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.

Small projects bear fruitful partnerships

Every week, the Reading Library established by FBCB is available to students, offering the texts required for the core curriculum at ABSW. This small project is truly a gift that will continue to bless generations of students!
Rev. Dr. Nancy Hall, Associate Professor of Ministry and Director of Contextual Education

In a blog posting last year I shared that in addition to my ABSW faculty position I am also the part-time pastor of First Baptist Church of Berkeley, located just four blocks from the seminary campus. ABSW and FBCB have enjoyed a long history of partnership, with the church having been a teaching congregation for ABSW ministers-in-training many times in our 122-year history.

Recently, FBC Berkeley was privileged to participate in another way of partnering with the seminary, and we are hoping that this kind of special support might be a model for other congregations to do something similar for our beloved school and its students.

In spring 2010 I was strongly encouraged by Rev. Dr. Marcia Patton (executive minister of the Evergreen Baptist Association — of which FBCB is a member congregation — and also a member of the ABSW Board of Trustees) to take part in a year-long training project, the Missional Church Learning Experience, sponsored by American Baptist Churches USA. With our congregation’s blessing, an MCLE team was formed and we attended four day-long training events in 2010-11, led by Rev. Glynis LaBarre, Transformation Strategist for the American Baptist Home Mission Societies. [Note: for more information about MCLE, go to: ]

Our FBCB team’s mission (along with teams from several other Bay Area ABC churches, all part of the Evergreen Baptist Association) was to find a need within our immediate community that would result in an opportunity to reach out and build a partnership with a local community group, for the greater good.

After taking time to contact and consider a number of possible community partners, our team found that the most fruitful conversations were taking place with members of the ABSW Student Council. The students of ABSW make great personal sacrifices in order to pursue a theological education. One example: with all of ABSW’s courses held at night, many students arrive from their full-time jobs or other weekday commitments just in time to sit down for class, often without having the chance for an evening meal. Another example: after paying his or her tuition bill each semester, a student may not have sufficient funds remaining to purchase all of the required textbooks for each class.

The seminary provides as much tuition assistance to students as possible. But how could FBC Berkeley reach out and form a partnership with the students, to help address some of their other needs? Here’s what FBCB was able to do, after several consultations with members of the ABSW Student Council:

— We purchased one copy of each required fall 2011 semester textbook for the ABSW “core” curriculum courses. These books were placed on the fourth floor of Hobart Hall, becoming an on-campus “reading library,” available to all students.

— We restocked the ABSW food pantry with non-perishable items that students can use on an emergency basis, when funds run low.

— We donated to the Student Council a used two-drawer file cabinet from the FBCB church office to help the council keep its papers organized.

— We purchased and served food for one of ABSW’s regular Monday evening community meals (attended by faculty and students), concluding with an ice cream social, on September 26.

— We still have funds available to help “seed” the Student Council’s evening snack bar fund-raising project, when it gets underway for the fall 2011 semester.

None of the above projects required a huge amount of time, effort, or money. In FBCB’s case, we were helped by a grant from the MCLE program. But any church could undertake the hosting of a Monday evening supper at ABSW, or could help expand the “reading library” with copies of textbooks for courses in upcoming semesters. [Intrigued? E-mail me:, and I’ll tell you how easy it is to support our ABSW students with outreach projects such as these!]

This opportunity to show American Baptist Seminary of the West how much we value its presence in our community brought our church and the school closer together. As is so often the case, we who undertake mission in the name of Jesus Christ are just as richly rewarded as those to whom we reach out.

So, here’s some good news from First Baptist Church of Berkeley and the campus of ABSW: small projects can bear fruitful partnerships! We give all praise to God for guiding us through this year of learning, praying, and planning. As a favorite gospel hymn proclaims: “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord.”

Sing of Justice, Sing of Peace!

As the 2010-11 academic year begins at ABSW, I am overjoyed to be teaching a new class, “Leading Music for Worship.” With the weekly Monday night ABSW chapel as the “lab” for our coursework, my ten students and I plan the congregational singing for each worship service on campus. Given the diversity of our seminary, we strive to reflect that same diversity in the music we choose.

