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Developing a Culture of Singing

It is common to come into a church and hear music. Singing, on the other hand, is another issue.
I have worked at several kinds of churches, including Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and non-denominational. I’ve been a choir director, worship leader, and organist. I’ve noticed a common thread about singing running through every church: Each has a pastoral musician whom they trust.

What do I mean? It begins with viewing worship leadership as a pastoral task. I say “pastoral musician” instead of “church musician” to emphasize musicians’ responsibility to be pastoral in their ministry. (We don’t call pastors “church orators,” right?) If a musician functions pastorally, trust will develop, creating the space in which to develop a culture of singing. To do that, though, a pastoral musician must be devoted to many disciplines, including musical ability, administration, theology, and ministry.

Musical Ability

I cannot tell you how much practice is required to make music-making look easy—or even natural. This has probably caused more than one sigh when a musician is asked, “What do you do with your time?” In this day it isn’t enough to know just one instrument or genre of music. One must be well-versed and practiced in Bach, Brubeck, and Hillsong, and adept at playing alone, with an ensemble, or behind congregational singing. All of these require different skills.

Administration

Administration is tough. One must pay musicians on time, keep schedules, plan repertoire, choose outside activities, possibly fundraise for the upkeep of instruments, and rehearse so one will add to rather than detract from worship, all in order to sustain a music ministry that is distinct from other institutions such as universities or community schools of music. This is key. Many university professors use the church as a side job which, in all practicality, makes sense. Think about it—pastors are not being educated in music while in seminary, so churches hire a music minister as if hiring a DJ of classical or Christian music. But not only is this ineffective for congregational worship; the service of the musician then becomes reduced to that of a marginalized entertainer. The musician’s pay will reflect this, and everyone loses. There needs to be a statement of purpose distinct from those of academic institutions.

But good administrative and musical abilities aren’t enough. A pastoral musician must be able to wear many hats, from instrumentalist to conductor, teacher to mentor, philosopher to theologian, audio engineer to composer. Historically this produced not just effective pastoral musicians, but some of the most influential musicians in Europe.

Theology

With the busyness of ministry and keeping up musically, who has time to catch up with Aquinas or Calvin? It doesn’t have to be that scary, though. Rather, simply know what you believe and be able to articulate it, and know the beliefs of the church you are serving. Start with the basics before you try to understand the Trinity or theodicy. For example: How does knowing that Christ’s sacrifice washed your sins away affect your daily life? How does that affect how you make music with other people? “Basic” does not mean “simple” in this case. Rather, Christian basics should serve as a foundation for shaping other beliefs. If worship planners or pastoral musicians cannot concisely articulate what they believe, their music will come across as inauthentic and trite.

If you are tasked with picking choral anthems and congregational songs, you need to be even more theologically astute, as not all texts are created theologically or poetically equal. If this isn’t your strong suit, make sure to ask a theologian on staff or in the congregation to help you make wise choices, as the texts you choose are formative.

This last point regarding the confessional nature of music is important for a few reasons. If I asked you to sing a breakup song while you are in a perfectly happy relationship, it would feel inauthentic. The same can be said of music in worship. If you know your congregation on a personal basis, then you will have a sense of the ethos it carries with them, and your worship planning should engage their beliefs in an authentic way. This means confessing the doctrine of your denomination without ignoring the struggles within your congregation. This leads to the final point: Music is a ministry, a pastoral act.

Ministry

The pastoral musician needs to understand that music must address the hearts and minds of the faithful and help them find their musical voice, usually individually. The statement of purpose or mission statement of a music ministry is different from that of after-school enrichment programs, school music programs, or colleges. Though there are some similarities, the goal of a music ministry is a faithful congregation of people who carry the song of Christ’s sacrifice wherever they may go.

This idea of the church musician as being part of a ministry—of being not just a musician, but a pastoral musician—is worth some additional reflection. When one views the task of church musician as a ministry, it follows that music becomes much more than a commodity. A church musician must be able to communicate in the church’s language and include all the leaders, beginning with oneself.

More Than a Commodity

To develop a culture of singing, a pastoral musician must engage with the music through education (newsletter articles, short spoken introductions, adult education classes, or classes for children and youth) and through opportunities to experience good music as a listener and participant in small groups as well as in a congregational setting. With careful, thoughtful planning and expressions of music in all shapes and forms, the congregation will gain trust in the pastoral musician’s planning, develop a sense of identity through the music’s confessionalism, and learn to value quality music and profound texts. The perfect marriage of words and music is one that carries the gospel.

