In honor of its 60th anniversary, Perkins’ Master of Sacred Music (M.S.M.) program had a family reunion.

More than 50 graduates gathered at the SMU Perkins campus in Dallas on March 9-11 for three days of events celebrating the Master of Sacred Music program’s heritage. Attendees included those working as music directors and musicians in churches, at the denominational level and in professional networks, and ranged from recent grads to two from the earliest years of the program, who graduated in 1972 and 1977.

“The reunion is a way of connecting graduates to the legacy and heritage of the program and its future, and connecting our department with the concerns of those working in the field professionally today,” said Marcell Silva Steuernagel, director of the Master of Sacred Music program at Perkins and coordinator of the gathering. “Professionals have their ear to the ground as to the state of church music in a way that we don’t.”

The reunion kicked off on March 9 with opening worship in Perkins Chapel and a reception at the Meadows School of the Arts, followed by a Hymn Sing at White Rock Alehouse. Attendees had ample time to reconnect over meals and breaks.

“We heard a lot of positive feedback that the reunion was organized but not too packed,” said Steuernagel. “That was intentional; we wanted to give people time to talk and to reminisce.”

On Tuesday, attendees heard a presentation on the State of the Field of Church Music with Monique Ingalls, a researcher and church musician who teaches at Baylor University.

“The crux of my argument today is that the study of Christian music-making today is, in many ways, an ‘outsider art,’” she said. “Much of the scholarship is directly related to the contributions of outsiders of various sorts.”

In the mid-2000s, Ingalls noted, scholarly audiences didn’t care about Christian publishing labels or what was on the Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) Top 25.

“It took several years for some of my ethnomusicologist sistren and brethren to stop being struck by the ‘novelty’ of rock bands in American churches,” she said.

The academic study of growing Christian communities in other parts of the world, however, has begun to change that. “Any form of church music that is sung by half a billion people every Sunday – give or take one or two hundred million – should probably receive some scholarly attention,” she said.

Next, several M.S.M. alumni weighed in on a panel discussion on the State of the Profession of Church Music, moderated by Christian Anderson, Associate Professor of Sacred Music, and followed by open discussion. The panelists included Ann Ables (M.S.M. ’83), Ed Gibson (M.S.M. ’06), Kristen Hanna (M.S.M. ’12), Mark Pope (M.S.M. ’99) and Diana Sanchez-Bushong (M.S.M. ’86).

“We don’t have that captive audience that we used to,” said Kristen Hanna, who is associate pastor of Christ United Methodist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When choir members are aging and dwindling in number, she said, “It looks like decline, but it sparks a lot of creativity. When I look at what this could mean for the church in America and the global church, it’s really exciting.”

“Death gets a bad rap among Christians,” said the Rev. Dr. Cynthia A. Wilson (M.S.M. ’86), executive director of Worship Resources for Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. She made the analogy of pruning roses to create more beautiful blooms in the next season. “Fifty years ago, some people thought the church would die if they let people like me [African Americans] in. The church has lived, has it not? I wonder if it would be here if something hadn’t died?”

Steuernagel concluded the Tuesday discussions with a talk, “What Comes Next?”

“I talked about shifting paradigms, from choral and organ music to a more multimodal approach,” he said. “We need that connection between professionals and researchers, and collaboration between churches, academic partners, the alumni community, performative content, global partners and para-organizations.”

Tuesday evening, a Sacred Music Banquet honored the legacy of Jane Marshall, a popular author of hymns and longtime teacher at Perkins, who passed away in 2019.

Five alumni of the M.S.M. program were also honored during the reunion: Christopher Scott Anderson (M.S.M. ’91), David L. Bone (M.S.M. ’85), Swee Hong Lim (林瑞峰) (M.S.M. ’96), Diana Sanchez-Bushong (M.S.M. ’86) and Cynthia A. Wilson (M.S.M. ’86).

On Wednesday, the group heard a keynote address by Mel Bringle, a professor of philosophy and religion and coordinator of interdisciplinary studies at Brevard College in Brevard, North Carolina. The closing worship service for the reunion was prepared and led by the current M.S.M. faculty and the Seminary Singers, composed of current M.S.M. students.

Steuernagel called the event a success, in that it met the goal of re-invigorating alumni involvement in the Sacred Music program.

“At a Q&A, alumni were asking, ‘What can we do?’” he said. “That told me that we had hit a home run.”