I was at a convention recently, seated near the rear of the auditorium. The music team at the front were ‘leading’ (and I use that word advisedly) and we were singing. Well, we were meant to be singing. And so I did what I’ve done quite often lately: I closed my eyes and listened to the singing. The song leaders with their microphones were clear and distinct. I could identify each of the several instruments accompanying the singers. But if you blocked out the ‘worship team’, all that was left around the building was a barely audible murmur. I opened my eyes and looked around. Most folk were either standing silently, not even making a pretence of singing, or were little engaged in the activity.
I turned to a friend next to me and commented, “No-one’s singing”. He looked at me as if I’d just observed that no-one was flying. Of course they’re not singing; we haven’t really sung here for years. Whatever was happening that morning, it was most decidedly not congregational singing. In many churches, genuine, heartfelt congregational singing has been in its death throes for some years now.
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.
I’m bound to agree. I think, for example, of a local church that uses more contemporary worship songs than it does ‘traditional’ hymns. I always notice when I preach there that, despite them being used to the worship songs, they sing hymns with more confidence and greater vim. The reason? I think it’s obvious: the tunes are simply easier to sing. (Before you jump down my throat, of course I’m not saying that there aren’t worship songs with good, singable tunes. We’re talking about averages here) Secondly, I think of a visit to a church outside of the Methodist stable, with a congregation numbering 300-400 (very large by British standards) and an average age of under 40. Music is provided by a group of musicians of a good standard and a ‘lead’ singer who can really belt out a tune. But in the ‘worship time’ what happens? What we have is not so much congregational singing as it is audience participation. There is singing, but they’re joining in as they might at a gig. The real work is being done at the front, on the stage. The last time I worshipped there I was reminded of a visit I made to Chester Cathedral a few years ago: the place was packed with people, but as the first few notes of O, for a thousand tongues to sing thundered from the organ, my wife and I realised that we were the only ones in our part of the church joining in. The rest were listening to the choir.
Last night I was at a wedding reception (hearty congratulations to G & N!). Over the meal, a lady who worships in a Welsh Presbyterian church was keen to know if our congregations still sing harmony. Sadly, our experience matched hers: there are still a few who have a go, but most of the congregation are content to follow the melody line in unison. Anything else has come to be regarded as specialist and difficult.
Part of the problem here lies in the ‘Victoriana’ that has become firmly fastened to what is commonly understood as ‘church music’. Many of the tunes that underlie a significant number of hymns are simply adaptions of folk tunes. They don’t have to be sung as dirges and accompanied only by a pipe organ. (Not that I’ve anything against pipe organs. Nothing stirs the soul — or rattles your internal organs — quite like those big old pipes!) I discovered last year that hymns can be updated most effectively , ironically by first going back to their essence and then re-presenting them with contemporary instruments.
I believe very strongly that if we allow proper congregational singing to wither and die we’ll be cutting the heart out of the church’s worshipping life. But is it too late for anything to be done?