In a culture that uses the most popular worship songs in order to keep up with the market, many denominations are becoming diluted. Think about it: How common is it for people to go “church shopping”? It doesn’t matter where we go, some think, as long as we like the pastor and the music and they have amazing potlucks. Worship music has in turn become a commodity masked as authentic prayer, stifling any meaningful growth. We can change that. Give people something they can authentically grasp.

Learning the Church’s Language

As an organist and choral director, I always tried to offer amazing music from Bach toccatas to anthems by Vaughan Williams or Mendelssohn. I ended up losing a lot of people from the congregation. At first, I responded quite snobbishly by dismissing their sense of taste. But after prayer and careful thought, I realized I was pushing a system of belief that did not spring forth naturally from the congregation. I was superimposing a language unfamiliar to them in terms of music vocabulary, language, or theology. Choral directors and organists must be humble educators by presenting this music as an authentic voice for our congregations. This means prefacing the music with a prayer or devotion, connecting the music to its place within the liturgy, and seeking the Holy Spirit’s aid in selecting and performing any music.

Involve All Church Leaders

Lastly, in developing a culture of singing, there is something to be said for following the leader. In my first church, the pastoral musician would not only sing, but sing loudly. I asked him if he had sung in choirs before, and he responded that it’s because of his hymn singing that choirs wanted him as a director! Amazing! His voice wasn’t like that of an opera star, but his enthusiasm and intentionality in singing each and every verse uniquely inspired others to sing in the church. He was able to use only his voice as the baton!

When our leaders sing, they are proclaiming the text for all to hear. With music serving as part of the catechism of the church, it should be the job of all leaders and lay leaders to sing out! This includes everyone on the worship team, pastors, deacons, elders, organists, conductors, and ushers. When we sing, we receive the message twice: We read it, and then we hear it. With the Spirit’s help, the melody will stick around, and we will remember the message.

The culture of singing must be deeper than all the surface-level things we typically argue about: range, too-loud instruments, and the like. These things are important, but they are not to blame for the widespread lack of singing within a congregation. If I offer a hug to someone and they refuse, it probably has little to do with my wool sweater; the real reason lies somewhere deeper. So it is with congregations that don’t sing.

It Begins with You

We can sing our faith for all to hear, but it has to start with the pastoral musician. When we establish a culture of singing our faith with intentionality and discernment led by the Holy Spirit and study, others will begin to trust our message and meet us in praise of God in the context of Christ’s sacrifice. We will sing authentically to God in the presence of our fellow brothers and sisters for all to hear, resonate with, learn from, and remember why it is we became Christians in the first place.

As Psalm 71:22–24 (NASB) states: “I will also praise You with a harp, even Your truth, O my God; to You I will sing praises with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to You; and my soul, which You have redeemed. My tongue also will utter Your righteousness all day long; for they are ashamed, for they are humiliated who seek my hurt.” Amen.

A Beginning Resource List

Here is a beginning resource list for the pastoral musician eager to foster a culture of singing:

Bible

The Bible is key for being an authentic pastoral musician. The psalms, benedictions, and parables keep the musician’s ego in check while also providing a path and purpose for the musician’s ideas. We bring our ideas to Scripture, and Scripture shapes them; even more importantly, we take our ideas from Scripture and allow Scripture to shape us and our music.

It is good to have a study Bible to use with your ministry team. Pray over every practice and meeting while using a prepared benediction before and after.

Hymnals

Major denominationspublish hymnals consistent with their theology. Whether or not they are in your pew, they should be on your bookshelf and consulted regularly.

Use the index to help plan worship. The different indexes allow the planner be intentional about how the words relate to the service and to the music. The metrical index is extremely helpful for finding a more familiar tune for difficult words.

Organ Anthologies

Most anthologies are extremely helpful for organists in the church service. The organist must be familiar with short and long pieces for various purposes in the service, developing a large repertoire from the anthologies to complement the different Scriptures and seasons of the church year.

Books on Worship

Resources on Chanting

Liber Usualis. Cambridge, MA: Society of St. John the Evangelist/Desclee & Co., 1934.

  • The Liber is a valuable resource for understanding intonation as in the different psalm tones. In setting different Scripture to a tone, one must understand the different inflections and endings.
  • The Liber also offers many different chants that can be used at more penitential times of the year such as Lent. One must discern how the theology relates to a particular denomination, but the importance of Gregorian chant in solemnizing the service cannot be overstated.
  • Because of the resurgence of interest in the Tridentine mass, the resource is available as a 1,900-page PDF.

Graduale Romanum. Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 1979.

