Teach Your Congregation to Sing

There are times when sitting in a sanctuary or community center or reissued movie theater on a Sunday morning is nothing less than an affront to the ears. All around us our brothers and sisters mumble and slur their way through the songs, while everyone tries to keep from being distracted. There is a lack of quality singing in churches each week. So do we need to give our congregations singing lessons? That would be hilarious! By quality singing, I don’t mean vocal excellence. What they need is not singing lessons but rather the permission to sing. Just like in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “Happy Birthday,” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” If your church doesn’t sing it’s probably because of one of two things: either they haven’t been invited to sing or the obstacles to their singing have not been removed. I have identified four things that hinder congregational participation.

4 Dysfunctions of Congregational Singing:

1. Not realizing the congregation is present

Great communicators, actors, comedians, professional singers and yes, great pastors are aware that there are actually people in the room. As in any gathering the crowd must feel welcomed and comfortable. So is the case with congregational worship. An intentional, warm welcome is important. I am not saying that a “greeting” has to be the opening of the worship experience but a nice smile goes a long way, then clear direction as to who is singing and who isn’t. Though the trend is not to over direct people, clear direction as to sitting and standing is surprisingly important. Corporate reading of Scripture is also an important activity toward congregational participation.

Note: It’s my opinion that in an intergenerational congregational context, that 12 minutes is a good amount of time for people to stand. Standing longer than that will affect the concentration level for many people. In a crowd filled with younger age demographic this really doesn’t matter.

2. Vanilla song choices
The process of finding great songs is extremely important. Oh it’s easy to follow the normal path to find songs, but to find great songs that are congregational in their appeal is an entirely different story. I have a friend who is a photographer with National Geographic and he told me that to get 30 pictures for a National Geographic article, he took 14,000 pictures. Finding great songs requires a lot of time. The lesson here is, don’t settle on the easiest way to find good songs. Recruit people to help you and take the time to find great songs. As well, do not just depend on your own personal tastes in choosing songs. You will be fooled.

3. Bad key choices
Really? Why does this matter? Well it doesn’t matter at a rock concert or in an auditorium filled with 18 to 35 year olds, but church has wider age span. So the rule of thumb is that men sing higher than women and women sing lower than men. Crazy? Oh but it’s true. Just take note the next time a female is leading worship. The songs will, for the most part be in keys that are more singable for the intergenerational congregation. Most male worship leaders, in order to sing more comfortably put songs a higher range. When this happens, the congregation often is left behind. This rule does not apply for well-known worship artist concerts. In this case everybody in the room knows all the songs and can sing them in any key. Be intentional about key choices for your congregation.

4. Music that is too “busy”
In a contemporary worship band there is a tendency for everyone in the band to play too many notes at the same time. This can be helped by “thinning out” the arrangement. Change the parts that band member plays from verse to verse, chorus to chorus. Add things, take things out. Be creative with this. But most of all avoid the “sameness.” This takes a lot of thought and experimentation, so most of these ideas need to come prior to the rehearsal. But the congregation needs to hear themselves sing. And the congregation needs to be inspired by the music. Just like in the movies, music embellishes the moment. But playing “too busy” causes numbness, and boredom sets in. As the jazz legend said, “It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”

Theologian, John Calvin says, “singing subdues the fallen heart and retrains wayward affections. St. Augustine says, “Singing is praying. When one sings one prays twice. While singing in the front of the Lord, we are in touch with the deepest center of our heart.”

Col: 3:16
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

How to Avoid Burnout – Part 2

Are you feeling: Stressed? Overworked? Under appreciated? Disconnected? Overwhelemed? Uncared for? Unloved? These are some of the signs of burnout. Burnout can occur when we regularly exceed our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities in our ministries. Combating burnout can take the shape of an extended vacation or even a new job. But to faithfully live on a daily basis in the ministries that God has given us, we need to focus on smaller, well planned, intentional, steps that both protect our current well being and, at the same time, stretch our capacities for new growth. Each of these smaller plans work integrate with each other to build an overall plan for passion, energy, and peace, in your current ministry environment.

