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
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, and for precisely the same reasons people criticize "traditional" and "contemporary" music styles today! In some ways, these ongoing tensions reflect a necessary process of discernment, as each new generation seeks a renewed focus and awareness of what it means to be Christ's hands and feet in the world, and how best to express our gratitude and praise.
Conflicts often also 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 differing understandings about the nature of music and 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 Western classical, folk, and popular/secular musical styles, ecumenical training in liturgical design and worship from Union Theological Seminary, and undergraduate training in dialogue and conflict negotiation, I am in a unique position to offer nuanced, practical support and mediation 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 reflect your community's culture and faith tradition.
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, worship, and the history of church music 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 covertly 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
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 some examples 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"
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"
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
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.
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 Christian faith with the history of European colonization and the reality of widespread oppression that occurred under the guise of Christianity from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries. Since most churches nowadays outsource the training of their musicians and music directors to the academic institutions of Western art music, they are influenced by and large by a music education curriculum that was developed in the late nineteenth century specifically to promote a Eurocentric canon, and the idea of "Western" superiority over "primitive" cultural others. As a result, these attitudes and assumptions still persist in many churches today.
Malcolm du Plessis of the Common Hymnal project points to the problem this poses for Christian 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 all "traditional" choral hymns in order to replace them with guitars, banjos, or African American spirituals. In many cases, this would only replicate colonial patterns of objectification and appropriation. Deep discernment is needed in order to determine what "decolonization" looks like within a particular worshipping community. For churches who are interested in beginning this work, I highly recommend the following two articles as a starting point for conversation about some of the underlying values embedded in Western music education:
Hal Taussig, In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.
Dennis Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Lawrence Farley, Let Us Attend: A Journey Through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, Munster, IN: Conciliar Press, 2007. (Orthodox)
Aiden Kavanaugh, Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style, Pueblo, CO: Pueblo Books, 1990. (Roman Catholic)
James Farwell, The Liturgy Explained, Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2013. (Episcopal)
Deborah Sokolove, Performing the Gospel: Exploring the Borderland of Worship, Entertainment, and the Arts, Eugene: Cascade, 2019.