Singing with the Saints (Part I)
For decades now, Christian congregations have had to deal with differences in musical styles in Christian worship. Some prefer “contemporary music.” Others prefer “traditional music.” The differences become a source of contention. Sadly, we now have the term “worship wars,” as a label to describe the extent to which music in worship has become a battleground.
We should not want more wars, especially within the bounds of the church. Therefore, a discussion of music and singing in the church must begin by recalling Christ’s command: Christians should love one another as Christ has loved us (John 15:12 ESV; see 13:34; 1 John 4:19). Loving one another is a central principle in the life of the people of God. We need not only to teach the principle, but to practice it. Any disagreement or tension in the body of Christ should be seen as an occasion to practice Christian love.
My purpose here is not to talk about Christian love, important as that is. My focus is rather on one specific element: congregational singing. I wish not to create tension, but to ask both pastors and musicians, both leaders and followers in the Christian faith, to approach the issue of congregational singing with wisdom and with balance. For the sake of the health of the church, we want congregational singing to contribute to that health.
How do we best do that? In this four-part series, I briefly set forth my own thoughts. Even if other brothers and sisters may not agree, I hope this may help lead the conversation in a positive direction.
As we have observed, one prime factor is love, and with love, patience. We should bear with other people in the congregation, and bear with decisions about singing with which we disagree. But now what else should go into the decision-making and practice of a Christian congregation?
Mind the Goal
What should be the long-range goal in congregational singing? Everything that we do in Christian worship and in all of life, we should do for sake of honoring God, that is, for sake of promoting the glory of God: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). The glory of God is primary and essential.
In addition, the Bible indicates that church meetings should have the aim of building up the church: “Let all things [that take place when the people assemble] be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26). The goal is that the people should grow in spiritual maturity, not only individually but as a body, as a community. Nearly the whole of 1 Cor. 14 is about the importance of building up the church, and how this goal regulates and guides the details of what happens during a congregational assembly. Likewise Eph. 4:1-16 has a focus on building up the church. According to Eph. 4, the goal is “the stature of the fullness of Christ” (verse 13). We are “to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (verse 15).
We have two goals before us: the glory of God and the building up of the church. These two goals are not two diverse goals that pull in opposite directions. Rather, each implies the other. Building up the church takes place properly only when we are serving God and seeking to please him. So we need to seek the glory of God in Christian worship.
We can also reason the other way, starting with the glory of God. Seeking God’s glory includes seeking to honor his commandment to love one another. This means we cannot seek God’s glory properly without attending to the goal of building up the church. Seeking the glory of God and seeking to build up the church are two sides of the same coin. The two aspects, oriented toward God and toward fellow Christians, are intended by God to work together harmoniously.
How do we build up the church? Much is involved. We need the power of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us and among us. We need wisdom. In the points that follow, I want to give thoughtful input to pastors, leaders, and musicians who must work with skill and wisdom in many situations, in many congregations, with a variety of needs.
For the People, by the People
First, let us consider the role of the congregation in singing, in distinction from soloists and choirs. The Old Testament gives evidence that some singing in worship was done by trained choirs of Levites (1 Chron. 16:7; 25:1-31; Ezra 3:10-11). But the common people also sang (Ps. 137:3-4; see also 30:4; 67:4; 68:32; 96:1). The apostles sang “a hymn” just before they went out after the Last Supper (Matt. 26:30). Through the Apostle Paul, God instructs early Christians to sing:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)
According to Col. 3:16, singing is in effect a form of “teaching and admonishing one another.” The teaching takes place not only by hearing the message that people around us sing, but by singing the message ourselves. This benefit is confirmed by modern observations about how people learn. People learn more effectively and more deeply if they not only hear, but try to re-express what they learn. Getting one’s voice involved deepens one’s participation. Singing engages our emotions, and may help to make the message more memorable. People remember songs that they have sung repeatedly, and embrace them more deeply. Their active participation reinforces their memory.
Performance, or Participation?
It follows that there should be a place in Christian worship for the whole congregation to sing, not only for choirs or soloists or musicians. The whole congregation will typically include many people with little or no training in music, and little formal training in the specific skills of singing. The musical quality will not be at the same level as the quality of trained choirs and trained soloists.
We must not be embarrassed by this participation of ordinary people. God is pleased with it, and not embarrassed. It follows also that trained musicians may sometimes need to make mental and emotional adjustments. They must not despise what they hear just because it is not the heightened quality of the highly trained person. In other contexts, perhaps, they would prefer to hear and perform only music of the highest aesthetic quality, with greatest skill and elegance in performance. But that preference has to be set aside in Christian worship. Building up the congregation takes precedence. That does not imply that no attention should be given to musical quality. But the quality must serve the main goal. Other things being equal, higher quality music, with high quality musicians, is going to serve more effectively to build up the church. But other things are not always equal!
