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  • Confessions of an Idolatrous Worshipper
  • My Universal Song
  • Here I Am to Worship: Conflicting Authenticities in Contemporary Christian Congregational Singing. A Paper presented at Phenomenon of Singing VI (2007); a Symposium held at Memorial University, St. Johns NFL.
  • Dissertation Abstract
  • Five Theses

Confessions of an Idolatrous Worshipper

by Gordon Adnams

I sometimes pose awkward questions for myself. One that especially frustrates me is this: What if I lived in a very small, isolated prairie town that had one church and the only music they used was country gospel?

My first problem: on my rather eclectic list of music styles that I enjoy (the top) and am willing to tolerate (the bottom), country gospel is definitely not anywhere.

Now here's my second problem: how am I going to deal with my instinctive rejection of this congregation's song? I could just not attend and suffer the consequences both to my spiritual life and community relationships. I could attend and in my spirit wince, scream, cry, hold my nose during the singing. I might begrudgingly join the church and in time try to influence the leaders into using a broader repertoire that would include my songs. Or perhaps I could look deeper into my spiritual state and ask more penetrating questions. This option could be painful, but here goes. Do I rely on a certain style of song or singing to lead me closer to God? (I can't worship singing that music!) What is the basis of my Christian fellowship? (My tastes are so different from theirs.) Do I love my kind of songs more than God's people? (How can they like that stuff?)

Then there are these inconvenient gems of wisdom I have read:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as yourself. [1]

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. [2]

As soon as our loyalty to anything leads us to disobey God, we are in danger of making it an idol. [3]

Idolatry is the act of shaping something that we then allow to shape us.[4]

Has music moved from a place of offering to one of lordship, from servanthood to sovereignty?[5]

Hmm. Fortunately, living in a large urban center, I really don't have to be confronted by any of this. Why flog myself with hypotheticals? After all, the music in my church fits me just fine and if not, being a very well-trained consumer, I can always go 'church shopping' and find just the right one that sings my songs in just the right way that keeps me comfortable and satisfied.

Now that was easy!

[1] Luke 10:27

[2] Philippians 2:3, 4

[3] Guinness, O., & Seel, J. (Eds.). (1992). No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age. Chicago: Moody Press. p. 33

[4] Best, H.D. (2003). Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts. Downers Grove,

Ill. InterVarsity Press. p. 163

[5] Ibid. p. 166

My Universal Song

by Gordon Adnams

Surely people have every right to want to sing or hear music they like, whether in church or in heaven. Most Christians today would feel that there would be something wrong about asking anyone to attempt to glorify and enjoy God which the Psalms, Augustine, and Calvinist confessions all describe as our purpose while employing only music that seems alien to them, or inferior, or markedly inappropriate for worship. But how can people ever hope to discover music they could enjoy together in heaven, when it is increasingly difficult for them to find music they can enjoy together in a single church on earth? (Frank Burch Brown)

Why is singing together on a Sunday morning problematic for many Christians? The struggle is usually articulated as a matter of personal preference and taste; "I could really worship this morning - it was my kind of music" or "I really didn't like the songs today." Some churches resolve the difficulty by creating multiple services that cater to different musical preferences, but the vast majority of churches in Canada don't have enough people to sustain more than one worship service. Such congregations learn to live with diversity and typically include both choruses and songs from the hymnal in their Sunday singing. But, even in a "blended" environment, unease over music is still a fact for many worshippers and attributing this to conflicting musical tastes is a simple explanation that yields little insight.

We come to church as individuals who belong to a community, and, in gathering, our community is made visible. In a congregation, I am one worshipper among many; the "I's" form the "we", co-existing in time and space, creating an interdependent unity. This complex relationship is uniquely embodied when we sing together. Although we admit that worship singing should not be about me and my preferences, it is difficult to move away from the comfort of knowing what I like and liking what I know. "Me" and "we" are often at odds.

Congregational singing is the result of many choices: an individual, not the congregation, chooses songs for us to sing and all are expected to participate. But what happens when I don't like a song? Now the tension begins to mount. Do I sing? If I participate, how do I cope with my less-than-worshipful attitude? I feel unable to express myself in musical worship, frustrated because I can't identify with the words and/or the music. I resent the choice the song leader has made, and I feel somewhat alienated from the rest of the congregation. These kinds of reactions are framed in personal terms. I want to have the feeling that in singing a song, I am expressing myself and my relationship to God from the "heart" with a sense of honest, authentic and sincere worship; the voice of the "real me" singing to my Saviour God. This need often comes with a moral dimension: surely I have every right to sing songs of worship that resonate with me, that connect with my life.

