoers.

Every generation plays an important role in human formation and flourishing. Before we receive an individual identity, we inherit a familial identity. – Ryan Flanigan

The accommodation of preferences is rooted in the cultural values of consumerism and individualism. Of course the generations are divided; we all prefer different things. And despite the good intentions of leaders to attract worshipers by making them feel comfortable and undistracted, catering to their culturally-formed personal preferences is at cross-purposes with the gospel. The gospel calls us to lay down our own preferences and to prefer others instead (Mark 8-10). Christian worship is all about deference, not preference, modeled for us in our sacrificial Savior Jesus Christ himself (Philip. 2). Worship at its best is a rehearsal of the sacrificial life, and yet in many cases it has become another provider of goods and services. Nothing has contributed to generational division more than this.


Life and Liturgy

As I narrated in the story above, our everyday lives are intergenerational. Every generation plays an important role in human formation and flourishing. Before we receive an individual identity, we inherit a familial identity. Extended families are made up of three or four, sometimes five, living generations supporting one another and carrying on family traditions and stories. As Christians, we are extended families on mission with God. We need the active presence of all generations in order to be the family God has called us to be, to embody the Faith, and to carry on our Story in the world. Christian worship is the gathering, equipping, feeding, and sending of families to do life together on mission with God.

Ryan Flanigan Leading SongI am part of a liturgical church. Liturgy simply means “service of the people.” Paul uses it in Romans 12 to describe the spiritual “service” of offering our bodies as living sacrifices to God. Liturgical practices offer tangible means by which the generations are united in worship. One of my favorite moments of our liturgy is when my children run up to the communion rail to join me in receiving the body and blood of Christ. One Sunday my son knelt down, extended his hands to receive, and said, “Look dad, I’m making a manger.” The old woman to my left started chuckling, and I was inspired by the incarnation illustration my son had just unknowingly given us.

The liturgy brings out the physical nature of our worship, without which our worship can become a strictly cognitive or abstract exercise. Physical symbols and actions ensure that our bodies are engaged. Kneeling, praying, and singing in unison draws us into communion with one another and with God. This is especially important for children. Jesus was clear with his disciples to let the children come to him (Mark 10). When the children are left out, kingdom values go away. When kingdom values go away, cultural values take over. We begin to conform our worship to the things of the world, which is the antithesis of spiritual liturgy (Rom. 12). So Paul urges us, children included, to offer our bodies together in sacrificial life and liturgy.


Music Unites

Music is vital to Christian worship. It’s no wonder, then, that music is near the heart of the worship wars. The generations divide along fault lines of stylistic preference. When music is commodified to serve the people, it becomes entertainment. Music is supposed to be a service of the people, not a service to the people. This paradigm shift will help us defer our own musical tastes in worship and to consider what makes others sing. It will take a willingness for mutual appreciation, but in time our hearts will blend into one. A church may even discover its own unique musical expression!

Bell CurveLife is a bell curve of simplicity and complexity. The most unifying songs and rhythms noticeably engage the youngest and oldest among us. If we aim for the people in the middle, those whose lives are most cluttered and noisy, they may connect with the music, but it will be hard for everyone else to participate. Familiarity is the way to go with liturgical music. Familiar doesn’t mean that we need to dumb it down; it means we’re bringing it down to earth, making the music more accessible and the work of the people more doable.

What this looks like at All Saints Dallas is children, parents, empty nesters, singles, and students all singing alongside one another. We usually sing thirteen songs per service, including ancient hymns, contemporary choruses, folk spirituals, and new service music. Each song supports the liturgy in some way. Key signatures and melodic ranges are intentionally chosen to enable ease of congregational singing. Rhythms and arrangements are contextualized to what best engages our people, especially the old and young. And we have indeed discovered our own unique sound as a church.


Liturgical Folk

Liturgical Folk Album Ryan FlaniganOur music, which we call Liturgical Folk, is a truly intergenerational project. You can read all about it in the Dallas Morning News article, “Let us bow our heads in poetry,” and you can hear what it sounds like on our albums, Liturgical Folk, Vols. 1 & 2. Volume 1 is called Table settings, and consists of singable settings of historic prayers for churches and families. My wife and kids sing on it. Volume 2 is called Edenland and consists of new hymns written by a seventy-five year old in our church and myself. He wrote the words, and I wrote the tunes.



Robert Webber said that the greatest internal threat to Christian worship is cultural accommodation. When churches become providers of goods and services, generations divide and intergenerational relationships suffer. There is much more we could talk about, such as the dwindling percentage of churchgoing college students who grew up in age-segregated churches. I have chosen to highlight from my own experiences how liturgy and music can help bridge the generational divides. There really shouldn’t be a disconnect between our church life and our everyday life. What we do in worship should train us in our everyday lives, helping us carry on the Story of God in flourishing intergenerational relationships.


Read our other blogs!


Liturgical Folk Ryan Flanigan

Guest Blogger Ryan Flanigan