Hilary Seraph Donaldson is a congregational song enlivener with a passion for strengthening community through shared song, global music, and paperless worship. Her free web video series on song leading, Break into Song, is available on her YouTube channel and through her website, Transforming Every Guest. She currently serves as Pastoral Musician of Eastminster United Church in Toronto, Canada, and is pursuing doctoral studies in Musicology at the University of Toronto.
“Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.”
The joyful opening phrase of Psalm 96 invites us to renew our worship and praise God with a new song. It’s one of my favourite passages of scripture. But, I wonder if the Psalmist ever had to get up and teach a new song to a skeptical congregation?
As anyone who has tried to actually teach a new song to a group of people knows, new songs don’t always get the enthusiastic reception we are hoping for. As song leaders, we always want the gathered people to share our love and enthusiasm for whatever song we are teaching, but let’s face it: we are creatures of habit. We like singing songs we already know.
At MMC gatherings, we always learn many wonderful new songs, but this can leave us asking: how do we bring new music home? Here’s one piece of advice that I have found helpful:
Start with a song that will make its own friends.
When choosing a new song to introduce to a group, especially if paperless singing is a new idea to them, pick a song whose features already resonate with the musical tradition of that group. If I wanted to explore global music in a congregation whose heart songs included Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord” or Hillsong’s “Draw me Close,” I might choose the Argentinean traditional chorus “Santo, santo, santo / mi corazón te adora.” They are all similar in their personal, confessional quality and anthem-like drive. Or, if a congregation’s favourite are the chant-based hymns of John Mason Neale (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”), I might begin with the paperless gathering song “Come, Holy Spirit, Maranatha” of the Iona Community, similar in its chant-like quality that opens the singer to the presence of mystery. These songs will feel familiar quickly because they mirror musical or theological traits that are already welcome in the receiving congregation. Down the road, you can introduce songs that are a little more out-of-the-box for that context; to start, try a song that is easy to befriend.
At a recent MMC gathering I taught a simple call-and-response song of gratitude called “Shukuru.” Call-and-response songs are also a friendly way to explore paperless singing, because their simple, accessible structure has a playful and disarming quality. “Shukuru” is a great song for opening, for sharing gifts at the presentation of offerings, for Communion, or for sharing a blessing at informal gatherings like dinner church. Its words in the Juba dialect are easily picked up, and you can put in your own calls for whatever the occasion (“For this meal, thanking you Jesus;” “For these friends, thanking you Jesus”...)