Congregational Singing

Photo shared on FB by Susan Gentry DeMaggioOnce upon a time, when churches had bulletins in which the order of service was printed, occasional lines read, “Congregational Singing,” followed by a number in a hymnal.

Times have changed, bringing changes to church services. Certainly some of those are fine and appropriate and not in the least contrary to Scripture since the Bible doesn’t mention bulletins or orders of service or hymnals.

In fact, how we conduct “church” is more a reflection of our culture than any Biblical mandate. There’s simply not much laid out concerning what our “assembling ourselves together” is supposed to look like.

I was raised in a church that didn’t use instruments to accompany our congregational singing, and I don’t remember a choir. Instead the congregation sang hymns in four-part harmony at the direction of a music minister or song leader—I’m not sure what his title was.

But in my teen years someone introduced contemporary Christian music, and before long praise songs made their way into church.

Since then, there seems to be a running controversy about how we are to “do worship” because with more and more frequency, congregational singing has come to be known as “worship.” Prayer, offering, sermons, even communion are something else, apparently, and corporate singing alone is worship.

Along with these changes, much of this “worship” has taken on the trappings of secular concerts. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this ostensibly since the Bible doesn’t lay down any direction about our singing except to say that we are to teach and admonish one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in our hearts to God (see Colossians 3:16).

So in some churches, the tech people flash words on a screen, lower the house lights, turn on spotlights to illumine the worship band, and crank up the mics. The leader will sometimes verbally cue people to the next line of a song—though it’s in front of them—or riff some line that’s not there. Sometimes, with no warning, all but one member of the “worship team” will stop singing and the rest of us are left to wonder if we are also to be silent or to be led by the single singer.

In short, there’s more of a concert feel to these times of singing than there is of congregational singing. Good? Or bad? Young people should feel right at home with the concert atmosphere, and tradition isn’t supposed to become Law.

But maybe there are a couple bigger issues. I wonder if we’ve lost the purpose of our singing.

When we meet together we can make a joyful noise to the Lord as the people of Israel did and we can sing to instruct one another as Paul said in Colossians 3. However, I think we might be losing both those purposes in our concert environment.

First, people go to concerts to be entertained. I think too many people are going to church for the same reason. Was the pastor funny? Did he repeat the stories he’s already told? Was he boring? That mindset is replicated during the singing. Rather than thinking about the instruction of the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, or singing with thankfulness in our hearts to God, or making a joyful noise to the Lord, we’re thinking about whether or not we liked the music. Is it too old fashioned, too shallow, too repetitive, too loud, too archaic, too jazzy, too uni-voice, too whatever I don’t like as much as I like something else?

People who love hymns and people who love contemporary music can error in the exact same way—judging the music based on how entertained they are by it.

In addition, in a recent Facebook discussion about worship, several people mentioned euphoria as part of the experience in the “concert mode” style. I have to wonder how many people are gauging “worship” based on how euphoric it makes them feel.

I do think when we enter into a closeness with God, we can experience a “spiritual high,” but if we go about trying to recapture that surprising joy, as C. S. Lewis referred to it, we’re worshiping for the wrong reason. We ought not think about what we can get from the experience. Instead, we ought to be focused on other believers or on God as we sing truths or praise. And yes, when we sing truths for others, we will hear them too. When we sing praise to God, we may enter into a closer experience with Him.

But those are gifts God gives us as effects of our singing. Our purpose ought not to be to receive an emotional boost, and it ought not to be to be entertained.

Secondly, singing is only one aspect of worship, but our concert mode and our “worship team,” “worship band,” “worship leader” phraseology encourages us to think of music as worship and the rest of our service as something else.

I suppose these two are tied together because we don’t often get a euphoric bump when we put an offering into the plate or even when we listen to a sermon (unless our preacher is one who milks the crowd and has everyone weeping by the time he’s finished). Nevertheless, the teaching of the word of God, giving to His work in our church, community, and the world, petitioning Him to change our hearts and draw us closer to Him, are all parts of worship, whether we feel it to be so or not.

Worship ought not to be about how we feel. Worship is about us giving. We ought to worship God, not because we to get something from it, but because He deserves it.

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2 Comments

  1. I like this. A four part congregational harmony? That sounds lovely. Something that I really enjoy is the old spirituals, the songs of woe and heartache. That’s something that’s missing from a lot of modern churches, that praise singing you do in hard times.

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  2. I really MISS the old hymns. I love the contemporary music too…but not when it’s cranked too loud (I have hearing sensitivity issues) or when it’s accompanied by bright, colored flashing lights (visually, this is almost as bad as a migraine).

    There’s a church that someone I barely know keeps pestering me to visit again that triggers these issues for me–along with the perfume/chemical sensitivity issues (what IS it with Christians who think they’ve got to wear perfume to attend church?). I won’t go back. I’m having difficulty getting this message across to them.

    I would personally be so thrilled if churches would tone it down. A lot. 🙂

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