Do not work for food that perishes but food that endures.
- John 6:27, adapt.
Music-making, especially singing within a spiritual community, is soul food. It shapes and integrates our experience and understanding of the Holy. It gives voice to our heartfelt praise and prayer. It connects us to other voices and bodies around us. It moves energy within a worship space. It engages our whole being - body, mind, breath, spirit. Words and tunes continue to sing in us even when we are not fully conscious of them.
But as I work with congregations around the country, I frequently see that the formative, generative, and enlivening potential of music is unrecognized or diminished. While congregations might be able to articulate a theology of worship (why they sing), their musical practices (how they sing) can be disconnected from, contradict, or subvert, their theology.
It's not that these congregations lack faith, musicianship, or spiritual integrity. They are often led by brilliant and creative clergy, fine musicians, and devoted congregants who give significant time and support to the church. But the reality is that congregations, musical leaders, and choirs are creatures of habit. We fall into comfortable but often unhelpful patterns. The relentless demands and pace of ministry, as well as the needs and anxiety within our congregations, make it difficult for pastors and music leaders to think beyond the next rehearsal or liturgy. And challenging, defensive, or unhealthy relationship dynamics can discourage or undermine the trust, vulnerability, and listening that foster community and creativity.
Jesus' words from the Gospel of John challenge us to step back from our well-worn habits and consider where we put our time and energy. Are we making music in a way that is renewing, sustaining, and enduring? Is the music in our congregation, not just what we sing but how we sing, helping to enliven and strengthen our communal spiritual life? Do our songs savor and celebrate faith in all its richness and complexity, not simply provide trite answers or a saccharine soundtrack? Are we actively expanding and enriching our stylistic palate and vocabulary of praise, finding new ways to express and explore our relationship with God, others and ourselves? Do we welcome the varied musical experiences and skills of our congregants, or make space for the gifts and insights of those outside the walls of the church?
I can't answer these questions for a congregation or provide a two- or three-step solution. But I can hold up a mirror and invite them to notice where theology and practice are integrated and where they are not. I cannot tell a congregation what kind of music is best for them, or what will guarantee growth or livelier participation. But I can help to strengthen and empower the voices within a community (literally and figuratively), trusting that insights and solutions are more readily discerned when all are fully welcomed, respected, and heard.
I can also share leadership qualities and practices that might help renew and strengthen a congregation's spiritual and musical life. I offer several below, drawn from my work over the past months, and invite you to join me in reflecting on others. What has helped you integrate your theology of worship and your music making? Have shifts or changes in your congregation's musical life (even small ones) created space for energy and creativity to grow? How have you welcomed new voices, especially those that have been silent or on the margins of the community? How have you helped to reinvigorate your musical tradition or helped invite others into a new relationship with the texts and music that you sing each week?
Music that renews, sustains and endures is WELL PREPARED – planning worship is like preparing a meal. We seek out the best ingredients we can find (i.e. liturgical and musical elements), but how they are combined and presented is equally important. Both quality and imagination are essential to a nourishing and thoughtful worship experience.
Preparation also involves practical tasks and grunt work, the equivalent of chopping vegetables, preparing a sauce, or sautéing a cut of meat. The way we prepare hymns and service music, rehearse the choir, cantor, and instrumentalists, contributes to the quality of a worship experience. Beauty and excellence require effort and focus, but the results can be life-giving and inspiring to others.
Music that renews, sustains and endures is BALANCED – there is incredible variety within the Church's musical traditions but all too often we focus on a small menu of musical staples. We keep preparing the same recipes over and over without much imagination.
A balanced musical diet includes hymns, songs, chants and choral music from outside our well-known canon of composers or musical style. If access to those resources is limited, what small but intentional steps can we take to widen our palate? Can we learn and incorporate music from other cultures and traditions in a respectful and creative way? Or can we renew our appreciation of the familiar through experimentation and play, setting new texts to familiar tunes or varying the instruments that accompany worship?
Music that renews, sustains and endures is LOCALLY-SOURCED – Over the past months, I have heard congregations sing music composed by congregants, and seen instrumentalists and choral singers of all ages and ability levels welcomed. The worship life of a community is enriched and strengthened when musicians from within the community are invited to share their gifts.
Music that renews, sustains and endures is OFFERED WITH LOVE - regardless of the meal served or the music sung, we sustain and strengthen others when we are motivated by love. Love is not simply giving others what we think they want but it is learning to listen and to see through their eyes, to try to understand where they are coming from and what motivates them. Love is embodied in the humility of Jesus, "who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but who took the form of a servant."
I'm inspired by this line from the hymn Draw Us In the Spirit's Tether: "all our meals and all our living, make as sacraments of you..." What if we imagined all of our songs and all our singing as sacraments, too, as spaces where we encounter the transformative mystery of Love?