January 17, 2021

Riffs: The Briefing on “The Slow Death of Congregational Singing.”

NOTE: Please read the article I’m “riffing” on if you want to comment.

I’m sure other people have written about this, but The Briefing has one of the best articles you’ll find on what’s happening to congregational singing: The Slow Death of Congregational Singing. If you’ve been on Mars, it’s vanishing.

In its place we have a lot of songs that a lot of people don’t know, a lot of bad and unknown tunes, a lot of watching the worship team perform (especially if they are female of the right type and dress), a lot of forgettable, narcissistic lyrics, a lot of bad and inexperienced worship leaders, a lot of bone-headed thinking about congregational singing in relation to church growth, a lot of imitation of churches and methods that most congregations can’t imitate, a lot of lay people who simply don’t know how to sing at all, a lot of churches that don’t teach singing, a lot of turning congregations into audiences anyway and whatever else goes into the stew that does away with congregational singing.

That’s not to say some movements in evangelicalism aren’t doing a great job promoting congregational singing in many good ways, including taking the time to teach singing. But as a whole, we’re on our way to pretty much what you have on The Letterman Show. The band plays and Dave comes out with the monologue.

Congregational singing is a New Covenant command. That means that it’s commanded in the New Testament’s description of gathered worship. If we replace that with performance, it’s a major loss on several levels, not the least being the level of teaching and encouragement specifically mentioned in the epistles.

I like a lot of contemporary worship music, but as a whole the content is different than the best older music. It’s designed for expressive presentation and not as much for edification through musical teaching or mutual encouragement. So you can have a lot of “You are holy!” and “I will worship,” as opposed to four or five verses describing the incarnation or considerations of the meaning of salvation.

We all lose in this, but I always think of the losses to two groups in particular. First of all, older people (assuming you still allow them to come to your church) treasure the words that have been part of their journey. While the young turks are all about the new music, the older Christians really need to hear the soundtrack of their journey, which is hymns for the most part. And secondly, we have a lot of children who know Veggietales and don’t know “It Is Well With My Soul.” That’s an unspeakable, horrendously stupid loss and if I catch you advocating it, I will be tempted to harm you.

Of course, the irony is that the canon of music in a good hymnal represents the greatest source of diversity, history and artistic excellence present in most congregations. The songs/lyrics come from various traditions, different eras, throughout history and embody differing styles and cultures. Look at the Christmas section of a good hymnal. From ancient chants to spirituals to contemporary hymns, it’s diversity and beauty. Plus, most of them- not all- are singable in a way that builds up mind and heart.

I realize the people who want to worship with K-Love and equate a concert response with congregational worship will do what they always do when I write this kind of post: tell me how much they hate the hymns blah blah blah. For God’s sake people, THINK before you throw out the treasures. Calvin whitewashed the churches and contemporary evangelicals are making the same mistake with music.

It’s not all about you. Even with a good, practical commitment to be culturally appropriate, you can conserve the 100 best hymns. If you need help, get help. If you have to have it contemporary style, see Kevin Twit’s Indelible Grace project at RUF.

I expect that congregational singing as I grew up with it – and I grew up being taught required music class in public school through the 7th grade- is going to vanish in the lifetime of my grandchildren. To the extent that it’s going on now, it’s one of the worst things evangelicals are doing. Go to mass at a suburban parish some Sunday and listen to what happened to congregational singing after Vatican II. Then remember this: Evangelical singing MADE the Reformation and especially the Wesleyan revival and has been one of the greatest conservators of the Gospel in evangelicalism. The music matters and being able to sing it matters as well. Use contemporary instruments. Use blended styles. Be creative, but keep the good, singable treasures of our musical heritage.

And learn how to sing them.


  1. I’m a 23 year old, guitar playing, x-new music introducing pastor. I again experienced this last week while leading a camp for 13 year olds. We had some arguments with the worship leader, an extremely good charismatic guitarist, on exactly this, but decided not to push things. On the second evening we sang some songs at a burning cross, thus without words. He started of with some new songs, which I knew, but I could see the kids not participating. When the last song came I asked that we sing an old well-known Afrikaans hymn. Suddenly the voices of the kids were heard! And many of them don’t even attend church, but these hymns are so part of who we are, that everyone know them.

