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Music can shape our mission

WE SING songs and hymns as an act of worship but the lyrics of the music can actually shape a congregation’s attitudes and missional practice.

Ann-Maree Whelan, who has studied ecumenism with the World Council of Churches in Geneva, believes it is possible that some hymns, from another place and time, can shape our understanding of mission in our contemporary community.

Ms Whelan believes that what we sing in our worship is important. “How we pray together and what we say and do in our liturgies has an affect on who we are as church, our identity, our focus, but it also effects the lives of the people in the community,” she said.

Former Director of Communication for the World Council of Churches Dr Albert van den Heuvel said it is the hymns, repeated over and over again which form the container of much of our faith.

“They are probably, in our age, the only confessional documents we learn by heart.”

Ms Whelan believes that this statement is certainly true in Australia where the great majority of churchgoers would have difficulty reciting the creeds said collectively every Sunday.

“They might know a few more bible verses by heart, but the majority of what they remember is set to music,” she said.

“The brothers of the Taizé Community in France know this, which is part of the reason why their whole worship service is built on short chants repeated over and over again.

“The songs resurface in the mind while going about the everyday tasks, and call the person into an inner unity with God again and again throughout the day.

“This is partly what makes often-repeated hymns so powerful, and why we should take them seriously when examining what affects our concept of mission in today’s churches.”

Ms Whelan said that despite 50% of the population having parents or grandparents that speak a language other than English as their mother tongue, the vast majority of the hymns sung in our churches are “old favourites” from the United Kingdom, written in a very different time and context and passed on in a time of colonisation and migration.

“Many of these hymns may still have a great depth of meaning for congregations but it is important that their meanings are critically examined for them to be an authentic expression of our faith.”

Ms Whelan takes the familiar Onward Christian Soldiers as an example of an explicitly missiological hymn.

“It is easy to see how this hymn has survived to the present day; it has striking imagery, stirring music, and it galvanizes support for the Christian enterprise.

“Its language elicits a strong sense of belonging to a vast and strong worldwide movement, and it expresses a great strength of hope and conviction in the missionary endeavour.”

But such imagery is problematic when we live in a multi-faith society and it leaves little space for plurality and respect.

The church carrying out its mission in the world is described in terms of militarism and violence.

“The language of these lyrics is a language of domination. It is an image of the mission field, or the whole world for that matter, as a sort of battle ground, where the church of Jesus is at war with evil forces carrying with them the certainty of the promise that they will prevail.

“The language of violence and domination should have no place in our worship services, especially when it is used to describe mission.”

Ms Whelan argues that this sort of theology is potentially dangerous and destructive for a multicultural country like Australia perched on the edge of Asia.

It is also a dangerous theology for any Christian to hold to in an increasingly pluralistic world.

Ms Whelan thinks it would be difficult to stand against an unjust war where Christian countries were poised to attack a Muslim country while singing Onward Christian Soldiers.

“The dissonance between our actions that were based on critical reflection and our theology of mission, and the implicit theology of the hymn, would be too great.”

Ann-Maree Whelan’s paper The Changing Missiology of Hymns a critical reflection on the hymns Australians use in worship and their implicit theology of mission was first published by Jubilee Grapevine, the national magazine of the Australian Student Christian Movement and can be accessed from www.ascm.org.au/jgOnline/2005Winter/Missiology-Hymns.pdf