Deconstructing church singing (Scott Mackay)

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.

7 comments

  1. re. 4- I agree with the spirit of this point. But I often really appreciate breaks in the songs without singing because as the music plays I have an opportunity to think and pray, for example. Do you agree that is valuable too?

  2. On 1 – Do you think songs adapted from Psalms fit this purpose or should the church actually sing metrical psalms (e.g. Isaac Watts – http://www.ccel.org/ccel/watts/psalmshymns.toc.html)?

    On 2 – what framework do you find helpful in improving the logical flow of the service? Is it just BT (before talk) and AT or are there other ways you do it at your church?

    On 5 – I’ve wrestled with the use of formal liturgical components (such as creeds, catechisms, responsive readings) in our church when people come up and say they associate them with lifeless ritual from their Roman Catholic / high Anglican upbringing. The charge is that having a service leader lead set readings, creeds and so on reminds them of the “whole priest intercedes for us” mindset from that upbringing. How do you use other means of corporate participation while keeping it, well, corporate?

    On 6 – I chuckle at this point as a frequent comment after the service is “Thank you for leading us in worship”, and usually I like to respond by pointing out I was myself blessed because of their (and the congregations) singing. It’s a helpful reminder though, thanks.

  3. Hi Elizabeth,

    Yep, as I said, I think there needs to be flexibility on this point. I’m not arguing for no musical accompaniment in church (although many of the church Fathers and Reformers did! – and it’s worth understanding why I think). The main thing is that people understand why we’re doing it, and it supports the singing of the congregation rather than distracting from it. I know that’s vague, but it’s hard to make rules about that sort of thing.

  4. Hi William,

    1 – I’m not sure I’d say adapted Psalms fulfil the purpose of actually using the canonical Psalms as given. There’s certainly a place for adapting Psalms into newly formulated songs. But I’m arguing that the Psalter is by its very nature an anthology of prayers and praise. That’s how it has come to us. It is a collection of poetry, songs, prayers – all designed to be ‘performed’ and not merely read privately or preached on (hence the liturgical/musical introductions to the Psalms which are actually part of the inspired text of Scripture; e.g. Pss 4-9). And if that’s the purpose of this part of Scripture, why not use it as such? Sure, it’s good to preach on the Psalms too, and the NT is a great example of the theological appropriation of the Psalms. But they are firstly given as prayers to be prayed, hymns to be sung, poetry to be performed. That’s why the church has always used them this way – because it actually respects the nature of the text.

    Singing Psalms using a metrical system is one particular way of appropriating the Psalter this way, but there are many others, for example, simply saying a Psalm out loud together, or a service leader using a Psalm as a prayer, perhaps there are other creative ways.

    2 – I’ll admit I’m not particularly sharp on this myself, I think it can take a lot of time and thought. Although I will say that I think we make it hard for ourselves by doing too much singing sometimes. It’s really hard to include lots of songs in a thoughtful way, at least I find that difficult. I feel like less songs, used well, adds much more to a service, because it enables those organising the service to think more carefully about what the song is achieving.

    I think before talk/ after talk can’t be the whole story, but it all depends on what else goes on in the service. We often have a time of confession at our church, and so singing a song about the assurance the gospel provides, immediately after this, can reinforce any words of assurance that are spoken after the confession. But I know other churches are more fluid in their service structure, so more thought and crafting is necessary.

    5 – I appreciate the point about corporate responsive elements/liturgy, and the association with mere formalism. However, I don’t see how a song leader is doing anything different from this. The only difference is the presence of music. In both cases there is someone leading the corporate activity. Both have pre-set words. I don’t think formal liturgy suggests that the minister is a priestly figure, any more than congregational singing suggests that a song leader is a priestly figure. In fact, the danger today in evangelical churches is to see the music leader of the contemporary worship band as a mediator leading us into the presence of God. The danger isn’t just for those who have more formal styles of service. So firstly, I think we need to challenge that assumption (of course we may nevertheless choose not to have such elements in our services, for other reasons).

    Secondly, of course there needs to be a sensitivity to what is culturally appropriate. We what to lead people in a way that will build people up, rather than freak them out. But there is surely a lot of scope within that, to experiment with different corporate praise activities, prayers, etc. Perhaps shorter prayers or responses will work better for some. Try concluding a service by saying 2 Cor 13:14 together.

    But thirdly, even less-creative forms of corporate response don’t have to be empty formalism. Praying the Lord’s Prayer together, for example, can be an incredibly meaningful experience. Saying it week after week, just for the sake of it, can dull the effect. But if people understand what they are doing, and why, then why shouldn’t it come from the heart of the congregation? Personally, I think we’re in equal danger of singing without meaning it, so I don’t know why we privilege singing over everything else.

    6 – yes, “leading us in worship” – ironically, that almost sounds priestly doesn’t it!

  5. Yes, very priestly. It’s hard sometimes to think of how to categorise this peculiar role in our church (worship leader, worship in song leader, music leader) when the Bible hasn’t given us a category for it.

    I mean, whoever is responsible for putting all of the above into practice is in effect shaping the “teaching and admonishing one another” that occurs… is it priestly? is it pastoral?

  6. Thanks for this Scott
    I remember when I was younger there was a real kickback against using the word “singing” for what we did in church – because we were meant to be “worshipping” and not just singing. Which is I think a valid point. But it has kind of led to the assumption that the rest of what we do in church ( and out of it for that matter) cannot also be considered to be real and valid worship.
    I think the suggestions about using other creative means for corporate worship in a service ( which don’t involve singing) is really important – music is not everybodies favorite thing – and whilst it might be helpful for some people , its not everybodies cup of tea because we’re made differently. Corporate prayer and sharing opportunities, plus liturgies and lots of other interesting worship ideas are out there at the moment and I think probably really helpful in making our worship – not just routine, not just singing but a wellthought out authentic response to God.

  7. Thank you Scott for writing this. You rightly made the often unseen differentiation between singing and music. It is easy to assume one thing when we are in fact referring to the other.

    On your 5th point, I think we have thrown out what the Methodists called “Responsive Reading” to our own poverty. Last Sunday (Fifth Sunday in Lent) we stood and read responsively from Isaiah 53 and it was a moment charged with the awe of both the fear and the love of God as people uttered with their frail tongues words that speak of the sorrow of the despised Suffering Messiah and of the LORD’s will of to crush him. There is something in the verbal proclamation of the congregation we have not fully fathom.

    You are right about corporate participation. We often unwittingly craft a worship experience in which apart from singing, the people make no other verbal sound whatsoever. Apart from their singing voice they need to hear their own spoken words reverberate firm declarative words that speak of both God’s work and character.

    Thanks you for reminding that there is more to worship than singing.

    Andrew

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