SingersOn the opening night of Candler’s spring conference on congregational song, the assembled crowd sang the following lines from Marty Haugen’s “All are Welcome”:

“Let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word.” 

From March 19 to March 21, participants of the conference, titled “The Singing Church: Current Practices and Emerging Trends in Congregational Song,” explored the question of how to truly welcome all songs and visions into worship.

As the title of the conference suggests, much of that exploration was done through music. In just three days, 100 attendees sang or heard more than 50 pieces of music in large group gatherings that included the opening Festival of Congregational Song, two worship services, two plenaries, and an evening with John Bell, a Scottish hymn writer and worship resource leader. More singing took place in 13 workshop sessions, which included topics such as the Re:Tune movement, the role of the organ in congregational song, and integrating global songs into worship. 

The song selections were proof-positive that congregations needn’t be bound by one style or type of church music. The crowd sang music from around the world, both traditional and contemporary, and with diverse instrumentation, ranging from an acoustic guitar and a mandolin to organ and handbells, from a full brass band to a haegeum, a two-stringed instrument from Korea, and djembe drums. Two of Candler’s choirs, Voices of Imani and The Candler Singers, also performed.

When conference attendees weren’t singing, they were engaged in conversations about how to create a church music program that satisfies and challenges a diverse congregation. One prominent theme was the need for church songs that encompass and express a wider range of emotions.

“We do songs of praise well, but not songs of sorrow,” said Bell in his presentation, explaining that he often hears that congregations only want upbeat songs. “If there are people suffering from depression in your congregation, are we going to prohibit what they’re feeling? Our prayer for them becomes more profound when we sing songs of sorrow.” 

Bell urged congregations to engage a greater range of psalms to address this need. One of the worship services of the conference did exactly this, using psalms of both joy and sadness to demonstrate how the emotional geography of human life—peaks, valleys and the everyday “plane”—can be expressed through congregational song. 

Conference presenter Mary Louise Bringle 84G explored how contemporary songs of sorrow can serve a congregation’s needs. In her plenary, Bringle explained her work as a member of the committee that selected hymns for the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), to be released next year. Concerns such as aging, Alzheimer’s disease and the difficulties of caregiving were extremely important to the selection committee, according to Bringle.

“The beauty of the church’s song is that when you have to drop out for a moment, the church’s body carries on singing until you can join in again,” Bringle said, echoing Bell’s call for congregations to sing for the troubled among them.

The work of Bringle’s committee in selecting which hymns to include in a denominational hymnal illustrates another major theme of the conference — the question of who holds the power to choose music for worship services. Conference leader Tony Alonso led a workshop on who should be at the worship planning table in intercultural congregations, while Carlton “Sam” Young dealt with issues of authority in a tech-oriented culture that’s increasingly turning to video projections of hymns. Mindful of the fact that the conference was taking place at a seminary, many of the presenters addressed the issue of training pastors and music ministers.

“I am trained as a systematic theologian,” said Bringle. “No one ever taught me in school how to write a hymn or how to lead a congregation in song. If I had my way, every seminarian would be given a membership to the Hymn Society and be required to attend a conference.” 

“You may go to seminary and think you’ll never have to deal with church music or teaching a congregation a new song, but then the Holy Spirit has other plans and you’re doing it,” she explained. 

Bell agreed that pastors and music ministers should be trained similarly, but even more importantly, they need to work together. “I think it’s an impediment to a congregation’s integrity when you have a preacher who says, ‘I preach’ and a musician who says, ‘I pick the music.’ Worship is too important to be so partisan,” he said in an interview after his performance. 

Bell offered an anecdote of work he did in Sweden, when pastors and musicians were asked to talk about their apprehensions about working together. Pastors, he found, were often frightened of working with a showboating music minister who would overshadow a sermon. 

“That’s not a good fit for someone in a pastor’s role,” he said. “It’s the congregation’s worship, not the pastor’s, and not the musician’s. Those people are paid servants, and must be mindful of the congregations they serve.” 

But what if a congregation is stuck in their ways about what kind of songs they want to sing? That’s a question that conference leaders Delores Dufner and Mark Mummert wrestled with in one panel.

“The question is not about what a church likes or doesn’t like, but what they need,” said Dufner, a Benedictine nun and hymn writer. “When selecting songs for worship, ask not ‘Do you like it?’ but ‘What do we need to sing to be the church God calls us to be?’”

Mummert, a prominent musician in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, proposed that opinions about church music can hide bigger questions that a congregation needs to ask itself: “In North American Christianity, individual likes and dislikes trump the communal body of Christ. So the issue of what music we sing is not a worship style question, but a question of what we think the church is.” 

Dufner agreed, echoing the sentiment of Haugen’s “All are Welcome” from the first night of the conference.

“I think if we go back to Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper — that we all may be one — then we will have made great progress as the church.”