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Forming Faith at Camp the Methodist Way: Sing Lustily - Guest Post by Ron Bartlow

28 Aug 2019 8:57 PM | Jen Burch (Administrator)

‘Ere thirty, I learned a lesson profound,

visiting nursing homes the town around.

Their mem’ries faded, of what would I speak

when visiting members older and weak?

I told stories of self, new to their town;

but upon my return, many would frown

with no memory of who I might be.

Distressed at my lack of pastoral charm,

I sought to do good and not to do harm.

So on visit two the Bible I took,

and found as I read they knew that good book!

Verses and stories they hap’ly recalled!

Our communication no longer stalled,

we would end by reading Psalm 23.

Their response to me was ere more profound

when I brought a hymnal. For at the sound

of the first sung line of “Amazing Grace,”

they joined me in singing, both tune and pace!

The hymns learned in childhood, years behind

were still alive and fresh, lodged in their mind!

We sang with joy; these parishioners and me.


I’ve heard tell that there are numerous studies about music and the brain, though I’m too lazy to confirm. I do know that brain waves synchronize with music at performances, and also that music helps one to focus, study, and learn. I have found that music and associated lyrics linger long in the minds of those who are otherwise slowly losing so much of themselves to dementia. And who hasn’t experienced an “earworm,” a song or partial tune that gets lodged in one’s brain on repeat?! Music demonstrates the ability to impact us deeply; influencing memory, emotion, and even our spiritual formation.

A church was replacing its decades-old, moth worn hymnals, and one senior member was vocally unhappy about the change. After a few weeks with the new hymnal, this older man was becoming increasingly agitated and upset. Initially the pastor dismissed it as resistance to change, but finally he asked the man, who had come to the church council yet again to complain, to share why the change bothered him so much. After some thought, the man replied:

“Well, when I was a child, my granddad and I would stand in these pews and share a hymnal, singing the songs out of it. Even now, decades later, when we sing these old hymns I can feel him standing beside me. Now, with these new hymns and their different words, I don’t feel him as much.” (In response, the pastor wisely had old hymnals returned to the pews alongside the new ones, and integrated hymns from both into worship.)

John and Charles Wesley seized upon the power of music as a key mode of forming faith in the 18th century Methodist movement. Charles Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns during the course of his life, working with his brother John to fulfill their mission to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” Charles penned lyrics that expressively praised God and taught aspects of Christian faith, even setting them to known and popular tunes (though there is some debate over the oft-taught expression that he used “bar tunes”*), some of which we still sing in worship to this day. 

As he gave guidance to the spiritual formation of the Methodists, John Wesley collected hymns for their use. He included among these collections advice on how to sing! His “Directions for Singing,” including the exhortation to “sing lustily and with a good courage,” are still found at the front of our United Methodist Hymnal. In encouraging one to learn these songs first, and sing them with “an eye to God in every word you sing,” Wesley was drawing upon the innate power of music to help people grow in faith.

Today, communal singing faces a variety of challenges. It is not as familiar or as accepted as it used to be. Many come to worship and stand quietly while others sing. I’ve even seen the very act ridiculed by some outside of the church. So, why do we still sing, be it at church or camp? It’s certainly not to recall the ancestral account of Noah by chanting “arky, arky!” 

We sing because it is an expression of our human spirit, connecting with and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We sing because the act embodies the spirit of community, whether joining in unison or adding harmony to the melody of others. We sing because our brains respond to it; a person’s whole brain “lights up” in response to music. We sing because it engages our bodies and breath and stirs our hearts. And sometimes we sing because it’s just plain fun! 

Music both informs and inspires, and can play a vital role in forming faith, as the Wesleys vividly demonstrated. While we might remember part of a pastor’s sermon on Ephesians 2; we are likely to remember the verses of “Amazing Grace,” whether it be set to its original tune or that of the Gilligan’s Island theme. Even more, when we sing the song we might remember the story of John Newton’s radical transformation as a follower of Christ. We very well might recall a Sunday School lesson about God’s love for us, but it might take better root in our inner selves when we sing “Blessed Assurance.” Its meaning will linger all the more when we know Fanny Crosby’s story of faith and perseverance.

Music plays a role in the formation of life-long faith at camp, too! Children and youth return from our camps with excitement about worship and the lyrics of “Awesome God” fresh on their lips. They come home sharing about a significant moment of introspection (though they might not use that word!) as their group prayerfully sang “Sanctuary” during holy communion. Sometimes their faces will light up in worship and they’ll “sing lustily” a hymn that is old and familiar to the rest of us, but was recently introduced to them in a new and “sticky” way at camp. The songs of camp – including the others we sing just for fun, like “The Belly Button Song” or “Little Green Frog” – take up residence in the hearts and minds of campers. When we can embrace this method of faith formation, our use of music can have a lasting impact on the faith and lives of those we serve.

We still aim to “sing lustily and with a good courage… and above all… spiritually” at camp. We sing not just to praise God, and certainly not for the performance value; but also for the long-term benefits such action brings to our spiritual growth. May our camp experiences leave us humming tunes of God’s love and grace, messages worth singing for a lifetime.

*See “Did The Wesleys Really Use Drinking Song Tunes For Their Hymns?” for debunking of this popular myth.

This is the fourth in an inaccurately described series of three reflections promised by Ron Bartlow on the influence of our Wesleyan heritage upon the spiritual formation that occurs at camp. Portions of the preceding text were sung by trained monkeys in iambic pentameter over the voicemail of UMCRM's long-suffering editor.

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