Monday, August 19, 2013

The death of congregational singing

Perhaps I am in the wrong churches to evaluate the state of congregational singing in the Southern Baptist Convention but I rarely find a church where it appears that there is much concern about the congregation, rather than soloists or the choir, doing any serious singing in worship.

The whole assembly was worshiping, singing the song, and blowing the trumpets...                                                                                                                2 Chronicles 29:28a

There is always music planned for worship that is called congregational singing but not much singing seems to occur. The choir, praise team, music leader, platform people sing robustly. The congregation mumbles along, most being unengaged as participants. What I observe anecdotally is that there is not much of an attempt to engage the congregation in being participants in worship.

This troubles me. 

When does a dearth of congregational singing become the death of congregational singing? Will perfunctory and mundane congregational singing survive or will a church eventually just dispense with it altogether?

It is difficult not to conclude that this is by design, seeing that churches pour significant dollars into sound, lighting, and stage accouterments. Churches typically light the platform, soloists, and choir and turn the house lights down. This seems to be a recipe for performance by stage personnel where there is an audience.

I thought we were, after Kierkegaard, all performers and God was the audience.

Is it just another expression of a consumer mentality, people expect this?

Not to care about congregational singing seems to me to be a deficiency that must be corrected or we will end up with concerts and performances. Perhaps we already have. Perhaps we should, though I think not.

I append the caveat here that I am not a music person. Perhaps a music person can persuade me of some aspect of my observations that are either skewed or incorrect.

Please do.


Anonymous said...

What is the state of children and youth choirs? What is the state of music in school systems? Heard young people singing in resturants lately? "Happy Birthday" is that difficult?

Won't sing or can't sing? Perhaps the former given the latter?

William Thornton said...

If it is 'can't sing' is part of the cause that there is no encouragement, no admonition, no teaching that part of worship is worshippers not performers?

Andrew Green said...

In our church I cannot get hardly anybody to sing a special. Almost everything is congregational. The problem is that very few people sing during the congregational singing as well. I think overall their is a lack of joy in our churches for what Christ has done for us as well as a professional mentality that only those trained in certain areas are allowed to perform ministry. We have removed the lay ministry aspect of the church.

David Rogers said...

A few years back, I had occasion to visit a Sunday evening service in a church where I was attending a conference. They approached music and singing a bit differently than the typical SBC church. They had a choir, but no choir robes, and the choir positioned themselves in such a way that it was hard to tell where the choir ended and the congregation began. What was intentionally being communicated symbolically was that the role of the choir was to lead the congregation in singing, not to perform for them. I sat in the back. As I looked around and observed, I was amazed to see close to 100% of the people in the congregation actually singing, and enthusiastically singing.

I thought to myself at that moment, "Though there is no hard and fast rule about it, the percent of people in a congregation who actually (and enthusiastically) sing during congregational worship is probably a good indicator of the spiritual health of that congregation." And what I observed in that church should not be the exception, it should be the norm.

I totally agree with you, "church" is what we all do together, not what certain "stage personalities" do to keep those in the pews entertained.

Anonymous said...

A hearty congregational singing voice has an eternal quality for me, but I would not wish to suggest that worship is incomplete without music. I would assert, however, if congregations value music and a congregational voice, it needs to develop its competency and skill for such just as it seeks to do so in knowledge of and skill in using scripture, even if the amount of time available for such differs.

Anonymous said...

Just the observation of someone in a pew:

We left the SBC when the hymns left in our local town. We left evangelical churches in general when that happened.

We love to sing, but need the music to do so. We love to sing, but when you have to learn new songs about every 3 weeks or so, never to sing the old ones again, we find ourselves unable to keep up.

We discovered we could have the same basic theology in a local mainline church, complete with hymns and new songs with the music available.

We can sing again. We love to sing. And I cannot imagine ever going back to such unsatisfying worship as a long block of praise choruses.

R. L. Vaughn said...

William: "What I observe anecdotally is that there is not much of an attempt to engage the congregation in being participants in worship."

