The death of congregational singing?

by Richard on July 13, 2008

Internet Monk points us to a report from The Briefing headed The Slow Death of Congregational Singing

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.

IM offers a splendid follow-up

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?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 07.13.08 at 9:44 am

Worship “teams” that actually disable audiences - oops, congregations. Music groups that sound like cod Carpenters with a gooey emotionalism - and sometimes there is even applause. Fatuous “songs” with, yes, “narcissistic” lyrics - ditties, not hymns. And, to adapt the old saying, lex canendi, lex credendi - what does such vacuous content tell us about the church’s folk theology?

The root cause? Augustine said that to sing is to pray twice. I suspect that a lot of Christians just don’t pray anymore - unless you count “Jesus, I just wanna this, and Jesus, I just wanna that” - so of course they don’t/can’t sing anymore either.


PamBG 07.13.08 at 1:23 pm

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)

Musically, you are absolutely correct. Although there is no reason that it should be ‘necessary’ that modern worship songs are difficult to sing. This morning, we sang a new song for us: ‘Before the throne of God above’. The choir sang and first verse and we all joined in; the the congregation picked it up in no time. Whether it was intentional or not, this song is one for congregational singing.

Many worship songs are created for solo singing. Many have some combination of difficult rhythms, asymmetrical pauses, difficult musical intervals and simplistic chords. Many have the same note repeated over and over (e.g. ‘Great is the Darkness’). The only way to make these songs sound good is with excellent singers who are well-rehearsed and a definite rhythm.

The most moving thing at Scarborough Conference was the number of hymns we sang without accompaniment as part of our Methodist tradition.


fatprophet 07.13.08 at 2:37 pm

Interesting article and how I agree with a lot of the points made - we do tend to sing hymns better in general terms and that may be because of the familiarity - many modern worship songs are not in my opinion intended for worship, rather they are intended for ‘performance’ by extremely accomplished musicians in large conference style events like ‘Spring Harvest’.
The hymn Pam mentions is a fairly old hymn but in Mission Praise the tune is a new tune and is extremely easy to pick up and consequently easy to sing - and the words are very good too.


ee 07.13.08 at 11:02 pm

Our church (a baptist one of 200 or so) experiences some of the highs and lows of all that is talked about here this evening. On the one hand, a wonderful rendition of O the deep deep love of Jesus, electrified by a great guitar and bass rhythm, and very full congregational participation. On the other, a song with lyrics which Celine Dion would have rejected as too schmaltzy and doesn’t even mention God.

It doesn’t seem impossible to me to produce modern songs, suitable for modern rock-style instruments, with thoughtful lyrics that inspire people to praise. There are a few such in existence. There could be a lot more.


nancy 07.29.08 at 5:44 am

this is like scratching your foot when your head itches.

the heart of the matter is the heart not the matter.


nancy 07.29.08 at 5:49 am

oh…my comment is awaiting for moderation.
awaiting, what an interesting word.
moderation, what exactly does that mean?
does that mean that you have a look at it before you allow it to come up on the screen?

Yes, that’s exactly what it means. All first-time commenters go into moderation. ~Richard

Drew 12.10.08 at 3:23 am

Hey guys, in response to “ee” - I believe that it’s still possible to produce a Godly modern song! Humbly, I write them and that was the very reason I chose to put pen to paper. Not just to write more of the same but to be different - to help provide new angles on God’s majesty, to bring truth back to song, and to exalt Christ above all else. Here is a part of a song I wrote based around Isaiah 64, it’s called ONLY BY YOUR BLOOD…

The finest I bring, how it fails to compare to Your righteousness
The best of my works, filthy rags in the presence of holiness
Lord in Your light, I see how far I fall short
But in Your mercy my salvation comes

It’s only by Your blood, Jesus, only by Your blood
That I stand clean, that I stand whole
Your blood has washed me, cleansed my soul

There are two more verses - dealing with justification, salvation through grace, and repentance. But I’ll leave you with the bridge…

Praise the Lord, my Redeemer, Praise the Lord, my Deliverer
Who has purchased my soul with His blood
O my soul praise Him, O my soul praise Him!

I don’t know if this is good or what, it is longish, and perhaps weighty. I’m messing with the idea of publishing my songs. God has graciously given me about 25 songs. However I’m aware they’re not the norm. They are different and I dare say unpopular. However if God gave them to me, they’re not just to bless me, right??? What say you guys? Blessings, Drew

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