Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Peoples’ Song

I am indebted to Paul Westermeyer for the phrase, “the peoples’ song.” I’ll have to check the source – one of his excellent books on church music. (As opposed to one of his excellent books on hymnody.) Probably The Church Musician, in which he argues for the title Cantor. And champions “the peoples’ song.”

I love to direct my church choir. I am pretty passionate about choral music to begin with. Choral music in service of the church and to the glory of God is a pretty high calling. I care so much about it that I despair of ever being a good enough conductor to do it justice. But I find that there is an even higher calling than the excellent pursuit of the choral art in Christian worship.

That higher calling, to me, is the excellent pursuit of getting the right songs into the hearts and minds and voices of God’s people. Christian worship can survive quite nicely, thank you, without a choir. Survive, yes and even thrive. As it has for centuries in western culture and does in cultures wherever the Gospel has gone. The voice of Christian liturgy is the peoples’ song – whatever form that liturgy may take, and whatever the sound of the song.

I serve a particular church in a particular culture at a particular place in time. Though seen locally as the “poster boy for traditional worship,” I am both more and less than that. Younger colleagues may confuse the articulation of the following principles and approaches with paleontology. Older parishioners may suspect the application of these principles and approaches can open Pandora’s Box. Well, whatever.

The first thing I look for in congregational song is the text. As much as possible I try to separate the text from the melody. It’s easy to rule out a song because the tune is mediocre. It is even more easy to accept a song because the tune is so appealing. I try to start with the words: do they say something worth singing, that helps us understand what the Bible says? Are they theologically sound, poetically beautiful, psychologically true? Will they bear up with repeated use?

Then I look at the melody. Does the music have a character that supports the text? This is so obviously culture-bound. To a degree it is even sub-culture bound. But I still argue for it in my setting: does this melody reinforce or detract from what the words are saying? If they are devotional words set to a march-like meter and angular melody – maybe that’s not such a good match. Do the words call us to action, but the melody comes across as a lullaby? Again, we might want to take a pass on that.

Why are these principles important? Because it is primarily through the peoples’ song that a congregation’s affections are set, their practical (lived) theology is formed, and their spirits are united to one another and with God. Or as Saint Paul wrote: Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. And Let the word of Christ dwell in you (plural) richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Long before the Internet, people relied on links for resources and encouragement in church music. We called them networks. These have sustained and instructed me in so many ways that I can hardly sort out what and where they have built into my work in the church.

The list includes one-time conferences that signaled sea-changes for me, as well as ongoing relationships with friends and mentors. Here are just a few. Some have links, in the URL sense, on this blog.

  • Ransom Fellowship, Rochester, MN – “Education and the Gift of Music.” It msut have been in 1994? Here I met John Mason Hodges, who delivered a series of lectures on musical aesthetics. It set me on a 9-month reading course that changed me forever. The Fellowship’s newsletters are also a great read. (I should, but don’t, still subscribe.)
  • Leadership Network gathering of music pastors in Colorado Springs, at Glen Eyrie (Navigators) – I attended 2 or 3 of these, which drew together music leadership from similar-sized churches. I know I met Chip Stam at one, and I think Ron Man also (but I could be wrong about when I met Ron). The gathered set their own agenda and over the course of a couple of days we learned from each other, encouragingly. (It was also great to be able to hike alone in the CO mountains above Glen Eyrie!) Chip is the heart and email behind Worship Quote of the Week. Ron is the thoughtful author/compiler of Worship Resources.
  • Kenneth Myers, author and audio journalist. I was introduced to Ken’s work through Ransom Fellowship. He is said to have the “spiritual gift of bibliography.” Mars Hill Audio presents excellent “NPR quality” interviews and commentary on culture from a Christian world view. All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes is now a classic, approaching its 20th year in print and still worth re-reading. It is a small step to Myers from the massively influential Neil Postman Amusing Ourselves to Death. (1985)
  • Don’t even get me started on books. That will have to wait for its own posting (and probably many).
  • I would be an utter ingrate not to mention the good people and pastors at Berean Baptist Church, Burnsville, MN. They welcomed me as their first full time worship pastor, encouraged and sharpened me, let me grow, and by their acceptance of my role taught me what it means to be a pastoral musician. I had never been a full-time pastor, and they had never had a full-time musician – neither of us knew what to expect, so we were well suited!
  • John Wilson, former chief editor at Hope Publishing Company, became a friend at the Village Church of Western Springs. He kindly let this upstart co-teach adult Sunday School classes on the subject of worship, and (riskily) recommended me for the job at Berean. John introduced me to the 20th century English hymn writing explosion, and without making a big deal out of it took some of the rough edges off my musical and personal approaches. I always wanted to be an intern to John. Instead, God gave us friendship.
  • The World Church Music Symposium, London 1996. The course of reading launched by John Mason Hodges’ aesthetics lectures ultimately resulted in a paper written for and presented at the Symposium. There’s so much to say about that event. But let it suffice here to say that without this Symposium I would not be at College Church. The link? George Dupere. We had not met when we arrived for the Symposium. Before we left I knew I had a friend and “iron-sharpening” colleague. I am at College Church only because George is not. (Long story.)
  • Church Music at a Crossroads was a smaller, more collegial colloquy of church musicians. The first gathering was at Covenant College. Again, while I had a chance to read a paper here, its primary value was the opportunity to meet and connect with people dealing with a careful application of biblical theology to the practice of church music.

Over time the influences of these links, and many others I’m sure, will come through in Te decet hymnus. I hope I will remember sources and give credit. If I do not, be assured I am well aware that very little of what I think, believe, and practice is original. I owe much to many.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Te decet hymnus

October 1, 2007, marked my 11th anniversary as music pastor at College Church in Wheaton (IL). This follows an 11-year tenure as music pastor at a very different church in another state. Music ministry was an unexpected vocation for me, a surprise calling just before my 30th birthday. 22 years later, I am still very much a learner.

But I do know that in the words of Psalm 65:1 – “Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion.” That is the common translation of the Latin phrase that I have taken for the name of this blog. A more musical translation might be “To you, O God, a hymn is fitting.”

Te decet hymnus will explore the themes of worship, church music as practiced in the local church, hymns, hymnists, and hymn-singing.
Worship services: commenting on choices, challenges, successes and failures, experiences elsewhere, models, mentors, etc.
Church music: what a world there is to explore through my own lenses, my experience and preferences, and the position I currently occupy.
Hymns, hymnists, and hymn-singing: as a hymnal project develops, devotional, liturgical, historical, theological, and musical reflections will be worked out in this space.

The words “te decet hymnus” first entered my head during my first collegiate music history course. I recklessly took as a subject for my term paper, Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” listening to that classic first recording. It is the stunning first entrance of the boys’ choir in the first movement (requiem aeternam) – and all these many years later, that is the beautiful, arching, aching melody I associate with the phrase. No words I will ever write will stick like that simple line. But I’ll keep writing, if only to help myself on to some clarity.