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A Time to Keep Silence and a Time to Sing

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Felipe Martinez

In our silence, we listen for the stories of those whose cries for justice we have disregarded and whose expressions of faith we have refused to hear. We grieve the ways our silence indulges cowardice, justifies irresponsibility, and promotes fear in the face of injustice.
– The Sarasota Statement, Part III

I have sung in a choir, on and off, since I was in elementary school. Whether it was a church, college or community choir, singing has been for me such a great avenue to enjoy music together with friends and develop a sense of community. Unfortunately, for as much as I like to sing, I am a terrible sight-reader. The best way for me to learn my part is to rely on repetition and on being next to someone who knows our part well. I sing and sometimes sing the wrong note, but I am always listening to my singing partner, working to learn the piece.

Photo credit: Colorful people, Allstate choir 2007, by Becka Spence via flickr.com. Creative Commons

At that point in the learning process, I actually try not to hear what the other voices in the choir are doing, because my little musical brain can only handle so much input. And so I am in awe of my choir directors through the years, because they can hear every part at the same time. Not only that, they can tell when things are not working well, and they can pinpoint which section is not all on the same note (and I suspect sometimes the director knows I’m the one singing notes of my own creation!). At times the director would stop rehearsal and ask us tenors to sing our part alone. It was not a matter of shaming us, but of helping us get on the same tune. Listening to each other, listening to the accompanist, we learned together, those leading the group and those of us bringing up the rear. The beautiful part then comes when we each know our part well, and then singing as a full choir I depend on listening to the other parts, because now we’ve gone from learning to making music together. We sing cooperatively, letting our voices weave in and out in the melody and harmony as the composer would have us do.

As a Church, through the centuries, we have been at our worst when we’ve demanded that only a unison song of our own making will be our song; that no other notes, no harmony could enter our performance. We have been at our worst when we’ve silenced the voices which would have woken up our theology from its oppressive droning on, or challenged prophetically its monotone which we had been indoctrinated to think was the only note which would please God. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

To our shame, when we knew the Church was not singing God’s song, when in our discomfort we silently went along with a harsh tune of judgement and condemnation, of injustice disguised as purity, we unfaithfully let our ears be stopped up and we let God down.

Yet God is steadfast. God has always heard all the voices and has relentlessly invited all into God’s song. As a gracious director, God grants us pauses when we get to listen to voices other than our own, and offers us time to listen to ourselves alone for a moment so we can find our way back to our part in God’s song.

The poet writes there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7) — which I could paraphrase “and a time to sing.” What is crucial is that in that ancient rhythm, the Church faithfully sings God’s song of love and mercy, so that in our pauses we will truly hear those voices God knew were being drowned out, so that in our time of silence we will truly hear the divine melody as it is meant to be heard, so that as we draw the necessary breath of the Spirit we will to jump back into the song when we’re cued.


Felipe N. Martinez has been a solo pastor of a small and a medium sized congregation, as well as an Associate Executive Presbyter and Interim Executive Presbyter. He is currently the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Indiana.

Collaborative Creation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Paul is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Manna for the People: Cultivating Creative Resources for Worship in the Wilderness.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Paul Vasile

It’s a gift to catch glimpses of God-with-us in workshops and planning gatherings I facilitate for pastors, musicians, and worship leaders. As we read, sing, and improvise with scripture and liturgy, the Word takes on flesh in unexpected and beautiful ways, often with refreshing directness and authenticity as individuals bring their voice and story into dialogue with sacred text.

This fall, leaders of a newly bi-lingual congregation gathered for a day of worship, reflection, and worship planning. We used the morning to strengthen community through practices of listening and discernment then divided into small groups, each assigned an Advent lectionary Psalm and a part of the liturgy to create (call to worship, community liturgy, prayer petitions, etc). There were a few anxious asides as we began but energy and ideas quickly flowed in Spanish and English. Twenty minutes later, we reconvened to share the thoughtful, hand-crafted pieces of liturgy they created together. A feeling of mutual support and care was tangible, as was the joy of making something specifically for their community.