  2. In the mega-church local franchise of JesusWorld that I formerly attended they now have several services for the demographic they truly want (more money).
    They also have started a “classic” service for those who yearn for the more traditional.
    Therefore, Grandpa and Grandma are not in the same service as the kids or grandkids.
    How nice.
    It seems like a cynical attempt to make Six Flags Over Jesus palatable to the folks who founded the church (all in their 60’s and 70’s or departed to older more traditional congregations) and the moneyed 30-40 year old professionals with 2.6 kids and a disposable income that can possibly be turned to tithing (show me that in the New Covenant).
    As I have already stated, please excuse me while I go puke.
    Yes I am bitter and cynical. Sue me.

  3. Aliasmoi says

    Can somebody PLEASE post the scripture references where congregational singing is a commandment?

    I’m part of a Friends (Quaker) Meeting. We don’t sing. I’ve heard there is some singing at the various yearly gatherings, but I haven’t gone to any of them yet. I also freely admit that music/singing is probably the thing I miss most about going to a more traditional church.

  4. Ephesians 5:17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

    As well as many other examples of singing in Acts, other epistles (I Cor) and Revelation.

    I am NOT saying that churches that don’t sing aren’t Christians. I am saying that the language in Ephesians and Colossians is imperative, not descriptive.

    “In your heart” is not restrictive, but descriptive of how to sing, not where.

    I also realize that Quakers are the perfect Protestants and have removed ALL externals of this sort, and I respect that understanding, though most of Christianity obviously disagrees.

  5. Aliasmoi says

    Oh there’s plenty I don’t agree with Friends on, but here’s the beauty of being a Friend – that’s perfectly ok. I am not labeled a heretic, trouble maker, or any other derragatory term. With Friends, I don’t have to “camp out in the church yard.” I am welcomed inside with open arms. I am a read that has been severely bruised in traditional churches. Eventhough, I find the total absence of sacraments or even any particular creed/doctrine (my meeting is explicitly Christian, unlike some other meetings) to be a little odd, they will not break me or bruise me further. They will allow me to work out my salvation with fear and trembling surrounded and supported by my Friends.

  6. Just some random observations:

    I’m a pastor of 14 years in a denomination that is known all over the world for innovating in the field of worship music. That is our heritage.

    I am completely bored with the big show on Sunday morning; have been for 10 years. I think it’s shallow and flat, and I only see the mediation of genuine experience getting worse with the growth of video-venues.

    Having said that, it seems lots of folks here want to blame the loss of congregational singing on shallow pop-sings and amplified music, but let’s be honest: that loss occurred long before amplifiers-in-church and CCM. Archaic hymns simply weren’t connecting with emerging generations in the 60’s. The truth is hymns connect even less with emerging unchurched generations now. They may learn to appreciate them (as I have), but it takes time to integrate meaningfully into a new context.

    It also seems lots of folks here think the solution involves raising the bar for “good songs” or “good worship leaders,” but that sort of subjective elitism will only lead to more of the professional vs. amateur class divisions that already characterize much of Western Christianity. It can’t be more grass-roots AND more “excellent” at the same time – unless we effectively redefine one of those terms.

    There’s nothing inherently virtuous about being able to sing across a broad vocal range. There’s nothing inherently virtuous about songs written in the 18th century.

    To one of the post-ers here: “worship evangelism” refers to the idea that unbelievers might walk into an enthusiastic worship environment and be moved to belief by the presence and power of God embodied in the congregational praise. I’ve seen it happen many, many times and always, incidentally, in a contemporary-song setting.

    In fact, I’ve worshipped in many different denominational settings, big and small, and by far the most participatory, passionate, powerful congregational singing was in settings that utilized contemporary, first-person songs sung to God.

