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The Reason Why We Sing


I choose and play worship songs for a living. Every year I listen to hundreds of new songs – weighing and sifting those that I hope and pray will be both a blessing and faith forming for my congregation – the community of Hope College. Most of this is a joy – achieving and arranging being two of my top StrengthQuest talents! So it has been a particular joy to meditate on a new book by Regis College professor Heather Josselyn-Cranson, The Reason Why We Sing. The title is a bit of a misnomer because the book is a potluck feast sampling the many reasons that we sing in church. Josselyn-Cranson presents an overview of the major song traditions in the North American church, presenting a six-course meal of the embarrassment of riches we have access to in the church-music diet of the 21st century. This book is a needed dietary corrective to much of the prevailing discourse regarding church music; even as most of the worship wars have subsided, American churches still tend to be monolithic in their spiritual-singing choices. This shouldn’t be! We have access to a heavenly banquet store of ingredients, spices and stocks that each reflect a different taste of worship in the kingdom.

American churches still tend to be monolithic in their spiritual-singing choices.

In the introduction, the author lays out two helpful menus that guide how many churches think about and choose their music. First, gleaning from Lester Ruth, Josselyn-Cranson notes that most communities choose worship songs guided by either the content of “personal-story” or “cosmic-story.” Churches tend to lean toward one or the other – songs focused around the stories and struggles of the worshippers or focused around the narratives of God’s saving actions through human history. Second, songs work according to the worship structure of their communities – which reveals how a congregation believes God’s presence is felt/understood – whether in the music and prayer time, through the Word and preaching or through the sacraments.

In eight highly readable chapters, Josselyn-Cranson covers six of the primary church-music approaches in North America to create “a taxonomy of musical function in worship.” This taxonomy explores six particular functions of music:

  1. Music as catechesis for understanding the Christian faith as found in the Catholic tradition.
  2. Music as the “vehicle for congregational response” as expressed in the hymn-singing tradition.
  3. The use of music as “testimonial function,” as expressed in the white gospel tradition that arose in the 19th century.
  4. Music used doxologically, as expressed in the praise and  worship of the contemporary church.
  5. Music as sung spiritual discipline, or “cantio divina,” through the surprising comparison of Taize chant and the improvisatory choruses of the charismatic tradition.
  6. Finally, the spirituals and gospel songs of the African-American tradition, which use music to speak truth through lament and protest.

Each chapter provides both positive analysis and selective critiques of each approach when taken exclusively. There are also extremely helpful recommendations for how and where to include songs from each tradition for practitioners that are unfamiliar with a particular stream.

Here are a few musical examples that the author includes from each chapter:

  • Music as catechesis – sung versions of the Lord’s Prayer, “Sanctus,” “Agnus Dei,” “Gloria Patri.”
  • Hymn tradition – “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Joy to the World (Psalm 98),” “A Mighty Fortress.”
  • White Gospel tradition  – “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” “I Surrender All, Blessed Assurance,” “Take Your Burden to the Lord.”
  • Praise and worship – “Revelation Song,” “Mighty to Save,” “How Great is Our God,” “Shout to the Lord.”
  • Taize and charismatic traditions – “In the Lord Rejoicing,” “Bless the Lord, My Soul – Spirit Song,” “I Am a Friend of God.”
  • African American spirituals – “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” “There is a Balm,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Stand by Me.”

Every pastor, church-music director and worship leader would benefit greatly from this book, which helps to expand the palette and language for discussing church music as a whole. In general it would benefit the contemporary worship leader more because Josselyn-Cranson shows a greater depth of knowledge and analysis of traditional musical, but she links these in conversation with themes, examples and illustrations from the contemporary music world that will be familiar to the modern worship leader. The book is full of exploratory gems such as her comparison of Taize and charismatic worship in light of the “lectio divina” tradition and her description of the unique features of African American spirituals. For only 186 pages, the book packs a punch that every church musician’s schedule will appreciate. The Reason Why We Sing also can be read in conversation with C. Michael Hawn’s, New Songs of Celebration Render: Congregational Song in the 21st Century (Gia Publications, 2015).

Bruce Benedict is chaplain of worship arts at Hope College, Holland, Michigan.