Yesterday I argued that we shouldn’t think of singing as a distinct activity of corporate worship. Rather, it is a particular way of engaging in activities that we also do without the aid of music – activities such as declaring, confessing, praying, praising, etc.
Today I’d like to give some practical suggestions for keeping congregational singing in perspective. How do we ensure that singing and music are simply seen as one means to express praise, devotion, faith, thanksgiving, and prayer?
1. Recover the devotional use of the Psalms. Throughout the centuries, the Book of Psalms has had pride of place in the corporate worship of the church. The Psalms are the main biblical medium for expressing ourselves to God. By using the Psalms creatively, both with and without singing, we communicate that singing is simply one way to join in the broader activity of prayer and praise. For example, a service leader could lead the congregation in a praise Psalm using a pattern of ‘call and response’. If this is done sensitively and thoughtfully it can be a very meaningful expression of the congregations praise. For the less liturgically inclined, the service leader could simply pray/recite the Psalm on behalf of the congregation.
2. Incorporate singing more seamlessly into services. Songs are often inserted haphazardly into church services, with little consideration about how they relate to the other elements which surround them. Thoughtful planning of a service will use singing with a particular purpose in mind. A song may prepare us for the hearing of God’s word, or be chosen as an appropriate response to the theme of the sermon. Simply choosing a song as a ‘filler’ is a recipe for thoughtless and un-engaged singing.
3. Teach the congregation about singing. Individual congregation members will have a range of expectations and ideas about the purpose of congregational singing. However if singing is to bring the church together in united praise, we must understand what we are doing! Church leaders must think intentionally about how to communicate the purpose of singing as part of the broader devotional life of the congregation.
4. Ensure the musical accompaniment supports the singing of the congregation, rather than overwhelming it. The purpose of musical accompaniment is to enable the congregation to sing. Nothing more, nothing less. Of course, there is a lot of scope within that brief. But singing is what we are doing, and musicians need to remember that as they sort out arrangements and instrumentation. Beginning a song with a 32 bar introduction, for example, may distract from that purpose.
5. Use other means of corporate participation. In more formal styles of church service, there are often opportunities for the congregation to join together in various ways – spoken confession, prayers, creeds, etc. In contemporary services, this really only occurs during times of singing, which can have the effect of elevating the importance of singing in people’s minds. One potential way to alleviate this problem is to sensitively introduce elements of spoken participation into the service – for example, a corporate response to a Bible-reading.
6. Change the way we talk about singing in church. This is a simple point, but I have always tried to refer to what we do as ‘singing’ rather than ‘music’. I find that many Christians, whether they consider themselves musical or not, consistently refer to ‘the music’ in church. People may say ‘I really like the music at this church’, or ‘the music was good this morning’. But because of the nature of congregational singing, we can see just how unproductive this language is in developing a healthy culture in this area. In many ways it is similar to our tendency to comment on the mechanics of ‘sermon’ delivery rather than respond to the fact that we have just been addressed by the very Word of God. I do not want to be totalitarian when it comes to our use of language. However, whenever I get the chance, I try to encourage people (especially those involved in musical accompaniment or leading) to talk about ‘the singing’ rather than ‘the music’.
Perhaps you can think of other ways of ‘deconstructing’ the use of music in church. The aim is to ensure singing is simply a natural part of the devotional life of the gathered church, and doesn’t take on a life of it’s own. Singing is prayer, praise, confession, and thanksgiving, and it must all flow from a pure heart and sincere faith.