Everyone must be ready to resist the pressure towards top quality music if it comes at the expense of the congregation and the need for building up. Even people with no special musical training can sometimes intuitively sense the superiority in the performance of a choir or a soloist. They themselves may find that they prefer it to their own participation. But we need to resist the idea that Christian worship is primarily the place for a performance. Performance is for concert halls and YouTube channels; Christian worship is for building up. And for that purpose, we should seek not entertainment, but participation. The participation can at times be more passive, as when people are listening to a sermon. But even here, they need to engage mentally, emotionally, thoughtfully. For a sermon, some people find that they do better when they take notes.
Is there any room for a soloist or a choir or a musical piece without words? Many churches will have music while the offering is being collected. People need to pay attention as they look for the offering plate, writing out a check or pulling out some money in the process. Their minds cannot be fully focused on singing a song, so that is a good time to do something special. And because it is done by people with some training, one may hope that it will be of higher musical quality as well. Many church services also include a “prelude” and a “postlude,” instrumental musical pieces immediately before and after the service. Churches may schedule a Christmas concert, where the focus is much more on the music, and Christians may easily invite their non-Christian friends to come.
Granting the above, I suggest that our singing should be predominantly congregational, rather than by specialists or instrumental performances. Why? Because of the need for building up through active speaking (Col. 3:16).
Welcomed to Church
What about outsiders who come to a Christian meeting? They should be welcome. We glorify God not only by building up the people who are already Christian believers, but by adding to the church people who are new, people who have just begun to believe in Christ. Unbelievers are welcome to come to church because they can hear the invitation to come to Christ. God may bring them to faith.
But then we may raise the question: “Should a Christian meeting be oriented primarily to guests, not to church members?” Certainly there may be evangelistic rallies where the primary purpose is to welcome and address unbelievers. But should the regular Sunday meetings of the church have that primary purpose? That is controversial.
We cannot fully respond to that issue here. The New Testament shows that the assemblies for worship have a focus on God and on the body of Christ, not primarily on unbelievers who may be present (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:1-16; but note also 14:23-25). Unbelievers themselves need to see Christians for who we are and what we are like as a group—not merely what we put on for display to outsiders.
Congregational singing, like other elements of worship, fits into this picture. Primarily, it should serve God and Christian believers, not outsiders.
Meetings for worship should be conducted for the glory of God, and for the purpose of building up the people, the Christian community.
Singing That Builds Up (Part II)
Building on the principles set out in Part I, we now concentrate on congregational singing, in distinction from performances. Congregational singing, like other elements in worship, should serve to glorify God and build up the people. That is what it means for it to be spiritually healthy.
Now, how might leaders make the best decisions that contribute to the best congregational singing? That is not an easy question to answer. It involves paying attention to the broad principles for worship, which are based on the authority of the Bible. But it also involves application to many congregations and many circumstances. The applications may vary with the circumstances. When it comes to application, people may sometimes sincerely disagree about how best to embody biblical principles.
Application calls for flexibility in a few ways. There are many cultures and languages in the world, and with the cultures come different kinds of music. This diversity holds not only with respect to cultures in different continents, but subcultures within the United States and subcultures in other countries. Music can be chosen with attention to the cultural setting. There is room for music especially suited for children, or for young people, or for people for whom English is a second language, or for multi-ethnic congregations, or for youth camps, or for evangelistic concerts, or for prayer meetings. Special music can be presented by soloists and choirs. Leaders may occasionally include musical styles that are less familiar or that appeal to the preferences of only some portion of the congregation.
But leaders need also to keep in mind what are the long-range goals. At its best, flexibility allows us space to choose the most effective path toward the goal; it does not mean ignoring the goal because we tell ourselves that we may do as we please.
So let us consider some features in song selection that promote healthy congregational singing in the long run. I offer these features as my opinions and as my suggestions. Others may disagree. Whatever conclusions different people reach, I want to encourage us to be thoughtful about why we make the choices we make.
The first feature to consider in congregational singing is the verbal content of what is sung. That content should be orthodox in doctrine. It should set forth truths that are based on the teaching of the Bible. This principle follows from what Col. 3:16 says about teaching. In church, singing is a form of teaching. Singing is supposed to communicate “the word of Christ.” Since Christ is God, and the Bible is the word of God, the whole Bible can be the contents of Christian songs. The contents are not limited to the recorded words of Christ while he lived on earth. But contents must be solidly based on the Bible, not on modern ideas.
