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Pablo Sosa on Congregational Singing

Songs put words in people's mouths, knowledge in their bones, and conviction about whose voice counts. Songs shape how a worshiping community lives out its faith. A feature story exploring the importance of congregational singing.

If you’re lucky enough to be led in song by Pablo Sosa, your first impression—unruly white hair, energetic arms, rumpled sweater and pants—might not clue you in to his worldwide reputation.

But that doesn’t matter to the Argentinean minister and composer. Within the first verse, Sosa will have you where he wants you…breathing deeply, singing your heart out, smiling at people around you. Even if it’s not your custom, you may find yourself swaying or moving your feet, dancing almost.

Pablo Sosa has a gift for getting congregations to sing. Worship leaders in many cultures and traditions say that Sosa’s methods and insights work. You can use them to help your congregation sing and worship more consciously as members of Christ’s body.

Step back

At a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship, Sosa shared an image that’s helped him rethink his approach to congregational singing.

He told how an indigenous Qom man said, “If you look at your hand too closely, you will not see it. You have to hold it away from your face to really see it.” Sosa says this insight reminds him that you need aesthetic distance to see what’s working in worship music.

Like many professional worship leaders and musicians, Sosa grew up within a particular aesthetic tradition. He was educated in Argentina, the U.S. (Westminster Choir College), and Germany. For years he pastored a large Methodist congregation in Buenos Aires, while composing songs, leading choirs, editing hymnals, producing religious broadcasts, and teaching liturgy and hymnology at a seminary.

Meanwhile, life in Argentina pushed him to question his assumptions about what’s best for congregational singing. During Argentina’s “dirty war,” two young women from his church were disappeared, possibly for working among the poor. As Catholic and Protestant churches hesitated whether to speak outremain silent, or support the government, many people lost faith.

Economic meltdown after the war plunged many middle class Argentinians into poverty. They’ve had to compete for jobs and resources with the always poor and with minorities and immigrants.

Sosa’s growing social awareness widened his vision for “lifting up hope with a song.” He often describes worship as “the fiesta of the faithful,” where all are welcome and all music is seen as “part of the ‘song of the earth,’ which answers the psalmist’s call ‘Sing joyfully to God, all the earth!’ (Psalm 98:4).”

Let the people sing

Sosa understands the power of congregational song. Songs put words in people’s mouths, knowledge in their bones, and conviction about whose voice counts. Songs shape how a community lives out its faith.

His first principle of congregational song is to let the people sing. “In our church, we never had anyone standing in front conducting our music. Worship is not we having to watch his face while he reacts to the music,” Sosa explains.

Bob Batastini says, “Pablo Sosa has a great ability to engage a congregation, like John Bell does. John Bell uses the same technique. He sometimes leads music without opening his mouth. With Pablo, too, as soon as people take ownership of a song, he backs off.

“A lot of people who try to lead congregational songs never let the congregation sing. You get the idea it’s all about the guy, or group or ensemble, up there with the microphones.” Batastini arranged for GIA Publications to publish Sosa’s Éste es el Día (This Is the Day) CD of congregational songs, along with translations and bilingual choir editions.

Welcome the Other in the other

Sosa began writing worship songs to find his own voice. “I knew my hymnals, but I wasn’t able to find my voice there. I only found my voice when I realized it was the oppressed in Argentina who were keeping the treasure of who we are alive,” he explained in a Reformed Worship article.

“We use one-sided terms—folk music, old, strange—to evaluate someone else’s culture and music. The sacred/secular distinction is mainly a power issue. If something or someone threatens our own position, we declare it ‘not sacred,’ that is, not adequate for God’s worship,” he adds.

Songs in his Éste es el Día (This Is the Day) collection let him introduce forgotten, or even disdained, subcultures into church. “Miren qué Bueno (Behold, How Pleasant),” based on Psalm 133, uses chamarrita, a rural dance-song form. African syncopation, tango, and bombo drums mark other lively Sosa songs.

He also uses congregational music from other cultures, such as “Ososo,” a Korean prayer for unity, and a Pakistani Kyrie.

“Sosa invites us to accept the gift of difference, of Christ coming to us in the other and as the Other. We need this experience of the other. Otherwise we think of worship as meant to make us comfortable,” says C. Michael Hawn, who traces Sosa’s global influence in Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally.

Lift Your Voices, Deepen Your Faith

As Pablo Sosa introduces new congregational songs, he’s after something more than expanding repertoire.

Whether in his home church, Iglesia Evangélica Metodista La Tercera (Third Methodist Church) in Buenos Aires, or at churches or conferences around the world, he urges people, “Put your body into worship!” And he reminds them of the biblical connection between justice and worship.

Sosa and other seasoned worship leaders say you can use congregational singing to deepen faith, as long as you approach the task with confidence and pastoral sensitivity.

Put your body into worship

You have to use your body to sing well. Singing together lets believers experience faith as something that involves the whole self. It sinks the sense of ecclesia, “one holy catholic church,” into muscle memory, psyche, and soul.