But what if I were to think of songs as being connected to a sense of who WE are, together, in this place, before God? This approach opens many possibilities. Singing historic songs reminds us that we have inherited from the communion of saints, a legacy of riches that can take us deep into the roots of our Christian story. We can also sing the songs of living composers who write in the language of modern song, with its many interesting styles and flavours. Songs from other countries with a different musical vocabulary can remind us that we, in North America, are just a small part of God's global, multi-cultural church building activity.

With this in mind, should it matter so much that sometimes I don't like strange songs? No, it should not, but it takes work to break free from the insidious influence of the expressive individualism so rampant in our culture. As well, it may be a difficult challenge to remember the bigger picture of "us", the Church Universal, into which we have been baptised. And what about the kind of love God has shown to us and requires of us; self-giving, gracious? Somehow this has to make a difference in my attitude towards music that isn't "my kind of music." As I sing with the rest of the congregation on a Sunday morning, this may mean that I acknowledge the songs sung as our songs and not just means of self-expression; they are gifts to God from us, his church. There is no better way for a Community of the Redeemed to embody, proclaim and celebrate Christ, whose Kingdom is much greater than I or anyone can think or imagine.

"Here I Am To Worship": Conflicting Authenticities in Contemporary Christian Congregational Singing

Paper presented at Phenomenon of Singing VI (2007); a Symposium held at Memorial University, St. Johns NFL.


Over the past 10 to 15 years, the congregational singing of many western, white, Protestant Christians has undergone a significant shift. Once characterized by congregants holding hymnals, singing four part chorale structures or revivalist gospel songs accompanied by organ and/or piano, it is now probable that one will encounter worshippers standing in semi-darkness, reading projected texts of simple repetitive songs sung to music derived from popular styles, accompanied by guitars, keyboards and drums.

Using the writings of philosophers Charles Taylor and Stan Godlovitch and research interviews, this paper will explore conflicting concepts of authenticity enacted in contemporary Christian congregational singing. These arise from concerns for "performance authenticity" and "personal authenticity" deemed to be required for "really worshipping." Many of these notions are imbedded in popular culture and present an ongoing but largely unnoticed conundrum for worship.

Dissertation Abstract

Congregational singing in many Canadian evangelical churches has undergone a significant shift. Organs have been replaced by guitars and drums, hymnals are left in the rack in favour of text on a screen, hymns are out and compact pop-style worship songs are in. These changes have been welcomed by some worshippers but have caused consternation in others as local congregations have struggled with musical preferences and worship styles, a process that has often resulted in a "worship war." Some congregations have remained musically traditional; some wholly embrace the new Praise and Worship songs, while others offer separate services for each musical taste. As well, there are churches that have opted to use both traditional and contemporary songs in one service. This dissertation asks, what is the experience of congregational singers as they sing both traditional and contemporary worship songs in a stylistically blended worship service?

Using hermeneutic phenomenology, modes of being-in-song-in-singing are explored, together with a musical ethnography that examines the context of the singing: a Canadian congregation whose blended worship services have choruses accompanied by a guitar-based ensemble and hymns sung with an organ and piano. The phenomenological and ethnographic insights are subsequently discussed, using the paradigm of authenticity as articulated by philosopher Charles Taylor. The dissertation concludes that blended musical worship is a phenomenon that challenges individuals to examine their notions of authenticity in worship. If blended worship is to be sustained, the self-centered authenticity prevalent in popular culture and most clearly seen in the experience of those who prefer the contemporary style of worship singing, needs to shift to a more inclusive authenticity that encompasses what Taylor calls a "horizon of significance" outside the self. When singers accept the challenge to grow beyond expressive individualism, they may be able to value and embrace a diverse church community with its differences in musical preference.

Full dissertation is available on the sub-page in PDF format. See drop-down menu "Writing"

Five Theses

I complete the dissertation with five thesis statements that are not conclusions in the strict sense, but position statements (in the etymological Greek sense of the term “thesis”) that follow from the study.

