While many would say we have invested too much time in the “worship wars,” there are issues still worth struggling over. Consider, for example, the significant decline of congregational singing in churches all over America. Simply put: people in church are singing less and less. The consequences are significant.
We must ask: What is happening to the voice of the people, the singing voice, of our congregations? If it’s true that God meets us in the song service, that the Almighty is “enthroned” on the praises of his people (Ps 22:3), that God indwells his gathered saints when they sing, then what are the consequences when rows of worshipers fall silent?
If you are a member of a fellowship where everyone sings full-throated, then count yourself blessed. In many churches today worshipers are going silent. If they sing at all, they do so faintly, while booming, amplified sounds emanate from the “stage.” Some worshipers stare ahead blankly, waiting, hoping, for a song they can sing. Sometimes they mumble or lip sync so as to appear to be engaged.
According to Lorraine S. Brugh, Professor of Music at Valparaiso University, effective songs must be “singable, accessible, and likable to a large range of parshioners.” See her article “For Such a Time as This.”
Too often, even when worshipers want to participate, they cannot because the songs are “unsingable”—they’re unfamiliar or too difficult. Often there is no effort to teach the new songs or to provide musical notation. Last week a guest attended a service with me. He didn’t know the music. He wanted to sing, but he couldn’t. He felt excluded. He asked me why we did it this way. All I could say was, “I don’t know. I’m sorry.” Song services shouldn’t make guests (or members) feel excluded and unwelcome.
Some songs may be inaccessible because they were mostly written for professional voices. The music may have been originally composed for instruments, not the human voice. If worship is the “work of the people,” the duty of all the congregation, then shouldn’t the music appeal to the hearts and minds of the majority of worshipers?
One way to ensure congregational appreciation is to provide a variety of church music of high quality. Brugh observes:
We have at our fingertips hymns from the twentieth-century hymn explosion which produced thousands of substantial new texts and tunes. We have texts and tunes and much liturgical music that resulted from the Vatican II reforms. We have praise choruses, praise songs, a few of which I expect will endure as substantial songs of the church. We have hymns from around the globe, places where Christianity is growing and vibrant, which just might shore up some of our ailing and dying churches. We have talented composers, text writers, and young musicians who are eager to share their gifts.
Despite the remarkable production of new hymns in our time, many churches are stuck with limited choices consisting of a sprinkling of old standards with a superabundance of praise songs. While this counts as variety, it actually excludes many rich possibilities. The range is like a radio station devoted to one music genre. The music may be okay, but after a while it feels monotonous and predictable.
Many worshipers long for the variety that flows from God’s creative musicians from around the world, from various Christian communities. They hope for more selections that transcend the mostly white, evangelical music industry. God has blessed us with many “musical languages,” to borrow Brugh’s term. Shouldn’t our churches be introduced to these other “languages”? Couldn’t our song service be a better witness to the diverse world that God has given us?
Several things might be done to reverse the decline of congregational singing. Church leaders could begin by recognizing and naming the problem. It is a serious spiritual problem when the congregation loses its singing voice. We should confess our embarrassing indifference to 2,000 years of Christian worship practices. We should insist on the highest standards of singing in the congregation, and put in place measures that would make singing a greater priority. We should send our worship leaders to excellent educational programs like The Ascending Voice Symposium at Pepperdine University, the Calvin Institute on Worship, or Keith Lancaster’s Praise & Harmony Workshop.
Church leaders should take ownership of the problem. Just as they would not tolerate poorly conceived sermons or weak youth programs, they should not permit the church to lose its singing voice. Everyone should challenge the artificial debate of old versus new music. Traditional hymnody may be good or bad; new music may be good or bad. Nor is the issue high church versus low church. Bach is good, but so are spirituals and folk tunes.
Worship is in need of renewal. Renewal begins with humility and confession. Just as we confess that we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we have not treated our neighbors as ourselves, let us repent of our ignorance of the great things God is doing through sacred song in our time. Let us confess our self-imposed cultural isolation that seals us off from the great outpouring of spirit-filled—and spirited—music of God’s people from around the world.
And let us invest time, resources, and energy in the “praises of Israel,” designing worship spaces to ensure that the sound of the congregation exceeds the amplified sounds coming from “the stage.” Let us inspire our members who have fallen silent to find their voices again. Let us teach our children to sing, to sing with their whole hearts, and to sing a lot. Let us create new opportunities for singing. Let us reorient our thinking about worship so that we see God and his angels as the true “audience,” heaven as the true “auditorium,” and the united voices of the whole congregation as the true choir.
If it is true as Professor Brugh says, that “music bears the Word, the oral proclamation, into the assembly,” if it is true that “music is a part of God’s creation, and therefore good,” if it is true that music is central “in all its diversity, for use in worship,” then we must see the slow demise of congregational singing as a profound spiritual problem that deserves our prayers, our thought, and our action.
Header image: Herchenroeder, Karissa. Abilene, Texas. November 10, 2015. Retrieved from personal files. Featuring the Songs of Faith and Praise hymnal.
Darryl Tippens (Ph.D., Louisiana State University) is University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University, where he teaches English, researches, and serves in the Provost office. He is Provost Emeritus of Pepperdine University. Dr. Tippens enjoys writing on a variety of topics including Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible as literature, Christian spirituality, and higher education. He is the author or co-author of several books including “Pilgrim Heart: The Way of Jesus in Everyday Life” and “Shadow & Light: Literature and the Life of Faith.”