    I agree that many old hymns are theologically rich compared to many new worship songs, but we tend to compare the best of the former with the worst of the latter and pat ourselves on the back for being theologically astute.

    Moreover, in my observation many regular folks in church simply feel that hymns are theologically richer for strictly aesthetic reasons. Archaic language tends to seem smarter because it’s less accessible – when in fact it’s just archaic. Lots of people think the King James Bible is theologically richer for the exact same reason.

    There are contemporary songwriters who are making an intentional effort to write theologically rich songs. Newer Matt Redman songs practically reek of N.T. Wright terminology (which may or may not be a pleasant smell to you). It’s too easy to paint with a broad brush, and we should all be more careful about our generalized finger-pointing.

    From a leadership perspective, there’s a very real temptation to abdicate participatory worship in favor of entertainment. We would never call it that, and we will always rationalize it, but let’s be honest: the fastest and most reliable way to grow a church is to put on a good show on Sunday. Moreover, one can entertain with hymns, and one can worship with CCM songs.

    On a practical level, I think the problem of congregational participation boils down to the unwillingness of leaders to tell people what to do (ahem, “provide instruction”). In this respect Michael makes a good point IMHO about “teaching the congregation to sing,” and the person who posted John Wesley’s instructions provides us with a stellar example (thank you, BTW!).

    For example, I was recently at our denomination’s regional pastor’s conference. For 2 straight days I watched as different bands took the stage morning, noon, and night…and very few people sang. We watched, we tapped our feet, and we clapped politely after every song. And these were the PASTORS. Then, on the last night, a well-known worship leader took the stage and did something radically different: he LED us. He told us what to do, coached us between choruses, and exhorted us when we seemed apathetic until the place came alive. There is a general squeamishness today among leaders about being too directive. “Good morning! Here at church XYZ we believe you’re free to worship any way you like. Just do whatever feels comfortable.” Well, that’s a cop-out. It’s bad leadership and it isn’t even remotely theologically true.

    It’s not about the songs, the style, the instruments, the amplification, or even the loss of connectedness to our past (although I think traditional continuity can be a very good thing). It’s about the condition of the human heart and how people need to be led to lay down their egos and offer themselves as a living sacrifice. That’s hard, vulnerable, sometimes humiliating work. It’s easier to entertain because then we all get to keep our egos.

    Personally, I like the idea of a-cappella singing. But recently I was whining to a Church of Christ friend about being bored with shallow, contemporary, soft-rock worship, and she said, “Wow, “soft-rock worship.” That sounds awesome!” She’s bored with her tradition, I’m bored with mine; for each of us real the problem isn’t the music or the lyrics – it’s us.

  7. stan in san diego says

    “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”…both/and How could it possibly be more clear?

  8. Well said, Jason.

    I thought this, especially, was true:

    “It’s about the condition of the human heart and how people need to be led to lay down their egos and offer themselves as a living sacrifice. That’s hard, vulnerable, sometimes humiliating work. It’s easier to entertain because then we all get to keep our egos.”

    I’m also sick of contemporary entertainment worship, and I’ve been seriously thinking of going Lutheran or Episcopalian or something with more reverence and awe about approaching God in the sanctuary. Even a kid gets sick of Disney World at some point.

  9. I’m 38, with two children both under 10. I’m proud to say that my wife and I have taught them a number of hymns, from “It is Well With my Soul” to “A Mighty Fortress” and Celtic aires like “Be Thou My Vision.”

    Music is a big part of who we are as a race, as a people, and as a creation. Not just in our churches but across our nation, we’ve made it into a spectator experience where we use it as a cocoon to keep everyone and everything else else at bay, rather than as a communal one where everyone joins in together.

    Alas, the worship leader at the church we attend favors the contemporary approach, where anything more than two years old is jettisoned as irrelevant and outdated, including the rich history of Christian hymnody. In its place we have loud drums, pounding bass, and overwhelming guitars. If I join in this kind of worship, I get a headache before halfway through the first set.

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