Iconic Life: Singing Together as a Sign of Baptism

TheRiverMy wife and I were privileged to have participated in the Iconic Life: Baptism and Music Conference on April 20th. It was a fascinating and fruitful time, and a joy to connect with other music directors and pastors from the Central Valley. We were reminded of how blessed we are to be serving in a local context that would include a morning plenary lecture from a Greek Orthodox priest (Rev. Dr. Christopher Flesoras) and an afternoon plenary talk from a PCA minister/music director (Rev. Luke Brodine). It was an East meets West extravaganza! In addition to planning and leading the morning prayer service, Sarah and I also lead a seminar on communal singing. I have included a rough transcript of my introduction to our seminar. After a brief theological introduction to singing in the context of Christian worship, we proceeded to sing through a variety of examples with those who attended our seminar.

“The River (copyright 2012)  John August Swanson|Eyekons”

Singing Together as Baptized Christians: A (Very) Brief Theological Introduction

Singing is the primary way in which baptized believers have historically participated in corporate worship.

It is the most immediate way. It is physical and visceral. It is an act that translates the “idea” of baptism into Christ into incarnated and physical reality. When the community is singing, the baptized believer is truly participating in (and with) the body of Christ with their whole being. The content of the heart and mind give birth to the resonance of the body. Conspicuously, the hidden reality of baptism is brought into the present world, enacting immediate change in the environment, and in the people around us.

A sacramental understanding of life is ripe with the belief that God uses real things and real people to communicate with us, an extension of the reality of the incarnation. Historic Christianity is not so much concerned with ideas and “spiritual” things as it is with the resurrection of flesh and blood.  That is why singing, especially singing together is so special. It connects our hearts and bodies in a way that bears witness to the incarnation and God’s desire to heal not just our spirits, but our bodies. When baptized voices vibrate the world, all are reminded that matter matters. Bodies matter.

The bedrock of sacramental reality has been a constant in Eastern and Western Christian traditions. St. Athanasius and St. John of Damascus are only two examples of early Church Fathers that held in common a strong defense the implications of the physical incarnation of Christ. A biblical vision of God communing with his creatures though the physical world. And St. John of Damascus’ defense of the icon, and the sacramental nature of the Christian life, is the very basis for a theology of the arts and corporate worship. John of Damascus spike of icons as, “…a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the saints and the disgrace of the demons.” His words could easily describe what happens when the baptized join their voices in songs of praise, confession, assurance, and sending.

Communal singing takes the doctrine of  of the incarnation one step further. It is an intimate and vulnerable act that is seldom experienced in our society of “American Idols”. When we sing together we are not just sharing our voices, thoughts, or agendas, we are sharing our hearts and agreeing with the baptismal identity of our neighbor.

I repeat, this is not something that happens very often is our society. The church is the most vulnerable and healing place on earth when hearts and voices are joined in songs that confirm baptismal identity. Corporate song threatens to consume individual identity and spills over into the world around it. The baptized community participates in an even greater community, that of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It is in this way that singing together is a sacramental sign, even an icon of sorts.

Teaching people to sing and confess together is a weapon against the temptation to over-spiritualize our faith. The truth of the incarnation means that our faith continues well beyond individual minds and emotions. Singing the gospel is an external manifestation of Christian faith. It is the kind of visible unity that has evangelistic power. As such, the baptized should be encouraged to sing as a sign of God’s love. St. Augustine said that, “Singing is for the one who loves.” Voices raised in song are a sign of God’s love for us and of our love for him. It is personal and communal act that expresses the sacramental presence of God to his people and a watching world. Visitors to my own local church are not always able to relate to the content of historic Christianity, but they more often than not comment on how much they enjoyed hearing people sing together.

Every Sunday Christians gather to worship in the context of a liturgical form that (in some way) corresponds to the deepest traditions of Christian worship. The word liturgy means “the work of the people”. Worship is participatory in its very nature and name, and participation is sometimes challenging.  There are many times when our voices do not correspond to the convictions of our hearts. At other times, we are distracted or preoccupied by the cares of the world. But that is ok. Christ always invites us to enter into song, to rise above our own preoccupations, and to give our entire selves to the hymn of his cross and the glory of the Trinity. It is the job of the leader to act as the voice of Christ by inviting people to participate and sing. To use a food metaphor, the quality leader is one who is thoughtful about offering a healthy diet and is adept at providing the congregation with the right utensils with which to eat the various courses.

Setting the Table and Eating Well

You can only invite people to sing, you can’t force them – Tony Alonso

Suggestions for Song Leaders

  • Strong vocal presence that forgoes attention & embellishment
  • Singable tunes that are in proper keys for congregation (A3 – D5)
  • Musicians as servants and facilitators
  • Encourage baptized persons to move from receiving and spectating to participation in Christ’s body. The “work of the people” begins in corporate worship and ends in service outside the church doors.
  • Choosing songs that reinforce service theme/church year/and part of the service flow.

Setting Up the Environment: The Use of Musical Mediums and Space

  • What unspoken messages does your worship space communicate?
  • How are your song leaders physically positioned? Why?
  • How does your worship space orient worshippers?
  • How does the way you use sound and amplification orient worshippers?
  • Is there space for the “voice of the people?”
  • Encouraging congregation to SING!

Healthy Menu for Singing: A Balanced Diet


  • Cantor and People
  • Chanting Psalms (BCP & Psalter)
  • Contemporary Forms (verse & chorus)

Examples: Shepherd Me, O God (Ps. 23) & Our Eyes Rest on You (Ps. 123)

ScripturePhraseShort and Simple Phrases from Scripture  

  • Taizé
  •  Rounds & refrains

Example: O Lord Hear My Prayer

GospelHymnThe Whole Story: Hymns

  •  Historic texts in hymn form
  • 18th & 19th Century hymn form
  • Contemporary (new & re-cast hymns)

LiturgicalResponseLiturgical Responses

  •  Phrases that tie together historic Christian Worship
  • Gloria / Kyrie Doxology  Sanctus/Agnus Dei

Examples: Gloria, Sanctus

SpiritualSongSpiritual Songs

Songs that reflect the congregations’ current historical experience.

  • Solo songs
  • 20th Century Gospel tradition
  • Songs reflecting local or personal context
  • Praise & worship movement

A Few Resources


For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann

Desiring The Kingdom, J.K. Smith

Liturgy as a Way of Life, Bruce Benson

Chanting the Psalms, Cynthia Bourgeault


Psalms for All Seasons (CRC Psalter)

Lift Up Your Hearts (CRC hymnal)

Taizé Community (France)

Our favorite online sites for resources

Cardiphonia.com (current liturgical ideas & resources)

Igracemusic.com (recast hymns)




Our favorite sites for streaming






Our personal blogs with further resources

Abstractcathedral.com (Philip)

Glorianotes.com (Sarah)