On March 19, “The Singing Church: Current Practices and Emerging Trends in Congregational Song” begins at Candler School of Theology. This three-day conference is designed to provide worship leaders with the tools necessary for strengthening music ministry through worship, plenaries, and workshop discussions.

In addition to featuring Candler’s own talented music and worship professors—including Don Saliers, Jimmie Abbington, Timothy Albrecht, and Tom Long—conference planner Barbara Day Miller was intentional about finding conference leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds who represent a diversity of interests.

Conference attendees will have the opportunity to learn about everything from Korean congregational songs to the Re:Tune movement to the role of the hymnal in the Lutheran church. In this article, we spotlight three of the diverse presenters: a campus minister from California, a Benedictine nun from Minnesota, and a church minister of music and worship from Florida.

Tony AlonsoTony Alonso is the director of music for the Campus Ministry Team at Loyola Marymount University. He is also a prominent composer, having published several collections of liturgical music, including “Arise My Love: Music for Weddings” and “Christ Be Near.” His work has appeared in numerous compilations and hymnals throughout North America. Alonso will be reading some of his work at “The Singing Church” conference as well as presenting a workshop titled, “In Splendid, Varied Ways: Preparing Music for Intercultural Worship.”

“In Los Angeles, we are blessed with a wide array of cultural expressions, which brings both opportunities and challenges,” says Alonso. “Even with the best of intentions, sometimes intercultural worship consists of a checklist wherein we make sure we’ve acknowledged various cultural expressions through our music, prayers, rituals, and choice of language.”

Alonso has been in conversation with church leaders as well as members of various congregations to prepare the workshop. He says he hopes to encourage reflection on who holds the power in the preparation of worship experiences and suggests that we need more people involved in the process “if we want the Eucharistic table to be an authentic expression of the church in all of its marvelous diversity.”

Delores DufnerDelores Dufner is a member of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn., and like Alonso, she’s a celebrated composer of church music whose texts have appeared in both Protestant and Catholic hymnals and hymn collections around the world. Some of her well-known songs include “Come to Me, All Pilgrims Thirsty,” “God, You Call Us to This Place,” “Sing a New Church,” and “The Spirit Sends Us Forth to Serve.” Dufner’s workshop will deal with the singing of laments in Sunday worship.

“As a member of the Sisters of St. Benedict, I pray the psalms in community daily, and many of the psalms are laments. So I’m accustomed to praying laments, but not at Sunday Eucharist where guests are often present,” she says.

Dufner explains that when the presenters of “The Singing Church” conference gathered for a planning session last year at Emory, they grappled with theological blind spots in congregational song. These discussions inspired her workshop topic and her pursuit to bring laments into Sunday worship. 

Tommy ShapardTommy Shapard is a Candler alum, having received his master of divinity degree in 2004. He currently serves as minister of music and worship at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. Shapard’s workshop, “Whose Song Is It? Navigating the Tensions in the Free Church Traditions” will deal with the challenge of planning music for Sunday worship when your congregation has vastly different opinions on the best hymns and songs.

“While we can’t please everybody with song selection – nor should we try to play DJ and plug hymns simply for high ratings – we can offer a diverse repertoire that resonates with the “familiar” and the “strange” and all points between while playing a significant role in people’s spiritual formation,” Shapard says.

Participants in Shapard’s workshop will leave with points to consider and a guide of questions to provide a richer, pastoral dimension to the music selection process and help create “a more hospitable soundscape that invites people to enter songs from varying spiritual languages, including their own,” he says.

What Alonso, Dufner, Shapard, and all the presenters of “The Singing Church” conference have in common is a desire to get people more comfortable singing in church and seeing congregational song as a crucial part of their relationship to God.

“Singing is a profoundly human thing to do,” says Alonso. “Somewhere along the line, we're told we don't have a good voice or we sing out of tune. Or we're schooled in the entertainment culture, which tells us to watch rather than participate: Why sing if someone else can do it better? And so we stop singing.”

“If someone refuses to sing, or just mouths the words, I would invite them, like Jesus did, to become like little children, to remember the times when we sang because we weren't concerned about what those around us thought. I would invite them to think about how not singing goes against the grain of who we are as human beings.”

“The Singing Church: Current Practices and Emerging Trends in Congregational Song” will be held March 19-21 at Candler School of Theology. For more information and to register, visit tinyurl.com/singingchurch.