Singing Our Lives

“If music is the language of the soul made audible, then human voices, raised in concert in human gatherings, are primary instruments of the soul.”

— Don Saliers


Thoughts and questions to help you consider this practice

What we sing and how we sing reveals much of who we are, and entering into another's song and music-making provides a gateway into their world, which might be much different from our own.

Something is shared in singing that goes beyond the words alone. This something has taken shape over many centuries in a practice that expresses our deepest yearning and dearest joy: the practice of singing our lives to God.

Something in us insists on song

There is something about human beings that needs to make music. Humans have always sung at play and work, in joy and in grief, planting, harvesting, marching, mourning.

Where is song usually generated in your social life? What has been one of your most memorable experiences of singing? Of listening to others sing? What is the most heartbreaking music you have ever heard? What is the most joyous and ecstatic?

Faith is born and lives in song

Psalms and canticles formed the heart of prayer and the music of the earliest Christian assemblies. How does your congregation develop, nurture, and teach this practice? Who takes part?

What are a few of your favorite hymns? How did you learn these hymns? How have you developed not only a memory of the old hymns but also an openness to new ones?

Lifting voices to God shapes basic attitudes, affections, and ways of regarding ourselves, our neighbors, and God. How do you feel gratitude, trust, sadness, joy, and hope knit into your body by music? How do songs become integral parts of the theology by which you live? When has singing drawn you into a strong group experience?

How do we sing to God?

How do you sing in your church? Do you sing hymns? Chant? Do you sing to the organ, or with recordings or bands? Do you use hymnals or sing words projected onto a wall? Who sings in your church? Does your congregation invite everyone to participate fully, or is it more intent on honoring God with a polished sound from those with special gifts for music?

Hymn singing is intrinsic to worship and faith experience. How can your congregation help everyone offer praise, lament, or dedication to God?


Finding our voice

When people meet to worship, words and music form a communal identity. Individuals voice praise, lament, and need, but it does not leave them isolated, surrounding them instead with a great choir. Where, besides church, do you sing with a group? What identity have you formed with that group?

How does your congregation deal with the tension between "traditional" and "contemporary" church music? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

What differences need to be maintained between "secular" and "religious" music and poetry, if any? How does the creativity of one inspire the creativity of the other? What does Saturday night music have to do with Sunday morning singing?

However humble or sophisticated, singing together is an act of freedom. What kind of power do poets and musicians have that tyrants feel they have to suppress? Martyrs go to their deaths singing, an uncanny power of faith. What songs do you sing when you're in trouble?

Sharing the sacred power of song

Where people sing of God, theology is formed and expressed in and through human bodies. Music lends its power to all the other practices that shape who we are. How does singing intersect with dying well? With giving testimony? With keeping Sabbath? How does it shape communities, or welcome Mary and Joseph to the stable on Christmas Eve?

  • Make a playlist to enjoy on trips. Ask each person in your family or small group to contribute at least two favorite songs to a playlist you make to enjoy on trips or at times when you are together. Make a new playlist occasionally, and save old ones for posterity!
  • Offer guitar lessons to teens on Sunday mornings as a special form of Sunday School. Learn about psalms of praise and lament, composing and recording original songs the teens write together during these Sunday sessions.
  • Make a list of sung mealtime graces that you and your family know. Post it where you regularly eat. Sing together one of the graces whenever you gather together for a meal. Add to the list as you learn new ones.
  • Include a music/hymn listening session as part of your regular prayer time. "Pray" the music as you listen. Alternatively, sing your prayers, using favorite hymns or liturgical settings. Remember Augustine's comment that "whoever sings prays twice."
  • Gather folks in your home for an evening of singing favorite songs, from folk songs to Broadway standards to hymns.
  • Visit a synagogue or church not of your own tradition where singing is a central part of the worship service. How do you perceive music to be shaping this community and sustaining a distinctive kind of spirituality?
A photo of a choir group singing together
  • As a congregation, sponsor a hymn festival for several congregations in your area, asking each to lead others in hymns or songs that characterize their own particular tradition.
  • Learn new hymns and songs in worship by featuring one new hymn each month. Introduce the hymn to children or to the choir first, so people can hear it, then begin using it in worship. Or institute 5-10 minutes of pre-service singing (with a leader) to gather people for worship and at the same time introduce one or two pieces of new music. Using a hymnal companion or online resources such as, research stories behind the hymn and its author and/or composer.
  • Construct an entire worship service around one hymn. Derive themes from it for preaching, use its music in a variety of ways and settings, weave its stanzas throughout the service, turn it into a litany, etc.
  • Sponsor a music program for children or teenagers to supplement music education in local schools. Hire a director/leader/teacher, do the publicity, and provide rehearsal space.
  • In your small group or family, tell stories about your favorite hymns, including how you learned them. What associations do you have with them? Alternatively, sing a song from childhood that is a part of your faith tradition. What is the most powerful memory the song evokes? Look carefully at the words. How has your faith changed since that song first became formative for you?
  • If you were planning your funeral/memorial service, what hymns, psalms, and songs would you include? Record your ideas, add to them as you think of others, and let someone know where the list is, as a sort of “musical last will and testament.”


"Why does music take us to the edge of transcendence or at least to the mystery of being human?" Read this interview with Don Saliers (currently Theologian-in-Residence at Candler School of Theology) in Bearings Online, from the Collegeville Institute.

Spirituality, Song, and Social Justice: Join Don Saliers and Emily Saliers (a musician who is one half of the folk duo Indigo Girls) for a lively conversation about faith, music, and their intersections, composing songs of justice, and their time spent in-residence as a family at the Collegeville Institute.