Our chapel is open to all who come (6:00 pm, each Monday when classes are in session) and it is a special gathering each week of students, faculty, staff, and community. Chapel Director and Assistant Professor of Worship, Jennifer Davidson, plans marvelous occasions that proclaim the Word and celebrate God’s presence in our midst.

With summer just behind us, I’d like to share here about the highlight of my season, when over three hundred hymn lovers, writers, composers, educators, and scholars gathered for five days at Samford University, in Birmingham, Alabama. The annual conference of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada offered participants “opportunities to reflect on way that peacemaking and justice are interrelated.” Five hymn festivals, three major addresses, and over forty workshops gave voice to the longing for justice and freedom that has been – and continues to be – expressed through song, both in our land and across the globe.

Being in this historic environment, a central place in the struggle for US civil rights, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., came alive once again: “We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.” (Letter from a Birmingham jail, 1963). Our Tuesday hymn festival at the conference week was held in Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, a leading congregation during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. There, Dr. James Abbington led us in an evening of “Unsung Hymns by Black and Unknown Bards,” stirring music that spanned over 150 years. Other hymn festivals during the week included “Free at Last: Spiritual Songs of Liberation,” “Crazy in Alabama: Longing for Justice in Story and Song,” (led by folksinger Kate Campbell), and an evening of Sacred Harp singing.

Our 2010 Hymn Society conference also featured exceptional plenaries. The Bay Area’s own Rev. Daniel C. Damon (pastor, hymn writer, composer) delivered an outstanding address, “A Cry for Justice in Hymnody.” Dan and his wife, Eileen Johnson, surveyed twenty current North American hymnals, representing a variety of Christian faith traditions. They “read the topical indexes in each of these books, and selected topics which related to justice for children, creation, the elderly, the poor and oppressed (human rights), persons of other faith traditions (interfaith), the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community, persons with disabilities, and women.” The individual hymn texts listed under each topic were cataloged in a database.

With this research as the backdrop, Dan challenged the conference attendees by raising this central question: “How are we currently singing about justice in our churches?” [Note: I am now at work on editing the Autumn 2010 issue of THE HYMN, the quarterly journal of The Hymn Society. Dan Damon’s address will be the lead article in this upcoming issue.]

There are so many wonderful experiences from the annual conference I could share. But let me just mention how The Hymn Society nurtures young scholars. At every annual conference there are at least six and sometimes as many as ten Lovelace Scholars present. Through a program started by and named for Austin C. Lovelace, an outstanding American church musician and composer, scholars apply for grants to attend the annual summer conference. It is a delight to have these college and graduate-school age attendees in our midst. They are already doing significant work in their studies of sacred music and hymnody, at schools throughout the continent.

In the last two years, The Hymn Society also began a program called the Emerging Scholars Forum. Each spring students are invited to submit papers to the Hymn Society’s research director on topics related to hymnody and congregational music. A three-person committee (including myself) reads each paper and chooses the three top submissions. Those writers are then invited to attend the summer conference and to present a summary of their scholarship in a workshop setting. The winning paper is considered for publication in THE HYMN. I am happy to report that this summer’s Emerging Scholars — three young women — each had exceptional papers to offer.

I’d like to point you to an exciting website by one of this year’s Emerging Scholars, Hilary Donaldson. At, Hilary offers “thoughts on worship, congregational song, and the life of the church from an unapologetic twenty-something Canadian Presbyterian.”

When I witness the eagerness of my own ABSW students for the task of music planning and leading, and when I have the privilege of meeting and knowing young hymn scholars from across the continent, my heart is gladdened for the future of sacred music and hymnody. Being an ABSW professor, as well as being deeply involved with The Hymn Society (, gives me wonderful opportunities to live out the call that urges all of us to “sing of justice, sing of peace!”

-Dr. Nancy Hall

Hymns? In Berkeley??

In my previous posting (November 2009) I noted that hymn-singing is very much alive and well, not only at American Baptist Seminary of the West, but across the land. Nevertheless, at times I become concerned that hymns as a form of congregational music might be edging toward the endangered species list, if we are not careful to preserve them, as well as continue to create them.

