The Decline of Congregational Singing

I saw today an article posted by Thomas Rainer, the much-acclaimed church-growth guru, about “Six Reasons Congregational Singing Is Waning.” Now, it is true that Rainer and I come from different perpectives on this subject. He operates on the assumption of instrumental worship in the assembly; I operate on the conclusion that congregational singing (sans instruments) is how God intended for us to fulfill Ephesians 5.19 and Colossians 3.16 in the assembly. Be that as it may, I think the points he raises are worth considering, for one reason or another.

  1. Some church members do not prepare themselves for worship. More to what I think is the key issue (and some of Rainer’s point), many of us fail to discern the reason for our assembling. Yes, we assemble to offer worship to God, but we do so in the context of edifying one another, as Ethan Longhenry has pointed out elsewhere. We are to teach and admonish one another in psalm, hymn, and spiritual song. Why does this make a difference? When we come to the assembly only thinking about the vertical (God-directed) component, it us easier for us to excuse not singing because, after all, God knows what is in our hearts, and that’s where the melody is being made anyway. The problem is that our brethren can’t know what is in our heart unless we express it. How do we express it? By singing!
  2. We don’t know the songs. I am all in favor of new songs in worship, having written the words to a few and the music to a few more. That being said, we must be respectful of the songs that are already on the hearts of worshipers, not just the ones that we as leaders want to be on their hearts. We may think that a song (or even a genre of songs) is passé, but that song may carry significant meaning for a lot of people (and not just because it was sung at their mothers’ funerals). But more than that, people have to know song’s before they are comfortable singing them. While I sight-sing reasonably well, my wife is not as comfortable with it, and I can tell her hesitation on a song the first couple if times we sing it. Now, imagine an entire assemby of such songs. Quite frustrating, no?
  3. The songs are not sung in a range where we can participate. While there are fundamental leading issues at play in some cases (as Raines indicates), I think there is a broader problem with how songs are written. While not exclusive to the modern era (our National Anthem has the same issue), songs these days tend to use a broader melodic range than many of the songs we’be sung over the years. “Jesus Loves Me,” for instance, spans an octave, and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” a scant half-octave. In contrast, “In Christ Alone” ranges an octave and a half, as do many of that variety, making them very sensitive to proper pitching. Again, this is not exclusively a “new song” problem (“Where No One Stands Alone,” anyone?), but I have noticed it more with them.
  4. The lighting indicates performance, rather than participation. So this one isn’t as applicable to my experience, since lighting wherever I’ve been tends to be functional. But what I will say is this: the more we make our assemblies look like a concert, the more those assembled will act like they’re at a concert. They’ll sing along for that one song they really like, but not as much for the rest.
  5. The music is too loud to hear others in the congregation. Again, not a problem I’ve experienced, since this assumes an instrumental context. Personally, I’d say the opposite tends to be the problem in a capella settings. When people don’t sing out, it’s harder for others to do the same. Few of us (even naturally loud-mouthed ones like me) really want to stick out in congregational singing. I’ve noticed that when others sing out, so do I. I will even go so far as to say that this begins with the song leader (about whom more will be said in the next point). I get that we don’t want to turn the song leader into a glorified soloist, but when people don’t read music or aren’t a confident singer, they want to hear the song leader to make sure they’really singing the right notes. While we may be doing the overall sound a favor when we try to blend, rather than stand out, I wonder if we’re doing any favors to the people who most rely on the song leader. To Rainer’s point though, I wonder if this is a natural consequence of instrumental music generally.
  6. Worship leaders are not listening to the congregation. Even without instruments, this can be a challenge. While a song leader shouldn’t allow the congregation to drag the singing down to a dirge, he shouldn’t run roughshod over them with unreasonable expectations. I also think this applies longitudinally over time. If a leader introduces a song and leads it multiple times within a short period, if the congregation still isn’t “getting it,” some serious consideration needs to be given as to whether that song is worth the frustration that the congregation is experiencing. Similarly, if a particular song or type of song gets more (and more enthusiastic) participation than others, that may be a clue.

How can we increase participation in congregational singing? As singers, come understanding the responsibility that each of us has to teach and admonish one another as we worship God. As leaders, pay attention to the needs of the congregation. Be objectively mindful of repertoire and the congregation’s response to songs (and don’t assume that no news is good news). Make sure that our zeal for a polished and well-conducted (pun intended) worship doesn’t present a barrier to the person who isn’t technically savvy on the finer points of singing.

