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Forming the Life of the Congregation Through Music


In recent times writers have not taken full advantage of the power of narrative in song texts.2 While many songs imply bits of narrative, few actually take a story and work it through from verse to verse. By contrast we might note Were You There? which draws a spare outline of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection in its verses:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? …

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?…

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?…

Were you there when he rose up from the dead?…

Its interest derives in part from the sense of building drama from verse to verse, and also from the aside that reflection upon these events might cause one to tremble.

At the college where I teach, the students seem attached to the rousing tune Lion of Judah, perhaps in part because two of its verses are given over to both narrative and imagery:

On His back, see the stripes! On His head, see the thorns!

And His life was forsaken, His healing hands were torn

As the priests and the soldiers spat out laughing scorn.

With His last breath he cried, “It is finished!”

And the hands of the Son of God tore off the chains of death: See Him rise!

And the shouts of the seraphim, echoing thundrously, shake the skies!


Hear the sky splitting open, the archangel’s cry!

Hear the trumpet of God, loud commands from on high!

Now descends Christ the Victor, who never can die.

Let the dead in Christ rise up to meet Him!

And the angels crescendo the triumph-song: Satan is bound in chains!

The redeemed cast off mortal flesh, clothed in white, join in their loud refrains!

The text allows the participants to become immersed in the gospel story because it evokes tangible details of that story as if they were present right now. People are more interested in tangible present things than abstract timeless things.

These examples of narrative indicate that story-telling, like imagery, is a compelling but insufficiently recognized element in song texts. We may conclude that theological teaching in the didactic sense is a lesser function of congregational singing; the more memorable and interesting lines—the ones to which we are drawn—are usually those infused with imagery and narrative.


Question 2: What kinds of musical experiences may subtly exclude some Christians?

The practice of singing creates expectations about our identity within the faith. Standing together and making music is the one activity that is most congregational—it is the most unison thing we ever do. It is when we stand and sing together that we are most visibly and audibly “being” God’s people. (The next best metaphor, of course, is eating together.) Therefore the experience of shared singing will influence the peoples’ idea of what it is like to “stand before God.”

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Category: Fall 2009, Ministry

About the Author: John Mortensen, D.M.A. (University of Maryland), is Professor of Music at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. A teacher of classical and jazz piano, he frequently appears as a concert artist and masterclass teacher at colleges and universities across the USA. Dr. Mortensen also performs and teaches Irish and American roots music, playing mandolin, octave mandolin, Irish flute, Irish button accordion, five-string banjo, Uilleann pipes, and Irish whistle. He created America’s only college-level traditional Irish music session class.

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