2023 Lent Newsletter Excerpt
The Songs We Sing
By Alyssa Berkenpas, Interim Worship Coordinator
If you’ve read my last two entries to our quarterly newsletter, you may have noticed a theme. I have been going through different aspects of our worship here at Living Hope. In September I looked at the words we say as a part of our liturgy, and in November I talked about the importance of visuals and what we take in with our eyes. This month I’m talking about something that you most likely think of first when you think of a worship service: the songs we sing.
I was reading through Authentic Worship in a Changing Culture, which was a report prepared for the 1997 Synod – many churches were struggling to understand what it meant to worship if the look of a typical service was changing so much. I came across this quote proposing a way of thinking about worship in general:
“Christian worship is a dialogue between God and the people of God. God moves towards us in revelation, and we move toward God in response. God comes to us in grace, and we respond in grateful obedience. The story is told and we say thanks.”
This is a great summary of what we are doing when we come together to sing songs, speak words, hear a message, and greet one another in fellowship. Using this as our starting point, I want to delve into the value of choosing songs that maybe we only sing for a year and songs we sing for over fifty years.
I have been planning worship services for over fifteen years, and it’s amazing to think back at the songs that were so meaningful to me when I was seventeen. There are certain songs that I led twelve times in year and yet have never sung them again since. Does this mean it was a bad song choice? I don’t think so. There is something about songs that are written to fit our particular moment in history; they speak to our culture and to what we are experiencing in that moment. Our church is a community and in this community are real people in a specific time and place experiencing joys and sorrows together. These songs give us new ways of expressing theologically and biblically-sound words of praise and gratitude put to beautiful new music.
As for the songs we have sung for fifty years, these speak to the history of the community and the broader church beyond our own building. As we sing these songs that are hundreds of years old, we join in the voices of all the saints who have gone before us. These songs have been such a staple in people’s lives that they have shaped their faith journeys. I love hearing stories of people’s grandparents who could no longer speak many words, yet they could sing the hymns they grew up singing. There is a danger, however, in sentimentalizing the songs from the hymn books and holding on to them too strongly. By focusing on what God did in the past, we are in danger of missing what God can do and is doing in the present.
Songs we sing for a short time give expression to our feelings in this moment, but I am careful about which of these newer songs we sing with the whole congregation. A good hymn written for today should be written in our own language and idiom and metaphor, but most importantly it is God-centered—looking upwards and outwards, not inwards. We are living in a culture that is described as ‘therapeutic’ which means that we have a tendency to want our personal needs met, and we emphasize things that make us feel better immediately. This is not wrong in itself – it can actually be a helpful place to start in our worship. We are a people who come as we are. We bring our burdens and our sorrows to God. We come with our joys and celebrations. We come with whatever reflects our individual experiences. The problem comes, however, when this therapeutic emphasis is demanded in all our songs. This can lead us to wrongly thinking that worship songs are there only to make us feel better, rather than first and foremost being about worshipping God and who He is.
When we choose different types of songs and meld them into a worship service, the result holds the potential for a greater authenticity through faithfulness to the historic tradition and greater relevance through contemporary expression.
I read this question in the Synod report and it stuck with me: “Do you come to a worship gathering looking for things with which you disagree with?” Rather than thinking, do I know this song? What if we thought about how does this song connect with the themes that we have been looking at within the service? Or how does this song help me to pray? How does this song reveal something that will deepen my faith? A worship service is a place where we set apart time to speak with God and hear him speak to us. I hope that reading these newsletter entries, you can see more of Him through words, visuals and songs.