Sing a “New” Song?

One of the favorite scriptural justifications for singing new songs in the assembly is the repeated exhortation, particularly in the Psalms, to “Sing to the LORD a new song!” Old Testament/New Testament context aside, is that what this expression is really about? Singing brand-new songs to God?

Sort of, but not necessarily.

It is true that all songs were new once. So in order for a song to become an “old standard,” it must first be a new song that no one knows. If you were to have said, “Amazing grace,” back in the 1600s, you might have gotten a “verily” or two in response, not, “How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” But yet, here in the 21st-century, that sequence of words has become a cliche that appears in about every third song on Christian radio.

It is also true that God’s people in the Old Testament frequently created new songs. We have the song of Moses in Exodus 15 and the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5, to say nothing of the 150 written by David and others.

But is the singing of a new song primarily about the newness of the lyrics? I don’t think so. If we look at the context of all these exhortations, they come in connection with things that God has done or that God is. The examples of Moses and Deborah/Barak were responses to something great God had done for His people. The singing of a new song is about renewing our praises in light of the great things God has done in our lives.

Consider Jeremiah’s words in Lamentations 3.22–23:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

God’s mercies and love are “new every morning.” And just as those things are new every morning, so should our song be. Our song of praise to God should be informed by all the great things that God has done, whether we use new words to express our praise or we consider the same words in a new light.

This, I think, gets to the heart (pardon the pun) of “making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5.19). This is what it means to sing “with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3.16). We aren’t just singing words, but an expression of praise and thankfulness for all that we have overcome with God.

Sometimes we do this with new lyrics. I’ve written one or two hymns in reflection upon a new circumstance in life. Horatio Spafford is famous for writing “It Is Well with My Soul” in the wake of personal tragedy. More often, though, we sing a new song by singing old lyrics with that new-found meaning. “Does Jesus care when I’ve said goodbye to the dearest on earth to me?” and the response of “Oh yes, He cares! I know He cares!” means something new when we’ve just buried the dearest on earth to us and have relied on God’s comfort to endure it. “Each victory will help you some other to win” means something new when we overcome temptation with God’s help.

One of my go-to songs to lead before the sermon is “I Love to Tell the Story.” Consider the last quatrain of the last verse:

And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
‘Twill be the old, old story
That I have loved so long.

The new song here refers to the book of Revelation, when in chapters 5 and 14 John refers to the singing of a new song. Assuming (and we have little reason not to) these chapters refer to the same new song, we are told in chapter 14 that only the redeemed could learn it, but we are given the words in chapter 5. So couldn’t someone not redeemed learn it?

Depends upon what you mean by learning. Learn the words, sure. But only the redeemed can sing the song in full appreciation of its meaning. The song we sing in heaven will be much like the song we sing on earth, but only in heaven will we have full appreciation of its message as those who have overcome for all time, who have gained ultimate victory in Jesus.

Whatever songs we sing—new or old—let us sing them as new songs in recognition of the great things that God has done.

 

Rise Up, O Men of God!

In 1 Corinthians 16.13, the apostle Paul told the Corinthian brethren, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” These four admonitions would have been calls to the Corinthians to get about the things they needed to be doing. This would have been received much like a military commander marshaling his troops. My Bible cross-references this verse to 1 Samuel 4.9, where the Philistines rallied themselves by calling out, “Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” The idea is for the Corinthians (and us) not to shrink back from the battle before them.

There is always a need for God’s people to step forward and take action. This starts with men of God doing what they need to be doing. The hymn, “Rise Up, O Men of God” (PHASS #516) was written by William P. Merrill, a Presbyterian pastor who ran a men’s program at his church. This hymn was intended to act as a rallying call for men to fill the voids in leadership that Merrill saw in his day, and that we frequently see in ours. Continue reading

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Of all the hymns that immediately come to mind as iconic “Lord’s Supper” hymns, two of the perhaps three that I think of were written by Isaac Watts. The non-Watts hymn that comes to mind is Bliss’ “Hallelujah, What a Savior!” One of Watts’ hymns, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?”, was written about previously. The other, and the object of our consideration at this time, is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” For some years, this has been a staple hymn of mine for use in preparation for the Lord’s Supper. The text examines our reaction to the thought of Jesus dying on the cross. This hymn’s reputation is such that Charles Wesley, one of the other giants of English hymnody, is reputed to have said that he would have given up all his other hymns to have written this one.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.

