January 21, 2021

Eric Wyse: A Theology of Music in Worship

Note from CM: In days to come, I will be introducing and interviewing Eric Wyse, the author of this post. Eric is my brother-in-law, an extremely gifted musician, and currently Director of Music at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN. More about his journey on the Canterbury Trail later; for today he has contributed a thoughtful foundational document that guides him and his congregation as they sing and play music to the Lord in worship. He has also kindly included some statements about worship from the Book of Common Prayer and a list of books for more study on the subject.

Eric blogs at HYMNWYSE, and you can find links to his other sites there as well.

Like the statement from the USCCB we looked at last week, I commend this to you as an example of the good theological and musicological thinking that the church is capable of doing and should be doing with regard to music.

* * *


The vision for music in worship at St. Bartholomew’s is one of worship of the Triune God with all our beings, with all of our emotions, and with all of our intellect–hence we worship joyfully and exuberantly, as well as meditatively and reverently. In accordance with the canons of the church, the rector serves as the worship leader for the parish; the music director assists the rector in matters of music.

Our focus begins with who God is: in songs of adoration and praise we worship Him and proclaim His goodness, greatness, love, mercy, holiness and all of His attributes, asking nothing in return but to enjoy His presence. We then move to expressions of thanksgivingfor what He has done for us–in all that he has given to us. Songs of penitence remind us of our sins, our need for forgiveness, and resolve to live rightly. With songs of oblation, we offer both our resources and our lives to God for His service. With songs of prayer, we ask for what we desire and need, when we bring to God our and intercessions and petitions, on behalf of others, and for ourselves. As we worship, our primary purpose, starting point, ending point and overall “umbrella” is an acknowledgement of who God is, and our response His call. This is a very God focused, rather than me-focused expression.

At St. Bartholomew’s, our musical offering is a reflection of who we are as believers living in a post-modern world, connected to the ancient historic faith. We draw from various styles and periods of music, including classic hymns, chant, and anthems, as well as fresh new expressions of music from around the world – praise songs, Taizé music from France, music of renewal from the Roman church, and Celtic music. We sing music that is hundreds of years old, because in addition to the truth it contains, it reminds us we are a part of the historic church, and we sing today the same music the saints of old sang, and in that way are joined as one church universal. We sing modern music, because he has put a new song in our hearts. We draw from the wealth of resources from our varied traditions. We sing in other modern languages (Spanish) to remind us that we are part of a global church, and we sing in Latin, which was the language of the church for most of church history. When we sing in Spanish, we connect to the believers in our church body who worship with us, singing in their first language. When we sing in Latin we connect with the historic language of the church–a language that is still sung every Sunday around the world. When we sing the service music we join our voices “with angels and archangels and all the host of heaven” (i.e. the cloud of witnesses).

The architecture of our buildings, while modern, is rooted in history. Our sacred space includes stained glass depicting the story of redemption and the history of the church, and is constructed of materials from creation (wood, stone, brick. fabric), The church building faces east, and is shaped to represent Noah’s Ark as a reminder of the covenant. Just as our building are designed to be different in style than other buildings in our daily life, our musical expression will intentionally sound different than the music we hear during the week. Our expression, as believers directly connected to our creator, should be unique–not foreign from our culture, but set apart, as our sacred space is, for worship.

Our goal as a church is to have one integrated service plan that is repeated as needed (currently two ninety-minute Sunday morning times) that incorporates historic, modern, and global music. Rather than offering a “smorgasbord” of sound (take your pick of what you like–a traditional service of hymns and anthems, or a contemporary service of modern praise and worship), or a blended “soup” (everything is a blend of somewhat classical, somewhat pop, somewhat Broadway middle-of-the-road offend-no-one music), in the context of convergence, we offer musical “stew”–an expression of various styles, all working within a context of taste appropriate for Sunday worship, each with its distinctive flavor, yet a part of the whole in one cohesive “dish”.

In very practical terms, rather than having a distinct division of classic hymns and anthems(organ, choir) and praise band (rhythm section of piano, bass, drums, guitar) we find ways to create a modern “chamber music” approach of find the right combination of instruments to best support a given piece of music. In practical terms, this will usually be a combination of grand piano, acoustic guitar, percussion, bass, and one additional instrument (usually orchestral). The configuration varies from week to week depending upon the availability of musicians and the music chosen.

Our music will be primarily congregational, as we hear from God and are best transformed into his likeness, within the context of community. Because we view the human voice as the primary instrument through which we offer praise, we sing some music unaccompanied (a cappella) each week. As we lift our voices alone, we are certain to hear the voices around us, (not just the instruments offering accompaniment), and are reminded that we live and worship in a community of joined voices and lives. On occasion, a soloist, or choir will offer music as an offering. During this time, we will engage in active listening as God speaks to us. At times, we will be silent and hear the Spirit speaking to the church.

