The Shape of Music in Worship

HymnodyRev. Dr. Nancy Hall, Associate Professor of Ministry and Director of Contextual Education

We are now well into the 2013 spring semester at ABSW and the seminary is filled with students taking an array of both core curriculum and elective classes. My course, “How Hymns Shape Worship and Faith,” has students from five GTU schools as well as ABSW. In this seminar-style course we are studying the history of hymnody in Christian worship, various forms and styles of hymns, current directions in new hymns, and how the texts of our congregational song serve as a foundation for Christian education and corporate theology. Among other assignments, each student will give a class presentation and paper of a teaching event built on hymns.

Students in my class are using as a textbook A Survey of Christian Hymnody, by David W. Music and Milburn Price, and Somebody’s Calling My Name, by Wyatt Tee Walker. The history of sacred music has always included some form of “the people’s song,” although there were eras when singing praise to God became more the domain of priests and professional musicians. Happily, the congregation’s voice has never been completely stilled, and the post-Reformation era saw a burgeoning of hymnody that has been flourishing for almost 500 years.

Questions continue to be raised about the style and content of texts and tunes — this is nothing new in the world of church music. In our class we’re reading and giving reviews of articles concerned with how music is shaping current worship practices and influencing people’s experience of the Divine. These articles give us the opportunity to hear what theologians, musicians, and church leaders are observing about trends in congregational song.

The heart of our time together, however, is the students’ weekly assignment to bring a hymn or song of their choosing to class and share a brief reflection about what the lyrics and the music mean to them, along with addressing these questions: “What is the theological message this hymn or song offers? How would you exegete this text?”

Over our semester together, we will sing dozens of hymns. Some will be hundreds of years old. Some will have been written very recently. My hope is that through our study and our sharing all of us — students and professor alike — will become more knowledgeable, more discerning, and more creative as leaders and planners of music in worship.

My friend Jacque B. Jones, president-elect of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada ( wrote a wonderful text that I see as descriptive of my course and my mission to teach seminary students about our rich and ever-evolving body of congregational song. Two lines from Jacque’s hymn:

God, whose song became creation, touch our lips with burning coals.

Free our hearts to sing your praises, while your music shapes our souls.

©2010 GIA Publications, Inc.

The “people’s song” is one of God’s great gifts to the church and to humanity. We are celebrating that gift this spring, at ABSW.

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