Minister of the Word-Through Music: An interview with Marty Haugen

It was hard to pick Marty Haugen out until he stepped up to the mike. Dressed simply and holding a guitar, he waited quietly for everyone in the chapel to settle down. Then, after first teaching us some of the responses we would be singing, he began the service of Evening Prayer. Haugen sang, “Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world” and, with a gesture, invited us to respond: “The light no darkness can overcome.” So began one of the services at the Calvin Symposium of Worship and the Arts this past January.

That evening I had the opportunity to observe Haugen as a humble worship leader who gave prayerful attention to the texts we were singing. But he is also a prolific composer of psalms, service music, hymn settings, and works for choirs and solo voice. His folk-liturgical style is accessible and balanced with textual integrity. Although he grew up in the Lutheran church, he has worked most of his career as a pastoral musician in Roman Catholic parishes, and is currently composer-in-residence for the Mayflower United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, where he contributes to worship when he is not on the road.

During our days at the symposium, I had the opportunity to meet with Haugen and discover more about the man who is probably the most widely sung liturgical composer today. (For two examples of songs by Marty Haugen, see pp. 27 and 35.)


RW: How did a nice Lutheran boy like you take your first job in a Roman Catholic parish as a worship leader?

MH: Growing up in the Lutheran church. I would never have considered myself a worship leader, because at that time the worship leader was the ordained person, and I was just a teenage organist. I started Luther College (Decorah, Iowa) as a piano major but switched to psychology, thinking I would go to seminary. When my advisor asked why I was dropping music, I said the only options I saw were to be a teacher or a performer, and neither interested me. The third option was to be a church musician, and I surely didn’t want to do that. To me a church musician only directed the choir and played the hymns. That seemed so narrow, it didn’t seem like ministry, and I was interested in ministry.

To be real honest, I took my first job as a way of keeping me from going to Africa in the Peace Corps. I had signed up but didn’t want to go because I was in love with the woman who was to become my wife. I thought perhaps I could take a job for a year until I could get married and find out what I really wanted to do. A chaplain suggested that I apply for a Catholic church job. I said I didn’t know anything about the Catholic liturgy, and he said, well, these days, nobody does—you’ll feel right at home. And he was right.

What I learned was that when you are in chaos, you ask some fundamental questions that you don’t ask when things are going well.

After the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholics were asking questions like, What does it mean to gather? How do we sing the psalms? How do we sing when we go to communion? I think the Spirit moves through questions and discussions and struggles like those.

I started to explore the idea that various “ministers” in worship all collaborate. The word worship “leader” can be seductive and even dangerous, because it implies a higher role. I see ministers as those who are in the midst of the assembly (congregation) and are part of the assembly, using their own particular charisms (gifts) to help everyone’s prayer happen.

There is an energy that rises when the presiding minister calls for a response in the sermon and then a musician calls forth a response in the song. The congregation responds, and the choir has a voice, and there are all these voices. And through our interaction we become aware of Christ’s presence and are touched by it. So our collaboration is like a symphony in the sense that all these different ministries have a part to play. You could call attention to your own solo, but then the whole piece suffers.

Do you think you had more freedom in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1970s to explore your concept of worship ministry than you might have had in Protestant traditions that were more settled and set?

Yes, I do think so. I was in my early twenties, like many musicians and also priests who had been ordained right after the Second Vatican Council. We were young and enthusiastic and not that far from the sixties. We still had this vision that the world could be changed and that institutions could be radically changed. If the cardinals and bishops had understood the implications of what they were unleashing, they might not have made all the changes. A lot of Catholic music from that period has now moved into Protestant churches. Protestant groups have the opportunity to learn from Catholic mistakes from that period as well; for example, for a time churches had Folk Mass, Organ Mass, Silent Mass—sort of like the cable TV approach—we’ll give everybody exactly what they want and the way they want it. They found that that approach fragmented their community.

When did you start composing?

Growing up in the Lutheran Church, I knew and loved the psalms, but only as prayer texts and spoken texts, not sung. The first Sunday I came to the Catholic church, we were instructed to sing the psalm—interactively! I was struck during that service by how badly the people sang and how poorly written the psalm setting was. It was awful. I thought to myself—I could write this badly!

And so I experimented right off the bat. As most musicians do, I approached composition from the standpoint of music, and I tried to make the text work with the music. But I realized very quickly that that was a distortion of the role of music in worship. What the Lutheran church taught me was how critically important it is that music support the Word. Learning to compose for the text—to make the music support the text—was a long process for me.

The Reformed tradition is used to the people singing everything, not having a cantor or soloist sing with the congregation in an interactive or responsorial structure. Was that approach a problem for you?

I grew up in the same tradition you did. In the Lutheran church everybody sang everything. The good side of that is it creates a strong sense of community and unity. To stand and sing together becomes a ritual act in itself of giving thanks and praise; that heritage is one of the great treasures of the Protestant Reformation.

But something was also lost, and I think we are starting now to realize it. Interactive singing, back and forth, creates a dialogue. When we all stand and face the wall and sing in the same direction, there is no give and take between us. When Jesus encountered someone, he looked at the person and invited a response. Think about it this way: to sing to each other in worship is a profound and vulnerable experience. In our song we’re inviting each other into the vulnerability of following Christ. That involves singing to and looking at each other as well as standing together and singing the songs.

Do you think that’s what praise teams are trying to do today as well?

I hesitate to put something in their mouths, but they may be responding to a perception that the current state of much church music-making isn’t carrying everything that it should carry, that there’s something lacking. There is a sense in many parishes that the way we’ve sung music in the past, although it’s been strong, is not enough now.

