I’ve played music since I can remember. I grew up at the piano, playing by ear songs I heard on the radio at age 4. Some of my fondest memories are of family and community music-making; my parents host a Christmas caroling-party each year, where we carol to neighbors and return to their house for hours of singing and playing. During college, I would come home and we would have Taize/hymn singing. My mom and I play duets together for fun. If you ever meet my grandmother, she has trouble going an entire conversation with making reference to some old hymn or bluegrass song.
Being musically inclined and having spent time in various denominations, I’ve absorbed the hymn traditions of many parts of the church–African American spirituals, Mennonite hymns, Methodist hymns, Gregorian chant, Baptist hymns, contemporary “worship” songs, Lutheran Hymns, Taize chant, and through Common Prayer and time at the Rutba House, the songs original to Christian communities all over the world.
I think one of the best thing Christian communities can commit to doing is singing together. If singing isn’t part of your common prayer practice, I highly suggest incorporating it. I also sincerely suggest learning new songs from traditions other than your own–there’s something about singing that connects to all those who have sung before, similar to praying the Our Father or any number of other prayers. We need to sing the songs of other traditions in order that we may more fully become part of the family of God–by singing, we bring those traditions into our own.
One of the obstacles I’ve observed in churches and intentional Christian communities alike is how few people can read music. It’s quite hard to learn new songs on your own if you can’t read music. Many people can pick up a new song after hearing it a few times, but resources like Common Prayer (which contains 50 songs from communities around the world, many of them new I’m sure to users of the book) aren’t fully being tapped by people who don’t read music. I find it sad how many people I meet who use Common Prayer every day and yet when they get to the song in the daily morning office, they skip it or inevitably sing any song they know. There’s nothing wrong with singing another song instead, of course, but a big blessing of Common Prayer is mixing traditions and teaching all of us something new.
(I digress for a moment to express my sadness at how fewer and fewer children will grow up unable to read music. For many people, church is where they learned to read music, or at least follow a melody line. Whether it was in choir or handbells or just using the church hymnal, for many Christians until recently, there was some element of music reading going on in church. With more and more churches using powerpoint to project simply the words, our churches are inevitably contributing to the growing musical ignorance of American culture. I can’t help but recall a joke I heard once at a Christian concert. A man was visiting a church where his brother was pastor. During the service, all the hymns were projected on in front and there were no hymnals. Afterward, the pastor was talking to his brother and asked how he liked the service. The brother replied, “Don’t worry, one day you’ll have enough money so that everyone can have their own copy of the words.” Though I don’t think words on the screen are so bad, the point for me is that church should be a place where music is the lifeblood of the congregation).
I advocate for as much singing of various traditions as possible. And I hearby offer my services to come to any community and spend time teaching people songs from Common Prayer and also just how to incorporate music more into life. I can also teach the basics of music to help people be able to learn new music on their own. I believe music is close to the character of God that we should be doing all we can to participate in it. Some of the most soulful music we have in our culture is from impoverished or enslaved groups who had only God to look to for provision. When we sing that music, we learn their story and become a part of it.
I pray for the church to live music this way.