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The Day Church Singing Stopped

Mute Congregation

Church services have shifted from being the Body of Christ worshipping God to being primarily focused on evangelising the unchurched. With this shift, congregational prayers, affirmations, responses, and, singing were replaced with the “worship”-preaching-worship format.

The music shifted to primarily being intended to create an emotional response.

So, in summary, begins the hard-hitting post by Jonathan Aigner Why WOULD Anyone Sing in Church These Days?

But we didn’t stop there.

Our cultural ability to make music has decreased steadily since the dawn of commercial recorded music. For many years, churches were able to counteract this musical decline by training many in their congregations to sing and understand the written language of music. We had choirs for all ages. Now, most churches have given in to the cultural decline of music appreciation. Instead of training many of our own, we hire a few to stand up and perform from the chancel platform stage. We once heard the tapestry of vocal timbres, ranges, and textures rising in united praise and thanksgiving for God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, and welcoming all to join in. Now, we hear one voice, or perhaps a small group of voices, electronically pushed toward us.

So, we’ve stopped teaching ourselves how to sing, and traded the collective voice of the congregation for a few amplified tones.

We replaced songs created for many voices with songs meant for one or a few. And instruments that used to undergird and encourage congregational singing were replaced with a band and lead singer(s)/”worship leader”.

I encourage you to read the whole post (and the discussion that follows). Sure, these are generalisations. But Jonathan echoes some of my concerns:

  • That the primary model for evangelism is the church service. “Seeker-focused” services is the increasing model, rather than evangelism primarily happening outside the church building through our words and actions in our daily lives.
  • That worship is increasingly congregationally-passive. Worship, in my understanding, is the action of the whole Christian community together.

Yes, singing is counter cultural (increasingly so, and especially in non-singing cultures such as Pakeha Kiwis). We should see that as a plus – although I regularly get criticised that my appreciation of a difference between “church” and “world” restricts people from coming to Christ. In the majority historical Christian tradition (and in the Jewish tradition which gave birth to it), we do not sing at liturgy; the liturgy is sung.

Jonathan concludes with some ways to recover singing:

  • Do music that is meant to be sung, and in a way that encourages healthy, hearty singing.
  • Stop the Hillsongization of congregational singing.
  • Recognize that singing is, in and of itself, a sacred duty.

What do you think?

H/T Where did the music go?

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20 Responses to The Day Church Singing Stopped

  1. Sing, heck, Bosco — we don’t even WHISTLE any more… Somewhere recently I heard a possibly spurious story of a young one-time-only-church-goer who reported, “It was really neat, they had like this karaoke? But they had the words all printed out and everybody sang.” Si non e’ vero, e’ ben trovato…

    • Thanks, Eileen. I’m a whistler. I know a few young people who still whistle but, like you, I have noted the shift. And talk to them about it. The shift has been to passive (incessant) listening to music with earbuds (I see headphones are coming back in). Blessings.

  2. God is a musician and a singer in particular. Of this there is no doubt. Even in the midst of the exile, there is the song in the night (Psalm 42:9): By day Yahweh will command his loving-kindness and in the night his song with me, is a prayer to the One (אל) of my life.

    It is true in Islam also that the word of God is only there when the text is sung in recitation.

    In other words, we have traded our ears in and received nothing in return. Our eyes are good, but they are not the ear. They see science well, but they are deaf.

  3. Bosco,

    I’m your United Methodist counterpart.

    Liturgical developments for Methodists and other Protestants in the US may have happened a bit differently than for Anglicans in New Zealand.

    Here, and among us, the “preaching service” pattern of “Singing/other preliminaries/preaching/more singing” had its roots in 19th century revivals, and before that, among Methodists, in the standard Sunday evening society meeting/service.

    And that pattern, in itself, didn’t impede us from being very much a singing church. No, we didn’t sing much if any of the liturgy. But we did sing hymns, gospel songs, and choir anthems– lots and lots and lots of them– and at full voice with lots of participation.

    That said, the phenomenon that in many congregations, especially those using modern worship music, the rate of congregational singing is very low is apparently quite true.

    I’ve seen it myself– a lot– and it doesn’t seem to be a respecter of denominations or non-denominations up here.

    I’d also say that there is an association between that phenomenon and the way that some of that repertoire is performed and led. You fill up a room with too much sound– whether that be a pipe organ or drums/keyboard/guitars– and that tends to discourage anyone who isn’t at a microphone from even trying to sing. Then, you take songs that are pitched too high or have outlandish vocal ranges, and you combine that with a massive decline in music education in the schools, and, yes, you get more reasons not even to try to sing.

    I just think it’s important to note that up here, at least, and, I’d argue, even at Hillsong (as least as we experience Hillsong’s more recent repertoire), the message that the early-2000s “superpop” worship band fails to generate congregational singing has been heard– loud and clear.