Planning to Plan

Renewing the Joy of Planning

Do you remember the excitement of looking for the perfect song for a worship service and then finding it? Do you remember the joy when a service is finished and the people have both participated and responded? Leaders struggling with burnout will often say that while those feelings about planning may have been true back in the day, now planning feels like drudgery; simply going through the motions. This can be especially true for those who have to plan alone. What is already a difficult task becomes monumental when faced alone, week after week. How can we move from burnout to a return to joy in the planning of worship? Here are some things that church leaders across the country find helpful and hopefully you will too.

Pray to Plan

Don’t just sit down at a desk or computer (or coffee shop) and start planning cold. Before you try to plan, spend some time in God’s word. Have a conversation with God about what you hope to bring to the worship at your church. Ask for the help and inspiration of God’s Spirit before you ever try to select something for the service. God will be there when you are in need and you will be able to share joy when God’s will for worship is revealed in your planning.

Spend Time Listening

A great teacher and worship leader I know has said many times that we don’t listen enough. Listening first can bring inspiration in our planning. Worship Leaders, spend time actively listening to music: both new and old. If you are pastor, listen to the sermons of other pastors. Pay attention to both content and style of delivery and see if you can learn something new. Listen and watch worship services in other churches, but resist comparing your church to theirs! Talented leaders can look to other for inspiration and ideas not copying and envy.

Stop Swinging for the Fences Every Sunday

We all want to do well in our planning. But constantly trying to hit home runs quickly drains your resources, exhausts you, and frankly exhausts your congregation. Sure, it is great when one of the services we plan meets and exceeds expectations. But solid, consistent worship services with the occasional “spectacular” something extra is plenty. Give yourself and your planning a break!

Find Someone to Listen

Lastly, there is no reason to go this alone. You are surrounded by churches that have someone with the same responsibility as you who is probably feeling the same stress as you and can relate to you. Works to meet other’s in your area of ministry and get to know them. You will end up helping each other.

Burnout from planning stress is common. Expectations can be very high from leadership, congregations and from your own goals for yourself. Finding ways to give yourself a break, creatively, emotionally and spiritually, is essential to either avoid, or work through, burnout.  I believe planning burnout is not inevitable and that it can be overcome. I hope these tips help you out. If you need specific help with one or more areas or you can’t find someone to talk to, just contact me. We are all in this together.

Dr. Craig Gilbert, a consultant and coach fondly known as The Worship Doctor, is the founder of Purposed Heart Ministries, a worship renewal and education program for all churches. Craig 25 years as a music and worship minister working with choirs, bands, and various artistic groups while leading and designing worship in churches of all sizes and styles. Now he spends his time helping churches across the country imagine what worship could and should be in their local context and then helps them get there! Click HERE to learn more!

Worship Leader as Storyteller

One of the unsung joys of leading worship is when a church member approaches you after a service and announces, “I just learned the story behind that hymn we sang today!” The hymn may have been “It Is Well with My Soul,” “Blessed Assurance,” “Amazing Grace,” or one of a hundred others, but the point is that it has acquired a new meaning for this particular worshiper.

The story behind a hymn’s composition enhances its meaning for us; we are taken more fully into the poetry of the devotional art. Knowing this human tendency, what does it tell us about hymns, in particular, and worship in general?

The first thing that it tells us is that worship comes out of a specific context: the songwriters, their circumstances and personalities, and the time and culture in which they lived.

Second, the language and music of hymns remind us that we live at a distance from the context of the composer. Apart from learning something about the background of a hymn and the events that inspired it, we may not be able to fully appreciate and sing it as we do songs from our own time and place (e.g., songs of Zion do not play well in Babylon, Ps 137:1-4).

Third, sometimes the only way to recover the spiritual value of a hymn is by learning its background.

And together, these three things help give us a clear understanding of the way people experience life. Context and connection bring impact and understanding. In other words, story brings meaning to worship.

Tell Me the Old, Old Story
Not that long ago, psychologists and philosophers believed language was the fundamental cornerstone of consciousness. Infants became conscious as they learned the names of things. More recently, however, neuroscientists have discovered that there is another foundation for human consciousness and that language is preceded by story. Antonio Damasio, Head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, says, “Consciousness begins when brains acquire the power, the simple power I must add, of telling a story without words” and it is during infancy that this storytelling process begins.

We are storytellers. The world we inhabit is not merely furnished with objects and forces and populated with humans and animals. It is, rather, a world of stories in which we discern the plot of a chain of events. We acquire our perception of the world-what it is and how it operates-through the lens of story. And it is story that gives meaning to our lives in the world.