The three hats I currently wear give me an interesting perspective for surveying the landscape of hymnody. First, I am an associate professor at our seminary and teach elective courses in congregational music. (Note: we welcome students to my 2010 summer course, June 14-18, “Planning Congregational Music.” It will meet from 6:00 to 9:30 pm, for five nights.) In addition to my elective courses, I am deeply involved in our ABSW Middler Colloquium, during which our MDiv students have a nine-month internship assignment in a church or other ministry setting. So, I do get some good insights about what the congregations served by our students are singing.

My second hat is as pastor of First Baptist Church of Berkeley, a 120-year-old congregation just four blocks from the ABSW campus. I was first called to FBCB in 1984, as minister of music, and have remained actively involved with the congregation for over twenty-six years, becoming pastor in June of 2009. More on my “pastor hat” in a moment!

The third hat I wear is as editor of THE HYMN, the quarterly journal of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada ( Through reading and editing potential articles for the journal and, particularly, by attending The Hymn Society’s marvelous annual conference each July (we’re meeting in Birmingham, Alabama this summer) I am privileged to have a window into congregational music across the continent, as well as to meet and become friends with many of the excellent hymn writers and composers of our day.

Still, I am quite aware that as the major form of sacred song, hymns have fallen out of fashion in many, many churches over the last two or three decades. Truly, “congregational song” is the more accurate term for the music we share together in worship, and the hymn is but one style and form. There is a wide range of music being played, sung, and listened to in weekly worship services in North America. We are blessed to have so much sacred music in our midst, which is truly a gift from God.

Nevertheless, I am unapologetically a lover of and evangelist for hymns. And I do worry that too many churches are not teaching and sharing hymns with their congregations, nor putting any form of printed music in front of their worshipers (let us not forget that the church has been the center of music education for at least 1,500 years!). Words on a screen do not teach us how to read music. But I’ll save that rant for another time… <grin>

As not only the pastor of FBC Berkeley, but as our church musician, I am constantly engaged in planning worship and choosing the music we will sing at 10:00 am on Sunday mornings. This past Sunday we gathered for a beautiful service that had no sermon but shared the Word of God through songs and hymns. Our focus was twofold and complimentary: congregational song to honor God’s creation (a nod toward the recently observed Earth Day, across our land) and several versions, spoken and sung, of Psalm 23 (which was the lectionary psalm for Sunday, April 25). I’d like to share a few highlights from our time of worship.

Following the Call to Worship, Psalm 100, we sang William Kethe’s 1561 paraphrase of that psalm, “All people that on earth do dwell,” to the familiar tune OLD HUNDREDTH, followed by ”From all that dwell below the skies” (Isaac Watts, 1719; to the tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN). After the Invocation, Psalm 117, we sang the doxology to the latter tune. Then, Psalm 8 was spoken responsively and underlined by singing together “Creating God, Your Fingers Trace” (text: Jeffrey Rowthorn, 1974 ; tune: TALLIS’ CANON).

Next we turned to Psalm 148, read in three sections, with a hymn following each part: “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (text: Rusty Edwards, 1993; tune: ST. COLUMBA), “God of the sparrow, God of the whale” (text: Jaroslav Vajda, 1983; tune: ROEDER, by Carl Schalk), and “For the fruit of all creation” (text: Fred Pratt Green, 1970; tune: AR HYD Y NOS, a Welsh melody).

In the middle section of the service, titled “God Is Our Shepherd,” we heard read three different translations or paraphrases of the beloved Psalm 23, and sang two hymns based on the text: “The Lord’s my shepherd; I’ll not want” and “My shepherd, you supply my need.” We also had a time of meditation during which we listened to Bobbie McFerrin’s stunning composition and four-part vocalization, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Two very new hymns brought our mini-festival to a joyous conclusion: “O beautiful Gaia” (text and tune: Carolyn McDade, 2006), and “Earth is full of wit and wisdom,” with a 2007 text by my young friend and Hymn Society colleague, Adam Tice (sung to the tune HOLY MANNA). What a glorious assembly of God’s creation Adam includes in his four stanzas: “the tiny roly poly,” “the tree-top-tall giraffe,” “gecko, monkey, chicken,” “sea slug, oak, and algae.” One cannot sing this hymn without smiling and chuckling every few moments.