This morning we sang “Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and it was wonderful. But the musical tradition that was handed down to us—as well as the other traditions that are part of worship—is encountering a rapidly shifting culture. Many of our denominations began as immigrant churches, but an immigrant identity no longer works. That’s painful, and I’m not suggesting that any of these churches give up some of their identifying characteristics, but they have to ask, is that what we are?

To be faithful to the gospel is to bring together the traditions handed down with the cultures they encounter. That’s always a delicate process, and it’s loaded with tension. Unless we face that tension, we run the risk of abandoning tradition and running off who knows where, or abandoning the culture and becoming a museum piece.

Like countless others, all the way back to the beginning of the Christian church, praise teams are trying to be faithful to the tradition as well as to reach the culture. Fortunately, I really believe with all my heart that it’s not up to us, and in time the Spirit will sift out what is not valuable. That’s a great comfort to me; I would hate to have to feel that weight on my shoulders. But I think our job is to be as faithful as we can with our own understanding.

Does that make sense?

That makes excellent sense. Say some more about singing the psalms. In Reformed churches the metrical tradition has too often become boring to contemporary worshipers. To what extent has the interactive approach revitalized psalm singing for you and for communions in which you’ve worked?

One of the things that has helped me whenever I am looking at worship, is to try to get back as far as possible to the origins of these traditions. The psalms came from all kinds of situations. Some psalms are topdown; they were obviously written and performed by the Levites at the temple in Jerusalem. Other psalms, like the pilgrimage psalms, may have been sort of composed on the way, like songs you sing in the car. A psalm like “I lift up my eyes to the hills” (Ps. 121), for example, sounds like people were walking up to Jerusalem, singing back and forth to each other.

The psalms were finally put together by something like a hymnal committee. They said, OK, these are the official songs. Some are the formal high church stuff. Some are the ones that people love. I’m simplifying it, but I think that the process was very much a sifting through, top-down and bottom-up. There are psalms of lament, psalms of praise, psalms of anger, psalms of ecstatic rejoicing, psalms of loneliness and isolation. There are individual psalms and very communal psalms.

This book expresses the whole breadth of human experience in terms of our relationship with God. So if we sing the breadth of them, the psalms are a good way of keeping us honest.

We can also try for breadth in the way we sing the psalms. In the oral culture in which they were created, interactive singing was a given. It was the way music-making happened—simply because someone would know the stories of the community and everyone else would sing spontaneously “amen.” We don’t do spontaneous amens in the Lutheran church and probably not in many Reformed churches either. African-American churches, still rooted in an oral tradition, are more used to interactive singing; they are probably closer to the culture in which the psalms were originally experienced.

What kind of solo singer, or cantor, or “minister”—as you described earlier—best leads the congregation in this kind of interactive singing?

In early times, the cantor was not seen as the best singer, but the one who best knew and exemplified an embodiment of the stories of the people; the one that the people said had the integrity to sing for them.

Our concept of a soloist is a performer who operates from a position of power and authority. In contrast, a worship minister operates from a position of vulnerability. Unlike the performer, the minister sets up the music in such a way that the people have to complete it. I open it, and I invite you into it, and you have to help me out here because I’m only giving part; you have to say the amen, or it’s not complete.

The minister, then, is the one who is vulnerable—the one who says, I have the story that is so important to me that I am going to risk being rejected in order to give it to you.

Do you have some words of advice for people who would become worship ministers?

Well, what helped me was going back to the Scriptures and then taking courses in theology and seeing myself not primarily as a minister of music but as a minister of the Word and a minister of the peoples’ prayer. And then I asked, how can I use music to do that? I found tht the more I knew about traditions of the past, the more I felt confident that I was on the right track. It is so hard because we all want to be good ministers. Many good musicians have very good intentions. But most of us don’t have the background in theology and study of the Word to understand what it really means that music becomes the tool rather than the end. What is needed are study programs for those who would become ministers of the Word with music as a tool. Music and theology have to be taught side by side.


Music by Marty Haugen

Songs Included in Back Issues of Reformed Worship

"Psalm 130: With the Lord There Is Mercy"
Click to listen  [ melody | full ]

“Bring Forth the Kingdom” (37:31)
“Gather Us In” (48:26)
“Halle, Halle, Hallelujah” (50:38)
“My Soul in Stillness Waits” (53:26)
“Shepherd Me, O God”—Psalm 23 (38:31, 50:36)
“To You, O Lord, I Lift My Soul”—Psalm 25 (44:31)
“You Will Show Me the Path of Life”—Psalm 16 (52:15)

Music and Recordings

GIA is the most frequent publisher of Haugen’s music. A visit to their catalog or website ( reveals dozens of compositions, including hymns, psalm settings, concert pieces, and complete masses; his Mass of Creation is the most widely used Mass setting in the Catholic church today and is also included in the 1995 Lutheran hymnal supplement With One Voice. Here is a brief sampling; songs on recordings listed below are usually also available as choral octavos. To order call GIA at 1-800-442-1358.

All Are Welcome
CD $15.95/cassette $10.95/music $12.00; guitar/melody $5.95
Shepherd Me, O God
CD $15.95/cassette $10.95/music $7.95
Song of God Among Us
CD $15.95/cassette $10.95/music $7.95
Wondrous Love
CD $15.95/cassette $10.95
Marty Haugen Anthology I: 1980-1984
CD $15.95/cassette $10.95
Marty Haugen Anthology II: 1985-1989
CD $15.95/cassette $10.95

Reformed Worship 58 © December 2000, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.