I was honored to represent Music That Makes Community at launch of The Hymn Society's Center for Congregational Song, joining a group of 40 leaders in the field of song and hymn-writing to discuss the most important issues facing composers and writers in the church today. I was also invited to write a brief essay reflecting on the question, "What kinds of songs are needed for today's church to best intersect and witness to the world?" It's included below and also published in Crafting Songs and Hymns, a series of essays designed to challenge and inspire song and hymn writers.
It is urgent for church musicians, composers, and textwriters to burrow deeply into what is happening in our world. Rather than come to others with songs we think they need, we must be willing to listen carefully and deeply, ask thoughtful questions, and sit quietly while others speak their joys, needs, wounds, dreams, and doubts. And we need to acknowledge ways that power, privilege, and prejudice prevent us from hearing with clarity and subtlety.
Cultivating humility, empathy, and solidarity through active listening may not immediately reveal melodies or texts that speak to the challenges, tragedies, and transitions of human life. But the practice grounds us in our shared humanity. From this foundation, we can begin to rediscover treasures in our hymnals and song traditions, as well as imagine and create songs that serve the well-being of the entire human family. For if the church exists to serve and heal the world, the songs of the church must serve the same end. As the church joins the struggle for justice, reconciliation, and peace in every place, music can and should support us in this holy, revolutionary work.
So, what kind of songs are needed for today’s church to best intersect and witness to the world? The power of the question shifts when reframed: ‘What songs does the world need to hear from today’s church?’ As I have listened to the communities I serve and the world the church inhabits over the past months, I would invite us to offer:
Hymns of God’s solidarity with marginalized, disenfranchised, and forgotten people, and songs that center God among the poor, indebted, and sick;
Revival songs calling white Christians to repent from, resist, and dismantle racism, white supremacy, and societal structures that condone racial divisions and hierarchies;
Canticles privileging women’s voices, vision, and experiences, affirming dignity and freedom as a birthright;
Work songs that inspire humanity to demolish walls and boundaries that exclude immigrants, migrants, aliens, and foreigners from society;
Psalms for a Higher Power, with language expansive enough to embrace the challenges and experience of those seeking wholeness through recovery programs;
Kyries tracing centuries of the church’s betrayal of indigenous people, calling the church to repent of ways we continue to colonize, appropriate, and steal from countries, cultures, and vulnerable people around the globe;
Paeans for a spectrum of gender identities and expressions, proclaiming gratitude for imaginative, life-giving expressions of gender and sexuality;
Litanies for purifying water, air, and land, and prayers for lives threatened by rising sea levels and natural disasters caused by human activity;
Doxologies expansive enough to hold those who do not claim our faith or any particular faith.
This list of songs can be imaginatively expressed through a range of musical styles, instruments, rhythms, tonalities, and song forms, all in service to the well-being of the wider human family. And as we continue to listen carefully, new songs will be discovered, rising out of fresh encounters with scripture and the life and teachings of Jesus. Rooted in sacred text and individual context, they will speak with boldness and urgency, even pushing beyond what the church has imagined or articulated in its theology.
This is a liminal space and a tender space, as voices are acknowledged, called forth, and blessed. But it is also a powerful, prophetic space. As the church lives into its calling and song inspires and sustains our commitment to a loving, liberating Gospel, it may even become an agent of change and transformation, a seedbed of creativity offering a renewed vision of faith for our time.