Some Thoughts on Congregational Singing

Some Thoughts on Congregational Singing

Some time ago I was asked to write an article about singing in the church. Before I do, let me quickly give you some personal background, so you will know from what perspective I am writing. I became Christian at age 19, and for the first 20 years after my salvation attended a lively non-denominational church, where I also functioned as piano/bass player, choir director, and where at times I would lead congregational singing. Most songs we sang were contemporary choruses, many of which contained much scripture. From there my family moved on to a more traditional church, where the majority of the songs consisted of hymns, many written during the 18th and 19thcenturies. Here I also directed a choir, and have been frequently involved in worship and song-leading.

So how to decide what to sing? I have frequently heard comments critical of contemporary choruses, because these are often considered to be “shallow, sentimental, self-centered, and full of repetition”. The thought is that they are lacking the depth of experience and proper doctrine which tend to characterize the more traditional hymns. And indeed, for a number of contemporary choruses this is valid criticism. But let us not forget that hymns can also be self-centered, doctrinally questionable, and at times contain much repetition.

What songs then to sing? Personally I like to see a balance in what we sing. When my wife and I chose to attend a more traditional church, we did so in part because we wanted our children to be familiar with the songs and hymns of the past. We wanted them to know the rich tradition of song that is the heritage of the church. It connects us to the saints of the past and to the depth of experience that was theirs. Songs written during times of distress, personal loss, but also during times of revival and growth, are a source of comfort and encouragement to us. Yes, we do not want to see our children disconnected from the tradition of songs from the past. At the same time we do not want to see them disconnected from the songs (and church) of the present either. Just because something is contemporary does not automatically mean it is questionable or inferior. I would caution us not to have a mindset which is critical of what is new, just because it is written recently and in a musical style which we are not used to.

A few years ago I introduced a new song to our congregation. It was a beautiful worship song, which was much enjoyed by old and young alike. Shortly after having introduced the song, a somewhat elderly couple approached me, and in no uncertain words made it clear to me that they “detested” this song. All because of one line which they thought was theologically incorrect. None of the elders had a problem with it, and they unanimously felt the message of this song was a blessing. I much suspect that the real reason this couple reacted the way they did was because the song was new and different than what they were used to. It is unfortunate that for some anything that is new is suspect. Interestingly, this same couple loves to sing some old traditional hymns which, if subjected to the same scrutiny, would not likely pass the doctrinal test.
So when it comes to what songs to sing, our assembly has adopted a few practical guidelines. Yes, they must be biblically correct. We want our songs to teach and reinforce correct doctrine. We also encourage a balance of old and new – including songs that are less focused on doctrine and more focused on our personal love for the Lord. Not all text needs to be focused on doctrine. When I look my wife in the eye, and genuinely tell her “I love you”, I communicate much more than I ever would through descriptive words. There ought to be room in our congregational singing for this type of expression. As well, we want our songs to be “sing-able”. If the beat has become so complicated that only those who are musically gifted can do it correctly, we have missed the mark. We want songs that can be comfortably sung by the entire congregation.

YET… THERE IS SOMETHING ELSE…

As over the years I have led the singing in a variety of congregations, I have increasingly become aware of the importance not only of correct words and balance, but of the body language and facial expression of those who sing. In our assembly, when it comes to congregational singing, we seek to encourage full and whole-hearted participation. How it must grieve the Lord when we routinely sing the same songs which we have always sung, with minds that are distracted, and with faces that look indifferent or bored. Is this not what Malachi describes as offering to the Lord that which is lame and blemished? God did not accept it in the days of Malachi, and He will not accept it in our days.

Think about it – the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, etc. Paul says that the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, peace and joy. Peter describes the true believer as possessing “joy unspeakable and full of glory”. Our expression says much about the reality of what we believe and possess. The Christian faith is so much more than a rational belief in a correct set of teachings and doctrine. It includes the wonderful realization of sins forgiven, of a Savior who loves us and died for us, of a hope of eternal life, of a Shepherd who said He would never leave us, and of the Holy Spirit who witnesses to our spirit that we are children of God. Are these wonderful realities to be sung with an emotionless and indifferent expression?

Again, think about others visiting our assemblies – people from different faith traditions or from no faith tradition at all. Ought they not to see in the church a people that know how to rejoice in their God, and whose songs and expression are a reflection of the inward life and joy they possess?

The issue here is not so much whether the song is written a few months ago or several hundred years ago, but whether those singing it reflect the truth of what is being sung in their devotion, reverence and expression of joy.

How sad it would be that when an unbeliever or seeker would come to our assembly he/she would see us sing the truth of God with a visible expression of indifference. Would we not then be guilty before God of being a stumbling block?

Again, what message are we conveying to our own children when they see in us a lack of enthusiasm when singing about our faith, our salvation, and about our God? The reality of what we believe is not only understood rationally, but also must have an emotional expression. I like how someone described the change that Isaac Watts brought to English hymnody. He was said to have introduced songs that were “emotionally subjective and doctrinally objective”. May we not be a stumbling block to outsiders who come and join us as we meet, or to our own children, by lacking enthusiasm in our worship. More importantly, may our singing not be an offence to God because it is done half-heartedly and without much thought or intent.
In conclusion – it is important that we sing what is scripturally correct. It is important that we do not lose the connection with the past, and the wonderful songs which were written by those who lived long ago. I believe it is also important to be connected with the songs of the present. We also must make sure that the songs we sing in church are “sing-able”, ie – can be sung by all in the congregation, regardless of musical ability. Yet more than that, we must make sure that as Christians, our own spiritual life is such that in our singing we reflect a joy, a gratefulness, a worship, an admiration which is fitting to the God about whom and to whom we sing. May others who come and join us during our times of worship and singing see in us an expression of joy and truth which will impress upon them of the reality of the One we sing about. To Him be the glory, both now and forever.

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