June 7, 2020

iMonk Classic: Singing in the Evangelical Liturgy

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From Sept. 2009

Note from CM: Back in 2009, Michael Spencer did a series on various elements in a traditional Protestant worship service, discussing how we might understand those elements and use them to revitalize traditional evangelical worship. Today’s post is from that series.

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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.


  1. Hope we see more of the “Evangelical Liturgy” series in the days to come! I found this series quite by accident a few years back, and it got me hooked on IM.

    There is power in corporate singing. Recently, at my church, the pianist was playing an old hymn during the offering, and the congregation spontaneously began singing, soft and low…It was a beautiful moment.

  2. I have enjoyed Internet Monk on occassion over the years and my church did a book study on Michael’s book recently. In repsonse to the many voices lamenting contemporary worship songs I offer this well spoken thoughts which express my mind on the matter quite well:


    Fr. Ronnie

    • I think she has a point that supports simple songs. I am reminded of the Jesus prayer, simple and powerful.

      However, where I spent much of my Christian life we never seemed to get beyond the simple in to anything of substance. And because of that it compromises the spiritual depth in the congregation. I have seen this especially in charismatic/Pentecostal circles.

      • Just so no one gets the wrong idea, she finishes up with the following (I should have read with more attention!)

        If these songs were the meat of our spiritual diet it would be lean and lacking. But worship songs can be a great aid to cold hearts, wounded believers, and distracted followers. After a long day of tiring circumstances and dismal test results my heart was lifted into the heavenly choir with Psalm 100: “Shout to the Lord all the ends of the earth, shout and sing His praises, know that the Lord is God. It is He who made us and we are His.” A simple refrain sung over and over, reaching into the deep crevices of my heart, erasing unbelief and renewing worship and joy once again from this patched-up soul.

  3. Steve Newell says

    In the historic Christian Liturgy, everyone participates. The congregation participates through singing, responsive reading, corporate confess of sin, reciting of the Creeds and receiving Holy Communion.

    The congregation will hear the Word of God through appointed readings. The historic liturgy includes an Old Testament reading along with a Psalm which could be chanted, song or spoken. There is also a New Testament and Gospel reading.

    • It’s kind of funny, even in the Greek Orthodox church we occasionally, they have a PA system (relatively small for the size of the building) to mic the choir. And I’ve got to say that while most participate in the liturgy, it seems that most people still leave the singing to the choir. I just think there’s a lot of self-consciousness about singing in American society in general. A lot of people don’t like to hear themselves singing. I think that’s one reason churches have started to use high powered sound systems. Actually, the events where I personally have seen people singing the most loudly are those where they were pretty drowned out by the sound system.

    • I think the Scripture reading in church, though, is something that preceded common literacy. When you have a highly literate population and cheap bibles, I’m not sure the impetus to have it read in worship remains.

      I mean, I still find it pleasing. Obviously we read through the Torah every year in my temple. The Torah is central to who we are as a people, so it makes sense we would treasure it and read it. I guess a Christian could say the same thing about the Gospels (central to who you are, a treasured tome).

      And yet, the historical reason for why we read aloud in worship is no longer present.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        There are two issues here: the lectionary, and the medium through which it is conveyed. The value of the lectionary is it provides a disciplined sequence of scriptural texts. We don’t get to just re-read those comfortable bits. The medium, in principle, doesn’t really matter. In principle the congregation could sit and read it to themselves. But in practice I doubt that this would work too well, with lots of fidgeting. This is even assuming that everyone there is in fact literate. In any case, the ritual of having it read out loud creates a communal experience, while the modern practice of also having it printed in the bulletin (or the older practice of congregants bringing their Bibles to church and reading along) makes for a happy combination.

      • Don’t forget that Christian liturgy has been built on a Jewish foundation. Reading & reading aloud has always been an important part of their worship life. Worship engages all the senses. And if you’ve ever heard a gospel passage read by a gifted lector, it can come alive in a way that it does not if we were to read the same passage to ourselves.

    • I love the historic liturgy because it captures all the senses…You see the procession, the lighted candles, etc…you hear the Word, the bells…you smell incense…you touch the wafers…you taste the wine. Not to mention the kneeling, rising, bowing, making the sign of the cross, lifting of hands, etc. It involves much more than just singing…

      • Christiane says

        The liturgy changes you from an observer into a participant . . . everyone joins together in the liturgy to make it more than the sum of all of its parts

  4. When I was a young high school evangelical, my friends and I would drive nearly an hour across state lines to participate in one church’s Friday night hymn sing. While we enjoyed contemporary Christian music, there was nothing like a whole church full of people of all ages singing the great old hymns in four-part harmony. It was really the highlight of our week, and 40 years later, I still have beautiful memories of that communal celebration.

