LITURGY & MUSIC

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Liturgy creates "thin" places, where the boundaries between ourselves, others, and God become more porous. Authentic worship has the power to bind us together in solidarity with one another, as we open ourselves more fully to the movement of God in our midst, both individually and collectively. The deep spirituality at the heart of the Christian liturgical tradition is meant to transform us at the level of mind, heart, and body. Music in worship helps to facilitate that transformation.

It is important to recognize that what is considered "traditional" or reverent within any particular church community depends on the social and cultural context. There can be no "one size fits all" approach to "sacred music." Worship music should be countercultural, but not merely for the sake of stylistic eccentricity, or to maintain some nostalgic idea of religious purity. Rather, Christian worship music should seek to be an authentic expression of Christian values, in conversation with both the musical associations of the local community and the larger historical traditions of the denomination, while also remaining open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and the potential for transformation, healing, and spiritual formation that can occur through new songs and styles of musical engagement.

Philosophy of Liturgy & Worship

Congregational Mediation

There has never been a time in the history of the church when Christians have not disagreed over questions relating to music and worship, including:

At nearly every point in history, both old and new styles of church music have been critiqued for precisely the same reasons people criticize "traditional" and "contemporary" music styles today. These ongoing tensions reflect a necessary process of discernment in the Body of Christ, as every generation seeks a renewed awareness of what it means to be Christ's hands and feet in the world, and how to best express our gratitude and praise to God. 

Conflicts often arise between clergy, music directors, and congregants about what kind of music is most appropriate or beneficial in the context of liturgy, usually due to different understandings about the nature of music or its role in worship. All parties involved tend to lean on personal and cultural values, rather than Christian values, in order to defend their positions.

As a layperson with training in both Western classical and popular/secular styles of music, ecumenical training in liturgical design from Union Theological Seminary, and undergraduate training in conflict negotiation and dialogue, I am uniquely positioned to offer mediation and practical support for churches struggling to articulate a shared theology of music and worship. Leaning on my extensive research about music in the history of the church, I can help ground conversations about liturgy and worship in Biblical, theological, and spiritual values that will reflect your faith community's culture and tradition.

  • instrumentation

  • lyrical content

  • harmony

  • rhythm

  • improvisation

  • presentational quality

  • level of congregational involvement

  • new variations of "traditional" hymns

  • incorporation of familiar tunes or "popular" styles

"Your historical diagnoses and concrete suggestions were very helpful in beginning to think through our contemporary Eucharist."

-Rev. Drew Harmon, Associate Rector
Saint Francis Episcopal Church

 

Writings on Music, Theology, and Worship

I spent four years researching theological aesthetics and the history of music in the church at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where I also had the benefit of learning about the Christian liturgical tradition from Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, AME, and Baptist faculty. My master's thesis examined the theology of music and art from a postmodern and postcolonial perspective, highlighting the religious underpinnings of modernity, and deconstructing contemporary cultural understandings of "secularism," "spirituality," and "the sacred." Follow the links below to read some of my writings on music in the church:

Finding God in the In-Between: Towards a Postmodern Theology of Music & Art

An Ascetic Aesthetic: St. John Chrysostom on the Discernment of Beauty in Music

Early Church Music and the Songs of Devils

The Musical Theology of Hildegard of Bingen & Martin Luther: A Comparison

Additional Resources

 

Special Liturgies & Worship Services

I am grateful to have participated in a number of creative worship experiences and experiments throughout the country, and I have also developed a number of special liturgies and worship services for particular liturgical seasons, spiritual themes, Scripture readings, and pastoral needs. Below are descriptions of some of the unique worship services and liturgies I have designed, which can be adapted for a variety of contexts. 

Holy Week 2020: Spiritual Resource Guide

Holy Eucharist in the Celtic Tradition 

Improvisational Worship for Holy Monday

Evening Prayer Service (Vespers) for Ordinary Time

Blue Christmas: A Solstice Service of Healing and Hope

Contemplative Morning Prayer Service

Music That Makes Community & "Paperless Singing"

www.musicthatmakescommunity.org

I spent several years training with this ecumenical organization that promotes the practice of "paperless" worship music and singing. You can read more about paperless singing on my Worship page.

The Contemplative Society & "Songs of Presence"

www.contemplative.org

The Contemplative Society, advised and led by Cynthia Bourgeault, is a group out of British Columbia that teaches and composes new contemplative chants, sometimes called "Songs of Presence." 

Convergence Music Project

www.convergencemp.com

The Convergence Music Project is a resource for churches who are looking for new, "contemporary"-style worship music, but with more inclusive language and theology.

Consulting Services

In addition to leading worship music and offering workshops for churches on music, singing, and chant, I also work with church leaders who are seeking new ways to transform how their congregations experience worship.

 

Do you want to:

  • encourage greater participation and singing in your congregation?

  • expand your congregation's musical repertoire beyond "traditional" and "contemporary"? 

  • integrate more diverse music traditions or blend new styles into an existing liturgical framework? 

  • develop and articulate a shared vision for your church's musical and aesthetic values?

  • learn about ways to enliven or deepen your worship experience?

  • explore what it might mean for your church to "decolonize" its musical and aesthetic values?

I also work with clergy one-on-one, offering: 

  • private lessons on liturgical chant

  • support and guidance for finding the right music director

  • assistance with developing special liturgies and worship services

  • thinking through various theological and pastoral approaches to song selection

One of the most complex issues faced by the church today is the question of how we reconcile our faith with the history of European colonization and the widespread human oppression that occurred under the guise of Christianity from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Most churches nowadays outsource the training of their musicians and music directors to academic institutions of Western art music, which by and large still teach a curriculum that was developed in the late nineteenth century to promote a Eurocentric canon and the idea of "Western" cultural superiority over "primitive" others. Sadly, these attitudes and assumptions still persist in many churches today. 

 

Malcolm du Plessis of the Common Hymnal project points out the problem this poses for Christian worship: 

"Decolonizing" Worship

"Incarnation is basically 'content meeting form.' The Gospel is not an ethereal, conceptual message. It is an enfleshed reality. We are not robotic copycats of a message. We are the message. Therefore, form matters. Therefore, our worship music should reflect our cultures and, potentially, the mishmash of cultures that have responded to the Gospel."

Decolonization is not about getting rid of church organs, or abandoning "traditional" choral hymns in order to replace them with banjos and African American spirituals. In many cases, this would only serve to replicate old colonial patterns of objectification and appropriation. Deep discernment is needed in order to determine what "decolonization" looks like within any particular worshipping community. For churches who are interested in beginning this work, I highly recommend the following two articles as starting point for conversation about some of the underlying values embedded in Western classical music:

 
 
 
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©2021 by Kristen Leigh Mitchell