The slow death of congregational singing

It seems like genuine, heartfelt congregational singing is experiencing its dying gasps. But why does it matter and why should we care? Mike Raiter brings us back to the Bible to inject our singing with new life.

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. So I feel motivated to write about it. Surely we should be concerned that we’ve allowed our congregational singing to come to this.

Now, I know I’m not talking about every church. And I may not be talking about your church. But I travel around a great deal. In fact, I’m in a different church on most Sundays, and it’s true of virtually everywhere I go. I can’t remember ever coming home to my wife after church on a Sunday and saying, “Now, honey, that church really knows how to sing”.

What’s it matter?

But more about that later. What’s the big deal about singing, anyway? Does it really matter if we sing well, poorly or not at all? Singing is yet another one of those topics about which Christians disagree—sometimes quite passionately. Focusing on the Old Testament, one writer concludes that “it is evident … that music played an important part in Hebrew culture”.1 His implication is clear: music was an important part of the life of God’s people before the coming of Jesus, and so it should also be important for us who live after our Lord’s first coming.

Another Christian leader, preferring to focus on the New Testament, concedes that there is a place for music in the life of the church but “it is in no way a major place”.2 He argues that singing was peripheral to the life of God’s people back in the early church, and therefore there is no basis for making it any more important in the life of the church today.

It is evident that the Old Testament gives a significant place to music. Three of its books are songs, or collections of songs (Psalms, Song of Solomon and Lamentations). In fact, one scholar claims that as much as one half to two-thirds of the Old Testament is poetry! Does this emphasis give us some clues about the place we ought to give to singing and music in church today?

But on the other hand, perhaps music and singing is like circumcision, temple attendance and Sabbath observance: it’s commanded in the Old Testament, but fulfilled by Jesus and the apostles in the New. They broadened and reinterpreted the definition of ‘worship’ to embrace a life of faith and obedience. Can we say that those who want to emphasize the importance of music for the church today are still stuck in an old covenant view of worship? Are all these things matters of Christian freedom? In Christ, you’re free to sing or not to sing, but what you are not free to do is bring music in from the margins.

So who’s right?

Spirit-filled singers

Singing was important for the Apostle Paul. Some truths can be established on the basis of their frequency in Scripture while others can be established by the importance of the context and the language used. Singing falls into the latter category.

Of course, singing is an extraordinarily important feature of life in the heavenly realms, as the book of Revelation bears witness, but it is also an identifying mark of the people of God in the earthly realm as well. A key passage here is Ephesians 5:15-21:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Paul has just warned the Ephesians to shun drunkenness and then his argument takes an unexpected twist. Instead of describing a life of sobriety, he goes on to talk about another kind of—well, if not exactly drunkenness, it’s certainly being filled or being saturated. He calls on his readers to be continually topped up by the Spirit. So the key exhortation in this passage is “be filled with the Spirit”. Then we are given one very long sentence with five participles which flesh out how being filled by the Spirit will express itself. With thanks to my friend and one-time colleague Peter O’Brien, the structure of the passage looks like this:

Do not get drunk with wine, …
But be filled by the Spirit,
speaking to one another
with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and making music with your hearts to the Lord,
giving thanks to God
for all things
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
submitting yourselves to one another
in the fear of Christ,
wives to husbands …3

The key command is to be filled ‘with’—or, even better, ‘by’—the Spirit. The Spirit is the agent of the filling, not the content. As Peter O’Brien points out, whenever Paul talks about ‘fullness’ or our being filled, it’s never with the Holy Spirit. Rather, he is the one who does the filling. Again and again, the one with whom we are to be filled is God—more particularly, Jesus (cf. 1:22-23, 4:10, 13). So really, all that Paul is saying here in Ephesians 5 is of a piece with what he’s been saying in the past five chapters: imitate Jesus, grow into the likeness of Jesus, have Jesus dwell in your hearts, be filled with the fullness of Jesus.

In the virtually parallel passage in Colossians 3:16, what does Paul say? “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”. That’s the command: be filled with the word of Jesus. And what will flow from that? Teaching, admonishing one another, and singing with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

So the first thing to notice is that when Paul talks about singing together, he’s not giving us commands. There is only one imperative in the passage, and that is to be filled by the Spirit. Then, when you are filled with Jesus, certain things will naturally and almost spontaneously follow. When you are drunk with wine, there are inevitable behavioural consequences; similarly, when God’s people are filled with Jesus, among other things, they will spontaneously and inevitably sing.

