We sing together.

The church is one of the only places in our culture today where people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities gather together for one hour on Sunday mornings and sing as a group. Throughout the rest of the week, we mostly listen to soloists singing songs that highlight their skill as individuals, whether it’s pop, country, rock, even contemporary Christian radio, or we watch soloists compete on shows like The Voice; even if we go out to listen to live music, it’s all lead-singer driven.

This increasing cultural focus on the solo singer, and the pursuit of flashy, individual talent and show-offy singing to the exclusion of all else (e.g. the national anthem at ball games), is tragic inasmuch as it marks the demise of group song. Singing with a group is one of the most profoundly unifying activities in which we can engage. Singing together unified and empowered the Civil Rights Movement of the last century. Singing carols brought together the two sides of the Western Front during the cease-fire on Christmas Day in 1914. And lifting our voices together in worship unites the church in the same way: it is an essential practice that strengthens the community of the church in a way nothing else can, which is why from its very beginning, the church has sung together.

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:26)

John Wesley, like the other hymnists of the Great Awakening, realized the power of a singing church; from the beginning, the people called Methodists were known as “a singing people.” In his 1761 hymnal Select Hymns, Wesley included “Directions for Singing” to encourage congregational song, and these can still be found in the front of our hymnal today.Read More »


Wesley, the Moravian hymnwriter

Almost 2 years ago, I wrote an introduction to the Moravian church, which is interesting knowledge for Methodists because of the Moravian influence on John and Charles Wesley. I intended to continue the discussion, but grad school got the better of me and I never made it back to it.

I’ve been reflecting lately on the early theological development of the Wesley brothers, back when the Methodist movement was just some blokes in Oxford who wanted to be closer to Christ, and how much of an influence the Moravian church was for them. In fact, it’s largely thanks to the Moravians that the modern Methodist church is a singing congregation.

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Isaac Watts, Dissenter

Isaac Watts was one of the most prolific hymnwriters to come out of the Great Awakening in England, earning the title of “Father of English Hymnody”. His work helped to establish hymn singing as part of modern Protestant worship, it influenced his colleagues, many of whom became nearly as prolific hymnwriters as he, and it set an example of hymnwriting for the church to come. We still sing many of his texts today, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Joy to the World,” “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun,” “Come, ye that love the Lord,” and “Our God, our help in ages past,” and “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath,” which was the hymn on John Wesley’s lips as he died. These and more are an integral part of our church’s hymnody, and will likely continue to be among the most loved hymns of the church.

Watts’ hymns are inspired by both his fierce Calvinist theology and his identity in the tradition of Dissent, the Christian movement that wished to separate from the Church of England in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The tenets of Calvinism: the glory and sovereignty of God, the total depravity of human, the security of the elect, and the all-sufficient atonement of Christ, can be found throughout his hymns. Watts’ commitment to this theology and his love of rhyme and verse already at a very young age can be seen in this acrostic that Watts made of his name at age seven:

“I” – I am a vile, polluted lump of earth
“S” – So I’ve continued ever since my birth
“A” – Although Jehovah, grace doth daily give me
“A” – As sure this monster, Satan, will deceive me
“C” – Come therefore, Lord, from Satan’s claws relieve me.

“W” – Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ
“A” – And grace divine impart
“T” – Then search and try the corners of my heart
“T” – That I in all things may be fit to do
“S” – Service to Thee, and Thy praise too.

As the story goes, from childhood Watts was frustrated with the lifeless, dirge-like metrical Psalm singing of his time (I’ve written before about the awkwardness of some of these metrical Psalm translations.) In later years he articulated this exasperation that had begun in his youth: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” One day, the young Watts just couldn’t take it anymore and complained to his father, to which the elder Watts replied, “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?” This challenge issued to a spiritually convicted young man resulted in the writing of over 800 hymns, many of which are still beloved by the church today, and ultimately the fundamental transformation of church music.

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Awkward hymns

There are some absolutely wonderful hymns in the heritage of the Christian church. I’ve shared about quite a few of them… and I have more waiting in the wings. One of my favorite things is to explore the background of the hymns we know and love, that we’ve grown up singing, that we could practically sing by heart.

But every hymn isn’t a winner. More specifically, not every hymn is appropriate for use in worship, even if it’s one that you personally enjoy and connect with. Occasionally, one of these never-going-to-be-a-classic hymns is included and published in a hymnal for all of posterity to cringe at- which should remind us that just because something’s in a hymnal, doesn’t mean we should use it in a worship service.

