Why Do We Sing? Hymns and Contemporary Christian Music in the Church
There are a number of articles that have been written on hymns and contemporary Christian music in the church. I have read several of them over the years and it is a topic I have been mulling over for some time. There are those who advocate for only hymnal music and those proponents for only contemporary music which is often seen as more “relevant” today. Personally, I think both have a place and should have a place in today’s worship services, but I think to incorporate them well requires considering why we sing as part of our church services.
A couple of days ago I read this post from Ponder Anew: 15 Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Hymnals and posted it to my Facebook wall because it resonated with me. The author, Jonathan, verbalized a number of points I had been thinking but had been unable to articulate plus a few I had not considered. The post garnered some traction among my friends and led to a good discussion. I really enjoy a good discussion on worthwhile topics.
The question I posed in the title was “Why do we sing?” I think delving into the reason why we sing in church can help inform us in the choosing of what we sing. I really think it’s an important question. I believe congregational singing is important not only because it draws the congregation together in unity in worship through which we glorify God in community and unison but also because well-chosen songs teach scriptural truths in a form other than reading or preaching and serve to further reinforce those truths.
So, if our goal with congregational singing is to involve the congregation and unite them in unified worship we need to ask ourselves if we are achieving that goal. Are we inviting people to sing with us in a manner they can follow fairly comfortably and in a manner in which they can feel somewhat confident?
I don’t know about you, but if it’s set to music I’ll have it memorized in no time flat. In fact, I used to get into trouble as a child because I had every single commercial jingle memorized and would sing every single one as they aired. Oh, and show theme songs? I had them covered as well. :) I recall a time when I was expressly forbidden by my exhausted parents from singing any commercial aloud…so I just sang them in my head. ;)
If our goal with congregational singing is to involve the people and unite them in communal worship we need to ask ourselves if we are achieving that goal. Are we inviting people to sing with us in a manner they can follow and in a manner in which they can feel somewhat confident? I do think this is where printed music or the simple practice of regularly repeating songs with a consistent arrangement is so important as it reduces the ‘barriers to entry’, especially for those who may not already know the song. I think this is also a benefit of including hymns, in particular. For one thing, hymns are often theologically rich and they are fairly universal, most especially if they are sung as originally arranged. I’m not opposed to newer arrangements of older songs, but I am advocating for unity and harmonious worship.
I recall instances when I was singing in the congregation and feel immediate relief and comfort when the words of an old ‘standard’ flashes up onto the screen… only to become crestfallen moments later when I realize that though I know the words well, the arrangement is a mystery. For transparency’s sake I will say that when that happens, I find it upsetting because, for me, it immediately undermines my sense of unity within the body at that particular time. Hymns cover a lot of ground and are classics, or standards if you will and there is a good chance that the majority of the congregation will know them or be familiar with them. This familiarity can also prove helpful for congregations that do not have their own buildings or hymnals as they tend to be widely known. If the congregants aren’t familiar with the hymn, the same music is repeated in each verse and likewise in each chorus. I believe this to be an asset to congregational unity. If the congregation sings three or four stanzas chances are pretty good that by that last stanza anyone can sing with a degree certainty of the notes as the entire song has been repeated a few times by then. If they are fortunate to also have the musical notation, they have the advantage of seeing where the notes are going.
Songs only begin to have meaning, to me, once I get over the hurdle of learning the music and get to the point where I can actually begin to focus on the words instead of struggling with which notes come next. Personally, if a song has too many verses each with varying arrangements you likely won’t find me singing. Sometimes that will change as I become familiar with the music, but frankly, some songs are just plain frustrating and not the least bit enjoyable to try and sing because they vary so much…so I just sit them out rather than play the endless guessing games. I doubt I’m the only one. What about those who walk into our church doors and are not conversant in our Christian culture? Is the music inviting to them as well or is it confusing?
There are a number of contemporary songs that I really love, and enjoy singing with my congregation. Generally speaking, they are songs I have known for a bit of time. Sometimes I feel that a secret requirement of being a part of a congregation is to be conversant in the current songs playing on the Christian airwaves. I stopped listening to the Christian music radio with any regularity when a few things happened: 1) I no longer had a radio for the main area of the house where I spend most of my day, 2) I realized I could not identify with many of the songs- mostly dealing only with joy and happiness and ignoring the messiness of life, and 3) I became frustrated by the many songs with truly bad or overly simplistic theology getting stuck in my head simply because they were catchy. They just kept setting off wars in my head. I think a fair number of contemporary songs are not really written for congregational singing, rather they are written to be sung by a single artist at a time and when they are used in a congregational setting they become awkward and stilted.
Congregational music, to me, is about celebrating our Savior and inviting those around us to join with us in the celebration.
There are also contemporary Christian songs that I LOVE to sing all by my lonesome as part of my personal worship, but they generally do not translate well to large groups such as a congregation. It’s totally OK for songs to have their niches, but I do think it advantageous to recognize when songs fit more neatly into one category than the other and where they have the ability separate rather than unify. I will say that I do deeply miss hymns for their musicality. I truly miss the joy and transcendent feeling that I experience when people know the songs and are afforded the opportunity to break out into their respective vocal parts which brings such a richness of that experience. The sheer pleasure of being a part of a group who’s voices work together so well tingles the spine! Congregational music, to me, is about celebrating our Savior and inviting those around us to join with us in the celebration. Are we doing that, or are we erecting barriers to participation and unity instead by always choosing only one type of music over another?
A congregation is made up of so many people with differing abilities and points of view… I think the music ought to reflect that. In churches where we have had a choice, we have always opted for the blended service. My husband mentioned just today that his ideal would be opening in praise and worship for a time, having a short break, and then at a set time before the sermon, sing a couple of hymns as a way to move towards a deeper, more contemplative state of worship. I really love that idea. Could it be interpreted as a little formulaic? I suppose, but I’d rather look at it as a stepping stone towards unity of worship among the congregation.
I think another very valid point in support of a time of quiet worship is the inclusion of those with sensory issues related to loud music. I have such a child. There have been visits to churches where we sat in the foyer during the music because it caused my child great auditory discomfort and headaches. As the parent sitting outside the sanctuary, it would have been really neat to know that while there may be a few loud songs, there would come a point when we could go back in and I’d be able to participate a little in the music portion of the service. Singing as part of a congregation is a definite highlight in my Sunday experience.
This post is not to be interpreted as me saying I have it all figured out, but rather as me saying that I do think that why we sing and how we sing as congregations are important questions to ask and as with all things involving faith, I think they bear consideration and wrestling with. There will never be a perfect answer, but I don’t think that should keep us from exploring different methods. And I will admit… I just don’t like feeling lost on Sundays. :)
(A little of my background: My first church experience began at about age eight and was at a church which strictly used hymnals. Given the fact I’m now 41, I’m guessing it’s a general commonality for those of my generation. Only one other church that I have attended since my childhood church has used strictly hymnals. One church used a mixture of hymnals and a screen, all the other churches we’ve gone to have all used large screens… it seems any hymnal use is now a rarity, at least from my vantage point, which I might also add is a rather short vantage point often making screens very difficult to see! I’ve been in a number of choirs, large and small and aside from congregational singing, the choral singing has provided me with the bulk of my musical knowledge and education. I do enjoy rotating onto my church’s worship team a couple of times a month as a vocalist but I do not view myself as a bona-fide musician. In fact, I’m happily surprised they let me sing at all considering my lack of official training.)