Care should also be taken to see that the content is rich. We need to inspect the content, not only for orthodoxy, but for substance. Does the content predominantly set forth main themes of the Bible and main tenets of the gospel? In other words, are we majoring on majors, or only on minors? To major on majors means that we should not despise simpler and more elementary expressions of the central truths of the gospel. Simple they may be, but they also have depth. We should never tire of hearing what one song calls “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
In addition, content includes the riches of the Bible. So, complementary to our attention to the simplicity of the gospel, we should pay attention to the riches of the gospel. We may ask, “Does our song content at any point go deeper than the simplest expressions of truth? Does the content honor God, in his greatness? Does it honor Christ, in his compassion, his obedience, his righteousness, his suffering, his resurrection, and his present-day rule from heaven? Or does it merely focus on human feelings? Is the content too repetitious?”
We should also ask questions about balance. In the selection of words from week to week, do people get a balanced diet, so to speak? Is there adequate attention to darker topics, such as suffering, death, and the wrath of God? Or is everything tailored to create a superficial happy mood? Does the content reflect on the past, including the Old Testament? Does it reflect on the future (the Second Coming)? Or it is always narrowed focused on us as we live in the present?
There is much need for discernment. If a congregation is composed primarily of believers who are new converts, simpler content is desirable. If a congregation is composed primarily of believers who are much more mature, a diet of only very simple truths can be frustrating, as well as not maximally effective in using the opportunity for teaching. There is no simple recipe that will fit every circumstance. In all circumstances, we need to be guided by the long-range goal of glorifying God and building up the church, not simply by short-term preferences.
But leaders must beware of extremes. Even young converts should be encouraged to grow by choices in singing that include more complex content. They need to stretch themselves in their singing, and not be satisfied with doctrinal “milk” (Heb. 5:12) with which they may find themselves the most comfortable. Conversely, even mature congregations need some instances of simpler content. They need the reminder that the most precious, central truths of the gospel can be expressed simply and yet deeply. Simpler content may also benefit children and any new converts that may be added.
A lot of variation in simplicity and depth can be found both in newer and in older songs. We are not constrained to pick from only one kind of source. Some of the older songs found in hymnbooks are quite rich in theology. Sometimes they are embarrassingly rich, in comparison to what we may be used to. We may feel as if we are getting an overdose, a meal heavier than what we can digest. But there is another issue to watch for. Older hymns may have terms that are obsolete or difficult to understand. In the tradition of hymns in the English language, the hymns may have “thees” and “thous” (though if this were the only thing, a little effort in adjusting to such language would be enough). They may also have more difficult syntax. They are poetry, and poetry allows the rearrangement of normal word order that we find in prose. Some of the newer, more “contemporary” songs may also be poetical.
Poetry is more difficult to process. But it is also more elegant, and it may be more moving. There is a reason why artists have expressed themselves in poetry. There is a reason why God had the psalms composed in poetry. (It is well to note that the book of Psalms, which is Hebrew poetry, is the original, inspired ancient hymnbook of the people of God.) So there is a trade-off here between ease on the one hand and depth on the other. There is no simple solution for modern leaders.
We may note also that various kinds of content can be found both in newer and older songs, and may be expressed in either newer or older musical styles. The issue of content is a distinct issue that needs its own attention.
Next, leaders need to choose songs with which the congregation can “connect” emotionally. Earlier, we saw that congregational singing is a form of teaching (Col. 3:16). The word teaching might suggest to some people a narrow focus on information and on intellectual content. Yes, intellectual content is one aspect of it. But the great commandment says that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Our response to God is not merely intellectual (“your mind”). We are to love him with every aspect of our being. That includes emotional engagement. It includes application to our lives, and application in depth includes the depths of our personalities. Sometimes the best music engages our emotions and our depths more effectively than a straightforward statement without music.
So what choice of music is best? What kind of music best engages people emotionally? It depends on the person. Here the issue of musical styles and genres comes to the surface. There is no one answer that fits every individual equally. People are different. The internet makes it possible for each individual to select music in his favorite style, from his favorite band, from his favorite composer or soloist. He may find that he “connects” to some extent with some other styles. Or he may not.
Leaders have a real challenge here. The church is the body of Christ. It welcomes everyone who is a follower of Christ, not simply the people who might come together at a concert because they all enjoy one kind of music or one kind of song. Not everyone is immediately going to connect emotionally with any one style of music. Such a situation calls for both wisdom and flexibility.
So we have to deal with the difficult issue concerning styles of music. What kind of music should go with the words in congregational singing? The “worship wars” seem sometimes to involve primarily a fight about musical styles. Should the music be “contemporary” or “traditional”?
