From the Recycle Bin: Congregational Singing Is Special Music

I’ve been pretty clear (here and elsewhere) on my stance regarding music that I believe is unfit for worship. However, as many fundamentalists discuss the kind of worship music we oppose (or, um, used to oppose), I thought a reminder of the kind of worship music we support–or should–would be profitable. With that in mind, I’m republishing this article, originally posted on MTC on 7/21/2006. You can see the original comments here, though I’d prefer that you make any additional comments on this thread.

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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.

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7 Responses

  1. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04241a.htm
    depreciation of congregational singing is nothing new. in the mid 300s, it was banned altogether. the congregation didn’t know how to sing properly, so only musicians would sing.

  2. “Maybe it’s because special pieces allow for more creativity, more artistry, more challenging writing, etc. ”

    That’s what I love about “special” music — with just a soloist or small group you can do a little more than you can with congregational singing. Done right it is much more about being able to be more expressive than it is about “showcasing” or “performing.” In fact….I wish we could have the “special” music before the congregational music. It would prepare my heart better for worshipping through song myself. I naturally sing hymns and spiritual songs around the house or in the car all through the course of my day. But there is something about congregational singing that just seems fake. Maybe because we’re still in transition from just getting to church and getting our minds engaged, or maybe it is just me — congregational singing just seems to be “going through the program” of the Sunday service. And if you don’t smile, the songleader will rebuke you — no matter what you are thinking or feeling just smile and sing this! True, it should be a time when we set aside other things on our minds and turn our hearts and minds to the Lord. But too often it seems to be a “worship on command” thing rather than being led to worship.

    Plus, some of the older hymns, which I love for the words, are a bit “plodding” in their tunes, and some of the newer ones are a stretch for the average person to sing.

  3. Hi, Barbara. Interesting thoughts. Thanks for chiming in.

    I need to be quick, but I definitely understand the concept that arriving at church, getting seated, settling kids, etc. isn’t conducive to a worshipful mindset. On a personal level, I suggest that each individual try to prepare better, whether by getting there earlier, spending some time in prayer while seated, etc. But on a corporate level, I’d much rather have a spiritually-minded worship leader than a musical song-leader. I don’t want people to be rebuked or guilted into smiling, “singing out,” etc. I want them to be led. “Consider this Scripture…consider this verse…let’s pray before we begin…let’s sing with understanding,” etc. Also, a corporate time of preparation–a quiet time–is quite helpful. When led properly, though, and when people are thoughtful and passionate in their singing, I think congregational singing is hard to beat.

    BTW, we’ve also enjoyed using some alternate tunes to rejuvenate classic texts. For example, the tune Gift of Love is great for “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (though I still love the older, as well). But even the songs that “plod”–like “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” or “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee”–are amazing when sung in spirit and truth.

    Frankly, I think it’s less about the music and more about the heart. And I don’t say that in a condemning way at all, unless I’m condemning myself, as well. I have kids, I’m often late, etc. But when I forget myself and look God-ward, the speed of the music, skill of the pianist, etc. means little.

    Sorry to ramble, friend. :)

  4. Great thoughts, Chris.

    My wife and I have talked much about this very issue. It seems as if several aspects of this are open for discussion.

    First, your last comments above are key, “it’s less about the music and more about the heart.” The heart is where worship takes place. It is no surprise that corporate worship cannot happen properly on Sunday unless private worship is taking place throughout the week. I dare say that Fundamentalism doesn’t seem to emphasize this enough (I know that is a broad stroke statement, and that there are also exceptions).

    Secondly, the very term “special” demands reconsideration. What is so special about the song(s) sung or played by an individual, small group, or even the choir? Is it the talent of the “performer?” Is it the difficulty of the piece? Why must we call it “special music?” In a recent discussion with a nationally known choral conductor, college professor, and church Music Pastor in a highly respected church, he told me that they do not call it special music, but “testimony in song.”

    Thirdly, I am not suggesting throwing all of these musical opportunities out the window, but we ought to evaluate the purpose behind doing them. Why do some music leaders get in a tizzy when someone is not able to “do the special” because of illness or something else? Is the service going to be any less honoring to God if one “special” is not in the service, or if there is no “special” at all?