Singing to one another

This singing has two dimensions. Firstly, it’s horizontal. We are to sing (or, literally, ‘speak’) to one another in song. In Colossians, Paul said, ‘teach and admonish one another’, and I think that’s what he means here in Ephesians 5. Speaking is his shorthand way of saying teaching, admonishing, encouraging, edifying, building up, and so on. You see, there is a strong didactic dimension to singing: we learn about God through the songs we sing.

I suspect that lying behind all this is 1 Chronicles 22-29 which describes David’s preparations for the building of the temple. Much of the section is comprised of various lists of names of those involved in this work: the priests, the gatekeepers, the treasurers, the soldiers … and the singers. Chapter 25 describes the various musical guilds who were, presumably, rostered on to lead the worship in and around the Temple. It is striking that the singers and musicians are set apart “for the ministry of prophesying” (v. 1, NIV). As the chronicler tables the names of the singers and musicians, he describes them repeatedly as the ones who “prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to the LORD” (v. 3). The singers were prophets, presumably because their ministry was to speak and to teach the word of the Lord.

This is of a piece with Paul’s words to the Ephesians, and it reminds us that the singers/choir are the congregation’s other preachers. People hear the word of God from the mouths of the pastors and the Bible expositors, but they also hear a sermon during the time of singing. Someone has said that a person’s theology is no deeper than the songs they sing. I’m sure that’s true, and it’s quite an indictment on the modern evangelical church. There is, perhaps, no greater evidence of the theological illiteracy of this Christian generation than the songs we sing and write. Every song is a sermon, and it is critical that the God and the gospel that is proclaimed from the pulpit is the same God and the same gospel preached from the music team.

We must also ensure that the songs we write and sing teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Let me say that no matter what theological stable our songs come from, many of them fail us when it comes to teaching the whole counsel of God. It’s striking when we open the Psalter to find such a variety of songs there. Of the Psalms, Calvin said, “I have been wont to call this book not inappropriately, an anatomy of all parts of the soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror”.4 Where, for example, are our modern songs of lament: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” “How long, O Lord?” “O Lord the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you”? We can be sure that when God’s people gather together at church, there are as many who come heartbroken, struggling with doubt, loneliness and anxiety, as there are who are rejoicing. The Bible recognizes the reality of the human experience and, in its songs, it allows God’s people to express their doubts, frustrations and sufferings with, of course, the word of comfort the gospel brings. In contrast, very few modern songs allow us to vent such emotions.

Where are the songs of judgement? Where are the songs on the sovereignty of God and his predestining grace? Where are the songs on mission or the second coming? Certainly there are a handful, but we need more because songs are powerful teaching tools.

Making music to the Lord

We are to sing to one another, but our singing also has a God-ward dimension: “making melody to the Lord with your heart”. We sing not just because we’re commanded to, or even because, as we’ve seen, it’s something that people filled with the Holy Spirit are instinctively prompted to do; we sing because, as John Piper says:

… the realities of God and Christ, creation and salvation, heaven and hell are so great that when they are known truly and felt duly, they demand more than discussion and analysis and description; they demand poetry and song and music. Singing is the Christian’s way of saying: God is so great that thinking will not suffice, there must be deep feeling; and talking will not suffice, there must be singing.5

It is a thoroughgoing anomaly that the singing is so perfunctory in so many evangelical churches. Of course, we must keep the word of God central in our gatherings. However, sometimes we are in danger of making what we do centrally something we do exclusively. We’ve become profoundly imbalanced whenwe allow just a couple of minutes for prayer and a couple of obligatory songs just so we can stretch our legs before the sermon.

Let us sing

Let me finish with some final observations.

Fuel

Firstly, singing strengthens believers. Music and singing are not the enemy of faith, but the fuel for faith and action. Just ask sports players what the songs of a partisan crowd can do: they’ll tell you that they can make you forget about the pain and help you to find physical resources you didn’t know you had.

We all know what a powerful force music is. That is why we need to be so careful about to whom we entrust this force. We wouldn’t allow into the pulpit anyone who just puts up their hand; similarly, we should also be more discerning as to whom we appoint as the congregation’s ‘other preacher’. I’m sure you’ve seen what harm results from placing that responsibility into the hands of unscrupulous, self-serving or undiscerning people: it rarely edifies and it sometimes ends up being the cause of considerable conflict.