So when we meet for worship, even when we are unconscious of the story we are living, it plays a significant role in our actions and how we perceive them. The meaning of our prayers, Scripture reading, songs, and so on, is derived from the overarching story of God and how he manifests himself and interacts with his children.

Story Always Exists
What is the story we step into when the call to worship is sounded or spoken? If we do not tell the story, worshipers will automatically construct their own. So in one setting a person may say, “This is about preserving an ancient tradition,” and in another, “This is about Christians who can also be cool and hip,” and yet another, “They must really be raking in the dough!”

Christian worship recalls the salvation history of Israel and their God, which led to the coming of Jesus and his conquest of sin and death (the hinge of history). Although the basic plot and characters never change, the story is as broad and complex as the universe. Furthermore, the story-and many of its specific episodes-must be told again and again. There cannot be too many reminders.

Two years ago, while leading a tour in Israel, our guide told us, “In Hebrew, we have no word for history. We use memory for history.” He was referring to biblical Hebrew (modern Hebrew, as in English, borrowed a Greek word for history). The idea of substituting memory for history is for many Jews the essence of being Jewish.

When Avraham Infeld was studying at the Hebrew University, he wrote his father to let him know he wanted to teach Jewish history. His father answered him, “There is no such thing as Jewish history. Non-Jews have history. Jews have memory.” Infeld says, “If I had to describe in one sentence what it means to be a Jew, I would say that a Jew is a person who must never suffer amnesia.”

This is obviously a great concern of the Hebrew Scriptures, which not only contain many volumes of history, but also long passages that replay its history. Moreover, it is precisely in worship where Israel recites and celebrates their history and recognizes the danger of “not remembering” (e.g., Ps 105; 106:7, 13, 21).

“Fugue state amnesia” describes a memory loss so severe that a patient forgets who he is and cannot remember his own name. Infeld says, “The challenge of the Jew is to carry the Jewish collective memory and make it part of one’s own life.” I would add that this is also the challenge of the Christian and the responsibility falls to the worship leader and preacher to make sure that believers do not forget who they are and why they meet to pray, sing, and read the Scriptures.

The Story That Never Grows Old
Given the puritanical roots of Evangelicalism (e.g., Jonathan Edwards), it is not surprising that our faith has become highly rational. For this reason, many Christians feel more comfortable if the sermon is lecture rather than story. In lectures we can aim for literalness, precision, and clarity. Stories, however, require interpretation and are capable of carrying multiple meanings (it is this potential ambiguity of all art forms that makes some believers uncomfortable with painting, dance, drama, and media arts).

But this point of view misses the fact that truth also can be communicated by story and in such a way that a lecture could never equal. Lectures communicate information from one brain to another, whereas stories work in the imagination and heart as well. While lectures present prepackaged truth (one needs only to listen and believe), story leads the listeners to discovery, which enables them to own the truth they find. This was, of course, Jesus’ strategy with the parables. Story gives worshipers an experience of the truth.

Take, for example, God’s premier revelation of salvation to Israel: Their escape from Egypt. This event became a cornerstone in the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures. But a problem arises when theology is built on a historic event; namely, how can future generations enjoy the benefits of something that is so far removed from them in time and space? How can the theology associated with the ancient event be to them anything other than old information? How can they be drawn close enough to have a personal experience of the event?

The answer, of course, is story. Every year, Israel would observe a sacred meal in which, through story and ritual, they would re-present The Exodus (Ex 12:24-27). This dramatic retelling of the story would bring the children (and their children, and their children’s children) into real contact with the God of their salvation.

The Story of the Cross
What The Exodus was to Israel, the cross of Jesus Christ is to the Church. The story of Jesus’ passion and death is implied in every service of worship, but it is made explicit in the Lord’s Supper. Here we are specifically reminded to proceed “in remembrance of Me” (1 Cor 11:24-25). In the dramatic re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice, the whole story is told from beginning to end.

Worship makes present and real the work of God that spans all of time. Story bridges historical distance in two directions, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim [present] the Lord’s death [past] until He comes [future]” (1 Cor 11:26). If the past reveals our identity, the future reveals our destiny.

