Whatever Happened to Congregational Singing?
May 21, 2006
Since this is Sunday, let me pose a question that has been rattling around in my head for the past few months. Whatever happened to congregational singing? In my travels to different churches, I have noticed that hearty congregational singing seems to be going out of style. I am choosing my words carefully here. By “hearty congregational singing,” I am not referring to a question of style, in particular the debate over traditional versus contemporary versus anything else. I am talking about singing that engages the whole congregation and unites the hearts of all present in sincere worship of the Lord.
That seems to be notable by its absence in many churches I visit. The congregational singing in many churches is lackluster at best. I have attended too many services where people either didn’t sing or sang half-heartedly and with no sense of passion or urgency or commitment.
I have asked myself what might account for this. As I pondered it, many different things came to mind.
1) In some cases, the worship leader picks a strange song to start the service. By strange I mean either a song that people don’t seem to know or a song that is better as a solo or a choir number rather than a congregational song. I think the first song or hymn or chorus ought to be one that unites the hearts of the people and lifts them up. The first song should not be an “experiment” or a brand-new song. Sing something the people know.
2) Style issues sometimes confuse people. It may be asking too much to sing Fanny Crosby and the latest Hillsong chorus in the same service.
3) Visiting different churches has made me realize that architectural issues play a huge role in congregational singing. Some venues are excellent for concerts (or basketball games) and maybe even for preaching, but they are clearly not designed for singing.
4) Sometimes you just don’t have enough people. If you have 70 people in a 500-seat auditorium, the singing will suffer no matter what you do.
5) Too many new songs presented too fast.
6) A wooden worship leader.
7) Musical instruments so loud that the singing is completely overpowered.
8) Songs apparently chosen willy-nilly with little sense of order or progression or theme.
9) In visiting some contemporary churches, I have gotten the feeling they simply don’t expect people to sing. It’s hard to put my finger on this, but I have twice visited a fast-growing church that meets in what seems to be a converted warehouse. But it was actually a building they built and designed, with very elaborate lights, large screens, hi-tech graphics, excellent sound system, a large stage, slick production values, and a fast-moving format. Everything is very well done, but no one seemed to be singing. No one, that is, except the people on the stage. It felt more like a concert than a worship service. I think some churches have decided to put their emphasis (and their money) on things other than congregational singing. In this as in other areas of life, you get what you pay for.
10) The same thing sometimes happens in very traditional churches, with their huge choirs and orchestras and their big musicals. You don’t have to sing much because someone else does it for you.
11) Sometimes the lack of congregational singing says something about the lack of spiritual zeal in the church.
12) If the pastor and the other leaders don’t sing, if it isn’t important to them, it won’t be important to the congregation.
Let me wrap this up with two concluding thoughts:
13) America has become an entertainment culture where we pay others to amuse us. We love music in a generic sense, but I do not think we are a singing culture as much as we were a hundred years ago. Music education has almost disappeared from many educational curriculums. Our kids can design a website, but they don’t know that Every Good Boy Does Fine. They can’t sing parts because no one ever showed them how to read notes on a page. Part of this goes back to our cultural heritage. Haitians love to sing. So do the Nigerians. I have watched the entire congregation stand to fervently sing the Lord’s Prayer in Russian churches along the Volga River. It’s not that Americans can’t sing, it’s that we seem to prefer to watch someone else sing. Churches that want hearty congregational singing are moving against the cultural status quo.
14) Perhaps we have lost the theological truth God is to be praised in the singing of his people. We treat music as if it were entertainment, or something to be performed, rather than something to be experienced and entered into by every member of the congregation.
While there are many exceptions to what I have said, I do think there is truth here that needs to be considered. A church with hearty congregational singing is likely also to be a church with powerful preaching and the evident blessing of God. When the people of God make melody in their hearts and with their voices unto the Lord, the church is made stronger, the lost are drawn closer, and God is greatly glorified. It is notable that every great revival has always included an explosion of congregational praise and worship.
So I ask again, Whatever happened to congregational singing?