The Hymn Society Interview 1 PGE 35

From the beginning of the Church on the day of Pentecost just after our Lord ascended back to God, congregational singing and, in particular, hymns have been a part of Christian worship. Two of Christianity’s earliest documents, the New Testament letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, use the same trilogy of words to describe the music of Christian worship. Ephesians 5: 18-19 (NRSV) reads, ‘…but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts…’ Colossians 3:16 (NRSV) reads, ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.’

Both congregational singing and hymns have had a varied and sometimes controversial history throughout the Church’s existence. In the earliest experience of the Church, congregational singing was almost exclusively the music of worship, especially during the times of persecution. After the conversion of Constantine, when the Church gained status, power, and wealth, when Latin became the mandated language of worship, and when monks and priests were often the only people who could read, singing in worship came to be done mostly by choirs. It was not until after the Protestant Reformation, when the mass was rejected as the pattern of worship by numerous Protestant groups and scripture was translated into the languages of the people, that congregational singing once again became the dominant form of music in worship. However, due to the influence of the Calvinist or Reform tradition within the Protestant Reformation, congregational singing was limited to psalmody, being the language of scripture. Hymns, understood as texts having been written by human hands, were looked upon with suspicion. It was only gradually that hymns became accepted back into worship. Once they did, however, collections of them into hymnals came to be the primary worship books of many Protestant denominations. There have been times when the words ‘hymn’ and ‘congregational singing’ have been synonymous. When the global evangelism and mission efforts began in the 1800s, hymns were the most useful resource for proclamation, worship, and discipleship efforts. With the rise of seeker-oriented worship services in the 1980s and 1990s, a sharp distinction was made between hymns, seen as a part of traditional worship and choruses, preferred by seeker-oriented services.

As degrees in church music have developed, courses in hymnology have been required and for nearly one hundred years, a Society, The Hymn Society, has been devoted to the hymn. Recently The Hymn Society formalized a project that was always an understood dimension of The Hymn Society’s efforts–The Center for Congregational Song.

My guests help us to understand more fully the hymn, its definitions and uses, and the work both of The Hymn Society and The Center for Congregational Song.

J. Michael McMahon has served as Executive Director of The Hymn Society since September 1, 2018. An ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Mike is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Washington Theological Union, a Master of Arts degree in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from The Catholic University of America. From 2001 until 2013 Mike served as President and CEO of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM). For nearly thirty years he worked in full-time church ministry, most recently from 2013 to 2018 as Minister of Music at National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Washington, D.C. Prior to 2001 Mike served churches in Virginia and Delaware as a full-time pastoral minister in the areas of music, worship, and Christian initiation. In addition to his full-time work as a pastoral minister, music director, and association executive, Mike has taught in the Department of Theology at The Catholic University of America and has been featured as a speaker and clinician for numerous regional church gatherings and national music organizations. He is the author of a book on Christian initiation, has written numerous articles on worship and church music for a variety of journals, and has contributed to several books on music ministry. He served as an advisor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Subcommittee on Music in developing its national liturgical music guidelines, “Sing to the Lord” (2007). A native of Pittsburgh, Mike has long been a resident of the Washington area and currently lives in Montgomery Village, Maryland, with his husband Ray Valido.

Brian Hehn is Director of The Center for Congregational Song. Brian is an inspiring song-leader equally comfortable leading an acapella singing of “It Is Well” as he is drumming and dancing to “Sizohamba Naye.” Experienced using a variety of genres and instrumentations, he has lead worship for Baptists, Roman Catholics, United Methodists, Presbyterians, and many more across the U.S. and Canada. He received his Bachelor of Music Education from Wingate University, his Master of Sacred Music from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and is certified in children’s church music (K-12) by Choristers Guild. He has articles published on sacred music and congregational song in multiple journals and has recently co-authored two books on drumming in the church published by Choristers Guild. While working for The Hymn Society as the Director of The Center for Congregational Song, he is also adjunct professor of church music at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina and lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with his wife, Eve, and son, Jakob.

The music for this episode is from a clip of a song called ‘Father Let Your Kingdom Come’ which is found on The Porter’s Gate Worship Project Work Songs album and is used by permission by The Porter’s Gate Worship Project. You can learn more about the album and the Worship Project at