Imagine this: There was a rule passed in your church business meeting that only the trained worship staff or musically auditioned laity of your church was permitted to sing in worship. It sounds preposterous, but it actually happened.
Let’s rewind the calendar about 1,650 years to the Council of Laodicea (363-364). The leaders of the church who sought for quality and reverence in worship were troubled because the untrained congregation sang loudly and so badly that something had to be done to restore beauty. A canon (practice) was adopted in the Catholic religion that continued until 1903 which left congregational participation to a minimum.
There were serious penalties for those who disagreed. Jon Hus, Czech theologian and hymn writer (1369-1415) was martyred for his views on congregational participation. The focus on who is singing was changing.
It was not always that way. In Jewish worship and early Christian worship, the congregation was biblicaly mandated to joyfully participate. Psalm 149:1 says “Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of his faithful people. (See also Psalm 33:1, Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19).
The restoration of congregational participation in worship was one of the radical reforms of Luther and later Calvin, and not without controversy.
Gains of the Reformation may be endangered by current musical trends
Luther wrote hymns with instrumental accompaniment. Calvin only allowed metrical psalmody set to a cappella tunes. Isaac Watts dared to write humanly composed hymns for churches that previously sung only psalms. Fanny Crosby was criticized for writing subjective songs that dealt with human emotions.
The praise and worship movement added the element of personal devotional singing to the Lord and not just about him. Despite these disagreements over the content of songs, post-Reformation congregations held common: participation by the people was paramount. The focus of what we sing was changing—until now.
Charles Finney (1792-1875) is the one credited with being the father of modern Revivalism. The music and congregational singing in Finney’s revival services were purposely intended as a spiritual warm-up so the congregant would be ready to receive the Word. It was very effective as many people were converted.
Many Baptist and protestant denominations adopted this design of worship which is still very common in churches today. Their rationale is that good, energetic music will prepare the attender to receive the sermon. The return to the professional leader had begun. The focus of why we sing was changing.
The seeker movement of the 1990’s unintentionally fostered the pre-Laodicean model that worship should be well done and presented to the audience. Many aspects of current worship trends contribute to a lack of participation.
Because of the digital age, there are now not just a few hundred songs in the hymnal, but hundreds of thousands from which to choose. Therefore, many people are unfamiliar with the music selection. Cover songs from well-known recording artists, often in keys which are too high for the average congregant, are regularly chosen. The bright lights of the stage combined with dim seating discourages involvement. The concert style of worship where the worshiper receives more than they give discourages participation. The focus on how we sing is changing.
In an interview with The Gospel Coalition (Feb. 2017), theologian and hymn writer Keith Getty said, “I would dare to say less than five percent of our reformed churches are taking congregational singing as seriously as any of these guys [reformation fathers] did. I’ve heard Ligon Duncan say, ‘There is no part of the worship life more in need of reformation than congregational singing.’”
If most agree that congregational singing needs to be reformed, what can be done?
Getty says, “The biggest challenge is for pastors to actually take the lead. Period… The churches with great congregational singing are the churches with the pastor who really, really cares. Music can be contemporary, traditional, black gospel, unaccompanied psalm singing, with or without choirs, leaders, sound systems or hymn books. It doesn’t matter.
“Luther prioritized choosing the hymns his churches would sing,” Getty said, “explaining why they should sing, and then setting to work on teaching and encouraging his people. That’s the single thing that needs to change most.” Getty notes that “worship should begin with the holy act of God’s people singing as the center of the musical experience, and then work out from there.”
Is congregational singing dead? “Congregational singing is far from dead,” Getty concluded, “mainly because it’s connected to a source of life higher than cultural trends or modern comparisons.
–Steve Hamrick is IBSA Director of Worship and Technology