The first verse borrows the language of Philippians 3, particularly the idea of counting all things of loss in view of the greater prize of knowing Christ, and “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (3.10). When we think back to Jesus dying on the cross—the very Prince of glory and Son of God—whatever we might have in this life pales in comparison.

The cross is indeed a “wondrous” thing, in that it evokes wonder at its paradox. Jesus, the Prince of glory, died for us. The sinless for the sinful. How does such a thing happen? The very thought was perplexing to many in the first century, and still is. If Jesus emptied Himself and laid aside whatever pride might have been rightfully His (Phil 2.5–8), what right do we have to hold onto our pride? What right do we to put stock in our own achievements and status?

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

As we move to verse two, we are reminded of Paul’s declaration in Galatians 6.14, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” This plays on the closing thought of the previous verse, that I pour contempt on all my pride. Of what am I proud? Am I proud of my accomplishments on the job? Of a family that I’ve raised and supported? Of the work that I believe I have done for the Lord? (remember the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18?) Do those things matter more to us than the fact that Christ died for us?

In the context of Paul’s statement in Galatians, he was dealing with the issue of circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses. The fact is that no one could boast in those things because their value was invalidated by an inability to keep them perfectly. Paul noted in the preceding verse, “For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh.”

As we recognize that Christ is the only thing worth boasting about (consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2.2), we need to recognize also that there are a lot of empty things in this life that distract us from Christ. The world’s pleasures seek to draw us away. As Paul wrote, we must be crucified to the world. We must be dead to those things. That is the essence of self-denial. We sacrifice them to His blood in that His blood and our union in the likeness of His death (Romans 6) is the means by which we become dead to them. As Chisholm said in the hymn, “A New Creature,” “Satan may call, the world may entreat me; There is no voice that answers within.”

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Here, Watts draws us to a description of Jesus upon the cross. The mention of Jesus’ head, hands and feet are from the thorns and nails that were pressed and hammered into His body. The idea of sorrow and love flowing mingled down is a play on the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side after His death. This further conveys the paradox of the cross. On one hand, we have Jesus’ personal sorrow in dying. This was displayed perhaps most clearly in Gethsemane prior to His arrest. On the other hand, we have the love of God that sent Jesus to this earth and, ultimately, to the cross. The love mentioned in Romans 5 that caused Jesus to die for us even while we were enemies to God. Thus, the “sorrow and love flow mingled down”…to us.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The fourth verse encapsulates the ultimate reaction of the one who comprehends the enormity of what happened at the cross. We are reminded of parables like the pearl of great price, wherein the person in the parable sold all that they had in order to obtain the pearl. But the reality is that even if we could do that, and even if we could claim ownership over all of creation, such would be an insufficient gift to repay what was done for us. Indeed, the love shown on the cross demands the only thing that is truly ours to give: ourselves.

Paul tells us in Romans 12.1, to “present [our] bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual service of worship.” Jesus tells us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. If Christ gave Himself for us, can we give any less than ourselves to Him?

On Who We “Let” Lead the Worship

I have noticed the development of what might be called a “culture of excellence” when it comes to our worship in the assembly. What I mean by this is that there are more—and more vocal—discussions about what it means to (in the words of a recently-published book) “do things well” in the assembly. When we talk about our singing (and the leading of it), we talk about being able to keep time and pitch a song reasonably closely, and having the ability to carry a tune, etc. If there is a prayer to be led, we want the man who is able to articulate thoughts clearly, without a lot of rambling and definitely without the dreaded “guide, guard and direct.” Our preachers need to be able to speak in such a way as to be engaging, use effective visuals (no “death by PowerPoint,” please) and preferably not go over about 30 minutes. Continue reading

Using Praise Songs in the Assembly

So far this week, we’ve been talking about praise songs, sometimes pejoratively referred to as “7-11” songs. We’ve looked at why these songs may not be as bad as we think they are (and what can make them better), and two things that they do well (perhaps better than more traditional songs). Now, I want to look at practical ways we can use them in the assembly for maximum benefit. Continue reading