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.