Beyond the Hymns and Organ

“I grew up with music.” Well, that’s kind of a loaded statement, right? Does that mean that you grew up listening to music, playing it, or singing? If so, what type of music did you grow up with? Rock and Roll, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Classical? Despite our upbringings, everyone has some sort of connection with music in their lives. My earliest memory includes sitting in the car with my dad as we listened to the oldies station on the radio. I remember choreographic dance moves with my brother to the Temptations record album in our living room. I played the saxophone in school, sang in the choirs, and even had a phase where I thought I might become a country music star…thanks Garth Brooks.

My musical experience of church has been rich. When I was a teenager I joined the church choir where I sang each Sunday with friends of all ages. I continued to sing in college and even to this day as we delve into the richness of classical sacred music. One of my favorite musicians is Thomas Tallis, whose celestial harmonies and melodies take my spirit closer to the Divine.

However, at any ‘youth’ event or conference, the tunes change…literally. At the Presbyterian Youth Triennium in 1998 I first heard of Kirk Franklin, and the modern gospel genre. I discovered Christian rock with bands like D.C. Talk, P.O.D., and my favorite of all time, Five Iron Frenzy! I was able to embrace many different aspects of what Christians understood as ‘Christian music’ in the world as we sang in different languages accompanied by all sorts of instruments.

All of this gets me thinking…about organ music and hymn singing of all things. One of my recent conversations was with a professional worship and music minister for a non-denominational church. We got talking about music in worship, and I wondered aloud how music was selected for his church’s services.

‘Well, I listen to cds, what’s on the radio, our band may come up with songs…all sorts of ways,’ he said. ‘How fascinating!’ I thought, as I thought about my music experience growing up in Catholic masses and Presbyterian worship services.

So let’s acknowledge the white elephant in the blog: why do most* Presbyterian Churches restrict their musical expressions to classical (I choose not to use the term ‘traditional’ intentionally) music and hymns? Of the 124 congregations that I currently serve, I have come across a handful of churches that will sing songs outside of the hymnals that they own (and no, they are not all Presbyterian hymnals!). Most churches choose to budget their music ministry with an organist/accompanist and a choir director. The instrument of choice in most congregations is the organ or piano. Most churches will organize a volunteer choir to help lead in hymns and perhaps sing an anthem, which tends to be classical in nature (I’m not qualified to speak on the details of the composers and genres, so I’ll leave it at that).

I’m not hating on classical music in church. I have experienced first-hand how powerful and communal of an experience it can be to sing a hymn with other sisters and brothers in faith. I have seen congregations and Christians come together over popular hymns like ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Be Thou My Vision’. I have also experienced first-hand how spiritual of an experience it can be to sing in the church choir. I have witnessed strangers become friends and those on the margins of society experience Christ’s love through singing with joy. I appreciate the interconnectedness and history of these musical expressions. But why do we limit ourselves in most Sunday morning worship services? I appreciate those who have a preference for classical worship (including other portions of the worship experience; not just music). I have heard the arguments from church members, pastors, and professional musicians about how other music has ‘weak theology’ or that contemporary music is just ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ music. Believe it or not, there is good music beyond our hymnal!

With all of this being said, I would like to suggest a few ideas in order to better engage younger generations (and myself) in the life of the church musical experience.

  • Expand Musical Experience. Yes, this is the basis of what I’m thinking. Stop limiting ourselves to hymns and choir anthems. Start looking to incorporate other sacred music; whether it’s on the radio, or from another country, or even something that is local.
  • Multicultural Music. I know there is a fear or even dislike of music that comes from other countries or other cultures, but if we are to embrace the diversity of the Kingdom of God in our theology and ministry, shouldn’t it include our music?
  • Budget for diversity in music. I love the choir directors and organists I have met, but they are not the only musicians on earth. What would it look like to budget for other musicians?
  • Ask Young People (and other church members). Many more people than you may think listen to Christian music outside of church. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have the music of Sunday be reinforced throughout the week as well?
  • Expand Theology. I know many people who throw out music if it doesn’t contain deep Reformed theology or inclusive language. I would hate to not experience wonderful music just because the people who wrote it may not think exactly like you, or even our denomination (feel free to call me a heretic or ‘not Presbyterian’ at any point; I can take it).
  • Try Something New! Will the world end if we sing something besides a hymn on Sunday? We will most likely get comments or complaints from some long-time church members who understand Presbyterian musical worship as only hymns, but I assure you the world will not end…and more people than you may think will also give compliments.
  • Embrace the Secular. (Heretical statement number…)A pretty trendy thing going on in Presbyterian worship with young people these days has been to sing ‘secular’ songs that contain spiritual or Christian imagery or themes. While I personally am tired of singing Mumford and Sons (one of my favorite bands by the way) at every youth & young adult gathering, there is some merit, enjoyment, and beauty to the idea and approach.
  • Beyond the Praise Band. I’m not proposing that every church start a praise band, but I do like the idea of using musical genres that are more familiar to our contemporary experience. What would it look like to sing bluegrass, gospel, hip-hop, or even experience EDM (google it) within worship?
  • Authenticity is Key. Whatever happens musically, it is best to be genuine and authentic to who you are as a congregation and musicians. The same goes for most everything in ministry or life; at the end of the day, the best thing you can do is to be yourself. You may not be into hip-hop or rock music (and you may not be a good rapper), but you can still experience the Divine in the gift of diversity that is God’s Beloved Community. Never stop being open to God’s call in the world!


  1. Thanks for encouraging some diversity here, friend.

    For what it’s worth, one of my final suggestons before I rotated off the Cabinet was to do a bluegrass service at presbytery. Bluegrass is a strong tradition in this area and I suspect it’s valued in many of our smaller congregations. Maybe the next time we meet in a community building or college auditorium we could give this a try.

    I’ve always wanted to offer a quarterly jazz worship service, but haven’t had the energy or time to pull it off.

    Blessings on your work today.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s