What happens to worshipers who enter this story, eating the bread and drinking from the cup? They do not observe a ritual with elements that are mere symbols, but in some mysterious and spiritual way they are participating (koinonia) in the person of Christ (1 Cor 10:16).

Tell Me the Story of Jesus
Besides the obvious value of emphasizing the role of story in worship that we see in the Bible, I believe there are at least two other ways that it could benefit contemporary Christian worship: the recovery of testimony and a deepening of our spiritual leadership.

The man who Jesus freed from the legion of demons wanted to join him as one of his disciples. Jesus refused, however, and told him instead, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you” (Mk 5:19). The result of that man’s amazing report of his encounter with Jesus, was that the next time Jesus set foot in those regions, people knew to come to him for help (Mk 7:31).

We can do more than celebrate stories (and the Story); we can give people permission to tell the stories of their encounters with Jesus. This is not only a regular feature of worship in the Psalms, but this word-of-mouth-personal-account of the great things God has done inspires faith and hope in others, drawing them into a greater awareness of his nearness (Ps 22:25; 26:6-7).

Story could also help us break an unpleasant habit that seems to be widespread. What I have in mind is the verbal dribble that frequently follows the singing of a moving worship chorus. If the last line of the chorus is, “And sing your praises forever!” the worship leader may lean into the microphone and say, “Yes, Lord, we sing your praises! Yes! Forever we sing. It’s Your praises we sing, Lord. We will sing; forever we will sing! Your praises we will sing ….”

My mother, who is less critical than I about this sort of thing, refers to it as “baby talk.” We might expect it from someone who is still discovering their voice in praise and is building a worship vocabulary. But I make the assumption that the person who leads me in worship spends a lot of time in prayer. Certainly they are praising God all the time and not just when leading worship (Ps 34:1).

If we constantly refresh ourselves in the story, the ideas that inform our prayers will never run dry and we will always have a living vocabulary with which to express them.

Chuck Smith Jr
Author, columnist, and student of prayer, Chuck Smith Jr. launched Reflexion, a spiritual community anchored by Scripture and focused on drawing close to God in such a way that the love and goodness of Jesus Christ is made visible.

Part 4: The Story of Christmas by Jon Foreman (SWITCHFOOT)

Part 4: Incarnation

He is the author and we are his story, rebelling against him. But the creative God who wrote the story “in the beginning” isn’t finished. How’s this for a fairy tale: the author becomes a character in his own book. His creative opus of goodness has turned to darkness and death. And none of the characters in the story can break the curse. So he breaks the rules and enters into the story himself, shining his light and love and beauty back onto the page.

Incarnation! The painter has entered the painting! There is no way to overstate how remarkable this is. The infinite God becomes finite: bound by human skin. The almighty God unbounded by time and space wets his diaper, nursing at the breast of a young woman in Bethlehem. The one who flung the stars into place becomes mortal, subject to death and boredom and lust and fear and anger and the rest of our human experience. The maker-of-all enters into what he made.

And his timeless goodness overflows – breaking lose from infinity once again into our historical timeline. Speaking a new reality into existence. The Word, become flesh. The God of time and space transcended into our planet to show us who he is. To show us the best part of ourselves: The part of us that was made in the image of the maker.

And what was the glory of God?! What did it look like when Christ fully trusted The Maker? It looks like surrender and resurrection. It looks like a man who is confident in compassion over competition. A man who saw the image of God in the outcast, the broken, the sick, and the discarded. Incarnation. Transcendence.

Christmas is the story of the poet entering the poem. to Heal. To Love. To light our path. And to lay his life down for us, to show us a better way. Where the God of infinity, enters the story of one planet, to redeem one species. And as the lens starts to zoom in, the story of Christmas gets personal, with the focus on you. The author of time and space wants to enter your story. He stands at the door and knocks. He wants to break into your heart this Christmas. He wants to heal. He wants to light your path. He wants to lay himself down for you. And every moment including this one, begs the question: what creative act will you choose? Will you doubt his goodness? Or will you accept his gift of incarnation? My friends, let’s enter the story! Let there be healing! Let there be light!

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

-Philippinians 2:6-11

The  intentionality of the incarnation shows the endless compassion of my maker. The maker of heaven and earth chose us! Transcending time and space for us! When I think about how truly loved I am, the fears, and pressures, and disappointments of the day are put in their proper place. This is my identity: I am loved by my maker!  The infinite reference point from which all worth derives its meaning has esteemed me valuable and wanted.

