We Are What We Sing: Searching for a balanced diet

“We are what we eat.” Anyone who’s suffering the cumulative effect of too many ice cream sundaes knows that’s true. But when it comes to matters of spirituality and faith, I’d like to suggest, we are what we sing.

Music has the uncanny ability to burrow its way into our spiritual bones. Even when we are tired or depressed, old songs well up from within us and dance on our plaintive whistling lips. When we are old and can remember little else, we are still likely to recall the songs we learned in our childhood.

There’s no need to overstate the case. Music is not all-powerful. Lots of things shape our souls, including our parents’ attitudes, our friends’ priorities, and our television consumption. But music is certainly among these potent soul-shaping forces. As Aristotle and many since have claimed, music has formative power. It either corrupts us, inoculates us, or—to use a Pauline phrase—“builds us up.”

Music as “soul food” paints a verbal picture of something that, once ingested, becomes an indistinguishable part of us. It shapes our identity, forms our soul, and nourishes our spirit. And just as the nutritional substances in our food become building blocks for our physical bodies, so too the textual and musical substances in our congregational singing become the building blocks for our life of faith.

Spiritual Nourishment

Any of us could name people in our congregation who have faced the death of a loved one, battled back from disease, or survived abusive relationships, in part, because the church’s song lived in their souls. As we sing, we learn the songs that we hum to ourselves in moments of deep despair. Our songs of lament and hope form us as people of faith and hope.

Take the song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Gospel musician Thomas Dorsey set these poignant words to music after the death of his infant son and wife. Dorsey and many others have discovered that music is one divine grace that enables us to keep going in our encounters with death. In moments when words fail us, music gives us something to say. It gives us a way of expressing our lament and our hope. Death isolates us; it leaves us alone. Singing together is the one act that protests this solitude of suffering. One wise pastoral musician said that every week, as she led congregational singing, she was rehearsing the congregation for some future funeral. I wonder what would happen if we planned our music with this as a primary goal?

Spiritual Inoculation

Good music can also inoculate us from spiritual disease. Consider the prominent spiritual disease of sentimentality: religious experience as a candy-coated happiness and bliss. If we feed our souls a steady diet of musical candy, we will have little spiritual protein to sustain us. This is never more true than at Christmas, a time of year when broken and hurting and grieving people often hurt the most. And yet, this is the time of the year when we most often serve up rank sentimentality in our music. Think of the lullabies we sing to Jesus, or the songs that are about three ships sailing in, or about swinging steeple bells or merry gentlemen, or that feature words like fum, fum, fum—all of which prevent us from focusing on the incomprehensible paradox of the incarnation. On the other hand, when the incarnation does come through, when we sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” (one of the most theologically profound of all carols) and actually attend to the meaning of the text, our souls are fed with the protein of deep spiritual life.

How Does It Happen?

But how does this nourishment happen? What is the mechanism by which music turns to spiritual nourishment? I’d like to suggest three possibilities: the mechanisms of imagination, the sheer physicality of singing, and the sculpting of emotional space.

  • First, imagination. We know by simple testimony that the images, sounds, and narratives of song have powerful force to shape our souls. Occasionally, our texts will name an experience we all know about, but have never been able to express. (My gold medal here goes to Fred Pratt Green for the line “a new dimension in the world of sound” in the hymn “When In Our Music God Is Glorified”; my silver goes to Isaac Watts for “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend.”) Such texts are so forceful that they give us a new way of thinking, a new way of praying, or even a new way of living. Occasionally, an alert worshiper may be so struck by a text that he or she will add it to a personal e-mail signature.
  • Second, the physical exertion of singing. Part of music’s power comes from its physicality. One thing that distinguishes song from speech is the sustained breath it requires. At our birth, God breathed into us the breath of life. In our singing, we return that breath to the giver. Athletic skill is matter of muscle memory. So is singing. Singing is athletic. It depends on physical exertion. Try singing your favorite hymn like an operatic soloist. Notice what it demands physically. Now sing it as a tired worshiper at the early service. See the difference?
  • Third, music shapes the affections of our souls. It gives emotional content to the texts. It interprets them. Each of music’s building blocks have power and force: melody, rhythm, harmony. Poorly chosen music can trivialize a text. Well-crafted music can also make a banal text tolerable. Take the three-word text “Eat this Bread.” Music can make that single text mysterious, sentimental, celebratory, funereal, or meditative. No wonder John Calvin argued that “singing has great strength and power to move and to set our hearts on fire in order that we may call on God and praise him with a more vehement and more ardent zeal.”
A Healthy Diet

