Articles by R&S Chairs


Music ministry and social justice; a duet made in heaven

by Vicky Thomas, R & S Chair for Music in Worship


With the refrains of We Shall Overcome and Lift Every Voice and Sing still ringing in our ears from Martin Luther King Sunday, it’s a great time to reflect on the opportunity we have to change lives when we deliberately focus our music ministry on social justice issues.

The primary concern of most faiths is an individual’s path toward a right relationship with God.   Close behind is the call for believers to “get it right” with their neighbor.    “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  - Micah 6:8.  For those of us who have singing as our primary spiritual language, let’s paraphrase that:  “What does the Lord require of you but to sing justice, sing kindness and to sing humbly before your God?”

Weekly worship is the first and primary place where we sing our kinder, more just world into being.   There are many wonderful musical resources and indexes that help us find just the right song for a particular passage of scripture.   But can we go a step further?  Can our music turn to social action and venture outside the choir loft?  We don’t have to go very far, maybe just down to our own church kitchen where someone is serving meals to the hungry.    So what’s next?

Getting Out of the Loft  - Making Connections

One Option  – The Social Justice Concert -  Raising Awareness and Funds
Many choirs do some kind of yearly concert or once-a-year singing event.   Why not make the focus of your next concert one of the social justice programs already ongoing in your church?  We are not talking “LIVE –AID” or “BAND-AID” here.  As long as we are vigilant stewards of production costs, the focus and the funding stays where it should….with the social justice program.

For the last four years our choir has identified a social justice issue within our community and built a concert around it.   That issue shapes our retreat in August ; we reflect and pray about it through the year.  During the year we volunteer directly somehow in programs dealing with that issue.   The rewards to the choir members and to the church community have been enormous.

The repertoire for a social justice concert can be quite topical:  for example, a requiem for peace.  Last year our concert in aid of refugees from Burma was based on the “new heaven and new earth” section of Gounod’s Mors et Vita.  But the repertoire needn’t be topical as long as the joy and spirit animating the event is clear.

Connections within your Church
The faithful who work week in and week out in social justice ministries often get a needed psychological boost when another group, like the choir, lifts up their mission, even indirectly through a concert.  (WARNING CAVEAT:  ALWAYS have your planning START with these workers in the trenches and see whether your efforts would be welcome!)  The choir’s help can be direct aid; an extra quartet of hands serving meals for a month may be just the way to provide respite help for these faithful.

Another valuable connection within your church is possible with the education program.  With enough advanced planning, the education curriculum can often dovetail with the musical and social justice programs.     Children’s programs can also get involved.  All of a sudden it isn’t just a choir concert, but a church witness!

Connections outside your Church
Increasingly churches are reaching outside their walls to recognize and sometimes to partner with other churches that have similar concerns.  For example, eighteen months ago, Portland’s First Unitarian (Mark Slegers, dir.), First United Methodist (Ethan Sperry , dir.) and First Baptist (Travis Hatton, dir.) churches hosted our choir for concert  to combat homelessness. Four congregations coalesced around music and mission.   Some of those attending had never stepped foot in the other’s sanctuary.  If a concert for social justice is too big a leap for your choir alone, partnering with another church choir spreads the amount of music to prepare so it is manageable.

The Other End of the Spectrum – Small Group Music Ministry
As choir directors, we are generally most comfortable with the choir singing a song that has been planned and rehearsed for our congregation.  This is a formal, public way of making music.  But another kind of music ministry is gaining momentum and is quite different in presentation:  the  bedside or home-client singing model.  Here a couple of singers go regularly to visit and sing for the elderly, the ill, the homebound or the dying.   Professional music therapy has long been recognized as a valuable therapeutic tool, but there is a place for musical caregivers of many sorts.   The social injustice that isolates the elderly, the ill and the dispossessed is dissolved when we sing together or for each other.   Hymnody is an obvious source of repertoire but there is a body of rounds, chants, and Taize-like song that create a peaceful space for singer and listener.

In between the concert and the bedside are a wide range of ways to have music ministry and social justice sing a beautiful duet of service.    Please write and share some of your experiences to  I look forward to hearing about them!