No matter what you are singing in worship on Sunday morning or Saturday night, I hope you are making a joyful sound to God: the Creator, Sustainer, and Lover of all things!

Rev. Dr. Nancy E. Hall
Director of Contextual Education and Associate Professor of Ministry
American Baptist Seminary of the West

Hymns in Worship? Still Alive and Well!

“Do you think hymns have any future?” A colleague of mine was recently asked this question by a student. Depending on where one attends church, hymn singing may be a distant memory or a style of Christian music that some worshipers have never even encountered. So, it’s not particularly surprising to hear such a question. Nevertheless, as a self-confessed lover of hymns I would describe this form of sacred music as not only having a rich past and a vibrant present, but also a bright future.

“What?” you may ask, “Do you mean that all the hymn writers and composers didn’t pass away at least fifty or one hundred or two hundred years ago?” No, indeed! Many people are surprised to hear that new Christian hymns are constantly being written and published. As a longtime member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, and as the current editor of the Society’s quarterly journal, THE HYMN, I can assure you that hymns and hymnbooks are not a thing of the past, despite what you may have heard.

At American Baptist Seminary of the West’s weekly chapel worship, for instance, hymn-singing is alive and well. We use two different books, the African American Heritage Hymnal, (GIA Publications, Inc.), and the Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ, Chalice Press). As our seminary’s director of contextual education, I am in contact with the churches where our students and faculty serve and worship. Many of these congregations also continue to sing hymns regularly, and use hymnals.

Several of the major denominations in the United States and Canada have published new hymnals in the last two or three years, or have one in progress. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the latest hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was published in 2006. The Presbyterian Church USA is currently at work on their hymnal, due to be published in the next four years. Celebrating Grace, created for and by several groups of Baptists (I was privileged to serve on this hymnal’s committee), debuts in early 2010. We are in the midst of a roughly twenty-year cycle, as many of the mainline denominations work toward a thorough revision and updating of their pew hymnals.

But don’t these hymnals simply recycle well-known pieces from previous centuries? Really, how many books do we need that each include “Blessed Assurance,” or “A Mighty Fortress,” or “O for a Thousand Tongues”?

Good question!

It’s true, most hard-bound hymnals, which can contain 600 or more separate pieces, have a common “core” of hymns and songs. These have stood the test of time and proven their staying power in the worship and music life of congregations throughout the centuries and across the continent. But a good hymnal is also a living, breathing entity. It serves as a historical document of what Christians are singing during a given twenty-year period or so, whether in a particular denominational family or the larger church landscape. In addition, non-denominational hymnals and a vast number of smaller, paper-bound collections of hymns come into print by the dozens each year.

Editors and committees working on new hymnals are not just dealing with congregational song from past centuries. They actively seek newer texts and tunes that eloquently address life situations in today’s world. Consider these hymn titles:

“Touch the Earth Lightly,” by Shirley Erena Murray, a New Zealander, calls us to environmental stewardship.

“Till All the Jails Are Empty,” by Carl P. Daw. Jr., lifts up justice for the powerless and concludes each verse with “God has work for us to do.”

“As the Waters Rise around Us,” by Mary Louise Bringle, offers words of lament and hope, following the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Do hymns have a future? Absolutely! If the creative work of  the many hymn composers and writers I know and respect are any example, hymns will continue to be a vital component of congregational life and worship for many years to come.

Are you singing hymns at your church? Along with the best of contemporary praise songs and other forms of sacred music, hymns – old and new – can provide wonderful depth and breadth to worship, giving voice to both timeless truths and emerging revelations about our life in community and in the world, as the body of Christ.

Rev. Dr. Nancy E. Hall
Director of Contextual Education and Associate Professor of Ministry
American Baptist Seminary of the West

[Check out if you’d like to learn more about an organization for church musicians, clergy, scholars, poets, composers, and other hymn lovers with varied backgrounds and interests.]