Music that makes community

by David Bjorlin

Of all the tired debates of the so-called worship wars over the past 30 years, one that I have grown particularly exhausted with is the hymnal vs. screen debate. Each side trots out the usual arguments. For hymnal supporters, it’s the ephemeral nature of projected words, the lack of musical notation for part-singing, and the aesthetic drawbacks of a screen in a sanctuary. Conversely, screen supporters note that hymnals don’t allow the use of your hands while singing, present unfamiliar songs to a public who on the whole doesn’t read music, and implies a closed canon of songs. As with most of these arguments, both sides have merit and both tend to overstate their case.

One way that people are attempting to overcome this false dichotomy is through experimenting with church music that uses neither screen nor hymnal. In 2005, the pastors from the liturgically-innovative St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco wondered if they could create music that could be sung in worship that would not only forgo both screen or hymnal, but would also be sung acapella. The short, cyclical songs and the style of teaching they developed out of these first gatherings morphed into the nonprofit organization Music that Makes Community (MMC). As they note on their website (all quotes below are from www.musicthatmakescommunity.org), their goal is to “help people connect and learn through singing” by “developing and teaching a practice of paperless song leading grounded in a theology of welcome and generosity.”

These paperless (and screenless) songs at least begin to help overcome many of the common divides in worship. They use neither screen nor hymnal (though they are quite explicit that they are not “anti” either form), arguing that “[s]inging without books or screens is a relational and human way to sing, it builds community and strengthens our ability to sing together in any context by emphasizing listening and awareness.” They also do not pick between drums, synth pads, and guitar or the organ, instead choosing to sing without accompaniment to remind the church that the human voice is the primal center of our song. Finally, in the most-dreaded category — contemporary vs. traditional — MMC uses ancient songs, songs from outside Western traditions, and songs written on the spot in workshops across the country to help break down this unhelpful dualism.

What is more, MMC believes, as the name implies, that paperless singing without instruments helps form a particular kind of community. Singing a new song without instrumentation or music — especially ones that often involve several parts or is sung in a round — is at its core a vulnerable process for everyone involved. The leader must trust her voice and risk singing alone, and even messing up alone (starting the song too high or too low, for example), to teach the song to the community. The community must learn to trust the person guiding them, listen well, show generosity to those around them, and then trust one another enough to join their voice to the song. These core skills necessary for paperless song — vulnerability, generosity, listening, forgiveness, collaboration — are some of the very virtues that are required for community. As they sum up, “Within this bond of solidarity, we form our character as people: our leaders imitate Christ and we imitate our leaders, and in the process we move towards generosity, freedom and spontaneity, both in our liturgies and in our lives. To paraphrase Simone Weil, ‘absolute attention is prayer.’ We seek to engage our whole mental, physical and spiritual attention in worship. Our fully engaged presence is our best gift to one another and to God.”

Having begun to lead some of these songs at both my local church and seminary, I can attest to both the challenge and joys of the process. It often takes more preparatory work on the part of the leader because they must feel comfortable teaching the song themselves without the aid of words or music. The style of leading — which includes indicating the rise or fall of pitch with your hand — can feel uncomfortable or even silly at first, though it is much more helpful to the average singer than the leader keeping time. However, I have also experienced the incredible power of a community stripping away every instrument, every tool, every preconceived notion about what is and is not appropriate church music and raising their voice together in song. Perhaps this also helps us strip away all the other preconceptions about each other and moves us a little closer to true community. May it be so!

For a few examples of MMC songs and teaching style, see the following links: