Tell Me What You Sing, and I’ll Tell You Who You Are!—a reflection on how our worship ‘song’ helps shape our identity as the UCA


David MacGregor

About the Author

Rev David MacGregor is a Uniting Church minister with great passion and love for music and Christian Education, as well as work with children and young people. He has served the Church in many different capacities, in local congregational ministry, serving on the National Working Group on Worship, chairing the Queensland Synod Schools Commission and teaching as a Faculty Associate with Trinity College Queensland. David is a current member of the Assembly Transforming Worship panel and frequently offers worship song resources on social media. In addition, he regularly makes available Christian worship resources through Together to Celebrate.


When presenting a paper at Wesley Uniting Church in Canberra in October 2008, noted North American music-in-worship writer C. Michael Hawn quoted one Albert van den Heuval who boldly claimed: “Tell me what you sing, and I’ll tell you who you are!”1 Hawn followed immediately with his own comment: “Perhaps through singing more broadly we may also discover who we may become.”2 Is the Act2 initiative, at least in part, the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) seeking to indeed discover “who we may become”? In the thoughts I offer, I will seek that we as church sing “more broadly”.

“Worship, witness and service” is deeply entrenched in our Uniting Church ethos. However, is worship listed first for deep theological reasons? Is this something sequential; our witness and service (and I would add learning/formation/spiritual growth) emanating from that core that is worship OR are the three words far more like a dance, each intertwining, forming and being informed by the other?

I ask: does the worship we offer God shape our discipleship and mission or is it the reverse: our mission and discipleship shaping our worship? You see, since the early centuries of Christianity, the church has affirmed the Latin dictum: “Lex Orandi, lex credenda” (Latin for “the law of what is prayer is the law of what is believed”). In other words: prayer, which is ultimately what worship song is, and belief are integral to each other. Worship and liturgy are not distinct from theology. Some have extended this further as “Lex Orandi, lex credenda, lex vivendi” thus emphasising that what is prayed, believed, and lived are intertwined.

I ponder: how has our worship music helped form Uniting Church identity and with it, theological culture (though I muse on whether there is just the one homogenous culture within our Church)? That’s perhaps for another writer!

Some years back, browsing through Brisbane’s The Courier Mail, I stumbled upon an article with a broad ‘music’ focus by Kathleen Noonan who wrote:

Music is our GPS … It works like a global positioning system, helping us find our place in the world and feel at home in a strange world … every tribe on earth has music. It tells other tribes who we are.3

Christianity is a singing and musical faith. Music helps us find our place in the world. Music helps us get in touch with who we are and who we are called to be. It’s the melody, form, harmony and rhythm of our tribe. Music helps us get in touch with God.

I’m invited to reflect on those things that resource, sustain and extend our theological life; on the interface between our worship, music and creativity and the UCA’s “theological culture”. With congregational songwriting being my longtime passion within the creative arts, that will be my focus.

Aware as I am of the incredible diversity of congregational song choices across the broadening UCA, I stop and ask: how open are we for our congregational song choices to go beyond themes such as praise and adoration of and commitment to the living God, who saves us through Jesus and empowers us by the Spirit? In no way do I seek to denigrate the place of praise in a community’s worship. The scriptures absolutely call us to that. Yet does the song we sing too easily “limit” our worship and, by extension, the opportunity to be sent by God through song, yes song, into mission and discipleship? All of this impacts on our identity and our theological culture … well, cultures.

I simply cannot escape how Jesus firstly implores his disciples: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind”.4 Worship God completely. He instantly follows it with the command, “and your neighbour as yourself.”5 There is an inextricable connection needing expression in the worshipping life of the people of God, of which music is an integral part. God’s worshipping people are called to both echo and advance this reality.

I ask, in our musical life in worship across the UCA, how well does our congregational song address who we are, and who we are called to be in Christ? How honest are we in what we sing—about our relationships with God and neighbour, our human condition? All of this indeed shapes or limits the length, depth and breadth of our theological culture; our identity, who and whose we are in Christ.

To offer music also in lament, confession, sacrament, commitment, justice-seeking and in mission not only more completely lays bare our condition to God—personally, communally, and globally. Through the music’s inherent creativity, passion and lyricism, it also helps orient us beyond only a praise orientation. This is not to be understood as a comment on any congregations’ sincerity or devotion to God, or the discipleship that flows from a community, but simply a yearning that congregational song might be better engaged in forming a more wholistic and rounded congregational worship-music culture; inspiring, forming and being part of the sending-out of God’s people in mission, connecting us with the mission of God in Jesus Christ who, by God’s Spirit, is already there amid a hurting, seeking world.

