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Congregational Singing Is Special Music

pianoHere is an undeniable fact: most modern Christian music is written for specials performed by specialists: soloists, ensembles and choirs. Whether one is looking at the work of evangelical or fundamental songwriters, our preoccupation with non-congregational music is obvious, and it is troubling. I suggest that the nature of the songs we are producing reveals much about our concept of worship.

First, it seems to indicate that “special music” is more about performance than we’d like to admit. Think about it: why don’t our choirs and soloists typically sing old hymns? At least part of the answer is that people–both those singing and those listening–expect specials to be new, fresh and attention-getting. The “oldies but goodies” just won’t cut it; special music has to be special…for the Lord’s glory, of course.

Now, I’m not opposed to specials, though we don’t always have them. Nor am I opposed to new texts and tunes and arrangements. I do wonder, however, if the desire for something new and inspiring is indicative of a “wait ’til you hear this” mentality that distracts from and competes with worship in spirit and in truth.

The second point is even more important to me: our failure to produce new congregational hymns seems to indicate that we don’t value congregational singing. Reaching that disturbing conclusion is not difficult: what we invest our time and talents in producing is a strong indication of what we really consider to be important. The problem is, our neglect of songs written for the entire assembly stands in stark contrast to a truth that should be self-evident: corporate worship is best expressed by corporate singing. The singing of the entire assembly should be primary in corporate worship. Yet, when is the last time a fundamentalist songwriter majored on producing fresh expressions of biblical truth designed to be sung by the entire congregation? Though it happens, it doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen enough, in my opinion. Instead, we invest countless hours writing and rehearsing special music, while corporate music gets the “leftovers” of our creativity, our rehearsing and our appreciation.

D.A. Carson has an interesting take on special vs. congregational songwriting in Worship by the Book:

“Britain, without much place for ‘special music’ in corporate worship, does not have to feed a market driven by the search for more ‘special music.’ Therefore, a great deal of intellectual and spiritual energy is devoted to writing songs that will be sung congregationally. This has resulted in a fairly wide production of new hymnody in more or less contemporary guise, some of it junk, some of it acceptable but scarcely enduring, and some of it frankly superb. By contrast, our addiction to ‘special music’ means that a great deal of creative energy goes into supplying products for that market. Whether it is good or bad, it is almost never usable by a congregation. The result is that far more of our congregational pieces are dated than in Britain, or are no more than repetitious choruses” (p. 53).

(Rabbit trail: His point about Americans producing songs that are not “usable by a congregation” is very true. Perhaps the only thing worse than not writing congregational songs at all is trying to make up for it by singing “special” songs congregationally. That can be painful to sing and painful to hear.)

Those poor Brits don’t know what they’re missing. Or do they? Why do American Christians–including fundamentalists–emphasize music for small groups and neglect music for entire assemblies?

  • Maybe it’s because special pieces allow for more creativity, more artistry, more challenging writing, etc. I get that, to a point.
  • Maybe it’s because we’re convinced that the wonderful hymns we already possess are enough. That’s a faulty idea, to be sure, but perhaps one that is believed.
  • Maybe it’s because the entertainment industry–both secular and (ahem) sacred–has changed our thinking about the purpose of music in worship.
  • Or maybe it’s all about marketing.

Nah. That can’t be it.

God is uniquely exalted by the corporate singing of the redeemed. Scripture teaches that. Church history teaches that. Thus, I urge pastors and those who lead in corporate worship to make congregational singing primary in your preparation and in your service order. I urge those who participate in special music to be even more excited about the privilege of singing a hymn as part of the congregation than you are to sing a solo in the “choice” spot before the message. (Take a few minutes to check your motives to see if that’s the case.) I urge those who are not particularly talented musically to be eager participants in congregational singing, realizing that your singing has little to do with your skills and much to do with God’s greatness! And I urge those who are writing songs–and those who should be–to invest some time and creative energy in producing excellent songs designed to be sung by all of those assembled, not just one or four or twenty.


20 Responses

  1. You’re exactly right, Chris. Congregational singing is predominant in our services (6-7 hymns per service) and if we do have “special music” we don’t call it “special.” We call it “Prepared Music.”

    Your point about Americans producing music for congregations that is not really usable in congregations is right on as well. I’m curious however, why you defend so strongly the hymnal you use. It seems to me that most of what is in there (especially that written by its publishers) was not originally intended for congregational singing and cannot and should not be used in that setting.

    What say ye?

