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The Concert that Precedes the Worship


Every now and then, someone asks what has happened to congregational singing. Sometimes, the question is accompanied by a good answer. The latest is from Pastor Josh Buice, who offers 6 Reasons Why the Church Is Not Singing. You should read it. But first (or second, if you prefer), I’d like to chime in with my own view, from an almost entirely experiential perspective. I say that up front because, though I am thoroughly convince I am right about this (and my lack of originality bolsters this confidence), experience alone is never proof of anything. I think I have more than experience on my side, but I’m not going to go to any great lengths to prove it.

I grew up in hymn-singing churches. There was no “worship team” or band, just a pianist, sometimes accompanied by an organ, and the pastor up front leading the singing. A designated leader with some actual talent might have been nice at times, but it didn’t really matter, because he didn’t have a microphone. Everyone followed the pianist, and everyone (or mostly everyone, at least) sang out.

In those days, we never would have heard singing described as “worship” in distinction from the rest of the service, since it was not a distinct portion of the service, but interspersed throughout the liturgy.

The best quality of the church music of that time (and place—your experience may differ) was the content. Although there are certainly some pretty lame hymns and gospel songs in most hymnals, only the most ignorant can honestly deny their general superiority over the commercial pop songs that pass for “praise and worship” now. Also—and this is important—the hymns were usually selected by the pastor, guaranteeing protection that I would argue is scripturally mandated.

Then came the praise choruses, which were pretty much campfire songs from Bible camp brought into the Lord’s Day worship service. These were mostly not bad songs; although many were theologically shallow, many others were scriptural paraphrases. Who can argue with the Psalms? I think the guitar slipped in about this time, but that was okay; it’s no substitute for a piano, but it also wasn’t (probably) the harbinger of hell some folks worried it was. And everyone still sang along.

Over the years, probably due to the growth of the commercially-driven (as opposed to ministry-generated) Contemporary Christian Music industry, hymns written by competent theologians—not to mention, skilled poets—fell out of fashion, replaced by hackneyed emotional ballads with unsingable arrangements by unaccountable free-lance ditty-writers who have never seen the inside of a theology textbook or Bible commentary, and have, at best, only the most superficial understanding of God and the gospel.

While the content of the songs was devolving, the musical production was expanding. In some aspects, it may have gotten better, but mostly, it just got louder. In my church, the “worship team” is not the rock band that is so common these days, but only a pianist, three singers (usually), and a relatively restrained drummer. Now, I love my church, and I don’t like to complain, but every Sunday when the music is playing, they are very nearly all I hear. And that is not because I’m deaf; from my corner in the back, I have a pretty good view, and what I see are a lot of people whose mouths are barely moving, and many who clearly aren’t even trying.

And never, when I observe this, do I think of saying, “Come on, people, sing! Sing out!” I never think that, because I’m one of them. When an actual hymn is played, I sing to the best of my feeble ability. Otherwise, I don’t, and it’s not because I’m a stubborn, stick-in-the-mud curmudgeon (I am that, but that’s not why I’m not singing). I’m not singing because some of the songs contain words that I would be embarrassed, and sometimes even ashamed, to sing. Many of them lack any thematic continuity. Some have no logical meaning at all. I’m not singing because some of the tunes are unsingable. I realize that’s a particular problem of mine, lacking the lung capacity I once possessed, but I’ve seen it in others who are singing, but drop out when the song enters that utterly-impossible-to-navigate bridge (you know the one). And I’m not singing because I don’t know the songs. These are not songs I would ever hear during the week, and they are only memorable when they shock me with some horribly wrong doctrine, so don’t expect me to pick them up from an occasional Sunday morning performance. (In contrast, the very form of hymns makes them almost irresistibly memorable, and is usually so simple that anyone with the words (properly formatted) in front of them can, at first sight, pick it up and sing along.)

While many think of the musical portion of the service as the worship that precedes the sermon–an enormous error—I have come to think of it as the concert that precedes the worship—a concert in which many of the songs are entirely uncompelling, to put it mildly. And that is why the church is not singing.



Posted 2018·10·17 by David Kjos
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