If we love each other, we need to respect preferences of the people in the congregation. These preferences can go deep. It can be hard to adjust to a style that is not one’s preference. The primary need here is the need to find ways to love each other and to understand sympathetically the contrary preferences of other people in the congregation: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
There is also an issue here concerning differences in cultures. Throughout the world, various cultures grow up surrounded by musical styles familiar to that culture. Christians in various cultures should be encouraged to develop Christian songs that use the musical resources of their culture. Congregational singing should not sound “foreign,” but subtly reinforce the principle that the gospel is designed by God for every ethnic group and every people group in the world.
But it is also possible for individual Christians to adjust. They can learn to be patient in coming to appreciate a style that they did not grow up with, but which has its own internal coherence and is capable of being used as music for congregational singing. If a congregation is multi-ethnic, everyone has to adjust to the presence of people with other cultural backgrounds. Sometimes the solution may be a “blended” worship that contains more than one musical style.
In addition, I would like to suggest that there are some other challenges about music, which are distinct from the well-known polarization between “contemporary” and “traditional” Christian music. They have to do with the appropriateness of the music to the words and to the goals of congregational singing.
For one thing, the mood of the music should support the mood of the words. In America, a happy-sounding, bouncing tune does not go well with words about Christian suffering or repentance from sin. A heavy tune in a minor key does not go well with words of joyful celebration.
Second, the music needs to be singable, and singable by people with no training in music. Some Christian composers write music for the specific purpose of congregational singing. But other musicians have other purposes. They may want their music to express their own overwhelming thoughts and experiences. In addition, they may want the music to be “interesting,” or to be “beautiful,” or to be of high quality in complexity.
In many cases in a non-Christian environment, composers write music in order to perform it themselves, or to have it performed by others who have musical skills. The goal is expression by the composer, and subordinately by the other performers. People who are performers may look for music that satisfies them as performers. This preference for performance also arises because the great majority of music, in nearly all the styles in current active use in the Western world, is composed primarily to be performed, and not primarily to be sung by untrained people. (Except for teachers of music, how many musicians deliberately try to produce music to be used by untrained people? How often does a family or a group of people get together to sing some pop songs together?)
If a song is really catchy, it may end up being sung by many people. But in many cases the initial orientation in producing a song is towards performance and towards the musical excellence that makes performance more effective. The orientation is also towards expressing the thoughts and emotions and moods and subtleties of the composer and the performer.
This predominant practice in the larger world of secular music has to be taken into account when we consider what music is suitable for congregational singing. Such music needs to be produced not primarily for performance, but for participation by the congregation.
Some Suggestions for Songs (Part III)
With all of this in view, we can now consider some more detailed features in music which encourage active participation from the congregation. Once again, I am expressing my opinions, and others may certainly disagree. My purpose is to encourage us to think through the reasons for our decisions, and to make sure that we keep in mind the long-run goal of the glory of God and the building up of the church.
Qualities That Promote Singability
May I suggest that the need for singable music leads in some different directions from the concerns of performance? As always, we need flexibility. But we also need thoughtfulness. What helps a song to be singable?
First, with some possible exceptions, singable music has a regular time signature. 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 6/8 are standard in traditional Western music. When untrained people try to sing to these meters, they soon catch on. By contrast, irregular meters can be frustrating. Of course, people can eventually learn. But my perception is that it takes more time. And that kind of extra attention to an irregular meter may distract them from participating more fully in the content. In addition, many Christian songs in the West have a larger rhythmic pattern, such as “Common Meter” (126.96.36.199), or “Long Meter” (188.8.131.52), or 184.108.40.206, or 220.127.116.11 (“Finlandia”), or some other fairly simple pattern.
Syncopation (giving stress to a normally weak beat) seems to me to be popular in quite a few instances of Christian music. There are many people who like it. It may be engaging precisely because of breaks in the normal pattern, and some people may find it easier to connect emotionally to such music. But it may also be more difficult to sing. The untrained men and women in the congregation are not going to know when to begin the next word, and so they will be dependent on the leading musicians in a way that is far from ideal. This disadvantage must be considered.
A similar principle also gives us caution about musical interludes, either between stanzas or as a one-time transition leading to the final stanza of a song. This kind of interlude is perfectly fine in a performance. But a congregation does not always know when to come in. Even if it is the same interlude after each stanza, the congregation does not know when to begin again unless there is a clear musical signal that the interlude is coming to a definite, well-marked end. And even if an interlude has a clear musical terminus, it cannot easily be repeated when a person or a group is singing without instrumentation. We need to think about repeatability. Can people carry these songs in their hearts?
Are there possible advantages to having an interlude? Certainly. It is a matter of some subtlety. An interlude gives the congregation a chance to take a breath, stand back a bit, and appreciate the words rather than going straight onwards. The sound of the instruments stands alone during the interlude, and the emotional tone of the interlude might complement and heighten what the individual does when he is singing.