Thomas Troeger helpfully suggests that our church song is, in itself, an experience of discipleship:

Our music is a way of praying for the generosity of spirit that brings the abundant life of discipleship … a way of risking all for Christ. To stand and sing in the community of faith is to begin to find the strength to stand for justice and compassion in the brutal world.6

You see, I’ve been privileged over decades to interface with the Uniting Church’s worshipping and musical life—through the faithful expression of local communities of faith the length of Queensland, yet also through our Church’s wider life through Presbytery, Synod and Assembly. Add to that both a personal passion (I believe Spirit-calling) to explore and promote congregational song in all its genred and theological diversity and a connection to the immensity of worship music across the various threads and colours of the church worldwide. I host Together to Celebrate, a long running lectionary resource offering varied contemporary worship titles and genres. I’m a UCA representative on the new Australian Hymn Society, successor to the Together in Song Committee. I am a published worship songwriter, having released songs for intergenerational worship as well as Christian Education.

From our denominational forbears we have inherited the rich legacy of the congregational song of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts, among others. Wesley famously implored congregations to “sing lustily and with good courage”. As they did, and continue to do so, the faith is taught and indeed caught. Wesley and Watts helped the church “do theology”. Regardless of genre, the best congregational music and singing continues to help us do theology. Not only do it, but live it!

Through active involvement in the creation of the ecumenical Australian Hymn Book and then Together in Song, our church has been connected with a broad range of themes, theological themes and writers. We have been enriched by song from places as diverse as Norway, New Zealand and South Africa. We have been impacted by writers well beyond UCA circles, writers such as Elizabeth Smith, John Bell, Shirley Murray, the Taizé community and Robin Mann. The “good courage” of which Wesley implores has been and continues to be intrinsic to who we are in Christ. Our Basis of Union calls us to be “risking the way of Jesus” and encourages us toward “fresh words and deeds”. I think of a quickly-organised lunchtime gathering of folk attending the weeklong National Assembly gathering in Adelaide in July 2012, meeting on the steps of South Australia’s Parliament House in solidarity with our First Nations sisters and brothers, singing local Lutheran writer Robin Mann’s How Long? in lament. This was a public and courageous expression of our faith. Music helped us do that.

Decades of UCA-auspiced National Christian Youth Conventions (NCYC) have significantly formed young people in their faith, worship and discipleship, and with that their theology. A succession of memorable wonderful homegrown worship songs have been assimilated into our Uniting DNA, and have indeed been part of God’s ongoing reforming, “missioning” work. Dreams and Visions, We Will Love, Breaking New Ground, Like a Candle, Pentecost Prayer and others have become almost iconic. Countless regional and Synod-wide children’s and youth camps and events have also helped foster age-appropriate worship songs. Various Synods and spheres of our church’s life have been impactful in offering new songs for worship, in many cases with theology, “vibe” and lyric consistent with the sort of church and accompanying theological culture(s) the UCA seeks and has sought. This has been a significant feature of our church’s life. Caveat: I mean those communities of faith courageous and open enough to risk venturing beyond (to name some “extremes”) either a near-exclusive use of The Australian Hymn Book (AHB)/Together in Song options or a reliance entirely on the likes of Hillsong. Please understand my generalisations here as I simply seek to make a point. It has even been suggested to me (with I suspect considerable accuracy) that, nationally, most of our larger congregations rarely, if ever, use worship song that is UCA-specific, i.e. curated and crafted out of an UCA context. I ponder: why is this so?

We like to talk about being an Australian church, yet with some exceptions we sing music from the UK and the USA, or perhaps an Australian mega-church, with in many cases (admittedly not all) a conservative theology often inconsistent with that found in the Basis of Union. With the benefit of decades of awareness and experience, I offer a huge “shout out” to folk in South Australia (and not only UCA folk but I include here also the likes of Lutheran Robin Mann) who for many years right through to the present day Centre for Music, Liturgy & the Arts (CMLA) have offered fresh worship songs to the wider church, along with other offerings towards the creative arts and creative, transformative worship. All of this has the potential to shape our identity. Where such songs have been sung, identity is undoubtedly being shaped to the glory and mission of our holy God.

In the “online space”, the likes of Singing From The Lectionary, curated by Melbourne’s Natalie Sims, offer lectionary song-related options from across the world church and locally. Each suggestion has the potential to shape not only our worship culture but our local theological culture. Hopefully my own Together to Celebrate site and resources from Craig Mitchell offer us something similar.