A trip to the grocery store illustrates the bewildering variety of foods from which we may choose our diet. Our worship diets feature a similar array of options: everything from elaborate Byzantine chant to exuberant Methodist frontier songs; from the Dionysian ecstasy A trip to the grocery store illustrates the bewildering variety of foods from which we may choose our diet. Our worship diets feature a similar array of options: everything from elaborate Byzantine chant to exuberant Methodist frontier songs; from the Dionysian ecstasy of the Toronto Laughter to the Apollonian reserve of a Presbyterian metrical psalm. Everything from the trancelike music of Taizé refrains to the precise, classical rhetorical patterns of Watts and Wesley. Everything from the serene beauty of a Palestrina motet to the rugged earthiness of an Appalachian gospel quartet. Given this wide range, the patterns found in our choices reveal much about the angularities of our spiritual life and the spiritual life of our congregations.

Although the options from which we may choose are many, our diets are, in fact, limited. After all, we can only consume so many meals—about 1,100 a year. Our worship diets are even more limited. Suppose that your congregation sings five hymns or songs a Sunday. And suppose that you are a very faithful member of your congregation who is present at forty-five services a year, allowing for seven weeks away for vacations, visits, and illness per year. You will then have the opportunity to sing 225 hymns. But, of course, some of those hymns will be sung more than once. If fifteen of those hymns are sung three times, and twenty-five are sung twice, then you’ll sing no more than 170 different hymns—including Christmas carols. How many of those hymns will you really know? For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that each worshiper really knows 150 hymns—probably a generous assumption.

In effect, this means that the working repertoire in a given congregation is about 30 percent of the total number of selections in any respectable hymnal. To be spiritually healthy, this diet needs to include the whole range of Christian affectations—thanksgiving, supplication, lament. It must narrate the whole Christian story—creation, fall, Christ’s birth, teaching, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, the sending of the Spirit and the coming of the kingdom of God. It must include the whole range of Christian teaching—on social justice, on our evangelistic witness, and on prayer. It should include selections from a range of cultural locations and ethnic communities, in both time and space, in order to form us in the native prayer language of many parts of the holy, catholic church. It should include songs in a variety of emotional registers—from the contemplative to the exuberant.

Let’s also suppose that a healthy diet will include some fresh new selections every year. On the other hand, too many new selections will overwhelm a congregation and set them on the difficult journey of endless innovation. So we can effectively add ten selections to a congregation’s musical diet every year, which means that ten will fade away out of the congregation’s repertoire.

Every congregation has an identifiable musical diet. Some perhaps know 250 or even 300 selections well. Some know no more than 100. Some know a higher percentage of service music or psalm refrains; others know a higher percentage of hymns or choruses. (For specific examples, see the pie charts scattered throughout this article.) In every case, that diet says a great deal about the forces that shape the congregation’s souls.

The Meal

Eating is more than simply a way to feed ourselves. It’s also a social act. We eat to cement a friendship, to close a business deal, to nurture a romantic relationship. In the same way, singing is more than simply a way to manipulate sound. We sing together for a purpose, in order to accomplish a task.

The point of a date is the relationship, not the food. The point of a business lunch is the deal. The point of worship is God. Worship music finds its highest purpose in the act of worship. This music is not an end in itself. It is a means for enabling corporate prayer. The highest purpose of our worship music is to enable full, conscious, and active participation in worship at the deepest level possible for people of all sorts.

If the main point of Christian worship is to engage in a series of personal, relational actions between the gathered community and its Creator (confessing sin, praising God, interceding for divine intervention), then good congregational song is one means of expression (like speech or dance) that enables the congregation to accomplish these actions.