    So if you take a close look at most Hillsong songs since say 2009, you’ll find the vocal range allows for larger stretches that don’t depend on soloists, the rhythms are simpler to follow, and the result is, if the band knows how to lead a congregation in singing, more people actually do sing!

    Last year I assembled a team of musicians and liturgical scholars from around the United Methodist Church in the US to do a review of the CCLI Top 100 (US version) and offer our feedback about the theology (using our Wesleyan/Methodist distinctives as a screen), use of language (including images of the Trinity), and singability (including ways each song can be sung and performed between band and people, or both, and recommended instrumentations). The result is our CCLI Top 100 database, which you can view here: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/ccli-top-100

    Again, I expect things may be different among Anglicans in New Zealand, but this is how things seem to be in the US (and some of why) for United Methodists.

    Peace and all good, my brother!

  4. I think the cultural factor is very important. Singing is something that many people just don’t do. They have never been taught any basics of music or had the experience of singing with others, something which was part of my education many years ago. On the other hand, choral singing is very popular in NZ with many choirs – just not in churches.

    • A great point, thanks, Janet. I think your point about the popularity in our (non-singing) culture of choirs beyond church walls is a connection that I haven’t seen made (or effected) previously. Blessings.

  5. Music has been a point of contention in our church for a few years now. Growing up in this Lutheran church we sang traditional hymns, chanted and the liturgy was mostly sung. Now there is commentary that the music is not uplifting and is boring. To who? I am amazed at these comments! There is nothing better than singing liturgy, traditional hymns along with organ accompaniment, and hearing the wide variety of voices blending in worship.
    The congregation has changed during my time here, perhaps that it the reason. It is multicultural now, 1st generation Lutherans and many new to the Christian faith…perhaps they want entertainment instead of worship?

  6. Mainstream popular music depends on a principle of planned obsolescence: a song is big hit for a short time and is then quickly replaced by the next big hit. Within this environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the power of tradition. There’s no musical experience quite as powerful (for an adult, that is) as singing a hymn that you’ve heard and sung since childhood. All those moments of singing the same hymn begin to pile up and create layers of meaning and emotion. I pity the congregation that abandons that kind of experience in pursuit of newness.

  7. Bosco, as a priest who sings everything he’s allowed to in the Mass, and encouraging of the appropriate congregational responses, I agree wuth your basic argument; that music is a very importanty ingredient of public worship, needing the very best that we csn offer in praise and thanksgivng to God.

    I am concerned that very little seems to be done, for instance during clergy formation, to train priests to sing the music of a simple Eucharistic setting that could so enhance the offering of a congegation’s Sunday worship. Pentecostal choruses have their place, but there is also the special place of music at the Offering of the Eucharist – that is perhaps more fitting for the solemnity of the occasion.

    As I have said elsewhere: Prayer sung is prayed twice

  8. Hi Bosco I am not sure that the style of worship is necessarily the issue there are choral songs and traditions and sung evensongs that equally unobtainable by congregations no matter how beautiful. I find choir led chanted Psalms where I don’t have the notations impossible and frustrating. Stylistically I prefer newer music but I love to sing. Each era adds its best but equally each era must leave behind its bad songs. Bad songs written by John Wesley should be put aside as quickly as bad songs written by Matt Redman or Hillsong.

    One can sing the liturgical words and phrases in a chant or led by guitar or organ it doesn’t seem to matter but music does change as does language and we need to make sure that the language of what we do in liturgy connects the congregation with our Lord.(using your analogy Bosco)

    I am firmly in the camp of participative liturgy/worship but there are traditions (Orthodox) where worship is watched and that deep sense of mysticism is created in the process of watching not participating and that must have equal merit.

    • Thanks, Nick. I’m not sure what you mean by “that deep sense of mysticism” – maybe you mean “awe” or “transcendence”. Also I wouldn’t contrast “watching” with “participating” as you do – watching can also be a way of participating. Blessings.

  9. Hi Bosco perhaps your word’s are better and closer to what I meant. A deep sense of awe.

    I was trying to contrast signing with not singing styles of attending and being part of the service. I agree with not distinguishing between the two.

    The original article referred to creating “Jesusy” feelings in the service so I was trying to say that for me we can meet our Lord in services whether we are filled with a sense of awe in active listening to some beautiful choral music or being a part of a service where no signing is required by the congregation or when listening to a really well lead band. I find that often I am most moved when I can really sing to a participative rock style song but listening to beautiful choral evensongs can also draw me in.

    Although I agree with the original author in some instances I think that we need to engage with the service and not through just the style of music. I was struck by one of our parish council members being highly offended when we dropped the early Sunday morning said service because she felt that music interfered with her worship. It really made me rethink a lot of what we do in services.

    I like your website it stimulates great conversation

    • Thanks, Nick. I think that the reality you describe fits with much being said here – it is the words of the descriptions that may be varying. Thanks also for the encouragement. Blessings.

  10. I stopped singing because churches these days sing Hillsongs and Hillsongs sucks melodically, lyrically and are shallow.

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