September 8, 2015

Rivers of Song

The River

I spent much of my childhood at our family cabin up in the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Colorado. It’s a log cabin buried deep in the woods, surrounded by pine trees, dirt roads and the wonderful sounds of mountain nature. I can still hear the crackling of pine needles, the wind rustling through the aspen trees, the scamper of chipmunks and squirrels. But most importantly, I hear the sound of the river. My siblings and I spent hours playing in the river — skipping stones, jumping from rock to rock, dipping our toes in the frigid snowmelt waters. We would often follow the river, to the various points where small streams would feed into it, eventually leading out to a larger body of water which eventually feeds the great Colorado River. Our river was only a tiny section of a much, much larger body of water, but it was one we were familiar with and grew to know and love.

I attended the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s annual Worship Symposium in January 2015 and sat in on a session led by C. Michael Hawn, professor of church music and director of sacred music and the Perkins School of Theology. His session was called “Streams of Song” and discussed the various streams of song that feed a congregation’s unique, personal river of song. Hawn points out seven streams- seven traditions that feed church music today. Hymnals and congregational repertoire draws from streams like classical hymnody, African American spirituals, Folk songs, Pentecostal songs and global songs.

In undergraduate studies, I was taught that on average, each congregation has approximately 200 songs in their own “river”. These 200 songs are songs that the majority of people know well and are able to sing confidently. These are songs you could pull out on any given Sunday and sing without needing a soloist or leader. The majority of these 200 are considered “heart songs” — songs we have a personal connection with, that carry with them deep meaning for a variety of reasons. These are the songs that come to our minds and hearts at the times of greatest joy and our times of greatest sorrow. Each congregation’s river consists of approximately 200. Here’s the thing about a river ... it is never static. It’s always flowing, always changing and always being fed by the streams. If it is not being continuously fed, it will quickly dry up.

Flowing from the Heart

The whole idea of these various streams feeding into the larger body of congregational water sparked an idea that turned into our worship series this summer at my home congregation, the Washington DC Christian Reformed Church. Our church was founded during World War II because the denomination wanted a church home for service people stationed in DC. This new church, which was almost entirely Dutch and CRC bought property in a predominantly African American neighborhood and over the years has diversified. So our music is an eccentric hodgepodge, drawn from many different streams representing the diversity in the congregation. We solicited people’s “heart songs” and incorporated them into our summer worship. Each week, we sang these songs throughout the worship service and chose one with a Scripture text that was the preaching text for the sermon. Often times people shared their heart songs and the personal stories attached to them. One of our elderly African American women, who lived through the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama and lost a student in the church bombing in 1963, shared how “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is the song that she has been singing every morning since she was young as her devotional and prayer to begin her day. Another member is currently writing a book on Horatio Spafford and the hymn “When Peace Like a River” and shared some of her research.

This series has not only given us a chance to draw from the individual streams that make up our congregation’s river of song, it also has been a learning experience and one that has unified us as we worshipped together. We took our heart songs and sang them together ... recognizing that just because it might not be in one person’s particular style or might not be a text that resonates with everyone, it is praise to the living God, who is worthy of ALL our praise. We learned that singing with each other is not only praise that is commanded in Scripture time and time again, it is showing our love for one another ... an act of reconciliation and justice at its very core. Singing loudly and with our whole heart because our brother or sister 3 chairs over is in a place in their life where they could not participate, but they needed us to sing for them. Singing in one voice for the millions of Christians around the world who are persecuted for their belief and unable to sing. Singing songs of another tradition or in another language to demonstrate our solidarity and union through Jesus Christ. Singing songs with our theme verses in mind: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”


Kathryn Ritsema Roelofs is a commissioned pastor in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and serves as a worship specialist with Thrive, a ministry of the CRC. She is also the managing director of the Worship for Workers project through Fuller Seminary.