This understanding of the role of music in worship helps us to avoid the temptation of thinking of music as the means of God’s revelation. Not long ago, I received a call from an ordained pastor who was looking for a worship leader. When I asked him what he was looking for, he replied, “Someone who can make God present in our midst.” A rather loaded expectation! But he is not alone—language like this is increasingly present in want ads for musicians. Churches are looking for people whose creativity, personal testimony, and charismatic personality can turn an ordinary moment into a holy moment.

Certainly, this concern for attending to holy moments is important. Yet no one, no matter how charismatic, can make a moment holy by his or her own creativity, ingenuity, or effort.

The Skill of Taste

Eating well requires skills. It requires cultivating table etiquette and good taste. Parents spend a lot of time developing in their children a sense of adventure and a willingness to try new things, a knowledge of how much is enough, an understanding of the elements of a healthy diet and the discipline to follow it, and the ability to savor—not gobble—their food.

A second set of skills also helps us move beyond childhood manners to become genuine connoisseurs: discernment, as in knowing the difference between a fine French wine and Boone’s Farm; knowledge about ingredients and about how different foods function in their culture; and the ability to discern them while eating.

We need similar skills to receive the gift of music well. At the basic level, these include a willingness to try new things, judgment about theological soundness, and the discipline to avoid simple self-gratification. We need “full, conscious, active participation” in our music making. There are also skills that can help us become connoisseurs—but cultivating these skills is a luxury that most of us don’t have. We are in congregations that need remedial work.

Let us frankly acknowledge that we have much to learn in the area of taste. All of us have a different prayer

Knowing the Eater

A good cook needs to be aware of those who are eating. Whom we are serving makes all the difference in the world for what and how we cook. For your church youth group, you’ll probably want to serve pizza. For the lunchtime Bible study, chicken salad might be appropriate.

So too in congregational song. We need to prepare music for a wide range of people: young and old, seeker and saint. For this, we need music that is both well-crafted and vernacular. At its best, worship music, and especially congregational song—the song of the primary choir—needs to be readily embraced by people with little musical, poetic, or aesthetic training. At the same time, it needs to be well-crafted to provide spiritual protein (and not only the carbohydrates we more easily embrace).

The problem here tends to arise when we unhook the two virtues of excellence and accessibility. On the one hand, we might choose well-crafted but inaccessible music, and then present it in a patronizing way. Just as a wine snob can rob me of the joy of my glass of wine by shaming my ignorance of French burgundies, so musicians can rob worshipers of the joy of their music-making by implying that they don’t know enough to be proper worshipers. On the other hand, when we choose vernacular, accessible but poorly crafted music we err equally. Our task is to find music that is simple without being simplistic, childlike without being childish.

A Community for Eating

Food is powerfully uniting. In the film Babette’s Feast, the concluding celebratory meal brought its formerly divided and quarrelsome participants a sacramental joy rarely experienced. Shared food creates community.

Music too is powerfully uniting. Nothing is quite as powerful as finding yourself in the middle of 50, 500, or 50,000 people singing—whether at a Bobby McFerrin concert, a memorial service for the victims of the Columbine shootings, or a Notre Dame football game. For this reason, congregational song differs from many of the genres and institutions of high art in Western culture. In concert music, we value the proficiency of the solo artist; in the context of worship, the highest value is enabling a group of musical amateurs to make music together. The craft and coordinating and “performance” in the work of the church musician finds its ultimate goal and purpose in welcoming the people of God to experience the power and joy of profound and communal participation.

Whom do we welcome to our musical feasts? Do our texts have a breadth of viewpoint? Are our tunes more communal than soloistic? Do we welcome children? Do we welcome persons who speak other musical languages? Do we welcome the saints and angels—and even sing a few songs that they know? Does our musical diet foster community? These are questions we must ask ourselves to make sure our musical diet features a potluck, family-style music, as opposed to liturgical menus in which everyone simply chooses all their favorites.