    • transporting minors across state lines for immortal purposes?
      Isn’t that a violation of the Mann act?

  5. David Cornwell says

    In the church I attend, this past Sunday the opening hymn was Fanny Crosby’s “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.” This may sound strange for a church to use at the beginning of the service, but it served the purpose of the remainder of liturgy and sermon. Our people love to sing, so this was a rousing beginning to a slightly unusual service. We follow a rather simple liturgy of prayers, of pardon, assurance, and response. Then we have the passing of peace (which in our church is special), the response, anthem, morning prayers, Savior’s Prayer, scripture reading, and sermon. Every other week the Lord’s Supper is celebrated (This may eventually be every week).

    This particular Sunday we also had prayers of healing, which consist of an invitation for anointing and laying on of hands for those who had felt needs for themselves or others. The sermon was based on James 5:13-20 part of which reads:

    “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

    So the service had a natural flow, and real meaning. Of course we also had an anthem, offertory, and a hymn near the end.

    Sometimes church services can feel segmented. It can happen in any church, and if possible should be avoided. Intrusions of announcements, special pleadings, “specials,” long choruses, and weird transitions make one yearn for the final Amen. I’ve even witnessed what amounts to commercials on the large screens (the Christian financial wizard seminar or the 12 step program for better Christian sex) .

    • Ugh. Announcements, also known as “The Reading of What is Already Printed in Your Bulletins…”

      • I’m with Robert Webber on those: Get them out of the way up front, or bump them to the ending rites to make it a part of the “sending” service. But some in my church like them in the dead center, as a kind of “half time” between the service of the word and service of the sacrament. I’d rather have the activity of God at the center of everything in worship, but I guess the announcements must be said one way or another.

        I can’t help but wonder: If we stopped making announcements altogether, would people eventually be forced to actually read the bulletins we kill trees to produce in order to have any clue what is going on during the week?

        • David Cornwell says

          I hate “half times” in worship. One church I visit at times actually did have a “half time” refreshment break, and everyone would go get coffee and cookies, or other refreshments, come back to the folding chairs, and munch during the 2nd act. Come to think of it, they did the same thing in the first half. They have a different pastor now, and I think he eliminated hard break in the service. They also had announcements and other advertisements rolling across the overhead screens.

          I wonder why it wouldn’t work to just quickly call people’s attention to the bulletin’s announcements at the beginning or ending of service? Webber’s advice is good.

    • “Flow” is a subjective and relatively recent notion. I think the historic pattern is the best guide as to what to include and where, but there are always modern developments worth considering that have to find a “slot” somewhere. As a musician, I’m generally in favor of “specials,” but they should be placed considerately. Like durring the offering, to pass the time.

      • David Cornwell says

        I agree with you about the “specials” actually. They aren’t bad or good in and of themselves. We have them also, but they usually go by a different name.

        • If you call it an “anthem,” you might be high-church.

        • I’ve been in services where they piped Enya over the speakers during offering. In our present church, the choir sings during the basket-passing lull, and in my own way of thinking, that seems most appropriate. I used to like special offertory music, but soloists with their favorite canned orchestral backup arrangements grew more and more and more to be a distraction. I am not a fan of Christian karaoke during worship, and definitely not of performances.

  6. Found myself saying, “yes, yes, yes” all the way through this post. So many contemporary services are lead by musicians who seem to have no understanding or care for the fact that CCM on their favorite radio station is NOT liturgical music. It is NOT meant to be sung by a large group of people all together. It’s designed for soloists or small bands for performance & is composed of about 3 notes. I love to sing but the music used in my church’s contemporary service is completely bland & forgettable. Plus the fact that you can’t hear anyone else singing when the musicians are so loud, seems to undermine the fact that it’s supposed to be communal singing. There is real power in hearing many become one. But that power is completely drained when the many are overwhelmed by the few on mics.

  7. Apparently a growing trend in big/mega churches is that only the front few rows actually sing along with the worship show, and the further back you go in the auditorium, the fewer and fewer people are singing at all. Our worship leader noted this a few weeks ago and came a little unglued in a stereotypical worship leader diatribe. I wanted to say, “You want people to participate? Start with dropping the volume a few decibels! Then pick some songs with singable key and cadence. While you’re at it, find some songs which actually magnify and exalt God. And just maybe, oh, try focusing on leading the congregation in worship; otherwise, shut your mouth.”