As usual, it is not a question of just following a fixed formula. We need to realistically assess the costs and benefits involved.
Let us consider the issue of repetition, both lyrically and musically. Repetition can make learning easier. But it can also become boring. If people are beginning to feel bored, it may make engagement more difficult. There is a trade-off. Weighing the issues is not so easy.
Consider first the issue of repeating words. Repetition makes it easier to remember, memorize, and meditate on the words—but too much repetition may diminish the song’s content. The same phrase repeated over and over does not make for rich worship. So we have to have a balance.
What about repetition in the music? In general, songs with clear-cut stanzas—two, three, four, or even six stanzas—are easier to learn than songs that have no simple, clear-cut musical repetition. For greatest ease, all the stanzas should be identical in their melody. Variations can be interesting to musicians and to singers alike, but they also make the song more difficult to learn.
A song in stanzas looks like this:
Stanza 1: A B C
Stanza 2: A B C
Stanza 3: A B C
Each stanza has different words, but the same music. In our sample case above, each stanza has music with three distinct smaller pieces: A, B, and C. The musical melody extends over the entire first stanza. Then it is exactly repeated in the remaining stanzas.
Of course, if a song is short enough, there may be only one stanza, and little repetition:
Stanza 1 (all alone): A B C
A song like this is learnable because it is short. Too short, some people might say. One scarcely gets going, and it is over.
In general, leaders should consider choosing songs that have more than two stanzas, so that the music is repeated enough to be memorable.
What should we look for in longer songs? If there is no repetition, the melody of the song just develops in one segment after another: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, interminably. Each piece of the song is new music. It is not so easy to learn.
Another possibility is to compose a song with complex partial repetitions. What I have in mind are cases where there are some instances of musical repetition, but also variation. There may be no clear structure of stanzas at all. Or a refrain seems to come in here and there, but not uniformly after every stanza. Or a refrain is repeated twice or three times at the end. Or there is extra music and words at the end that do not match the pattern of earlier stanzas. Here are some examples.
A B A C B D E E A D.
Stanza 1: A B C
Stanza 2: A B C
Refrain: D E F
Stanza 3: A B C
Double at the end:
Stanza 1: A B C
Stanza 2: A B C
Stanza 3: A B C
Interlude (no words)
Refrain: D E F
Stanza 4: A B C
Refrain: D E F
Refrain: D E F
A congregation can easily follow this kind of arrangement if the leaders provide them with words to read. But the people cannot so easily make the arrangement their own. It is more complicated. Yes, there can be a chorus that is the same for every stanza. Some of the words in the first stanza might be repeated in the final stanza (which would still have the same melody as all the other stanzas). But more complex forms of partial musical repetition cannot be easily remembered.
Once again, we should recognize that there is a trade-off. Repeating the exact same music for three or four stanzas is easier, but can also be less interesting. Variations may help to keep people’s attention.
The tune needs to have some repetition, so that it is easy to learn, and some variation, so that it is not unbearably repetitious. For example, some Christian songs have stanzas that begin with two lines with the exact same melody; then a third line with a different (but somehow distantly related) melody; then a final line with the same or nearly the same melody as the first line. This kind of song is such that it is comparatively easy to learn to sing the melody.
The melody should not be boring. There are some Christian songs that may have good words and express good thoughts, but they stay far too much on one note. Or they vary only slightly in a range of about three notes. Just recently I participated in a worship service where one of the songs began with something like six or eight repetitions of the same note. That seemed to me to be too much. The composer may have had some good purpose in mind. But I suspect that most people will find such a beginning too monotonous.
On the other hand, as a rule of thumb a song should not have too much complexity in the melody. The melody should not repeatedly be unpredictable to someone who is trying to learn. Overall, the tune must be somewhere in the middle. Not too complex, because it will be hard to learn. Not too simple, because then it quickly becomes boring.
The melody should be easy to hear. That means that it should be the highest part (typically soprano) and should be loud enough so that it is clearly heard against the background of other simultaneous notes. Why? So that the people can easily learn the melody if they do not already know it. (A male lead voice may work acceptably, but only if he is singing the melody an octave lower and his voice is loud enough to be heard against the background of other notes.)
It is also important that people be able to hear the words. The instrumental accompaniment must not be so loud that it drowns out the words, or so obtrusive that it detracts from attention to the words. Why? Because congregational singing should be a form of teaching, and that involves hearing the message of the words.
The vocal range of the melody should also contribute to singability. The highest notes should not be so high that only sopranos can reach them. The lowest notes should not be so low that sopranos struggle to reach the lowest notes. This issue can come up with older songs in printed hymnbooks as well as newer songs in sheet music. Songs composed in a key that is too high may be transposed into a lower key for the sake of singability.