In recent years, the NSW/ACT Synod’s Uniting Creative initiative, with high production values and commendable multi-cross-cultural flavouring, has been freely offering new worship songs online for communities of faith; with the aim to:

mentor and cultivate the gifts of people from all facets of the Uniting Church: across generations, cultural groups, and diverse stylistic frameworks. Our goal is to build capacity and momentum to develop creative leaders as we ‘weave a new sound’ in and through our Churches.7

Movements like songwrite have similarly sought to grow local, homegrown UCA-identity-congruent worship songs as an alternative to the choices communities too readily make in their worship music selections. Since the first in Canberra in 2013, I have been privileged to share in a weekend of “creative, encouraging Christian community” with mostly unheralded songwriters from most corners of the country gathering together. With songwrite being further offered in three further iterations and Synods, this has been a huge encouragement. “Getting the word i.e. the songs out there” has been a challenge, all of that said. One other attempt, in time needing to close, was the web-based Songs That Unite project of the National Assembly in this past decade, which likewise sought to encourage local songwriters. Other possibilities like that currently ‘bubble’ below the surface.

The late 1970s, amid which the Uniting Church in Australia was birthed, coincided with a boom period internationally in the charismatic movement. An important aspect of worship promulgated through this was the introduction of “Scripture in Song”-styled music, best led through guitar, keyboard and praise band, in tandem with upfront worship leaders and/or singers. This was important for a new church that could easily have remained “stuck” in using hymnals as the sole source of congregational song. Regrettably, some still do, all these years on. In a quite different way and with differing theologies and emphases, the Lutheran All Together series offered—and continues to offer—fresh song options with pleasingly a great many from Australian writers.

We as the Uniting Church are a diverse church, with multiple “theologies”, expressions of worship and understandings of mission in place. This is surely reflected in the diversity among the multicultural church we are and seek to more inclusively be.

I’d be remiss without acknowledging that within First People’s communities of faith, a distinctive musical style and theological emphasis is in place. By and large, most UCA worshipping communities have no real connection with the song of our First Peoples and as a result we are impoverished.

How has congregational song shaped our identity as a church? How has our theological culture been reflected through all that we sing, and indeed, all that we don’t sing? This pondering has sought to open up some of these questions.

Long ago the prophet Amos reflected not dissimilarly:

I hate, I despise your religious feasts, I cannot stand your assemblies … away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!8

Noted worship-songwriter and theologian John L. Bell from the Iona Community summarises the shortcomings of a church which falls for the “soft-option” of “harmless hymns”:

What lay behind this outburst was the fact that for the community of faith, harmless hymns had become a substitute for action on matters of social justice … when the song of the church has become tantamount to sentimentality or deliberately avoids the hard issues of the day or the real issues in people’s lives, God has every right to tell us to shut up.9

Drawing shortly to a conclusion, I’m musing on what I’d long to see in the wider church in next phase of its life together. To this end I would like to offer a few thoughts of what I would like to see in future:

  • Particularly through Assembly and Synods, the incorporation of a diversity of song in its gatherings, with a preparedness to use congregational song which is risky in content and theology, and sometimes clearly provocative.

  • As shared earlier, as part of this, uphold the importance of lyrics which are not solely (as important as these are) about praise, thanksgiving and personal commitment to God. That is, songs connecting with the full human condition and sending us out in mission and discipleship.

  • Deliberately funding, particularly through Assembly and Synods (as is already happening on a smaller scale in some Synods but needing to happen nationwide), and nurturing creative arts hubs and movements.

  • Being intentional about using home-grown congregational song, including song more demonstrably congruent with our theology and ethos as a Church.

Down the centuries, congregational song has been inspiring, forming and being part of the sending-out of God’s people in mission, flowing on from a renewed faith-relationship through Jesus Christ. Our congregational song, now more than ever, needs to connect with the mission of God in Jesus. The call, as always, is for song which celebrates the incarnate Christ—the Christ who, by God’s Spirit, is already there amid a hurting, seeking world. As the Act2 Project seeks to best discern the culture and identity God is calling us to, this is also my prayer for every part of the Uniting Church in Australia.


  1. From Albert van den Heuvel, Risk: New Hymns for a New Day (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1966), Preface, as quoted in C. Michael Hawn, Streams of Song: An Overview of Congregational Song in the 21st Century, Canberra, 2009. Accessed: 18 August 2023. ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Kathleen Noonan, Courier Mail magazine, ca.2005 ↩︎
  4. Matthew 22:37 ↩︎
  5. Matthew 22:39 ↩︎
  6. Thomas H. Troeger, “For God Risk Everything: Reconstructing a Theology of Church Music”, in Reformed Liturgy and Music, (33:3), 6 ↩︎
  7. Uniting Creative, accessed 17/8/2023 ↩︎
  8. Amos 5:21-24 ↩︎
  9. John L. Bell, The singing thing, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2000), 5 ↩︎