Worship Materials

"Sing to the Lord a new song, God's praise in the assembly of the faithful. Let Israel be glad in its Maker...Let them praise God's name with dancing, making melody to God with tambourine and lyre."

— Psalm 149:1-3

Pray a psalm

Read opening sentence:

“In every moment, in every place, let all creation make music to praise God.”

Read Psalm 150 responsively (alternating verse by verse).

Sit in silence, letting the images and poetry of the psalm sink heart-deep.

Hum a familiar hymn of praise or adoration.

Close with prayer:

“Maker of creation's choir,
you sing the Song of Love to us.
Breathe your Spirit into our singing
until the rhythm of your mercy
shapes all our music-making
and we join with one another to
give you thanks and praise.

— Susan Briehl

Photo of a young woman playing piano
Photo of a choir singing in church


When in Our Music God Is Glorified

"When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried alleluia!"
Text: Fred Pratt Green
Text (c)1972 Hope Publishing Co.

God of the Sparrow

"How does the creature say Awe
How does the creature say Praise?"
Text: Jaroslav Vajda
Text (c) 1983 G.I.A. Publications

Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above

"Then all my gladsome way along, I sing aloud Thy praises,
That all may hear the grateful song my voice unwearied raises:
Be joyful in the Lord, my heart! Both soul and body, bear your part!
To God all praise and glory!"
Text: Johann Schütz, tr. Frances E. Cox

How Can I Keep from Singing

"My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation.
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I'm clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?"
Text: Robert Lowry

Books & Films

Read more about Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song
Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song
Brian Wren

In this in-depth look at hymns, Brian Wren explores the theological significance of congregational song, asks how music has meaning for its singers, and considers the importance of contemporary worship music.

Read more about For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals
For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals
Wayne Booth

For the Love of It is a story not only of one intimate struggle between a man and his cello, but also of the larger struggle between a society obsessed with success and individuals who choose challenging hobbies that yield no payoff except the love of it.

Read more about Come Sunday: The Liturgy of Zion
Come Sunday: The Liturgy of Zion
William B. McClain

Discusses liturgical time, spirituals, gospel songs; includes Scripture/lectionary index.

Read more about Brassed Off
Brassed Off

This is the story of a group of Yorkshire coal miners who — like their fathers and grandfathers before them — perform in brass band competitions as a pride-building hobby. This time the competition is keen, as coal mines across the country are being shut down by the government and band members must “play for their lives.”

Read more about Mr. Holland’s Opus
Mr. Holland’s Opus

Glenn Holland is an aspiring composer who takes a job as a high school music teacher to pay the rent so that, in his “spare time,” he can strive to achieve his true goal — compose one memorable piece of music to leave his mark on the world. After initial troubles connecting with students, Holland slowly discovers that he has a gift for teaching teens an appreciation of music, even though he cannot connect musically with his own son, who is deaf. Holland often has to battle the school administrators who don’t approve of his using rock-and-roll as a teaching tool, and who threaten to cut the music program in order to reduce costs.

Read more about Say Amen, Somebody
Say Amen, Somebody

A documentary about the lives of two of gospel music’s founders: Willie Mae Ford Smith and Thomas Dorsey. Originally outcast from Black churches, gospel music became a big part of revivals’ week-long evangelistic events held throughout Southern towns.

Read more about The Sound of Music
The Sound of Music

This classic musical overflows with instances of “singing our lives.” Maria is sent by her Mother Superior to serve Baron Georg Von Trapp, a retired naval captain, as governess for his seven children. Maria teaches the children to sing and that becomes their bonding force, eventually leading her to fall in love with their father and marry him. Maria and Georg are married in 1938 as Austria votes to be assumed by Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. The Von Trapp Family Singers escape by singing their way out of the country.

Read more about Themes and Variations: Music and Imagination
Themes and Variations: Music and Imagination
Don Saliers

Originally written as a series of columns for The American Organist magazine, Themes and Variations is a collection of reflections for music-lovers as well as music-makers. With each essay, theologian and musician Don Saliers embraces the connection between musical passages and life passages, exploring “the powerful way in which music explores a double journey into the depths of humanity and the mystery of the divine.” These seventy-plus reflections, filled with personal stories and thoughtful insights, make an excellent basis for conversations about music in churches, classrooms, or among friends.

Read more about Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music
Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music
Jeremy S. Begbie

In this well-rounded study, Begbie examines the connections between music and theology by engaging Scripture, musical history, and contemporary culture.

What Others Are Doing

Read more about Mel Williams: Singing our way to hope
Read more about Christmas Festival brings ‘good news of great joy’ to a diverse and changing world
This year, viewers from 30 countries watched St. Olaf College's five choirs and orchestra in a live stream of the festival’s final performance. Photos courtesy of St. Olaf College


read more about Study Guide for “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice”

Study Guide for “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice”

Susan Briehl

This is the companion study guide for the book “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice,” by Don Saliers and Emily Saliers.

read more about Singing Our Lives (in series “Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics”)

Singing Our Lives (in series “Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics”)

Robert Kruschwitz

This issue of “Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics” features a collection of essays on the topic of singing our lives. (c) 2006 The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials for personal or group study.

read more about Study Guides for “Singing Our Lives”

Study Guides for “Singing Our Lives”

Robert Kruschwitz

This is a companion study guide to the “Singing Our Lives” issue of “Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics.” (c) 2006 The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials for personal or group study.