The Spiritual Chef

Good food requires a cook. Congregational music requires a church musician, a chief facilitator, a cantor, an enlivener. Both good cooks and good church musicians are masters of making complex ingredients come together with winsome simplicity. Both have fun, experiencing the sheer joy of imagination. A good cook prepares food with visual and olfactory appeal; a good musician prepares music with winsome and infectious delight. A good cook exercises restraint—too much spice kills a dish. So too a worship musician—too much musical folderol kills a hymn. An experienced cook works by instinct. So too does a musician. The right tempo is largely a matter of the feeling you have in your gut. A good cook is appreciated, but is not the center of attention. Nor should the church music event be about the musician. A good cook is efficient, working with only three to five dishes per meal and a limited budget. Church musicians get four to five hymns per service, a limited number of organ stops, singers, and support.

In both cooking and music, the key element is always the people involved. What the church needs most is not another hymnal, larger choirs, more technology, a revised prayer book, or another set of published scripts. What the church needs most are discerning, prayerful, joyous people who treat their work as worship planners and leaders as a holy, pastoral calling. As Alice Parker reminds us, “There are churches in all denominations in this country where congregations do sing well, and it is always because there is at least one person who is actively expecting it.”

Providing soul food for your congregation is a holy calling indeed.


Peppered throughout this article are pie charts from several churches listing statistics for the year 2000. Most participants included more data than we have room to provide here; they keep spreadsheets with more and/or different categories about the music they used. Our thanks to all who participated in this exercise. Each one was kind enough to provide an e-mail address in case you’re interested in asking how they keep records.

Religious Aesthetics

In a brilliant and winsome chapter in his book Religious Aesthetics, Frank Burch Brown personifies four aesthetic sins that apply equally well to food and congregational song.

  • The Aesthete is the person who loves their Bach straight up and couldn’t care less if that music enables the actions of worship. This is “the person whose chief goal is not glorifying and enjoying God but glorying in the aesthetic delights of creation.”
  • The Philistine “does not highly value or personally appreciate anything artistic and aesthetic that cannot be translated into practical, moral, or specifically religious terms.” This is the sin, Burch Brown notes, that is exposed in Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple, where Shug says to Celie, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
  • The Intolerant “is keenly aware of aesthetic standards of appraisal, but elevates his or her own standards to the level of absolutes… [It is] the aesthetic equivalent of the sin of pride… It severs human ties and does violence to the freedom, integrity, and self-hood of others.” This is a temptation that particularly confronts the intellectual and cultural elite.
  • The Indiscriminate is one whose “radical aesthetic relativism… indiscriminately [embraces] all aesthetic phenomena” and who “cannot distinguish between what… has relatively lasting value and what is just superficially appealing.”

On Cultivating Taste

The question for those in positions of worship leadership is how to nurture the skills of etiquette and taste. A server who can inform me about the culinary delights of the meal immeasurably enriches my experience at a French restaurant. Similarly, church musicians need not only choose and play music creatively; they also need to teach people the skills to appreciate and receive these gifts. We need, in the words of Alice Parker, “to project our vision, to communicate our expectations and hopes winsomely.” Here are some specific, practical ideas to make this happen:

  • For one hymn a week, print an adverb in your order of service. Our musical introduction suggests the spirit in which the congregation is invited to sing: meditatively or boldly or whatever. But unmusical people may not get it. So next to your hymn write, “Sing with resolve” or “Sing with gritted teeth.” (So much new hymnody has an honesty that demands care lest we trivialize what we are singing).
  • Lead singing by singing. Thus, imitate John Bell, Alice Parker, or Mary Oyer. You may feel completely vulnerable in doing so, but there is no better way to evoke vocal singing than by use of the human voice.
  • Host a living room sing-a-long for twenty members of your congregation and sing hymns old and new. Teach taste in the context of warm hospitality.
  • During the Christmas season, use your church newsletter to offer a list of good recordings of church music.
  • Teach a sixth-grade church school class to write new stanzas to hymns. Then pick the best of their contributions and surprise them by singing it in the following week’s service.
  • Twice a month, print a short note in your Sunday bulletin about the music of the day.
  • Provide young children in your congregation who are studying piano with simplified accompaniments to hymns so that they can learn them while young.

—John D. Witvliet

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 60 © June 2001, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.