December 3, 2020

iMonk Classic: Singing in the Evangelical Liturgy

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
September 8, 2009

NOTE from CM: In 2009, Michael did a series called The Evangelical Liturgy, in which he walked through the different parts of a traditional Protestant worship service, discussing the value of recovering our own liturgical tradition.

  • Click HERE to read the series’ introduction
  • Go to the Search Box and enter “Evangelical Liturgy” (with quotation marks) to see all posts

We have been talking about music in worship lately, and in this post, Michael approaches the subject in a personal and pastoral way, encouraging us to appreciate the proper place of music in our worship so that we will sing as congregations thoughtfully and well.

Singing. Oh yes….singing. I love to sing. I learned to sing before I was a Christian, first at school and then at church. I miss singing more than I can say. Our students don’t sing. Most of the adults I work with don’t sing much. I loved choirs and hymn-sings as a young Christian. It’s one of the worst things about the evangelical wilderness. Nothing is as wonderful to me as singing in church.

Congregational singing. One of evangelicalism’s great legacies, thanks to Isaac Watts, the Wesleys and some great music in the midst of the not-so-great flood of music out of revivalism, the Jesus movement, CCM, etc.

Not somebody or a group singing to the audience….uh…congregation, but congregational singing. Worship by singing. Proclamation by singing.

First, off, let’s be clear. Singing is mentioned in Paul’s instructions about worship in a descriptive way and in a prescriptive way, so it’s part of worship. Second, that doesn’t mean from that point on, we can do whatever we want because it’s mentioned in the Bible.

Music is dominating most evangelical worship these days and I, for one, am ready to have less of it in most instances. There’s a serious need for regulation and moderation of music in an atmosphere where many “churches” are becoming more like entertainment venues than any previous conception of worship.

I am tired of standing for long periods of time. I’m older and my back hurts. Many people are older, or have bad knees or other problems. This isn’t the Olympics.

I’m tired of singing vast numbers of new songs, some of which are too high and very, very hard to sing. (I know many old songs are hard to sing and you are tired of them as well. Amen. Point taken. We aren’t having that argument.)

I’m somewhat angry about having this avalanche of industrially produced music forced on me for a dozen insufficient reasons. The way the church’s canon of singable, theologically meaningful music has been detonated in the name of anything that creates what growth oriented churches demand is stunning. We’ve been brutal in this process and we’re going to be sorry in the long run.

I’m also amazed at the sudden conclusion that humans can’t be taught to sing, but must have a major sound system blasting sound at them so they can experience it.

When I was a young Christian in Western Kentucky, I thought the Church of Christ was nuts for promoting non-instrumental congregational singing. Well….I’ll get back to you on that one.

The Lutherans have a solid and reasonable approach to congregational singing. Read what Pr. William Cwirla said in the recent Liturgical Gangsta discussion of the hymnal.

Traditionally, the Lutheran hymnal is the “third book” of Lutheran piety and devotion, next to the Holy Scriptures and the Book of Concord (the Lutheran confessions) which together comprise Lutheran tradition. The hymnal puts into practice what is believed, taught, and confessed from the Holy Scriptures. It is the worship that corresponds our doctrine, the lex orandi of our lex credendi, though not to the same extent as the Book of Common Prayer in the Anglican Church.In Lutheran churches, hymnals have a quasi-official status and are approved for use by our body of churches. You can see this practice already in the 17th century Lutheran church orders which spelled out in considerable detail what hymns and liturgical materials were to be used in the territorial churches. …I must note by way of “truth in advertising” that the concept of a normative “hymnal” seems to be waning in some Lutheran congregations. The Lutheran understanding of “adiaphora” (that is, those things neither commanded nor forbidden in the Scriptures) lends to freedom in matters of worship. The influence of American Evangelicalism on Lutheran worship has also been considerable, introducing revival forms of worship not indigenous to Lutheranism. Rare is the Lutheran congregation today that does not offer some kind of non-hymnal based “contemporary service.” This is the on-going tension and struggle in the Lutheran version of the “worship wars.” To what extent are we willing to forego outward unity in worship for the sake of what we perceive to be relevant, contextual, or meaningful to the unchurched? The debate continues.

In my grandparents’ generation, everyone had their own copy of the hymnal which they brought to church with them as dutifully as Baptists bring their Bibles. The hymnal resided in the home. In my parents’ generation, the hymnal moved to the pew rack in the church. Tomorrow’s hymnal will likely reside on a computer disk, if it indeed exists at all. What effect this will have on Lutheran piety and practice remains to be seen.

This is the “canonical” approach to congregational singing, with a realistic flexibility for churches to be creative. It’s the right way to go. Hold on, but be reasonably open. Don’t be in such a mad rush.

Churches can teach their members to sing by investing a small amount of time with the congregation and more concentrated time with young people. There are times and places when choirs are appropriate in worship, but the greater payoff is the ability to sing, appreciate music and read music.

Congregational singing is nothing less than congregational preaching and proclamation. It’s that important and should be viewed that way. What is sung will have enormous influence on those who sing.

Singing is an activity that engages mind, heart and body. It’s contribution to worship is in allowing a worshiper to raise his/her voice in praise and proclamation with fellow Christians and with the larger Christian tradition across time and culture.

A singing congregation is a great witness, much greater than a kickin’ band. The band is fine as an expression of creativity and even leadership, but the Wesleys and Lutherans and revivalists all knew that a singing congregation was a congregation open to the Spirit and engaged in the praise of God. Today, fewer and fewer churches can find the necessary instrumentalists and singers to do contemporary music. We’ve reached a point that only a few churches can produce what we’re being told is “worship,” i.e. music by bands/singers with the congregation joining in, but being heard only secondarily.

Newer songs should be accumulated and kept with real discernment. Momentary popularity should not weigh much in that process. Once a year, wise elders should review what is being sung and how singing is influencing the total life, formation and liturgy of the church.

Many of us will find ourselves at churches that are poor singing churches. Sing anyway. If you have a voice, sing. Sing out. If a guitar makes singing better, then use it. If drums help, use them. Simply make it the goal to sing the best lyrics, the most anointed and spiritually influential songs and to sing with all the skill a congregation can be taught to utilize.