    Fourthly, I agree wholeheartedly that all those who sing (either a special or congregational) ought to have their hearts engaged in the message of the song. I admit that I catch myself not doing this as I ought, like I am sure all of us do.

    Fifthly (and lastly), I fear Fundamentalism going into the same ritualistic rut that other denominations have. There ought to be purpose in every aspect of the service. Music ought not be just to fill up time, no matter what type it is. No doubt, people in the congregation enjoy listening to God-honoring music in church as much or more than they do in their own cars. But as this same choral church Music Pastor said (paraphrasing here), we ought to have people participating in worship and not just watching worship take place.

    These are some thoughts that have been mulling around. I realize that I am young in the ministry (6 years) and am not above correction. I would love to see more discussion on this very topic.

  5. I do agree it is primarily a heart issue — and need to remind myself to come better prepared and to focus on the words and sing them as unto the Lord rather than getting distracted. Even if the song service felt like being put through the paces rather than being led to worship, if my heart were in the right place I should be able to transcend that and worship in my heart through song.

    BTW, when I spoke of “plodding” hymns, I wasn’t referring to slower moving hymns per se — I tend to prefer the slower ones and love the two that you mentioned. I was trying to think of an example, but the only thing that comes to mind is “Sunlight, sunlight, in my soul today… ” — it has that di Da, di Da, di Da rhythm throughout the verse until you get to the chorus. But, then…maybe somebody else really likes that. :) I have to remind myself of that, too, that what appeals to me might not appeal to someone else and vice versa. But, that is I think why you don’t hear choirs generally singing hymns straight out of the hymnbook — a lot of those tunes were simple and maybe a little plodding because they had to be taught to people verbally without hymnbooks way back a long time ago. It makes it easy to pick up but not necessarily that pleasant for listening. (That’s my theory anyway. :) ) I love that choir and small group numbers can get more expressive with the arrangements.

    I do enjoy hearing old hymns to new tunes, too. At least most of the time. It makes you rethink the words. There is a version of “The Old Rugged Cross” on a Brad Wilson CD titled “Anthems” that brought me to tears the first several times I listened to it — I didn’t dislike the old tune, but this one just enhanced the words and reawakened the message of that song to me.

    I guess I don’t read too much into the word “special” for choir and solo songs. I just see at as meaning “different.” But another term may be more accurate. I did have similar thoughts when referring to a “special speaker” at church — not wanting to make my pastor or our usual speakers feel they weren’t special. :) “Guest speaker” would probably be better on the one hand, but most people know how “special speaker” is meant without thinking it demeaning to the pastor. And I think of “special music” the same way.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some of what is new “special music” now makes it into hymnbooks within the next several years. I think these days that is how people get familiar with new songs — hearing someone sing them at church, hearing them on a CD, getting to know and love them — and then what seems to be enduring and effective of those songs will likely be printed as congregational songs eventually. I imagine it was similar in, say, Fanny Crosby’s day — that when she wrote something new it was sung publicly first before it was congregationally. But I’m just guessing there — maybe it was somehow taught to and sung by “the masses” first.

    The one thing that used to bother me about modern special music was what I thought of as the “latest hit” menatlity — we’d hear a new song come out on a CD, and it was sung by the choir and soloists or small groups a lot for several months, and then we’d never hear it again. But, again, I think that has always happened. Back to Fanny Crosby, she wrote many more hymns than the ones we’re most familiar with, so there were some that were used in her day that fell away in usage over time.

    Now I am the one rambling…….:)

  6. This is good Chris. I share the same concerns in an article I’ve posted before, “A Critical Examination of So-Called ‘Special Music'” located here:
    http://religiousaffections.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=99&Itemid=27

    At our church, we call it “Prepared Music,” and we emphasize congregational singing much more.

  7. Taigen,

    Great to hear from you, friend! Sorry I’ve been so slow in responding. Suffice to say that I agree with what you’re saying. Private worship must precede public worship. I can’t remember who made the quote, but he said well that “if you haven’t worshipped since last Sunday, you didn’t worship last Sunday.” Something like that.

    Anyway, thanks for chiming in & for your concern about these important things.

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