Against the backdrop of the incarnation the meaning of life is put in its proper context. The question is not whether I believe in a God of love. Rather, the question becomes, “Love do you believe in me?” In the incarnation, God himself crossed all boundaries to answer that question. In an emphatic, resounding, triumphant: “Yes! I love you even unto death!” Tis the season to celebrate the greatest gift we’ve ever received: the boundless love of our maker. Let all of our gifts be put in their place in the shadow of this, the greatest gift. Even juxtaposed against the endless material desires of the Christmas shopping season my needs are really quite simple: Love himself is all I need.

To received a free download of SWITCHFOOT’S upcoming single “ALL I NEED” click here (https://www.toneden.io/switchfoot/post/switchfoot-all-i-need-download)



All I need is the air I breath

The time we share

And the ground beneath my feet

All I need is the love that I believe in

Tell me love, cause you’re all I need.  

Part 3: The Story of Christmas by Jon Foreman (SWITCHFOOT)

Part 3: Trust

Our freedom allows us make choices, freely choosing goodness or evil, choosing to obey or disobey. Our making ability results in wonderful decisions and horrible ones. In this light, making man in the image of God was a beautiful and dangerous thing. When Adam and Eve choose to willfully disobey, they are simply exercising one of their many options as creative entities. This act of disobedience, was an creative endeavor.

But this creative act is unlike any action that has ever been made up to this point in the story. Everything else was either made by The Good-Maker or made by man in accordance with the Goodness of the maker. This act of disobedience ushers in a world not entirely made by the maker. Man’s free will has played a cancerous role, destroying a world which was entirely created by God. And at the same time, opening the door to a world created by both God and man.

Doubting the very identity of the Good-Maker, the serpent calls God’s goodness into question. Humanity eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and we become judge and jury, witness and accomplice. We side with the accuser – and the goodness of God is called into question.

The simple math is this: a new man-made creation was built on the foundation of human disobedience. It’s a new world that holds the cancerous bite of destruction in it. Before, there was goodness and trust built into everything that God had made. But this is something new. Yes, it’s the old creation but it’s twisted and warped. This world outside the garden still has a bit of the old goodness in it but it looks like destruction, it’s a new form of living that smells like death.

Of course the story continues for thousands of years- tales of a fallen creation that continues to create. Wars and rumors of wars. A rebel planet at war with herself. Proud towers that scrape the sky. Fighting for power, possessions, and position.  Holding beauty and death for all of humanity. It’s a mantel that has been passed down, from generation to generation: every creative decision we make holds the promise of goodness tinged with the cancerous decision to doubt God’s goodness.


For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

-Romans 3:23 


Part 2: The Story of Christmas by Jon Foreman (SWITCHFOOT)

Part 2: Goodness

So man is a maker made in the image of The Maker.

But there is a crucially defining characteristic concerning the creative powers of the Creator: goodness. This deity doesn’t just make- he makes well. And if the Good-Maker has created us to be like him, then this attribute must apply to us, also. We’re not talking about subjective, artistic preferences. We’re talking about a goodness that transcends the trends: Life over death. Love over hatred. We’re thrust into the conversation of morality. Right and wrong.

This morality is a feature that humanity alone must wrestle with. A lion is not found guilty of murder when he kills and eats his prey. A Black Widow eats her mate immediately after copulating with him- should she be brought to trial? No, she is doing what she does naturally. But we hold each other and ourselves to moral standards of right and wrong that the animal kingdom is excused from. If our identifying bond with our maker is our ability to create with goodness, then why do we make such horrible choices? Why do we murder, and rape and lie, and cheat, and destroy?

In any creative endeavor, there are thousands of possible outcomes- not all of them ending with the voice of God saying, “It is good.” Ask your parents- when they first gave you the keys to the car were they worried of your power to create or your power to destroy? True creative power holds the keys to infinite outcomes- some better than others. When our maker gave us the ability to create with goodness, He gave us freedom; because an identifying feature of any creative endeavor is the ability to make a mistake. We have the power to make well, because we have the ability to make poorly.