Sosa loves complex music and the poetry of Spanish mysticism. He’s also come to appreciate music that comes out of an oral tradition, rather than a written hymnal tradition. And he often gives the story behind the song as he teaches it to a congregation.

In oral cultures, often associated with lower levels of income or education, people value spontaneity and communal activity. They embed songs in ritual so the next generation can learn “by heart,” without books or written traditions. “There’s no strong sense of the individual property of the song. It belongs to all who sing it in worship…and continue to create and improvise on it.

“We are a middle class congregation. We are across from a park where immigrants spend Sundays visiting. They would never dream to come into our church. They don’t have our codes. So if we don’t learn their codes, they will never come,” Sosa says, explaining it’s also the reason he never wears a sport coat or tie.

Songs from an oral tradition are easy to learn and remember. Not holding a hymnal or reading a screen frees people to put their whole bodies into singing. Sosa is very good at choral music. But he sees the choir’s main role as helping the congregation to sing…and to move.

Moving makes music mean more. Churches often sing Sosa’s “Gloria, Gloria, Gloria,” based on Luke 2:14, at Christmas. It’s styled on cueca music, a partner dance popular in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.

In Gather into One, C. Michael Hawn says that Sosa wrote “Gloria, Gloria, Gloria” when people were being disappeared in Chile. “As a form of protest, Chilean women whose husbands or sons had disappeared would gather in a public plaza and dance this seemingly joyful dance alone, with their missing partner only in their imagination.”

Enter the gates of righteousness

Sosa reminds Christians, “Very often, words of the Bible are so well known that we don’t take them seriously. We read ‘open the gates of righteousness’ and think about our good moral values.

“But where the Bible says righteousness it means justice. Read with me Amos 5:23-24: ‘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!’ ”

Sometimes Sosa begins the service outdoors. He asks the congregation to march in singing “Éste es el Día (This Is the Day).” Translated, it begins, “Open, now open the doorways of justice, let us be glad as we pass through those gates.”

Learning the codes and music of those we have excluded, inviting them to teach and lead us, singing about “mansions made of marble, homes of cardboard and of tin”: all these help congregations connect song and worship to liturgy and life.

Sosa asks, “How does our worship affect what happens in the rest of the world? Confession must lead to action.” Sometimes it’s hard to know how to act, because just worship makes us see how tangled we are in unjust societal structures.

“None of us, no church, no holy communion, is worthy of their offering in worship…unless there is someone there with us who says, ‘I make myself responsible for that.’ Jesus Christ is the one who makes worship possible,” he says.

Begin the adventure

So how do you start your congregation on the journey Sosa suggests? Schedule workshops and pre-service rehearsals? Cajole worshipers to “step out of your comfort zone”?

Not according to Sosa. He says it starts with a worship leader who’s convinced that congregational singing is vital to shaping faith communities…and confident that the process will be fun.

“Ordinary worshipers don’t like to come early to rehearse new songs. But if you invite them to come before worship ‘for a little singing,’ and you don’t talk about glissando and other technical terms, they’ll really enjoy it,” he says.

Sosa often explains, and has been quoted, on his “fiesta of the faithful” concept. The Spanish fiesta tradition rises out of oppression. People sing, clap, and dance not so much to forget their struggles but to “be nurtured by the sweet foretaste of the great fiesta of victory and celebration. For this reason it is said: ‘People who have no strength to celebrate, have no strength to liberate themselves.’ ”

In the fiesta spirit, Sosa also suggests giving musicians more freedom to improvise. “It was very important for me to realize that my children were not singing the songs I was,” he says.

Sosa’s “just do it” approach is more invitation than coercion. He LINKTOBONUSinvites people into a song by telling its story.

“Pablo Sosa is very well informed about how song fits into things as a whole. He draws out of the heart of his culture. The music could be classical baroque, but he explains how it poses basic questions of our relationship to God,” Hawn says.

“It may be expressed differently on local levels, but pastoral musicians need a passion yet a sensitivity. Training people—to use their voices differently, to participate in liturgy differently, even, at times, to move their bodies—takes trust between pastor, musician, and congregation.

“Remember: You are promoting congregational singing because it’s good for the worship of God. It helps people see how worship connects them to each other and flows into all of life,” Hawn says.

The Story Behind Pablo Sosa’s Song “Éste Momento en Punto”

Pablo Sosa says that his song “Éste Momento en Punto (This Is the Moment)” is based on candombe, a rhythm pattern made popular in Uruguay by people brought from Africa.

The song text began as a sermon by an Argentinean pastor. “He spoke about those who cannot believe, because their eyes are veiled by prejudice, pain, sorrow, and being lied to by so many people,” Sosa says.

The song assures that at “this very moment,” the cries and sighs of those who suffer is “breaking the veil of silence, as the stones are quaking to hear the promise: God does not forget.”

Sosa explains, “At the time it was written, we thought it was the only witness we could give to those who cannot believe—to say, ‘We are with you.’”