However, when used by the godly and the wise, singing is a great source for good. If I’m preaching, I would much rather mount the pulpit after a stirring or moving song well sung than after a drab, dreary piece of music sung by a congregation just going through the motions.

McDonaldization

Secondly, whether you travel across the urban areas of Asia, Africa, North America or Australia, everywhere you go, increasingly, the singing in the church—both the songs that are sung and the style of music—is the same. It’s the McDonaldization of our world. And in every church you visit across the world, the music is just the same. I’d describe it as the ‘Hillsongization’ of music except that it’s such a clumsy word. Oh, the words of the songs might differ, but it’s the same music team singing the same way. There’s the obligatory leader with the obligatory two or three singers accompanying her, the obligatory drummer, the obligatory keyboard player and the obligatory two guitarists. You’re allowed some freedom in your choice of a sax or a flute, depending on the resources available, but it’s all exactly the same for every song in every place.

Surely it’s time to sit down and ask ourselves what is the best medium for actually promoting congregational singing? From my observation, our present approach has been weighed in the balances and found wanting.

Reclaim

Thirdly, it’s time to reclaim congregational singing. As I indicated in my opening words, I’m at the point of despair with congregational singing. It’s only because I’ve flown first class once or twice (upgraded, of course) that I find economy air travel so awful. Similarly, it’s only because I’ve experienced true congregational singing—singing where the people of God are taught and led to truly sing—that I find it hard to endure the drab alternative that characterizes most gatherings. Of course, first class air travel is for the elite; edifying singing should be for all the saints.

It’s time for congregations to sensitively but firmly rise up and reclaim congregational singing. We must remind song leaders (or, perhaps, teach them in the first place) the purpose of their ministry. Putting a microphone in the hands of someone who can sing no more makes her a song leader than, as the old proverb goes, sticking someone in a garage makes him a car. All the microphone does is make someone a very loud singer. The ministry of the song leader is, surely, to guide and lead the people of God in singing. The role of the song leader is to help us to sing, and they will know if they have fulfilled that ministry when they can hardly be heard because of the praises of the congregation filling the room.

I liken the ministry of song leaders to that of John the Baptist. They must decrease as the people of God increase (John 3:30). When the song begins, we may hear the voices of the leaders and the sounds of the instruments, but by the end of the song, it is the voices of the people of God that should dominate.

But sadly, in most churches, the very opposite is happening: John the Baptist won’t leave the stage. John the Baptist has forgotten why he’s come. As I travel around visiting churches, I’ve noticed again and again that, for all their good intentions (and the vast majority are, I believe, well-intentioned), the music teams are killing congregational singing. I know that sounds harsh, but I see it in case after case. I enjoy the sound of an electric piano, the beat of the drums, the rhythm of the guitars, and the backing of the saxes and flutes, but my favourite instrument is the human voice. Nothing lifts my soul like being a part of 50— 100—300 saints in full voice, singing the praises of God and the glories of the gospel. Unfortunately that’s a disappointingly rare experience.

Purpose

Finally, singing reminds us of our raison d’être. The reason God made us, redeemed us and sanctified us, and the reason he will glorify us is so that we might live to the praise of his glory. That’s something we express with our lives, our minds, our wills, our hearts and our voices. Singing is indispensable in expressing that. That’s why the New Testament’s picture of heaven is not a celestial Bible study or an eschatological morning tea, but a heavenly choir forever lost in wonder, love and praise. I long here and now for more glimpses and foretastes of that. Don’t you?

Endnotes

1 KA Kitchen, ‘Music and Musical Instruments’, in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edition, eds. IH Marshall et al., IVP, Leicester, 1996, p. 789.

2 ‘The Idolatry of Music’, unpublished paper.

3 Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1999, p. 387.

4 John Calvin, ‘Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms’, viewed online 20 February 2008: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin.

5 John Piper, ‘Singing and making melody to the Lord (Eph 5:17-20)’, a sermon preached at Bethlehem Baptist Church, 28 December 1997, viewed online 6 March 2008: http://www.desiringgod.org/Resource Library/Sermons/ByDate/1997/1023_Singing_And_Making_Melody_To_The_Lord/.