Wholeness and beauty are found in creative spaces like these, where individuals and groups create space for new ideas and visions to bubble up and out of our imaginations. There is also something profoundly risky and anxious about it. Creating is vulnerable work and can be chaotic and unresolved. Sometimes we take what we’ve created, set it aside, and need start over. It’s humbling.

But there are profound gifts to be found in creating collaboratively, especially for leaders of faith communities. How might our ministry shift as we practice being in the present moment, as we deepen our listening skills and trust our God-given instincts, and as we shift from an often-obsessive focus on product and outcome to appreciation for (and even delight in) the process? How might we learn to dialogue with voices of judgement or critique that often lead us to shut doors that need to be left open or even walked through?

This is what we’ll explore at our National Gathering post-Gathering seminar “Manna for the People.” We’ll burrow into Eastertide scripture passages through improvisation, singing, and play, with lots of space for individual and group reflection. We’ll create a gracious, generous space where our creative instincts are welcomed and affirmed, where we stretch and grow into new ways of leading and living. And we’ll find joy and pleasure in making something together, as we offer our voices and ideas to shape worship for our faith communities.

Like Mary, who welcomed unknown possibilities with a bold “Yes,” we’ll use the phrase “Yes, and…” in our improvisation work and see what unfolds. Like the shepherds watching their flocks, we’ll hear the proclamation “Do not fear!” and reflect deeply on ways the love of God liberates us from judgement and anxiety that prevent us from taking creative risks. Like the Wise Ones, we’ll listen to our intuition, trusting the wisdom of God and the community to take us where we need to go.

As the mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is ever waiting to be born.” We hope you’ll join us at the NEXT Church National Gathering in February as we make space for the Holy One to be known in our work and play. Join us for an extra day of exploration, growth, and collaboration, and discover new skills and practices to enrich your ministry. It will be a renewing, life-giving experience!


Paul Vasile is a freelance church musician, consultant, and composer based in New York City. A multitalented musician and dynamic worship leader, he is committed to building, renewing, and re-shaping faith communities through music and liturgy. Paul brings over twenty years of ministry experience to his work as a consultant, workshop facilitator, and teacher. He is excited to help congregations broaden their repertoire of sung prayer and praise, and to demonstrate how participatory music and liturgy can energize and unify worshippers from varied backgrounds, cultures, and traditions.

Diversity, Acceptance, and the Need for Reconciliation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Jason Brian Santos

For as long as I can remember, the topic of diversity within community has never been a serious point of conversation in my home. Coming from a bi-racial family, navigating the challenges of diversity was a fact of life. Growing up, our holiday dinners and birthday celebrations were always an interesting blend of Filipino culture and Pennsylvania Dutch-influenced Americana. While the food was amazing, our feasts were always accompanied by a myriad of obvious cultural differences and unspoken customs. Inevitably, at times tensions arose; sometimes we figured it out and sometimes we didn’t. Consequently, for most of my life, I just assumed real diversity always came with challenges.

Though I would still maintain that viewpoint today, I had an experience in 2005 that changed my thinking about what happens when a bunch of diverse people come together in Christian community. I was working on an independent study course for my M.Div on the topic of young adult spirituality and the Taizé community. My project included a research trip to Taizé, the small village located in the Burgundy region of France, which is home to over 110 brothers – not to mention over 100,000 spiritual seekers who make pilgrimages to the community every year.

For this vastly diverse group of pilgrims, Taizé has become their “spiritual home.” It doesn’t matter where they are from, what language they speak, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, how much money they make or what religious tradition they’re from – in Taizé, everyone is welcomed and accepted for who they are. Each pilgrim is shown genuine hospitality, a 1,500 year-old hallmark of western monasticism.

In Taizé, all pilgrims pray together three times a day in the Church of Reconciliation using sung prayers written in dozens of languages. They study Scripture in diverse groups, which guarantees an assortment of different perspectives on the passage. They work alongside one another preparing food, distributing meals, and cleaning up. They clean bathrooms together and pick up trash alongside one another. Every pilgrim is expected to participate in the communal practices established by the community: the brothers understand that it is in their very participation that these young adults experience genuine acceptance, which in time opens a path towards reconciliation with one another.