Sometimes the cringing comes from dated lyrics or ideas. This is definitely the case of a substantial number of hymns and songs found in the Methodist The Faith We Sing and the Presbyterian Sing the Faith; there were a lot of great songs that came out of the 80s contemporary Christian music scene, but most of them now are just very, well, 80s. As amazing as it is, I could go my whole life without needing to hear the song “Our God is an Awesome God” one more time 🙂

Even before the 80s, dated ideas in the music of the church were a problem. There were many hymns written around WWI and WWII that have rather graphic descriptions of battlefields, and that discuss Christian engagement with a world that God loves in entirety, in the midst of the devastating world wars. These were incredibly important tools for the church at that time, helping them come to terms with the ravages of war and yet hold on to a forgiving Christian faith. These hymns are included yet in many of our hymnals, but some of the violence in the imagery is no longer appropriate or relatable for today’s church.

Other times, the issue with a hymn is a difficult, unsingable melody; there are a number of these in our hymnals, because when many of these tunes were written, we had nationwide choral education beginning in grade school and continuing throughout adulthood– our country used to be a singing country. We largely aren’t anymore, so we need to choose hymns based on the musical abilities of our singing congregations. Which tunes are singable and which aren’t really depends on the congregation these days. Some congregations know how to sing German chorales but aren’t comfortable singing songs that come from the American Revival or the contemporary Christian movement; others can’t engage with chorales but love the Revival hymns. Some congregations have a higher number of trained musicians, or they follow well the lead of the choir, and with other churches you have to be sensitive to the musical abilities of the congregation and choir and choose music more carefully.

And there are some rare instances when a hymn is just icky or awkward. Sometimes you’ll flip through and find a hymn that just makes you uncomfortable when you read or sing it. And sometimes you’ll find yourself arguing with the theology in the text as the congregation sings (or maybe that’s just me…)

One such hymn that I’d like to look at today is from the 2011 United Methodist supplemental hymnal Worship and Song#3174: “Christ, We Are Blest”.

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Singing the Psalms

The Psalms are some of the earliest songs of the church, and they were some of the only songs permitted in church for much of the existence of the church, but not many people today speak about the psalm-singing tradition of our heritage, and I think that’s a loss.

The modern tradition of hymns didn’t go mainstream in churches until the Great Awakening in 17th-century England. Some Christian traditions did sing hymns before this: the Lutherans began writing and singing hymns during the Reformation, and the Moravians sang hymns from before the Thirty Years’ War, but hymns were not mainstream for a long time, because non-scriptural texts were considered inappropriate by much of the Christian church– who were these people writing hymns, who thought their human words could stand in worship next to the divine scriptures? Sermons were acceptable in worship because in them the Holy Spirit was speaking to the church through the minister/pastor, but hymn texts weren’t considered inspired by the Holy Spirit, rather, they were rejected as tempting the people to worship the human instead of the divine. (There is, of course, a considerable amount of nuance with this issue, having to do with the church’s changing theology about human creativity over the centuries, the church’s evolving relationship with music and the arts, and its struggles to justify the theology of God the one and only Creator, with the presence of creative people created by God. If you’re interested in the subject, look up Jeremy Begbie; he’s written several great books about theology and music/the arts, and it’s a very good place to start.)

The Great Awakening in 18th century England opened the doors for the leaders of the Dissenting movement such as Isaac Watts, and leaders of the Anglican church (some of whom would eventually become part of the Dissenting movement) like the Wesleys, to begin writing hymns and proving through demonstration the case for divinely inspired texts that were not literally scriptures, but were instead based on scriptures and theological concepts.

Prior to this hymn movement, the majority of the church sang the Psalms, if they sang anything at all. Now, the Psalms were originally intended to be sung, and they were; but they were not originally in English, so when the Bible was translated for the English-speaking church, the Psalms didn’t have the rhythm or rhyme of the original Hebrew. Open your Bible to the book of Psalms and you’ll see what I mean. It doesn’t matter what translation you have- the priority of the Bible translators was the preservation of meaning over meter, so they worked to find the English words that best conveyed the meaning of the original Hebrew, and the meter was typically disregarded.

If the English-speaking church was to sing the Psalms, then, there would need to be a translation of the Psalms in a singable meter.

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A hymnwriter you should know: Fred Kaan

I’ve talked a bit about the historical hymnody of the church, which is really important to learn about– it keeps us tied to our roots in the Christian church– and, it’s usually really fun to learn about. However, there are a lot of contemporary hymnwriters who are totally AWESOME, but who don’t always get the kind of press that folks like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley get.

So today, here’s a contemporary hymnwriter you should know: Fred Kaan.

Kaan (1929 – 2009) was one of the major hymn writers in the 20th century, and was a significant force in the hymnwriting explosion of the 1960s. He and his contemporaries were truly trailblazers, because while the church had spread through the world by this point, the international Christian church wasn’t globally connected and unified until the 20th century, thanks in large part to the improvements in communication methods. As the church connected, so did its music, and these hymn writers stepped up.

While the Wesleys were global hymnwriters in the sense that their traditional, Anglican-heritage hymns were sent out into the world with missionaries, Kaan and his contemporaries were writing hymns for the global church, as a part of the global church. They addressed contemporary global issues, they wrote for many countries, many nationalities, many traditions, and they worked to unify those faith communities within the international Christian church.

