Where has all the singing gone?

I went to church yesterday and was again struck by the decibel difference between the contemporary and traditional services of this congregation. I do not refer to guitars and drums versus organs and pianos; I actually enjoy both kinds of instrumental accompaniment and think they can be integrated into the same service of worship.

No: I am writing about singing—again, not vocalists or choirs or professional musicians, but about ordinary people standing to sing an familiar song with a Christian message.

Simply put: in contemporary worship, people hardly sing; in traditional worship, there is more participation and more sound.

I pointed this out to the pastor of the church and he responded: “Yes, our staff talks about it all the time.”

Singing is important: not only does it release endorphins and make a person feel better, it exercises the brain and stretches the lungs; it pushes us out of our comfort zone and into the realm of art and creativity. All of this is good.

But singing is participatory worship. Otherwise worship is most passive: listening to prayers, scriptures, and sermons—and these days, watching videos and sometimes a baptism. The only participatory elements of most worship services are the right hand of Christian fellowship, the passing of the collection basket, and eating and drinking in communion.

And singing.

With singing we confess our sins and acknowledge our dark moods; we tell the story of Jesus and invited others to follow him; we celebrate the wonder of creation and the love of God; we give a witness when most of the time we have no words of our own to express how we feel about God and what we think about Jesus.

But in too many contemporary churches a disproportionate percentage of the sound and energy comes from the stage and through the speakers. Most in the audience are happy to let those with instruments and microphones provide all the sound. Congregational singing is under-valued. People simply stand and watch.

I recall the lyrics of a song from Les Miserable that addresses the point I wish to make. “Can you here the people sing? Singing the song of angry men? This is the music of the people who will not be slaves again!” The context here is political discontent, few of us are angry, and our cause is no longer economic bondage; but the use of singing to stir emotions, confess a creed, and mobilize an congregation to the cause of justice, peace, holiness and generosity—in other words, the rule of God—is very much in need of attention in all forms of worship, but especially those that use more contemporary forms.

See also: http://crookedshore.wordpress.com/2006/10/06/contemporary-worship-and-congregational-singing


3 comments so far

  1. Ben Mordecai on

    We need to be singing what we believe. When we hear the gospel beautifully and frequently preached you can’t help but sing about it.

  2. Robert Stone on

    I spent twenty five years at a small church insisting that congregational participation — singing, responsive reading, etc. — be a big a part of the service as possible.

    People would suggest choirs. We were really too small to have one. People would suggest my singing solos and I would on occasion but only on the spur of the moment when I felt the atmosphere was right.

    When the congregation does liturgy, they have worshipped. When they watch others perform, they have been to a show.


  3. Jinny Vicroy on

    Went to a service Sunday at Cane Ridge Shrine to visit with another church congregation. There were only about 25 people in attendance. The pianist was sick so we all sang without a piano or organ. The minister was funny, he said to pick out a key that we liked and sing. At the end of the tentative first verse he laughed and said pick out a tempo too. Everyone relaxed and sang their hearts out. Really a joyful noise. Total worship. Relaxed. Fun. We should try it.

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