The music should have clear pause points where people can take a breath. And of course, the distance between pauses should not be so great that the average person runs out of breath too soon.
Now, all of these points are just my opinion. Others may disagree. But I want to encourage people to have reasons to disagree. None of us should merely go with personal preferences, but think about long-term usability by a whole congregation. I want leaders, in particular, to assess whether the music and the arrangement in stanzas make the song easy to memorize. That is one factor to consider. (I say more on memorability below.)
Qualities That Help Accompanists
Composers and music arrangers must also consider the limited skills of instrumental accompanists. Congregational singing takes place in a great variety of settings. Smaller congregations may not have as many trained musicians. A small group Bible study may have only one person who can play an instrument. Ideally, the music should not be difficult for a less skilled accompanist. A key signature of four sharps or five flats is not as easy for a mediocre pianist as is a key of C major or one or two flats or sharps. Multiplying accidentals increases the difficulty.
It is easy for composers to neglect this aspect, because they are much more highly trained. They experience no difficulty. But the constraints of congregational singing make it important for them to lower their sights and make things comparatively easy for people with limited skill.
There is also value in providing music, and not just words, for the benefit of people in the congregation who have some ability to read music.
Let us now consider the issue of memorability. The goal in congregational singing should not merely be the narrow one of presenting biblical truth once, by singing a song once. A single instance of singing does help. But one of the advantages of singing is that it reinforces memory.
As we observed earlier, the Apostles sang “a hymn” before they went out (Matt. 26:30). In this verse in Matthew, a “hymn” means a song of praise to God. We do not know what was the musical style. The Bible does not prescribe any one particular musical style. The point is that they sang a song together. They did not have a stack of hymnbooks to pass around. They did not have sheet music. They did not have an overhead screen where the words were projected. So far as we know, they did not have an accompanying instrument. So how did they do it? They all knew the song by heart, and they knew the words. If and when they were thrown into prison, they could sing religious songs for encouragement: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25).
How well are we doing, by comparison? Are we training our congregations today so that they could sing Christian songs by heart if they were thrown in prison? What if they are confined to a hospital bed for some days? Or what will our members do if they grow old and lose their eyesight? The saints of previous generations whose eyesight failed could sing the songs they learned and remembered, often from the days of their youth. In the times ahead, will saints with failing eyesight be able to sing from memory?
How well are we doing in preparing people for times of despair and isolation? Can they sing if they fall into despair or isolation in the middle of the week?
I suggest that congregations need to have some common core of songs that they sing often enough so that they stick in the memory—for weeks, for years. If we are flexible, there is room for introducing new songs. But we also need a stable core.
My wife and I grew up in churches in different parts of the United States. But we found when we got married that we knew many of the same Christian songs. Those songs are sometimes still sung in the home church that we now attend. Some of them were sung in England in the churches that I attended there. Some of them were being sung in Taiwan when we visited there. They are almost all over a hundred years old. They have stood the test of time. We know the tunes by heart. We can frequently remember at least the first stanza, sometimes other stanzas. Even when we do not remember the exact words, knowing the tune helps us to pay attention to the words when we sing. We don’t have to stumble around trying to learn a new tune. All of this is an aid to the goal of building up. We are built up by remembering the words and by easily participating in singing the words.
Over twenty years ago, my wife and I regularly attended a congregation that predominantly used newer Christian songs. We enjoyed the participation at the time. But we can hardly remember a single one of these songs. They are all gone. No one we know is singing them today.
One implication here is that we need to have balance. If we have new songs, which may have their own appeal, let us also have familiar songs, which many people already know.
Christian artists also undertake to compose new music for old words, that is, the words of older songs. The words are recognizably the same words as before. Only the tune is different. I appreciate the effort. But I wonder once again about the effect. There is a trade-off. On the one side, there can be a sense of freshness, which may sometimes cause people to pay attention again to old words, and to appropriate the old words more vigorously. But on the other side, people labor to learn a new tune, which may distract them from paying attention to the words.
Of course, a congregation can gradually learn some new music and some new words. All the songs in a traditional hymnbook were once new. We may hope that the best of the new songs—the best adapted to congregational singing—may enrich the people of God for generations and generations. My point is that we should be thinking in terms of generations, and not in terms of constantly having something new set before our congregations.
Confidence and Depth in Singing
Memorability in the words and in the music of a song helps people to sing boldly and confidently and robustly. There is a difference when an individual and a congregation participate in singing music with which they are already familiar. Each person can participate more boldly because he is not afraid of making a mistake. Each person can sense, “This is my song.” And he can think to himself with the rest of the congregation, “This is our song.” It is no longer just the leaders’ song. The song can be sung more deeply as a result. I have been in situations where a congregation virtually roars out a rousing song that they already know, like “O for a Thousand Tongues” or “Jesus Shall Reign.” A leader and instrumental accompaniment are scarcely needed, except to get the people started on the same note and the same beat. The congregation takes charge. It is wonderful.