Free-will, autonomy, and the power to make our own decisions is a crucial part of the image that we have been given to bear. A robot cannot make a mistake intentionally. It cannot creatively make decisions. It cannot go to jail or commit a crime. It can only follow a program. But we humans have the freedom to make choices, some better than others. It’s part of what it means to be be like-God.



“Choose this day whom you will serve … but as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord” —Joshua 24:15



Part 1: The Story of Christmas by Jon Foreman (SWITCHFOOT)

PART I of IV: In the beginning…

Before baby Jesus in a manger, we have an entire book of triumph and regret. Scandals, lust, revenge, and battles. It’s a story full of mistakes. And second chances. And at the very start of this collection of tales, the narrative runs something like this: A perfect, all-powerful deity creates the stars and planets. Night and day, land and water. “Let-there-be”-and-there-was. “Let-there-be”-and-there-was. And in this pattern, He breathes life into all of these incredible creatures. And after each phase of creation, he states “It is good.” Which is to say that all of creation is inherently good when it was made.

What do we know about God so far? All we know is that this all-powerful deity is a Good-Maker. He makes it, and it is good.

And then things get interesting. This deity changes the formula saying “Let us make man in our image.” Using the “royal we,” (a la Jeffrey Lebowski) this new undertaking is a huge shift from the rest of creation. For the first time in the story, God is making something that resembles God. A sequoia is an incredible creation- but it’s not as majestic as God. A distant star larger than 500 of our Suns combined is an incredible creation, but it’s not made in the image of God. And yet humanity- (these fragile collections of skin and bones) have been made in the image of the Maker himself. Like God. God-like.

Which begs the question: how is humanity God-like? Which attributes do we possess of the deity who made all things? Well, at this point in the story, the only thing that we know about God, is that he is The Maker, a creator of good. So if we’re like God then we must be makers as well.

Yes, humanity is unique on the planet. The tiger has her terrifying beauty. The elephant has her trunk. But humanity alone has her creative power. Her ability to reason. To imagine a new reality and bring it into existence. We begin by asking beautiful questions like: “what if?” and “I wonder?” A car, a garden, a relationship: we dream these things up all the time. Humanity creates her own future by imagining what could be.

Of course, this creative imagination of ours has its limits. Unlike the God of creation, we cannot speak worlds into existence. We cannot separate night from day. But we can dream up computers and electricity and cities of our own. This is a power unparalleled in the natural worlds. This capacity to create has been granted to man alone.


“Let us make man in our image.”

Genesis 1:26


“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet. In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them.”

Hebrews 2:6-8

The Challenges of “Authentic” Worship

Teacher: Dr. Craig Gilbert

Topic: Being Honest. The challenges of “authentic” worship.

It is a fairly common comment these days: “We want to have really authentic worship.” or “We are looking for a church where the worship is really authentic.” As a worship leader and planner I have to ask if anyone actually knows what “authentic” worship is, what it looks and sounds like, or really, what does “authentic” even mean? Or is this one of those, “I’ll know when I see it” kind of things? And if we do get to a definition, are ready to completely, honestly, step into leading “authentic worship in our churches? Join me for a one hour deep dive into this desire for authentic worship and maybe even some practical approaches to bringing it to life.

The Odes of Solomon: The First Christian Hymnal

Conversation with Professor James Charlesworth 

The Odes of Solomon are hymns of praise and devotion that we have inherited from an early poet and fellow believer.

The author—the odist—was a Jew who believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.

The collection is identified as The Odes of Solomon, not because they were written by King Solomon in the tenth century B.C., but because they were rightly considered to be in the tradition of Solomon, who was known in the Bible as “the Beloved.” The odist uses this term in reference to himself and all who believe,like him that Jesus is the promised Messiah; it is a scholarly distinction that helpsdefine The Odes.The odist lived within 100 years of the advent of Christ. For years The Odes were known by New Testament scholars to have existed, referred to and quoted in several ancient documents but lost in antiquity until they were rediscovered 1909 in a Syriac manuscript. They survive in lyric form only, without music. Though scholars have translated the lyrics into many languages, including English, they remain virtually unknown to most theologians, church leaders and, in particular, to the laity.

The Odes Project is dedicated to honoring the heart and spirit of these first Christian hymns and to make the experience of the Odes familiar throughout the Church through new music.

You mentioned to me in an email that the Odes of Solomon have helped shape your career since 1966. In what way have they played a particularly significant role in your broader work with ancient document fragments, etc.?