These pilgrims aren’t just tolerating diversity in Taizé for the sake of political correctness; they authentically celebrate it as part of what makes the community feel like a living example of God’s Kingdom on earth. In fact, in my research on why young adults make pilgrimages to Taizé, one of the key themes that surfaced was the “feeling of acceptance.” At the core of this feeling, pilgrims experience a tangible sense of reconciliation. This should come as no surprise, considering that reconciliation has been the doctrine undergirding the Taizé Community since its humble beginnings in 1940.

For the late Brother Roger, the founder and first prior of Taizé, reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel. Whether it was offering Jewish refugees sanctuary or caring for German prisoners after the war, the brothers have always sought to be a sign of reconciliation. Even more, as more young Europeans began making pilgrimages to Taizé in the 50s and 60s, the brothers realized they needed to adapt their sacred French liturgies in order to truly welcome the pilgrims into their daily prayers. Latin soon became the primary language used in their sung chants, because it functioned as a universal language belonging to no particular country, nation, or people. Over the course of the next decade, chants in other languages were integrated into Taizé’s prayer book, and the prayers as we now know them gradually emerged. Still today, the sung prayers of the community function as a sign of acceptance and reconciliation.

Come to think of it, it’s rather ironic that these pilgrims find such acceptance in one of the most diverse environments they will likely experience in their lives. Maybe the central reason why is because they are never asked to put aside who they are, as if diversity is a hindrance to reconciliation; instead, through the rhythm of Taizé’s communal practices, the pilgrims are invited to take their gaze off of their own particularities and focus it on what draws them together and unites them – their identity in Christ Jesus. It’s through Christ that we bear witness to the magnitude of God’s reconciliation with all of creation and in Christ, that we are accepted and claimed as children of God.


Jason Brian Santos is the Mission Coordinator for Christian Formation (Christian education, children, youth, college, young adult, camps and conference ministries) at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. He also serves as the National Director of UKirk Collegiate Ministries. He is an ordained teaching elder in the PCUSA and holds a Ph.D. in practical theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of A Community Called Taizé (IVP, 2008) and Sustaining the Pilgrimage (IVP Academic, forthcoming). He currently resides in Louisville, KY with his wife, Shannon and his two sons, Judah and Silas (aka Tutu). In his spare time, he plays and designs board games.

A Community Knit Through Song

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Eric Wall, assistant professor of sacred music and dean of chapel at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, reflects on the role of music in church. What do you believe God is doing through song? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.

We Need a Little Christmas, Right This Very Minute: On Singing Christmas Carols During Advent

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

One of the gifts of being in the NEXT Church is the opportunity to examine everything—literally everything—we do as people of God, to see whether our practices are still a faithful witness to Christ in the 21st century.

One of the challenges of being in the NEXT Church is… the very same thing.

I have thought for many years about the church’s observance of Advent—those four weeks leading up to Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I get the importance of Advent themes. Spiritual preparation helps us not get carried away in a wave of kitschy detritus and overconsumption. There’s something important about not jumping the gun. There’s something lovely in letting the moment ripen. In an instant gratification culture, the discipline of waiting and watching could not be more vital.

On the other hand, it’s a challenge for the church to begin the celebration of Christmas on December 24. By that time, most people have been binging on yuletide cheer for several weeks and are ready for Christmas to end. We’re cranking up the Christmas carols when people may be sick of hearing them thanks to so many mall PA systems.

When we in the mainline church insist on Adventen purity (no Christmas music until X, no tree until Y), when we hold Christmas back with a whip and a chair, because it’s good for us, darn it!… then we are out of step with the world around us.

Maybe we’re out of step in an important, prophetic way. But I wonder. Some years ago I heard Tom Are of Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City name this dynamic: “I just don’t think the church gets to tell the culture what time it is. Maybe in Christendom we could do that, but no more.”

In fact, there have been years when the people I serve seemed so desperate for the incarnation, so starved for good news, that it seemed downright cruel to withhold the message that the Lord is come. Is come, now, in early December, amid the shopping and the hustle and the stress. Other years, it seems appropriate to hit Advent themes more strongly. I wonder if pastors might plan their Decembers based on the rhythms and needs of the communities they serve first, rather than the dictates of the Revised Common Lectionary.

