Congregational Singing

Michael Spencer is riffing on congregational singing, specifically on comments made in this post.

I have to say that I disagree with both Michael and the original poster. I’m not saying that the modern Evangelical church should be going to an all performance model. I’m not saying that contemporary “let’s have the praise team perform” church services are where we need to be. I’m not saying that all the old hymns should be thrown out. Rather, I’m sitting here and wondering what in the world people not singing in church has to do with any of that. To be sure, when a praise team is only performing that certainly leads to less heartfelt singing by the audience. However, I don’t think that such things are the reason we have less singing in our churches–or at least, not the only or even primary reason.

Please, look around at the surrounding culture. People do not sing. It simply does not happen. The teens in my youth ministry love music. Occasionally some of them will sing to themselves in their rooms. The vast majority of the time they listen to music. It’s not that they can’t sing, it’s that they do not sing in public. It’s a cultural thing. Besides, the type of music that I and the students in my youth ministry “sing” (I’m completely tone deaf, which will apparently leave me on the bleachers in heaven–and if God does suddenly make me not tone deaf in heaven I’ll still be on the bleachers since I dislike singing) is not easily singable by those over 35–though most people under 35 can sing it no problem.

I’m not saying that this is a good thing. What I’m saying is that congregational singing is obviously going to die because public singing, outside of concerts, is dead within our culture. Now, I’ve zero problem if people like singing and want to attempt to preserve it in our churches. I’ve resigned myself to being a marginal member of any Sunday morning service for the rest of my life because A) I can’t sing, and B) I think sermons are an antiquated pedagogical method. However, I’ve reconciled myself to this. However, I do have a problem, or at least concern, when people start talking about the need to have all those “good ol’ hymns” with their “deep theology” in our churches like our churches would be less without them. I’m guessing that the church before the 1700s didn’t have the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian or whatever denomination you happen to be, hymnal. They got along just fine. The church has, throughout history, gone through various shifts. At times congregations participated more, at other times congregations participated less. Sometimes songs were sung without music, at other times with simple instruments, etc, etc. Singing does not make a church.

As for the poetry in the Hebrew Bible–I love it. But let us remember that just because something is poetry does not mean that it was sung. Too be sure, much of it was (think the Psalms). But what is to stop someone from simply writing a poem? Nothing.

Michael Spencer makes this comment: “Calvin whitewashed the churches and contemporary evangelicals are making the same mistake with music.” I think he’s mostly correct. Except that I think when he says “music” he’s talking about hymns. That’s fine, but let us not forget that “music” includes a much wider range of semantic meaning than “hymns found in the Baptist Hymnal.” I’ve yet to hear a church play punk or hardcore music in their Sunday morning service. I wouldn’t advise this since it would most likely offend older members of a congregation (as a side note, I sometimes wonder what churches would be like if we worried as much about upsetting younger people as we do about upsetting older people). However, I’m also not going to go around sounding the alarm that evangelicals are removing music from churches because we don’t have a mosh-pit.

The original poster, at The Briefing had this to say, “Firstly, singing strengthens believers. Music and singing are not the enemy of faith, but the fuel for faith and action.” I have to disagree. It doesn’t strengthen all believers. It strengthens believers who are normally “strengthened” by music. For others it is simply something to be endured. Again, this is not a problem. We shouldn’t get rid of singing. We should just not give it credit for being or doing more than it really is or does.

He also says,

Secondly, whether you travel across the urban areas of Asia, Africa, North America or Australia, everywhere you go, increasingly, the singing in the church—both the songs that are sung and the style of music—is the same. It’s the McDonaldization of our world. And in every church you visit across the world, the music is just the same. I’d describe it as the ‘Hillsongization’ of music except that it’s such a clumsy word.

and in this I think he is absolutely correct. We really should seek a diversity of music in our churches. I think we need to seek more than simply a diversity of music, but also a diversity of creative expression: poetry, creative dance, drawing, painting, song, member created music, chants, incense, prayer, candles, etc should all have a place within our worship gatherings.

I would disagree however that traditional congregational singing is any better. Hymns and a piano/organ will not solve the issue.

In closing, I want to say that I haven’t interacted with everything the two articles I linked above have said. Some of the remaining items I agree with in principle, others I don’t. Also, as in any case like this it is possible I have misinterpreted the intentions of the authors. I’ve read both as a call to return to hymn singing and the “good ol’ days.” I’m reasonably sure that this is the intent, or at least the intent that comes through (I know Michael has said in the past that he likes liturgy and, I would assume by extension, as no problem with incense and candles).

Nevertheless, I simply do not agree that hymns will solve, or even help, the issues. The issues are deeper than returning to a way of singing that is, if not dead, certain to be dead in the next 30 years. Culture changes.


2 thoughts on “Congregational Singing

  1. You make some very good points and I, for one, am in complete agreement. Although I’m not sure if I agree because I hate how singing=church/worship or because I hate to sing when I don’t want to or because I think Xian music is (generally) crap that lacks much artistic quality (there would be a good argument to bring back hymns . . .) or what. Like you, I despise “sermons” and hate singing . . . the combination of this has led me to stop attending weekend services to find “church” elsewhere. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if such rituals as singing and sermons became minority avenues of communal gathering rather than the all-too-expected norm. In fact, I would argue that if we were to weekly change up the criteria for the weekend gathering, the church may find itself in the midst of a revitalization of worship, praise, and community . . . I really have no idea where all that came from . . . random rant stewing in the back of my head from my “churchy” days . . .

  2. Jay,

    I understand the desire to simply forget about weekend services. There was a time when I had some of the best “church” with a couple friends at Cracker Barrel every Sunday morning. Good times. Nevertheless, for Mandy and I, we have managed to find a place in our spiritual life for a Sunday morning service.

    I don’t know if I share your optimism about the possibility of sermons and singing becoming “minority avenues,” but I wouldn’t complain–provided that such minority avenues were given a fair chance to be enacted in a church by those to whom they ministered.

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