Worship Music Beyond the

Traditional/Contemporary Divide

By Amanda Udis-Kessler

In 2020, Brian Hehn, Director of the Center for Congregational Song, offered a Hymn Society presentation, “Breaking through the Traditional/Contemporary Divide.” In the presentation, Brian differentiated between what he called pastoral and prophetic worship music. Brian said that pastoral hymn texts pull from tradition and speak to our common identity, whereas prophetic hymn texts speak to the future and share a vision of who God is calling us to be.

I have found Brian’s distinction to be both profoundly helpful and deeply thought-provoking. I have written this essay to elaborate on Brian’s ideas and provide examples of prophetic music within the larger body of mostly pastoral pieces in the New Century Hymnal (hereafter NCH). I also briefly mention the work of some contemporary worship music composers, including mine. Church musicians might differ on how to make sense of this distinction or where to classify particular hymns or worship songs; my main hope is to begin a conversation about the pastoral/prophetic distinction, not to foreclose on any particular ways of thinking about it.

In the three years since Brian gave his presentation, the following points about the pastoral/prophetic distinction have struck me as helpful:

● A given hymn text or worship song lyric can include both pastoral and prophetic elements. When this happens, the elements may be in tension with one another or stand alone, for example, in different verses.

● The type of music used for a given hymn or worship song is unrelated to whether the piece is pastoral, prophetic, or a mix of both. Prophetic texts can be set to traditional hymn tunes or new tunes that “sound” traditional, as well as to more contemporary-sounding songs. Similarly, pastoral texts can be set to any kind of music. For example, most Contemporary Christian Music I have heard could be categorized as pastoral pop music.

● Pastoral texts can incorporate prophetic themes of justice and inclusion as those speak to church tradition and our common identity, so whether a justice-focused text is best understood as prophetic, pastoral, or a mix of both comes down to specific ways in which concepts of justice and inclusion are used. Again, different musicians might disagree about categorizing a particular text or lyric. For this reason, worship music that uses female language for God (for example, NCH 11, 274, 467, 468) or that focuses on inclusiveness (for instance, NCH 54) might or might not be understood as prophetic as I’m using the term here.

● Pastoral texts can be set in the present tense and often are when they speak of church activities and traditions (such as Communion). Pastoral texts may even be set in the future tense if they focus on continuing church traditions or speaking to our common identity moving forward.

● How old or new a text is does not necessarily indicate whether it is pastoral or prophetic. Many texts from the past few decades function pastorally. In contrast, George Rawson’s 1853 text We Limit Not the Truth of God (NCH 316) can be understood as prophetic insofar as it is inspired by John Robinson’s famous quote about God having yet more light to break forth in the world.

I found that the overwhelming majority of hymns in the New Century Hymnal fell into the pastoral category. This is not surprising, given the categories covered in the hymnal. The main exceptions included hymns focused on the Holy Spirit (which often held an internal pastoral-prophetic tension) and stewardship hymns in the section on stewardship and creation (particularly NCH 556, 557, 559, 563, and 569). That said, a few individual hymns in otherwise “pastoral” sections of the hymnal have prophetic elements or a prophetic focus involving the idea that God is calling the church into the future; these include NCH 177, 314, 391, 417, and 538.

Contemporary hymn writers and worship song composers span and complicate the pastoral/prophetic categories. The Convergence Music Project has several popular songs that blend pastoral and prophetic ideas, such as Richard Bruxvoort Colligan’s interpretations of the Psalms, Bryan Sirchio’s worship song “Dream God’s Dream,” and Christopher Grundy’s prayer song “Leaning In.” One hymn of mine, “History and Mystery,” is specifically about the pastoral/prophetic tension in the life of the church. While church season music often tends toward the pastoral, it is possible to write prophetic church season music in the sense described here, as with my worship song “Hope Waits for Us at Advent.”

Drawing a distinction between pastoral and prophetic worship music, however complicated that distinction may be, raises interesting questions for church musicians and others who program worship music. These questions might be used to understand a congregation's current music pattern or raise possibilities about future music programming. For example:

● Do pieces in one category or the other make more sense in particular places in the service? In my experience, gathering hymns or worship songs are often pastoral, while closing/sending out hymns or worship songs are somewhat more likely to be prophetic. Is this a pattern worth formalizing (or destabilizing)? What would (or do) prophetic Communion hymns sound like? Should the Offertory be pastoral?

● Does strategic use of music in either or both categories differ with:

— The church season?

The lectionary reading?

The focus of the sermon?

The church’s response to specific events in the world?

The culture, character, or history of a particular congregation (including what that congregation finds most comfortable or comforting)?

● What, if anything, does this distinction suggest about the balance of pastoral versus prophetic versus mixed hymns or worship songs in a service? Should our commitment to the past and our obligation to the future be split more or less evenly? Is our holding to our common historical identity as important as, more important than, or less important than our openness to growing into a future that is both “now and not yet?”

Undoubtedly, many more questions and explorations are possible. Please consider the value (and potential limitations) of the distinction between pastoral and prophetic worship music. I also hope you will experiment using these ideas in your worship music programming. Ultimately, I agree with Brian Hehn that the church needs both pastoral and prophetic worship music to be true to both its history and the mystery that we gather to celebrate. May our worship music work effectively in both directions, drawing us close and sending us out to transform the world as we are called forward into God’s dream. 

Amanda Udis-Kessler can be contacted at queersacredmusic.com. Amanda is a hymn writer, sacred music composer, writer, sociologist, and social justice educator. She is the primary accompanist at Vista Grande Community Church UCC in Colorado Springs, CO.


Come, O Come, Our Voices Raise

Composed by Peter Niedmann


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