1. The aberrant version of authenticity present in congregational singing, with its narrow focus on the self, needs be seriously evaluated by church leaders, especially those who lead and promote contemporary Praise and Worship singing. The arguments of Charles Taylor will not be sufficient for persuasive discussion as final authority is given by evangelicals to the scriptures. Therefore, many evangelical churches need to revisit the Great Commandments as given by Jesus Christ:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39, New International Version)

These commands are well applied to the context of today’s churches and worship practices by Viladesau [1]

The New Testament insistence that real love of God cannot exist without love of neighbor (1 Jn 4:20-21; cf. Jn 13:34; 15:12f., 17; Mt 25:31-46; Lk 10:25-37) redefines love in such a way that it surpasses mere eros toward God as the final Good…; it sees human love for God not as a simple drive toward happiness, conceived as self-fulfillment, but as a sharing in the divine way of being, which is self-giving love that is universal in extension. This kind of love demands a certain de-centering of the self that even appears as “loss” of self, “death” to self, in the realization of a higher, more total good. (p. 53)

2. A church that offers a musically blended service is uniquely positioned in North American society as one of few institutions where generations can regularly meet and mix, to work out and share a significant communal experience of spiritual, educational and cultural dimensions. This form of worship needs to be re-examined by church leaders as perhaps one of the best ways to publicly embody and demonstrate the selflessness that should be at the core Christian church life.

3. Evangelicals need to note the possibility that congregational singing as it has been historically valued and practised by Protestants may be lost to future generations, if present trends continue. As older members die, the majority congregational singers may be those who value personal authenticity over the collective. If this occurs, it is possible that congregational singing, as we now know it, will no longer be a premier event of a worship service but just one of many individualized options for how worshippers might respond to music in church. For some, “holy moshing” or other kinds of expressive movement may be a more powerful and personally significant act of worship than singing. Perhaps standing silently in the crowd, overwhelmed by the power of the live band and identifying with what they are singing will be seen by some as worship enough. In this scenario, only God, the ultimate audience, can know that the “congregational” voice is not silent but internal. If the worshipper does sing out loud, perhaps it will be acceptable that he is drowned out by the band – it is a safe and comfortable mode of being in what is understood as an overwhelming sonic-aesthetic-spiritual experience before God.

4. In churches where blended worship is practised and two clear stylistic distinctions of hymns and choruses are maintained and performed distinctly, the leadership is perpetuating the illusion that the borders of the styles are clear. The label “hymns” does not take into account the diversity of genres within the hymnal: for example, various kinds of hymns, gospel songs, spirituals, chants, carols, choruses, hymn tunes that are ethnic folk songs, rounds and so on. Nor does performing them with static authenticity – piano and organ – allow for the breadth of possibilities for rendering these with a more nuanced stylistic authenticity. Hymns can be treated in diverse ways: for example, the use of a variety of accompanying instruments suitable to the more closely defined genre, congregational singing as a concertato with a choir or small group, singing without any accompaniment, call and response, and so on.

Likewise, Worship Teams with their guitar-based approach have much potential for branching out from the repertoire found in the commercial Praise and Worship category into authentic presentations of other styles of song known within the larger popular culture and world-wide Christianity: for example, folk song forms from other Christian traditions, the material published by the Iona Community in Scotland, Taizé material from France, and even the choruses and folk tunes found in the hymnal.

5. Confining congregational song to only what is in the local hymnal and a sampling of the Praise and Worship repertoire is to stay within the present taste and expectations of the congregation – a musical authenticity based on the status quo. It also limits the potential of the communal expression and experience, not to mention the musical imagination of the leader-musicians who serve. If the categories of traditional and contemporary (although inadequately construed) were stretched, what is now locally authentic worship music would be forced to go beyond the realm of self-referential taste and narrow preferences of a multi-generational congregation to include a repertoire that acknowledges the multi-cultural and international nature of Christianity and its various worship expressions.

More broadly representative collections are found in many non-evangelical hymnals used in other Protestant denominations. However, evangelicals are rooted theologically in a personal experience of God that is reflected in their historic hymnody and present day congregational song. Therefore they will need to enlarge their practical theology and ecclesiology to authentically expand their songs of worship from the personal-local and intentionally embrace the collective and global experience that is Christ’s Church Universal and his Body Multicultural. And this picture of the church is increasingly becoming the reality in North America.

Blended worship is a philosophical and cultural paradigm that values and promotes the singing voice of people in worship and the celebration of musical difference. If it can maintain and develop its seminal principle of inclusiveness, multi-style intergenerational worship singing can be a significant way forward to embracing an increasingly multi-cultural society. Within its practices is great potential for experimentation, enabling Christian congregational singing to evolve in many directions. But whatever the future holds, there is no doubt that singing in Christian churches has been changed and will continue to change as cultural forces impact the worship practices of the church.

[1] Viladesau, R. (2000). Theology and the arts: Encountering God through music, art and rhetoric. New York: Paulist Press.

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