Since 1985, I have been editor and director of the Princeton Theological Seminary Dead Sea Scrolls Project. When I began exploring the sacred texts allegedly on the fringes of “the canon,” I never imagined I would hold such an elevated position. Certainly, that way was opened as I focused my Ph.D. dissertation and E.T. [Ecole Biblique] on the Odes of Solomon. My first book was published at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, and is the critical text and translation of these ancient hymns.

When were the Odes composed?

The date of the Odes has been a focus of debate since 1909 when J. Rendel Harris identified the Odes in a Syriac manuscript on his shelf. Most scholars now conclude that the Odes received their present form about 125 CE (Charlesworth, Lattke). Since a collection of “hymns” or poems would probably not have been written in one year, we should imagine some decades for the composition of these 42 Odes.

In your writings about the Odes, you differentiate between them and “apocryphal” writings. Could you explain the difference?

The Odes are “apocryphal” in that they were “hidden” from modern scholars and others until they were recovered in 1909. They were not hidden in antiquity, but were probably originally used in Christian worship [N.B. the “Hallelujah” at the end of an Ode].

Were the Odes ever considered for inclusion in the New Testament canon? Why or why not?

We have no record of a synod who voted on the works to be included in the canon. Probably, the Odes were not important for the western church, and their celebration of private piety directly to the Creator may have caused them to be unattractive for those who were defining the institutional church.

In what language were the Odes originally written?

Some scholars think that the Odes were originally composed in Greek (Quasten). Other scholars conclude that they were composed in Syriac (Emerton) or a form of Aramaic-Syriac (Charlesworth). The Greek copy is full of Semitisms, is inferior linguistically to the Syriac, and the latter preserves many features usually typical of an original language (e.g., paronomasia, alliteration, assonance, metrical scheme, parallelism, rhythm). Variants in the extant manuscripts are sometimes explained by a Syriac original text (e.g. brk and krk in 22:6).

You and others think it is possible that the author of the Odes belonged to a sect similar to the Essene/Qumran groups. Would the music of communities or sects such as the Essenes have differed significantly from the music of the Jewish Temple before its destruction, or the music of the post-Temple synagogues?

Only in the Temple before 70 CE would you find the following music: hundreds of Levites chanting, harps, trumpets, drums, flutes, tambourines, and dancing young virgins. In Essene, and other groups, you would find sectarian liturgies and chanting, perhaps without a flute or harp, since in many texts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Odes) an author confesses that his heart or tongue is “his” instrument, harp, or flute.

What can modern Christians learn about spirituality and worship from the Odes of Solomon? And what contributions do you think the Odes of Solomon can offer to the development of contemporary songs and hymns?

Many Christians have come to me as a Methodist minister stating that all their lives they were told to say “mea culpa.” In my opinion, Jesus did not call into being a group of people that defined themselves as sinners who had to spend their lives seeking forgiveness from an angry God. In fact, Jesus gave his life to break such “yokes” of slavery. He showed the way to be free for God and to praise God for the joy of living. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus wished that his “joy” would be completed in his followers. If Christianity is a call to freedom and a joyous relation with a loving Creator, then the Odes would be the perfect “Hymnbook.”

The Odes and similar writings have been more or less the domain of scholars, historians and artifacts experts. What are your thoughts about The Odes Project and its role in popularizing the Odes and making the available to contemporary worshipers?

In my first decade of teaching at Duke University (1969-1979), I was thrilled to perceive the popularity of the Odes and the celebration of my earliest publications. Some musicians rendered the Odes into music for churches and Billy Graham’s magazine featured them as ideal for young Christians. Now The Odes Project is dedicated to reviving this recognition and appreciation. Finally, the edict of the Protestant Reformers (ad fontes) leads us back to the time we were all “Catholics” (global) and when the Odist captured the excitement of God’s joyous reunion with his creatures.

If the Church is conceived to be a collection of sinners who fretfully fear the condemnation of God, the Odes are not an appropriate hymnbook. If the Church is defined as a group of holy people in a closed institution, the Odes do not fit. If the Church is perceived to be a growing number of the faithful who not only yearn for acceptance from a loving Deity who is loved fully but who also feel empowered to live joyfully by God’s grace, the Odes are singularly appropriate.

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