Sing it like you mean it

Rev. Hugh Donnelly elicits a joyful noise from 700 grateful church educators

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Rev. Hugh Donnelly

GALVESTON, Texas — It’s been the job of the Rev. Hugh Donnelly to get the 700 people attending this week’s Association of Presbyterian Church Educators event to sing like they mean it and, while they’re at it, make a joyful noise to the Lord.

Donnelly, the minister at Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church in Toronto who has what he calls a passion for congregational singing, explained his thought process for choosing the songs he’s taught educators this week.

Instead of instantly liking or disliking a song, the question to ask, he said Thursday, is what does this song teach me about who God is?

“I’m drawn to songs that tear walls down, that include expansive metaphors for God and traditional metaphors as well — God in radically nonviolent terms,” he said.

Church is one of the few places where people sing together, he noted. “You may sing the National Anthem at a ballgame or sing along at a concert, but at church we sing meaningful music together,” he said. “We pay people to make music for us, but in church we do it together, because liturgy is the work of God’s people.”

Not all the songs Donnelly has introduced have been sacred songs. One, Ben Rector’s “Make Something Beautiful,” is “a prayer about helping me to make something that’s a gift to the world,” he said. “Isn’t that a prayer we have all prayed? It doesn’t have to say ‘Jesus’ to make it sacred.”

He’s also relied on music from other lands. Several years ago Malawi was experiencing severe flooding, so his church learned a song from that country and sang it during worship. He called it “a deeply spiritual act to sing their music as we stood in solidarity with their suffering.”

During the APCE event, Donnelly has introduced some songs without his guitar, relying only on the 700 voices present.

“Sometimes in worship we have just too much noise,” he said. “Voices are the most beautiful instruments, and I hope you hear and feel that beauty as these harmonies wash over us. You are helping to create that beauty. No one was doing it for you. In a way there is vulnerability and it makes us a little uncomfortable, but you heard the results. It was stunningly beautiful.”

Donnelly did a similar APCE gig five years ago in Orlando. When the event came to a close, a woman stopped him and told him this story: As a girl she loved to sing, but a choir director told her she should just mouth the words, which she did — for 70 years, until the APCE event.

“I share this story because she reminded me that in the church we aren’t always so good about allowing voices to be heard, literally and metaphorically,” he said. “If there’s anything I can do to help people find their voices in the church so they don’t need to mouth the words or pretend their whole lives, then it’s a good thing.”

“Keep singing,” he encouraged the crowd to loud applause. “May your singing continue to transform you on a personal level, and the communities in which you find yourself.”

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