But this kind of participation is hardly possible unless the song is in stanzas, all of which have an identical melody. Consider even a minimal deviation, which might be to sing the chorus two times at the end, or to sing the final line two or three times at the end of the last stanza. A congregation cannot do that spontaneously; they need direction from the leader, or at least the overhead projection.
Yes, an extra concluding line can be a nice “wrap-up” to a moving song. That is an advantage. But it is out of the congregation’s hands. It is no longer their song, but the leader’s song. There is a trade-off here. Yes, there may be a gain achieved by a more emphatic “wrap-up” at the end. But something is lost even by as small a change as one extra line at the end. Larger deviations, such as musical interludes, differences in the structure of the final stanza, or adding new words to the old at the end of each stanza, have an even greater effect. There may be an element of gain, but let us not overlook the loss. The extra elements take the song away from the congregation and make it the leader’s song, to which the congregation must passively adjust as well as they can.
We should allow flexibility. But, for the main pattern, the music needs to support the congregation, not the congregation the music. Primarily, the musicians need to accompany the singing, not lead it. But how does this look in practice? That we will consider in our final post.
How Then Shall We Sing? (Part IV)
Now the question remains: what does this sort of singing look like in practice?
It’s a truth that bears repeating: We need wise flexibility if we are going to serve the variety of people in our congregations well. We must not simply drift along in whatever pattern we find comfortable. Let’s do some serious thinking, and pray for God to give wisdom to our leaders as they chose the songs we sing. This need for wisdom applies both to congregations that are more accustomed to “contemporary” music and to those that are accustomed to “traditional” music. The suitability of a song does not depend on its era; songs that are difficult to sing or memorize show up in hymnbooks and on the radio alike.
Though we should be flexible, we need to place our principal emphasis on the kind of singing that is most suitable for building the church for the long run. In my opinion, congregations need to have a stable, beloved, robust, rich core of familiar songs that they sing over long periods of time—over generations. There is room for flexibility around this central goal, but the goal itself should not be set aside. It should be clearly in view whenever leaders are planning music for worship.
In a mobile society, where people do not necessarily stay in the same church for most of their lives, it becomes important that many congregations throughout a country have overlapping cores with largely the same songs and the same music. Ideally, people who move to new locations should not find that they have to start from scratch. But achieving sufficient overlap is not easy. I suggest that the pace of innovation in any one congregation should be slow—slow enough so that a multitude of churches together gradually discover what are the very best songs that deserve to be sung for a coming generation. Realistically, we cannot expect that all congregations are going to be singing the same thing even within the bounds of a single denomination. But we can at least be aware of the benefit of having overlap.
The Question of Contemporary Appeal
Because I have mentioned fixed stanzas and old songs, some may think I am mostly advocating for traditional hymns. But that is not my intention. There are newer songs, as well as older ones, that have a structure of fixed stanzas and that are quite singable and memorable. They may also have rich, orthodox theological content. The date of composition is not a criterion for what congregations sing.
But I think some people may still legitimately find themselves uneasy. As we have observed, there is a tremendous variety of music in the Western world. The newer songs that have fixed stanzas and that are singable represent only one style. They sound to many people like the traditional hymns. The newer songs with fixed stanzas do not at all represent the full spectrum of what is going on in secular music. Some people might prefer completely different musical styles.
How do we deal with this difficulty? There is no easy solution. But I would encourage leaders not to underestimate the accessibility and usability of the songs in fixed stanzas if in other respects they are well-composed. This kind of style is common enough that many people, both young and old, have some exposure to it.
Let us consider. We may begin with the style used in the “Doxology,” to the tune of “Old Hundredth.” The Doxology is probably the most well-known piece of Christian music in the world. It has only one stanza, but it has a structure similar to many older hymns. It is 2/4 or 4/4 time, in “Long Meter,” with rhyming lines. Consider also some of the most famous hymns: “Amazing Grace!” “Rock of Ages,” “Just As I Am,” “Silent Night,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World,” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” A lot of people have had at least a minimal sample of that kind of music. And there is more, if you include traditional patriotic music: the American national anthem, “America the Beautiful,” and, for the British, “God Save the King/Queen.” Some American folk tunes and children’s songs have this same style.