I think these is being "observed anecdotally" in a wide enough geographical range to indicate this is a widespread occurence, and not just among Southern Baptists. Much of what goes on that is theoretically considered "congregational" makes no attempt to engage the interest or abilities of the congregation. I wouldn't let the congregation off the hook, but there is far too much "stuff-shirtedness" here -- I'm the minister of music, worship leader (add whatever term) and I know what is best. But obviously they don't know what is best for congregational singing when it just ain't happening!

Here's one anecdotal observation. Just out of High School I was in a relatively small church that had quite a few young people. We had a "lay person" leading the music and the pastor encouraging its progress forward. The young people were interested and involved. The pastor decided they had done about all they could do and that the ticket would be to hire a minister of music to keep things going the upward direction. The church concurred. A music minister was hired. What of the progress? The music "program" died on the vine. It was a slow death, but a death nonetheless. Well, maybe a coma.

I am a preacher. I am not a "music person" in the sense of a professional musician, but I do read music, participate in singing on the congregational level and outside the church, and have been involved in singing much longer that I have been a minister (the latter of which is 30 years). I grew up in a church with no professional musical leadership, but everyone was encouraged to sing and almost everyone did -- and zealously I might add. Don't let anyone persuade you that your observations are incorrect just because you aren't a "music person".

Congregational singing is important. It should be encouraged. If "worship leaders," so-called, are mostly performing rather than leading the worship of the entire congregation, maybe they ought to find a real job.

Anonymous said...

Plodder: Long time reader, first time commenter. Deacon/layperson in small OK SBC church. I have extensive musical training and participate in my church's musical programs, but not as a leader.

I think your observations are sadly true, and that contributing components to the problem have been extensively analyzed and fretted over (worship wars, lack of men singing, etc.).

In some of the big churches, I perceive a 'let's turn the ministry over to the professionals' mentality in many aspects, and I believe that this mentality extends into music.

Next, there's been a literal EXPLOSION in praise choruses. Many music ministers and leaders write their own and sing their own. Across the entire praise chorus spectrum, there are some true winners, but there are thousands of 'duds' that are just plain not singable, not to mention the fact that it is difficult for people to learn all the new ones and 'keep up.'

Another commenter said 'Won't sing or can't sing?' This comment is spot on. I led a mission trip to Western Colorado where we were to conduct a Day Camp. My Day Camp responsibility was 'music' and after a day 1 failure, our host pastor told me: quit trying; they won't sing; play a game; they think this is weird; etc. Rightly or wrongly, I ignored his advice and persevered, much to the delight and success of the children. As a whole, I think we give up far too easily in teaching and training people about the importance of singing, and we are now reaping what we have sown.

Most importantly, I think we (the SBC) need to be honest with ourselves that we have fostered some unknown factor(s) specific to our SBC environments that have led to this dearth (and death?) of congregational singing. Why do I say that? Because you can find robust singing in other contexts, religious and secular. I have occasion to sometimes visit an IFB church - they usually have tremendous congregational singing. We've all seen videos of the magnificent and enthusiastic singing of our brothers and sisters in African Christian churches. Finally, at great risk of introducing sacrilege, I think churches could possibly benefit from watching a YouTube video of men singing in an Irish pub. Wow! You want to talk about something that is inspiring and fun to watch? And by the way, it's not just because they are less inhibited due to drink. Instead, the songs they sing have simple and repetitive singable tunes with strong rhythm/meter and very straightforward lyrics. Many of those elements are missing from the modern Christian song.

Christiane said...

I think the answer to the longing for people to participate together in community . . . young and old, all voice levels, with enthusiasm and joy, can be had through the old hymnody used in Baptist rural Churches a century ago, and now enjoying a revival:

Sacred Harp shape-note singing

Here's a sample:

Anonymous said...

Noone sings because the only one who knows the words is the "praise leader" playing the keyboard and having the time of his life. The good thing is that you won't ever see the song again so there's no sense learning the words.

We only bring things upon ourselves as Baptists so we have noone else to blame for our state of affairs.