  • Like the Liber, this book offers many chants for the various feasts and solemnities of the church year. Not as lengthy as the Liber, the Graduale Romanum is organized as follows:
    1. Praenotanda (Rubrics)
    2. Proprium de Tempore (Proper of Seasons)
    3. Communia (Commons)
    4. Proprium de Sanctis (Proper of Saints)
    5. Missae Rituales ad Diversa et Votivae (Ritual and Votive Masses)
    6. Cantus in Ordine Missae Occurrentes (Chants Occurring in Order of Mass, including the Kyriale).
    7. Appendix (hymns and litanies)
    8. Missae Propriae Ordinis Sancti Benedicti (Mass Propers of the Order of Saint Benedict)

Rise, Richard. The Parish Book of Chant, 2nd ed. Roswell, NM: Church Music Association of America, 2013.

  • This is a very practical resource for Gregorian chant. It serves as a great introduction for students and is available for free download.
  • The most important part for me is its instruction on chant history and performance practice. The Monks of Solesmes have instilled in the culture a practical way of performing chant while maintaining its dignity.

Web Resources for Congregational Song

American Guild of Organists (agohq.org)

  • The AGO is a great resource for organists and choral directors. It offers help in structuring a pay scale for musicians as well as suggesting various outlets for creativity in worship through performance and composition competitions.

Augsburg Fortress (augsburgfortress.com)

  • Coming from the Lutheran perspective, Augsburg Fortress is invaluable for finding music of the Reformation. Luther’s original hymns with scholarly commentary is offered along with various other Reformation music.
  • It also offers many other resources for pastoral ministry such as baptism certificates and books for mutual ministry that help music ministers to work in healthy balance with their congregation.

CCLI (songselect.CCLI.com)

  • This is an important resource for worship leaders. The subscription is well worth the cost: It includes charts, lyric sheets, and harmonies for various CCM artists.
  • The website also has a helpful tool for transposing music. Many artists write songs out of congregational vocal range, so leaders need to be aware of the keys that are most comfortable for their church.

The Center for Congregational Song of The Hymn Society (thehymnsociety.org/ccs)

  • The Center for Congregational Song is a hub for education and outreach and an online platform connecting people to vital resources on congregational song.

ChoralNet (choralnet.org)

  • Affiliated with the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), choralnet.org offers a wealth of resources for choral directors including job listings, information about conferences, and forums.
  • The ACDA is a valuable resource for sharpening the quality and depth of choral music across colleges and school in America. The pastoral musician will find it refreshing also for its various articles about church music lectures.
  • The ACDA also offers a mentoring program for new directors in churches and schools.

Hope Publishing (hopepublishing.com)

  • For more than a century, Hope Publishing has produced quality church music, including choral music, handbell music, and hymnals.

The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (thehymnsociety.org)

  • The Hymn Society seeks to encourage, promote, and enliven congregational song.
  • The Hymnis The Hymn Society’s quarterly journal that publishes research articles, best performance practices, and hymn reviews.

Hymary.org (hymnary.org)

  • The largest hymn and hymnal database in North America.
  • Advanced search technology where users can search by text, tune, author, composer, meter, incipit, and other criteria.
  • FlexScore is a proprietary technology that can create and print hymns in any key and for many orchestral instruments.

J.W. Pepper (jwpepper.com)

  • J.W. Pepper is a wonderful resource for churches with choirs. It helps to plan for the Christian year by categorizing music accordingly and organizes it according to difficulty. The music is also available in different formats, from digital to print.
  • Many aids are available for music directors who also teach or lead children’s choirs.
  • J.W. Pepper also offers fundraising options for churches. It takes care of most of the packaging and gives a percentage to the church.

Musica Sacra (musicasacra.com)

  • The Church Music Association of America offers plenty of resources from printable books, PowerPoints for beginning Gregorian chant, information about conferences, to a scholarly journal (Sacred Music). Dr. William Mahrt also provides articles offering context for the importance of Gregorian chant in a service.

One License (onelicense.net)

  • Churches and organizations may obtain copyright permission to reprint, podcast, and record hymns and songs for the congregation.
  • Users may search and download high-resolution music image files to use as a worship aid, in the bulletin, or for projection.

Royal School of Church Music in America (rscmamerica.org/)

  • Associated with the Royal School of Church Music in London, RSCM America calibrates young voices into a tiered youth music program. Songbooks are provided along with different levels of prizes and medals that singers may earn.

Taizé (taize.fr/en)

  • Taizé is a lovely way to meditate and sing as a community in an organic and improvisatory way. The Taizé community provides seekers with wonderful information in making the most out of your trip to Taizé, France.
  • This website provides a wealth of music that serves not only one’s parish but across different faiths in the heart of ecumenism.

Zamir Chorale of Boston (zamir.org/resources/)

  • This site offers repertoire for the various Jewish holidays along with information about the music of Jewish composers. There is also information about concerts, recordings, and conducting internships with the Zamir Choral Ensemble.

Web Resources on Worship Planning and Liturgy