“We took the song to a large group of Catholic base communities. Two thousand people were going to march across the city with a big drum.”

“And there I came with my song. They said, ‘This is all right. But it should have something like us, something more vigorous. We want to get the attention of the government responsible for the 30,000 people missing in Argentina.’ ”

Sosa agreed. The final result has two refrains. The first begins with a few strong, slow, deliberate beats. Drums reinforce the sense of purpose. You feel it in your bones.

The second refrain (estribillo in Spanish) begins with a string of vocables, “La rai la, la rai la ra.” You might think of the “la rai la” as an Argentinean equivalent of “la la la la la” or “doo wop, doo wah,” something to get singers grooving and moving.

The refrain continues, “Hold on and never give in! Throw all your fears to the wind. Join hands and hearts till the end, and let’s walk on.”

Sosa concludes, “With that experience, the song took on a new meaning for me.”

You can listen to a brief clip of “Éste Momento en Punto” from Sosa’s new CD, Éste es el Día (This Is the Day), available from GIA Publications. There’s also a bilingual choral edition of the song.

Learn More

Listen to the audio of Pablo Sosa’s talk on Just Worship. Order his music from GIA Publications and OCP Publications. Attend Pablo Sosa’s session (Spanish and English music and rhythms) at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians convention, July 9-13, 2007, in Indianapolis.

Learn a lot more about Pablo Sosa by reading C. Michael Hawn’s Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally. Invite a group to discuss that book and Hawn’s One Bread, One Body: Exploring Cultural Diversity in Worship. Whet interest by sharing his tips for enlivening African, Asian, and Latin American music in worship. Another good choice is Diverse Worship: African-American, Caribbean & Hispanic Perspectives by Pedrito Maynard-Reid.

Bonus hint from Hawn: “Don’t Victorianize it. Don’t try to make everything sound like ‘Abide with Me.’ ”

Read the story of the first evangelical tango (p. 8, We Have Hope) and how songs can bring reconciliation. The Pakistani Kyrie is in the Asian hymnal Sound the Bamboo. GIA Publications sells the most recent version of Sound the Bamboo.

Get specific ideas for including justice in worship, along with suggested congregational songs, many from Sing! A New Creation. Listen to audio files from Sing! A New Creation, such as #59, “Perdón, Señor” (Forgive Us, Lord) or #116, “Gloria, Gloria, Gloria” (by Pablo Sosa).

Brian Wren talks about worship music and hymn texts, including his own “In Christ We Live.” Greg Scheerdescribes polarities in church music history. His book The Art of Worship: A Musician’s Guide to Leading Modern Worship has a great section on how worship teams can encourage, not undermine, congregational singing.

Paul Westermeyer’s hefty hummable Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective and his brief, powerful Let Justice Sing (Essays in American Liturgy) are easy to read and discuss.

Preach on the biblical basis of congregational singing. Order this DVD for organists, The Art and Craft of Playing Hymns. At Ethnic Harvest, explore links to bilingual hymnals and songs in many languages. Jorge Lockward explains that sometimes learning a song from another culture makes worshipers feel more free to move (pp. 6-7).

Read accounts of Christians discriminated against by other Christians (Appendix A, pp. 1-22) followed by songs for healing (Appendix B, pp. 23-32); about Word Made Flesh, missionaries who serve Christ among the poorest of the poor; and Wiconi, a Native American witness to other indigenous people.

Browse related stories about African American church musicglobal music from the Iona Communitymusic identified with worship communitiesmusical theology, and worship aesthetics.

Start a Discussion

Talk about the role of congregational song:

  • Churches have different reasons for needing aesthetic distance to evaluate worship. Do any of these ring true for you?
  • Why should we in the pews sing? We pay people for that.
  • Our choir is the center of the liturgy.
  • That kind of music (or instrument) doesn’t belong in a church sanctuary.
  • Moving like that isn’t worshipful.
  • I don’t like that song.
  • This is a church that values congregational singing, so how dare he sing another solo? Call and response? Taizé cantors? What’s that?
  • What is congregational singing for? Is it mainly to warm up people and set the stage for the sermon? How do the congregation’s songs function in your church’s liturgy or service order?
  • What’s different or the same about songs meant for performance and songs meant for congregational singing? Which do you use more often in your church? Describe differences in the songs themselves and in the way they’re presented or led.
  • Which issues do your members pray or worry about but never sing about? What does this gap say about Christ’s relevance to their lives?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to deepen your congregation’s experience of singing as members of Christ’s worldwide, age-old body?

  • If you introduced new forms of congregational music in your worship, did you move toward something more simple or complex? How did you explain this change to worshipers? What results did you see?
  • Did you create a seminar or education series to help people recognize nuances in global worship songs? Did you explain who sings it in its original context, how they accompany or move with it, and what it means?
  • If you’ve noticed that your congregation sings songs of people or cultures not visible in your worship services, how have you responded?