The music in our worship will be Christo-centric — in every service we will use music to help retell the story of God’s saving acts throughout history — from creation, the exodus, and other events in Hebrew history, to the incarnation, death, resurrection and reign of Christ and the coming of His Kingdom. Our selection of music is sure to include a balance of songs about, to and in praise of the Father, Son, and Spirit, as well as combined Trinitarian language. At least one Trinitarian doxological expressions is usually chosen. We are careful to include songs that speak to both God’s transcendence and imminence. In his transcendence, He exists apart from us, and is not encumbered by our physical, or human limitations; he exists in majesty, beauty and power above and beyond all that we understand. In his immanence, he has purposely chosen to intersect our universe, and through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, He participates within this material world, and knows our every joy, sorrow, pain and weaknesses. The music we sing is evaluated to achieve a balance of texts that remind us of God’s revelation toward us, and our response to God’s call upon our lives, as evidenced both in personal transformation into the image and likeness of Christ, and a call to work for justice and peace in our society. We also strive to maintain a balance of expressive, instructive, aesthetic, and memorial dimensions in the texts chosen.

Living in community, the gifts of musical composition within our parish will be encouraged, and used so that our expression through music is uniquely ours as we offer new music (hymns, modern songs, service music, chants, Psalm settings, anthems, etc.). The musicality of our composers will help determine the palette from which we illustrate our expression of praise to God. Thus many of the praise songs, anthems, and new settings of hymns, as well as the majority of our service music, have been composed by members of our parish.

–Eric Wyse, Director of Music (© 2001, revised 2008, 2011)

* * *

From The Book of Common Prayer (1979)
Prayer and Worship

Q What is prayer?
A Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.

Q What is Christian Prayer?
A Christian prayer is response of God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Q What prayer did Christ teach us?
A Our Lord gave us the example of prayer knows as the Lord’s Prayer.)

Q What are the principle kinds of prayer?
A The principle kinds of prayer are adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition.

Q What is adoration?
A Adoration is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.

Q Why do we praise God?
A We praise God, not to obtain anything, but because God’s Being draws praise from us.

Q For what do we offer thanksgiving?
A Thanksgiving is offered to God for all the blessings of this life, for our redemption, and for whatever draws us closer to God.

Q What is penitence?
A In penitence, we confess our sins and make restitution where possible, with the intention to amend our lives.

Q What is prayer of oblation?
A Oblation is an offering of ourselves, our lives and labors, in union with Christ, for the purposes of God.

Q What are intercession and petition?
A Intercession brings before God the needs of others; in petition, we present our own needs, that God’s will may be done.

Q What is corporate worship?
A In corporate worship, we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.



Suggested Reading

Cherry, Constance M. The worship architect: a blueprint for designing culturally relevant and
biblically faithful services. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010.

Gustafson, Gerrit. The adventure of worship: discovering your highest calling. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Chosen Books, 2006.

Rienstra, Debra, and Ron Rienstra. Worship words: discipling language for faithful ministry.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009.

Scheer, Greg. The art of worship: a musician’s guide to leading modern worship. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Baker Books, 2006.

Webber, Robert. The Biblical foundations of Christian worship. Nashville, Tenn.: Star Song
Pub. Group, 1993.

Wren, Brian A. Praying twice: the music and words of congregational song. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.


  1. Beautifully written and theologically and practically sound. The only minute change that would suit me personally is reserving singing in Spanish for a single service. At our parish, which has about 1.2% native Spanish speakers, our choir throws one out once in a awhile and it gets butchered. More of us “old f@rts” can sing in Latin.

    • The inclusion of Spanish language is new for us – and so far I have had it led by vocalists who are native Spanish speakers. I’m not sure we Anglos do it “well”, but we do it anyway – and I know for the members of our congregation for whom Spanish is their first language it is a meaningful expression of power of the gospel to cross culture, race, language, and time.

  2. Excellent essay!

  3. Love it! How I wish ….

  4. God gave us the incredible ability to be creative, and the expression of that creativity in worship is profound when we understand the who and why we are worshiping. Thank you for conveying the reasons so articulately.

  5. Wonderful post. St. Bart’s sounds like an amazing place to worship.

    I had a discussion with the worship leader from my own church re: “blended” worship (which is almost always a nightmare). I’ll revisit the conversation again soon, and show him the ideas of a “stew” vs. a “smorgasbord”.

    Best post of the month thus far! Love IM!

    • The “stew” metaphor I borrowed from Carlton Pearson, who I first heard it in the early 1990s used to describe the context of his racially integrated church in Tulsa. It rang true to me in the context not only of racial and cultural integration that would allow for differing groups to retain the uniqueness of their expression and contribute to the whole, but for how our artistic expression in music could also be realized in the church community.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Eric, thank you so much for sharing this with us. Without a theology of music the modern church has become just another venue for the entertainment industry seeking to satisfy it clients from week to week with loud happy clappy. When I go to these kind of services two things happen. My old back is hurting from standing for 15-25 minutes singing the same lines over and over and my old eardrums are ringing from so-called “big sound.” (Way too loud for God to hear.)

    And then I come away from church wondering why I even bothered. I could just sit at home alone and become “spiritual.”

