If my mother were still with us and you could ask her, she would tell you that “Why?” and “Who says?” are two questions that I have asked since the moment I first understood how to ask a question. I was one of those children, you know, the kind who drive all adults around them to total distraction with repeated questions about how the world works and why it works that way and who says it works that way. Clearly, asking the big questions and living in a world of questions has been part of my spirit since, well, since forever.
So it is probably not surprising to anyone that one of the discussions that fascinated me the most at the “Singing in the Church” conference I attended was the discussion about this question: on whose authority do we sing what we sing?
There is the related question of why we sing, but the past three years of my life have been devoted to that question and right now I’m a little more clear on the whys of singing in worship and the reasons that we worship together. Dr. Thomas G. Long probably puts it most succinctly in his book Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship, when he repeatedly defines worship as the act of coming together to make possible an experience of the Mystery. The Mystery can mean many things to many people, but I think for most of us it means coming together and making space for God to show up in our lives, whatever that means to us, hopefully in a way that we can then carry with us into the more secular world of our daily living. I believe that music plays a part in this act of worship, because music itself is still in so many ways a mystery to even the most rational and empirical among us. Singing for me is like a mystery invoking a Mystery.
That is, however, an ongoing discussion to continue in another moment. Right now, back to this question…when we are planning worship, on whose authority do we decide what to sing? We discussed this endlessly in Atlanta, in many contexts. It remains a large and roughly unanswerable question, particularly in the free church tradition where there is no hierarchy dictating liturgical content and structure. And it is a question that invites our human sense of control to step into the breach, something that is not always a good thing.
And so, it is up to each and every one of us who bear some small responsibility for corporate worship in any case to find our own heart in this matter. As is so human, our conversations in Atlanta began with what does NOT constitute the authority on which we sing, and the pitfalls of discerning what music to offer:
- We do not sing based on the authority of the worship committee, its tastes and preferences.
- We do not sing based on the authority of the music director, their tastes and preferences.
- We do not sing based on the authority of the pastor, the trustees or any other part of our individual church governance structure, nor according to their tastes and preferences.
- We do not sing simply what has always been sung (except in those rare cases where a community coalesces around a song for theological or faith reasons, and that song becomes a part of the community’s faith identity).
- We do not program music just because we sang it in some other choir somewhere.
- We do not offer music to entertain, or even to make comfortable (unless, of course, the point of the lesson for the day is healing and comfort).
- We do not pick music because it is for us as professional musicians, interesting or challenging.
- We do not even pick music because we ourselves find it particularly inspiring or moving.
Of course, again recognizing our humanity , we have all picked music for one of those reasons from time to time. But it seems, once you view this list of pitfalls, it becomes clear that the two questions I posed at the beginning of this essay are not as inseparable as you might think: why we sing is not really such a different question from what we sing.
Yes, I used the word “authority” when I originally asked this question — that is the framework in which it was discussed in Atlanta. But for those of us in a free church tradition, “authority” is a much more difficult concept. Cooper and McClure, in their book Claiming Theology in the Pulpit, suggest that as people of faith we formulate our beliefs based on our understanding of four types of authority: the authority of Scripture, the authority of tradition, the authority of personal experience, and the authority of reason (pg. 19-31). Their analysis holds true when applied to the question of what do we sing in worship, just as it applies to any other aspect of the theology of our worship and liturgical planning.
But again, what do you do if you work and worship in a community that embraces diversity on every level possible and has no hierarchical structure dictating just what you offer in worship each week? After all, design by committee is not feasible or particularly accurate, and you cannot really consult a lot of people each week when you are picking hymns. What you can do, however, is be clear about the theological goal of the process.
And so, here is what I would do (mind you, I don’t select service music on a regular basis, with the exception of my own solo material when it is required): I would develop a set of questions as my guide. Yes, you heard me, is any one really surprised that my answer would be a series of questions? Some of the questions are basic: how does this music fit with the Lectionary texts of the day, how does it work with the Pastor’s sermon, does it incorporate any of the special themes of the day, does it support the mood and tone the Pastor is trying to establish for the worship service.
But the most important question, and the one that in my observance is seldom asked is this: does this particular choice of music extend the hand of hospitality to the congregation? Yes, hospitality. Does this musical choice invite everyone in the pews to take part? Does it invite them to sing? Does it invite them to worship? Does it include as many people as possible? If we recognize the humanity and the divinity of everyone in the worship space, does our musical choice encourage them to recognize their own nature and participate with the community in worship.
I often think that it is a shame that music directors spend so much time with their backs to the congregation. Those of us who see the faces of our fellow worshippers know everything they think about every musical choice (yes, some of us on the platform are paying attention). We see the pocket of people in the stage left corner confused by the 6 stanza hymn because it is in a language other than their own native tongue. We see the many people in the congregation who don’t even open the hymnal when it is time for a song. We see those struggling to understand the page before them. And we see how many of those people open up and sing when we ask them to sing something that inspires them or something that they know from long ago or something that we have taught them through repetition and use in the service, like this one .
We cannot offer a song that inspires everyone each and every time we sing. We can make an effort to use a musical language that speaks in many idioms at different times. And yes, we will probably fail many, many times. But the moments when we succeed are so precious, because, then we have done our job: we have made space for God to do the work that can only be done in that time and that place.
The answer to the questions posed as I started is: there is no answer. We will never understand the ultimate definition of authority. Even as a community, the best we can do is guard against the development of an opinion that the music itself is the most important thing, more important than the participation of the people in the room in the worship experience.
For me, there are only questions that I can use to guide me, hopefully, towards the song that I am supposed to hear and to share. May I always remember to ask them.