  2. Hey, Scott. Here we go. :)

    I think MH includes many new songs that are suitable for corporate singing, the much-discussed “Worthy of Praise” among them, along with others I’ve mentioned in other threads. As I’ve said, we appreciate many of the songs written by Hamilton, Lynch, etc. But MH does indeed have a number of songs that are not particularly conducive to congregational singing: “Make Me a Stranger,” “The Steps of a Good Man,” “God Makes No Mistakes,” etc. I’ve heard someone say it’s nice to have “specials” right in the hymnal. I don’t agree. The point is, though I enjoy it, I’m not saying I agree with every song that was included and excluded, either.

    That said, I was surprised last night as I looked through Hymns of Grace and Glory. Thought it is excellent, it included some lighter gospel songs that I didn’t expect to see, especially because of the way it is sometimes contrasted with MH: “He Keeps Me Singing,” “Sunshine in My Soul,” “Springs of Living Water,” “In My Heart There Rings a Melody,” “Oh How I Love Jesus,” etc. Interesting.

    Anyway, we agree on the point of the post, at least!

  3. BTW, welcome back to the flogosphere. I thought your wife had permanently banished you. ;)

  4. Good stuff, Chris.

  5. Chris, I have always wondered why they are called “specials” if they do them every week. What is so special about something that happens in every service? Sounds kind of ordinary to me.

    We occasionally do have special music, although our talents are limited, especially in the voice area. We are blessed with a multitude of pianists for a church our size, some of them very accomplished. Regardless, I try to limit our specials (other than an offertory) to make it much more occasional, with usually more around Christmas and Easter.

    I can see the inclusion of some of those specials in the Majesty Hymnal in the sense that it saves you from having to buy the sheet music, but we do have people requesting some of those songs when we do favorites… I sometimes limit them to just one verse if I can get away with it.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  6. Nice article, Chris!

  7. I was in college when the MH came out. I noted to one of the music professors that some of the songs seemed strange to sing as a congregation. (I was thinking of Patch the Pirate songs.) And he told me that they would not seem strange after a while. I’ve not found that to be true as of yet, but I suppose a new generation may not notice after a while.

    Special music can be and has been done nicely at times. But personally (I have sung solos and in groups), I have trouble focusing on the Lord when all eyes are watching me. How do the rest of you “get over” that? You would think it would get easier after time.

  8. I greatly appreciate your perspective on this, Pastor Anderson. (And I am one who has been heavily involved in “special music” through the years.) Outstanding! I hope that many pastors will heed your call to emphasize the importance of congregational singing in our corporate worship.

  9. Great article my brother. Ole Al Smith would be proud of you. There are very few song leaders left today that realize how important corporate worship is. I couldn’t agree more.

    Joyfully His, Bruce

  10. Chris, I totally agree. You have managed to write something that Scott Aniol, Brian McCrorie, Don Johnson, and I unanimously agree on. And the subject is music!

    I’m voting for you to be next president of the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship.

  11. Chris,

    Thanks for the article.

    I appreciated your words for those of us who are not particularly musically talented and the encouragement to sing. An interpretational pet peeve of mine is hearing sermonic comments about “Make a joyful noise.” The impression is sometimes given that I and other less talented are only commanded (permitted?) to sing because God said, “Make a joyful noise.” The unintended conclusion seems to be: The multiplied commands to sing are for the talented and the joyful noise command is for the out-of- tuners. Can that really be what making a joyful noise was/is all about???


  12. Bob wrote: “You have managed to write something that Scott Aniol, Brian McCrorie, Don Johnson, and I unanimously agree on. And the subject is music!

    That’s funny, Bob. And you didn’t mention Ben and Andy, which may be the most shocking of all.

    Sorry, friends. This must be so…so…awkward for you. ;)

  13. Chris,

    I will add my “atta boy” here, as well. Good post.

    One of the frustrations that I have with MH (which we use – it was here when I got here), is that there are sooo many of the songs that are like you mention – not really designed for congregational singing. (I also get frustrated with the multiple arrangements of known hymns, having put the wrong hymn number in the bulletin a few diferent times).

    In Christ,

    Pastor Frank Sansone

    P.S. Bob – wouldn’t Chris have to be a Baptist to be the pres of FBF? Why don’t we just make him the Grand Poohbah of Fundamentalism instead?

  14. Ha! Who said fundamentalists can’t get along.

    You’re right, Chris, there are quite a few songs in HGG that we don’t use. No hymnal is perfect. That’s why I intend to compile our own church hymnal some day that fits our needs perfectly!

