When I was a child, one of my favorite television programs was Sesame Street. In fact, to this day, I enjoy the opportunity to watch Sesame Street, so I find excuses to watch when I can. I enjoy the cartoons, the humor, the valuable lessons, and of course, the Muppets. Sesame Street taught me my first few words in Spanish and it taught me how to read some important words in English. I remember being quite young and telling my mom, “That sign says exit!” to the amazement of other people nearby. I learned it on the Street! Sesame Street, that is. In addition to lessons about math, spelling, language, geography, culture, and more, Sesame Street also teaches music. Many lessons are taught with a catchy jingle or repeating chorus, and the earworms plant themselves firmly, leaving their mark on their target. Kids remember what they’re taught. From the first season of Sesame Street in 1969 until stepping aside in 2016, a man named Bob McGrath was a regular human character on Sesame Street. His character, called Bob Johnson, appeared in nearly every episode during that run. A gifted tenor, Bob taught piano and singing to the kids on Sesame Street. Bob impacted my life greatly because of his gentle touch with kids and his kind demeanor. When I think of Bob McGrath, my mind immediately goes to something he sang that was also performed by the Carpenters. It’s a song that comes in handy in life and in liturgy. In the song called Sing, Bob told us not to worry if it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing, sing a song.
Music has a long history in Christian worship. It serves a different purpose today than it did years ago. Chanting during worship, for instance, used to serve as a means for amplifying the worship leader’s voice. Everything in the service was chanted. The dialogue between the priest and the people was chanted, the collects were chanted, the psalms were chanted, the prayers were chanted. The entire worship service was chanted. In fact, our hymnals still have settings that allow us to chant our entire services today! Many places don’t chant everything that way these days, but some churches incorporate more chant than others. It is perhaps more common in cathedrals and at choir schools to feature an array of sung services. These might include sung morning and evening prayer, sung Holy Communion, and sung compline. In some cathedrals the congregation, the choir, and the presider all take turns singing back and forth in prayer. In older church layouts, there is even “choir-style seating”, in which two sections of the choir face one another. When the psalms are prayed antiphonally, each section sings either a half or whole verse of the psalm, and the other section responds. With modern amplification systems, chanting no longer serves the purpose it once did. Now it is used to enhance worship, and some communities find it to be of bigger value than others.
Hymnody in worship goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Music enhanced worshippers’ experience and brought them closer to God. As Augustine of Hippo may have said, when we sing, we pray twice. English language hymns have been around in the Protestant denominations for over 500 years. The word Protestant in this sense refers to denominations that are not in communion with the Church of Rome. Anglicanism is usually classified as a “mainline Protestant denomination” even though it doesn’t share everything in common with Protestant or reformed theology. Because Anglican churches started worshipping in English at the time of the reformation in the 1600s, many of the same hymns have been sung in churches since that time. Others have been written since then.
The word hymn comes from the Greek word, hymnos, which means a song of praise. There are different understandings of what constitutes a hymn, but usually a hymn is poetic and metrical. It is addressed to God and sung by the congregation, often in four-part harmony. A praise song is a little different and is not necessarily considered a hymn. A praise song is often more similar to a modern pop song. They’re not exactly the same, but they’re not completely different, either. Some people are much more concerned than others about the differences between hymns and other kinds of praise songs. I say they both have their place in worship and if they enhance your spiritual life, then either can be perfectly good and valid. Hymns and praise songs tell the stories from scripture, they praise God, and they teach theology. They incorporate more of the human body into worship and require active participation. When we use more of our selves in worship, we can have a richer experience.
Like Bob taught kids for years on Sesame Street, music is impactful in our lives. When we sing, we can express our emotions. We also can effectively evoke emotional responses from others around us. This is one of the reasons that music is so important during worship. Our liturgical calendar is designed to have different emotional highs and lows, just like our human lives do. When we sing hymns in worship, we can get a fuller picture of the emotions that match the day or the season we’re observing. I am an advocate for singing during worship. I can appreciate classical hymns and I can appreciate more modern praise music. The music I grew up singing were the folk-type hymns that were written in the 70s and 80s by American Roman Catholic composers. These hymns were written because Roman Catholic worship did not feature the use of the vernacular language until after Vatican II in the 1960s. English language music was needed to replace the more customary Latin hymns that had been used for centuries. My heart is still warmed when one of the hymns from my childhood is used in worship. Not everyone appreciates these hymns, but music can be a personal expression. We each can have different tastes. Hopefully a congregation can reach some kind of a consensus as to the kind of music that accurately expresses its identity.
Sometimes when I encourage participation in church music, I am met with pushback. People tell me they “can’t sing” or “don’t sing well”. It is true that not everyone has the same musical abilities. But it is also true that people don’t like to make themselves vulnerable through music. Singing exposes a piece of our souls. In some ways it’s like being naked! Musicians like Bob on Sesame Street taught that even kids who don’t sing well don’t need to be embarrassed by their singing abilities. It would be wonderful to remove the shame some people feel when they find themselves in a situation where they’re expected to sing. Some people like to sing alone, but not in public. Like Buddy says on the movie Elf, “If you can sing alone, you can sing in front of other people. There’s no difference.” The song Sing reminds us to sing even if we don’t feel like we can. If we can match a pitch, we can sing. Louder voices can help carry softer voices, but there needs to be enough voices singing for this to happen.
I am inviting you to consider this as an invitation to discern your musical abilities and help lead worship by singing in one of our choirs. Are you called to sing in one of our choirs at St. John’s? As you know, we have a Praise Band that sings modern praise music, we have the Joyful Noise Choir, which leads us in middle-of-the-road music (some older hymns and some newer ones), and we have our chancel choir, which leads us in hymns with a more traditional sound. Each expression of our church music is important and valid, and they demonstrate a piece of our identity as a parish. We can always use more voices in each of our choirs. As of late, we have not had many voices in our chancel choir and that’s something I would love to see change. Singing is leading worship. Think of it like the presider passing the baton to the choir when it’s time to sing. For that segment of worship, the choir leads us. That means it isn’t a performance. It’s worship leading. It means we need people who can lead us. It means we need people who are committed to enhancing worship. It means we need people to show up to services and rehearsals so that the music can be rich and whole. We want to put our hearts and souls into it because it adds to our expression of glorifying God. If you would like to sing with one of our choirs, be in contact with me or with our music leaders, Hyeri and Jimmy. Just like Bob and Buddy the Elf and the Carpenters, we want you to sing, sing a song. Let’s sing together to praise our Lord.