A Comparison with National Anthems
I decided to do a quick check of nations from every continent in the world (except Antarctica). Every nation I checked had a national anthem. Almost all of these anthems had stanzas, poetic rhythm in the lyrics, and poetic rhyme. They all had music in 2/4 or 4/4 time, in a major diatonic key. If we go by this evidence, the style consisting in songs with fixed stanzas is the closest thing we have to a culturally universal style in music.
I think there is another way in which the analogy between congregational singing and national anthems is illuminating. Why do nations usually have the same national anthem for decades? Why would they hope that the same anthem will last for the next two hundred years? In our day, I suppose we could find people who think that it would be a good thing to have a new national anthem once a year, or even once a month. They might ask, “Are not we tired of the old one? Are there not new, exciting ways of expressing helpful thoughts about our nation? Why must we just repeat what we already have heard and already know?” But such questions misunderstand the purpose of a national anthem. It does not promote newness, but stability.
There are people who detest the past. They want to get free from it. Having the same national anthem may seem to them oppressive. It inhibits their individuality and their self-expression. It may offend their sense of justice, because the past was not a just past. One may empathize with such feelings, without concluding that they are the only criteria that we should use in evaluating national anthems.
In this respect, the purpose of congregational singing is somewhat analogous to the purpose of a national anthem. But the goal is to honor God rather than the nation. Having familiar songs serves to integrate younger people into a tradition, and into respect for accumulated wisdom. It serves to tell each person that he is not the center of the world. It serves to unite young and old alike around common songs of a common faith. Above all, it serves to teach the content of the Bible. That content is already established, because the Bible is already given. It does not change, because the word of the Lord remains forever (1 Pet. 1:25; see Matt. 24:35).
That does not mean that we need to shut out newer songs from congregational singing. New songs can express the truths of the Bible in new ways. It is a matter of wisdom and balance. Newer songs, as we observed, can use the structure of fixed stanzas, for the sake of singability and memorability.
It is not that hard to get used to a song with fixed stanzas. True, it does not match some of the contemporary forms of music. But not everything needs to match. Christianity itself does not fit neatly into the mold of contemporary culture. Songs for the church have a distinct design. They are designed for congregational singing by people untrained in music, but with growing familiarity with biblical teaching. They are designed for the long run.
Setting Aside “Personal Preference”
I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not advocating a choice of musical style because I personally prefer it. My personal preferences are not relevant. I must be willing, for the sake of the body of Christ, to adjust to whatever style actually best promotes the building up of the church. The same is true for every other individual in the church. The same is true for the musicians. I have said almost nothing about using any particular instruments, or about some of the other issues that arise in choosing kinds of music. What I am saying is that our flexibility in song choice should be combined with wisdom about what builds up the church in the long run.
In dealing with the issues, I want to admit my limitations. People will understandably have disagreements, partly because of differences in congregational circumstances. But it seem to me that not all the choices for singing work equally well. There is a fairly broad path that works better than other choices for congregational singing. In congregational singing, we need to give the whole congregation orthodox teaching, combined with confidence, long-run familiarity, memorability, and singability for the untrained. For this purpose, we need a core of songs that are orthodox, that conform to a fixed structure of stanzas, and that have a strong, regular beat, and with a reasonably learnable and attractive melody.
Where Do We Go from Here?
In all that I have written, I want to express positive appreciation for all the people who are involved in the musical aspects of Christian worship. I do not want to seem unkind. The musicians put in much time and thought and energy and practice. I appreciate their motivations and their efforts.
It is right that people with lots of musical training should have a key role in preparing and presenting music in the church. We can affirm the value of this training. But I am concerned that we pay attention to the needs of ordinary people. Some of the ordinary people find it a struggle to participate in—not just listen to—the singing in the church. No matter what music is chosen, some of the people are going to struggle, because they do not naturally identify with the musical style, or they are unfamiliar with the words. We once again have the issue of trade-offs. I am thankful for the times when the choice of songs makes it easy to participate. But I could wish that such choices happened more often.
Music leaders may help best when their aim for the long run is to get out of the way. Let the congregation learn to sing so confidently that leaders can gradually make themselves inconspicuous. This takes humility, the kind of humility that can only have in Christ, our Great Worship Leader.
1 Arguments supporting the view that the Bible is the word of God have been offered in many places. We will not repeat them here. We may note that there is a dispute on another point: some people (“exclusive psalmists”) advocate restricting congregational singing to the 150 psalms. We cannot take time here to consider this dispute.
2 I am grateful to Virginia Whitney for her guidance with respect to music in different cultures.
3 Sometimes the people who select music and lead in the music do not have musical training, but simply tell those who are trained to follow their choices. It is better for there to be a two-way conversation. But all participants in the conversation need to bear in mind that they should serve the whole congregation, including those in it without formal musical training.
This article originally appeared in four segments at Reformation21 and is used by permission.