  15. Well, Chris, this is what happens when you write an article with no substance. It’s like saying “All Christians should love their mothers.” We all agree on that! So, kudos again for the unity achieved. And I’m kidding about the content of your article…maybe.

  16. The same thought went through my mind, Brian. Funny.

  17. Man, you’re more united with Brian than you think! (same thoughts at the same time…)

    For those concerned about agreeing with me, don’t worry, theres plenty more blogging coming!

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  18. While I agree that congregational singing is the bedrock of congregational worship, please let me muddy the waters here a little bit.

    1. “Special Music” has always existed. It’s not a recent phenomenon. Even in the OT there were professional temple musicians providing not only musical training, but also performed music. Throughout music history there has been constant stream of sacred music that was unsingable by a congregation (ever tried to sing along with Bach’s St Matthew’ Passion or even Handel’s Messiah?)

    2. There are a good number of recent songs that have been released in a format that was intended for a choir or soloist that are easily adapted for congregational use. Benjamin Harlan’s “Almighty Father,” the chorus of David Clydesdale’s “Holy Is He,” Niles Borop’s “Lord, Most Holy,” and others I have adapted for congregational use with great success.

    One of the reasons that there is so much that comes out in this format is not just a reflection of our view of performed music vs. congregational music, but rather one does not get paid as well for producing congregational music. While that could be leveled as a criticism, one must also realize that the people producing this music have to eat! This is how some of these people earn their living. How many preachers are out there that just donate their time of sermon prep and delivery? A worker is worthy of his hire.

    Another point to consider: Were someone to devote all of his creative abilities and energies into producing only congregational hymns, there is not currently an avenue to “market” his songs to congregations around the country. So one of the ways to get your music into churches all over the country and even the world is to have it published in the form of a choral octavo (e.g. Scott Aniol’s “God Is Supreme” initially published by The Wilds as a choral piece.). Maybe the fault is ours that we are not being more creative with what we already have and adapting some choral pieces into exellent congregational songs?

    One final point to somewhat “defend” MH. IMHO, not every song included in MH was intended to be in there for congregational use. They included some of those songs for the smaller church which doesn’t have much of a budget for “special music.” Therefore, they were actually trying to minister to the needs of the smaller church by including those songs for choral or solo use without burdening that church with more expense. Agree with MM’s reaoning or not, that’s why some of those songs are in there.

    Sorry to jump in so late in this thread with new thoughts, but I couldn’t pass it up!


  19. Great, Kris. Just when we were all getting along. :(

    Actually, I don’t think I disagree with any of your points.

    * I’m not opposed to special music, and I appreciate the reminder that it is not a “new” phenomena. I think sometimes we make too much of it. But our choir has been singing anthems like “Almighty Father,” etc., and I do believe that they can be effective in leading the entire body in worship, perhaps in preparing them for it. I think it helps if the special fits with a broader theme for the service: like God’s Fatherly Care or God’s Holiness for a service which includes “Almighty Father,” etc.

    * I would love to see what you’ve to make simpler choral pieces suitable for congregational singing. Introducing a new (or old) song to the congregation is an effective way to use specials, I think. We introduced “Before the Throne of God Above” with our choir, but now sing it congregationally. We’ve discussed doing the same with “Almighty Father,” which is a favorite choir piece among our people. Now I have a resource to make it happen. :) (I think I’ve mentioned my tendency to “sponge” elsewhere.)

    * I understand that marketing is a reality, and I’m not intending to begrudge these people their incomes. I’d love to see them do some congregational writing as well, though.

    That’s another reason, BTW, why pastors should engage in hymn-writing.

    * I understand your last point, too. MH was probably supposed to be a combination work for the many churches that had a hymnal plus the smaller MM songbooks (“Praises”?) or Wilds books in their pews. I’ve appreciated that, and we take advantage of many of the newer songs. Perhaps they could have been put in a special section for non-congregational songs, much like other hymnals have done with Psalms. Anyway, we enjoy the hymnal very much. That said, I was disappointed to see them omit the classics from “Living Hymns,” like “Are you down-hearted? (No, No, No),” etc. ;)

  20. Just to add to what Kris said, we used the MH as the primary source for our choir music when our church first started. That worked fairly well and was helpful when we didn’t have a music budget to speak of. The other night, though, we attempted to sing “Finally Home” congregationally. Yikes! I hoped we learned our lesson with that one.

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