    One question I’ve thought about. Will the people who love this stuff be doing the same kind of music when they get old? What kind of “worship” will they want then? I can just see one of these congregations full of grey hair, hurting bodies, canes, and oxygen machines. Will they just leave the church? Make up something new? Or keep on trying to do the same old thing?

    Every church needs a theology of music. A rationale that everyone understands needs to undergird the work, music, and worship of a congregation.

    Thanks again. This is one to clip and save.

  7. CM…did you see this joke posted on Scot McNight’s blog. It’s called “Parable of the Cubs Fan”



  8. Good solid stuff, Eric.
    I’m thinking I would enjoy services at your church. And I think a lot of churches would do well to seek more balance a broader spectrum, and more Christ-centeredness when it comes to the musical element of worship.
    But as someone who has spent the past several years primarily in simple and home-based church environments, I do find what you describe as a little pre-planned, controlled, and lacking in opportunities for contribution and input from every member of the body — like Paul described in his first letter to the Corinthians. But I also admit that is almost impossible to facilitate in a large (20-plus) gathering — so don’t take what I just said as a criticism. I can appreciate and enjoy a well-planned liturgy — but most of my favorite times of worship have happened spontaneously around a campfire or on someone’s back deck.

    • Although we plan well, and work from a printed service bulletin, we still leave room for change and spontaneity. I feel the freedom, and take it when I feel led, to change a song, the order, or begin something well known that is not “planned”. My musicians also know they have to freedom to extemporaneously start a well-known song if they feel so led. We have built a trust between clergy, music leadership and musicians that allows for such openness.

      Each week our pastor in the welcome lets everyone know we will follow the bulletin as written (it contains all the music – lyrics for those hymns found in the hymnal in the pew, music score notation for all other music), all the liturgy and scriptures) or as the Spirit leads, diverge and let them know. While it’s not a weekly occurrence to go “off plan” it does happen with some regularity – enough that it is not unsettling to people – I have found I just need to be speak with clarity when we do make changes during the service.

      • It’s fascinating how different people can be. What one perceives as an unsettling disruption in the routine another sees as a refreshing or even inspiring change of pace. I’m sure that dealing with different people and their different tastes, preferences, and temperaments is one of the major challenges of doing what you do.

  9. ” . . . we sing in Latin, which was the language of the church for most of church history.”

    It would perhaps sound less parochial if this read “we sing in Latin which was the language of the Western Church for most of church history.”

    I have never been to an Orthodox service and am curious as to their musical beliefs and practices. Strangely enough the nearest one to me is a little country church out in the sticks. I sometimes think of dropping in at the little Methodist country church up the road but the thought of having to endure standing up and faking it with 25 quavery oldsters dutifully following the hymnal in a pitch too high for majority humanity squelches that.

    When I first consciously committed my life to Jesus I read Haley’s Handbook to the Bible. The only thing I can remember from that in the musical section it said to pastors and musical directors that there would be pressure to transpose hymns to a lower, singable key, and that must be resisted at all cost. The only two churches I’ve ever attended where I actually enjoyed singing the hymns were a “happy-clappy” Foursquare Church and an ELCA Lutheran Church. Both transposed down to where I live.

    There is a Catholic Church within range that used to have one service with no music. I would seriously consider that as an option if I wasn’t unwelcome at their table and I don’t like having to sneak in. May be the same problem at the Orthodox table. I imagine I could get by at this Nashville congregation just standing respectfully without having to pretend I was singing.

    Guess me and the doggies will just keep going to the Church of the Ninth Tee. The birches and birdies don’t seem to mind that we don’t sing hymns tho the birds are welcome to do so if they choose. What I really want is to find a place where they sing the psalms. I think I could handle that.

    • Excellent point re: Western church – and an edit I will make. Our use of the Kyrie (sung in both Greek and English) and Trisagion (when used sung in English) is at least a nod to our Orthodox heritage as well.

      And as to lowering keys, I am an advocate of pitching music that is comfortable for the majority of the congregation, taking into account that generally men’s voices need it lower in their octave then women’s voices. When I edited The Christian Life Hymnal for Hendrickson Publishers, one of our main objectives was to lower many of the hymns that are often in keys out of the range of the average parishioner (not choir member), with the assumption that most people will sing the melody even if they have a lower voice, not the alto or bass part. We were pretty ruthless in lowering keys (“Holy, Holy, Holy” begins the hymnal in the key of C) – and it has been an overwhelmingly appreciated feature of the hymnal.

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

        One of my favorite hymnals is Lifeway’s 2008 Worship Hymnal, also known as the 2008 SBC hymnal. One of the changes over the 199x Baptist Hymnal was the lowering of the keys on a lot of songs. Yet, when we’ve played some of these at church, we find it’s still pretty high a lot of the time. I’ll check out Christian Life Hymnal and see how that is 🙂

  10. Charles, you are welcome to check out Catholic parishes….but a gentle reminder, we don’t have “services”, we have “Mass”, 364 days a year. We DO have a non-Mass service on Good Friday. Thanks…

  11. Great article. I am a huge fan of the “convergence” idea. Also love the BCP catechism, it’s the first I ever read and a great tool for the church.

Speak Your Mind