That’s super cool, but how exactly does one become a global hymnwriter, you ask? (Well, maybe you didn’t, but lucky you, I’m going to tell you anyway 🙂 )

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Let Thy life in mine appear.

The anthem that our youth choir sang in church this morning has one of my favorite texts, “Gracious Spirit, dwell with me.” It’s a beautiful poem about the fruits of the Spirit and the different ways that faith transforms us into a people longing to live as Christ’s light in the world.

The text of this anthem comes from a hymn written by Thomas T. Lynch in 1855. Lynch (1818-1871) was an English Congregationalist preacher known for his numerous works of prose, hymnwriting, and the freshness and spirituality of his preaching. He was a unique theologian for his time, having withdrawn from university partly because of an ailing health that would plague him his whole life, and partly because his free spirit was not well-suited to the routine of college life. This gave him a theological perspective that was different from many of his contemporaries, and that served him well during his life of ministry.

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The Greek squad

Today we’re talking about the early church, in the post-apostolic era when they were trying to sort out how this whole Christianity thing worked. Like the church of every age, the early church sang, and there are remnants of their congregational music, their Greek hymns, in our hymnals today. It’s really cool to me to think that we’re singing the same hymns that the early Christians did centuries ago.

The post-apostolic church is also sometimes referred to as the Eastern church; the division of “Eastern” and “Western” in reference to the church stems from cultural and political divisions between the Hellenistic east and Latinate west, though it would be several centuries before the Western church formally split to form its own communion. This Western tradition eventually evolved into the Roman Catholic church… from which the modern Protestant denominations were derived, first with the Lutherans and Presbyterians, then the Church of England and the traditions that came from that Anglican heritage such as the Episcopalians and the Methodists, then all of the dissenters during the 18th-century Great Awakening: the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the Unitarians, who defined themselves against the Church of England, which had defined itself against the Roman Catholic church.

My point is, those of us who live, breathe, and work in the major denominations of the Christian church in America are surrounded primarily by the history and traditions of the Western church, frequently stemming from the Lutheran or Anglican traditions, which both have very strong identities within our church. Sometimes it can seem as if the history of the Christian church began with Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses, and we forget there even was a church before the Protestant Reformation and the rebellion against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church.

But despite all of this, despite the modern church in American completely ignoring the existence of the Eastern church and forgetting its heritage, the traditions of the Eastern church have a presence in our worship that most people aren’t aware of: our hymns and songs.

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Veni Creator Spiritus

Happy almost-Pentecost!

Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Spirit’s descent on the Apostles, found in the familiar story from the book of Acts, chapter 2:

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

Pentecost is observed on the Sunday that falls 50 days after Easter (hence the Greek prefix, pente-, or “fiftieth”), and it is one of the first celebrations of the Christian church, considered by many to be the “birthday” of the Church. This has resulted in a rich history of traditions and symbols from which the modern church can draw. The primary symbol of Pentecost is the color red, denoting the fire of the Holy Spirit; when we wear red in church that Sunday, we are symbolically clothing ourselves in the Spirit’s fire. Other symbols you might see are flames, the dove (recalling the Spirit’s descent on Jesus at his baptism, “like a dove”) and red plants or flowers, which symbolize the renewal of life that occurs with the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.

The church also has a rich heritage of musical traditions for this Sunday. The plainchant Veni Creator Spiritus is the traditional chant assigned to Vespers (I and II) and Terce of Pentecost, and is a popular source for liturgical music. It is attributed by most scholars to Rabanus Maurus (d. 856), Abbot of Fulda and Archbishop of Mainz, who lived during the reign of Charlemagne at the turn of the 9th century. It has, at different times, also been attributed to Charlemagne himself, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory, without real evidence or good arguments for either ascription; most substantiated manuscript evidence points to Archbishop Maurus. According to The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Maurus may have composed the chant for the 809 Aachen Synod at which the Carolingians (the successors to the aristocratic dynasty of Pepin and Charlemagne during the Franco-German empire) decided that “the belief that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (‘filioque’) is necessary for salvation.” The chant is “a rich tapestry of allusion to other hymn texts, liturgical prose texts, biblical texts, and texts relating to the ‘filioque’ controversy” and it would have been eminently fitting for a synod meeting about the Holy Spirit at the turn of the ninth century.

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Church, state, and culture at the turn of the century

Today, I want to talk a bit about a church in the turn of the century: a church trying to define itself within society, and wrestling with power struggles within the church establishment, politics, and government. And all of these conflicts are foundational to conflicts about the music of the church, as church leaders and musicians are trying to decide what’s appropriate for worship and what’s not, should we be drawing from secular music styles or not, and how the church’s music can define the church’s engagement with society.

That’s right, I’m talking about issues of church, state, and culture 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century.

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