One of the arguments for Advent is that it provides space for people to grieve. Advent gives permission for people not to be jolly. But that’s a question of mood, not of message. Advent is about preparation and expectations unfulfilled. which can bring pain. But Advent waiting can also be deeply joyful (think of the hymn “People, Look East”). By contrast, the incarnation of Christ is cause for rejoicing, but Christmas can also be wistful and brooding (“In the Bleak Midwinter.”)

In other words, yes, Advent can be a corrective to the jingly jangly cheer that’s so jarring—even hurtful—to people who just aren’t feeling it. But Christmas can be that corrective too. There are ways to minister to the brokenhearted while also preaching Christmas. True Christmas, not the store-bought version.

Over the years I’ve thought about other reasons we might observe Christmas in December, specifically through the singing of Christmas carols. Some, I will admit, are more weighty than others:

1. The dramata-liturgical reason. (I think I made that word up.) Rather than erecting a rigid wall between the seasons, many of us see the boundary between Advent and Christmas as a semi-permeable membrane. The longing for Christmas blooms over the four weeks. This happens in many churches visually, with decorations growing more elaborate throughout December. It could happen musically as well.

So on Advent 1 we might sing all Advent hymns. Advent 2, we might do two Advent and one Christmas–one of the more obscure ones. Advent 3, same ratio, but we might break out with a well-known carol, e.g. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” or “What Child is This?”. And so forth.

2. The numerical reason. Advent is twice as long as the Christmastide, yet there are twice as many Christmas hymns as Advent ones (at least in the current PCUSA hymnal—we’ll see what Glory to God offers us!). Why would we limit ourselves liturgically in December? It would be like planning worship with one hand tied behind our back.

3. The pedagogical reason. In the bygone years of Christendom, children learned and sang Christmas carols in school. I’m only 40, but even I remember this from my childhood. The shift in our culture means it’s our job—church and family—to teach Christmas carols to our children. I want my kids to know all three verses of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I want them to know both tunes for “Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

4. The musical reason. As pastor of a small church, I agree with David R. Ray, who urges small-church pastors to choose songs that their people know how to sing—even if those hymns may be a bit old-fashioned or have some iffy theology. In a large church, you’ve got a big choir or a critical mass of people who can carry an unfamiliar hymn. Not so in a small church. A beloved hymn well sung is a more joyful noise to the Lord then a theologically impeccable hymn that people fumble their way through. And few hymns are as familiar and beloved as Christmas carols. (That’s not to say that we don’t teach new ones, but the familiar ones are the spoonful of sugar that help the new ones go down.)

5. The pastoral reason. Life is difficult. Folks are hassled, grieved, cranky. It costs me so little to choose Christmas carols in December, and people genuinely appreciate it. Not because they are spiritually shallow and impatient, and “If only they got Advent they would love it as much as we clergy do!” But because they know the carols well and singing them brings them joy. Because Christmas hymns connect them with loved ones long gone. And the words can be powerful. The “dawn of redeeming grace” never fails to give me goose bumps.

In short, it is not necessarily kowtowing to culture to sing Christmas carols when people long to sing them. It is pastorally sensitive. (I’ll take the “kowtowing to culture” argument a lot more seriously when I hear about churches singing “Frosty the Snowman.”)

6. The evangelistic reason. December is a well-attended month of the church year. People want to be in church. It’s a good time to be attentive to guests. As such, it’s an act of hospitality to choose familiar hymns. Newcomers may not know what the heck a doxology is, and darn it, the church does a different version of the Lord’s Prayer than the one they know, but whew!, they can join in on ”Angels We Have Heard on High.”

There you go… I’ve made my best case. Let’s hear from you now. Hit me with your best shot in the comments or on our Facebook page.


MamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time, selling like hotcakes on Amazon and Chalice Press. She writes about “beauty, ideas, creativity, and the life of the Spirit” at her website, The Blue Room. She is on the strategy team of NEXT Church and a co-editor of the NEXT Church blog.

And she looks forward to singing “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” this Sunday in worship.