When I was very young, we attended a small Baptist church in Spencer Mountain, NC. The congregation was often full and the choir was exceptionally large for a church of that size. I remember the choir specials being plenteous and the sound, heavenly. The choir often sang songs within the “Convention Style” genre of Southern Gospel music. This style usually features all four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) going in all sorts of counterpoint-style directions in a sort of folksy fugue. This, of course, ended in all of the parts coming back together at the end of the chorus before an elaborate piano turn-around led back into another verse. I really can’t remember the congregational singing that much. When I think back and try very hard to remember, I find it difficult to even recall singing from a hymnbook or otherwise as a congregation. The “talent” in the loft was so massive and so angelic-sounding, all else seems to fade from memory.
Fast-forward to any present-day evangelical church and what you will more than likely find is a stage-like concept usually featuring a rock or pop band ensemble complete with multiple guitars and a drum set, large vocal or “praise teams,” and perhaps the remnant of what used to be a choir. The service usually features several “sets” of “worship” songs before the message. Each of these songs vary in volume, dynamics, and mood.
Now on the face of it, I may leave you scratching your heads when I say that these two services have much in common; but they do.
In the case of the former church, boisterous choirs and a plethora of “special music” overshadowed the importance of congregational singing; so much so that the choir singing and special music is literally all I remember of the music in that place (glorious as it was).
In the case of the latter church (not one specific church, but the typical, modern evangelical church), while choirs may have gone by the wayside, the congregational singing is still overshadowed by what is taking place on the platform. Large speakers and insanely expensive sound systems ensure that all the guitars will be blaring while the hefty subs make the bass boom right up into your large intestine. The large vocal teams and multiple worship leaders use microphones with any number of effects (reverb, echo, etc.) that propel their voices through the ear canal like a spit-wad through a straw at the McDonald’s. In this instance, I would offer you money (or a small candy bar) to remember the last time you heard your neighbor singing (not to mention yourself).
The Sacred Harp
There’s a uniquely American singing tradition that was born in the church called, “Sacred Harp singing.” While I won’t get into the details of this style, it will suffice to examine the chosen name for this style of singing.
Long before God put it in man’s mind to invent pipes, stringed instruments, pianos, drums, and the like; He created the most holy and sacred of all instruments, the human voice. With a few simple vocal “folds,” or “cords,” we make all of the sound necessary for creating beautiful music. Is it any wonder why the fore-bearers of Sacred Harp singing would choose such a fitting name for the human larynx: “the sacred harp“?
Check out the vocal folds in action here (Warning: features tubes going through noses and insidey parts).
What I do not mean by this is that man-made instruments such as guitars, drums, pianos, etc., are innately sinful or useless within corporate worship. By all means, God purposefully created man with imaginative and creative abilities whereby various musical instruments might be created in order to bring him yet more praise and glory. These are also more than appropriate within the church meeting, just read the Psalms if you doubt that.
What I am aiming at here is that the corporate worship service must go beyond a performance. STOP THERE. I hear all the worship leaders in the room immediately saying, “O, it’s not a performance.” Now what they mean by that is, “we don’t intend for it to be a performance.” Those are two different things and we must be honest enough to acknowledge the difference. It’s not enough to simply tell our people, “this is not a show,” when everything about signals that it is.
From that marvelous choir in that small mountain church to the talented “praise bands” that dot evangelical church stages, we must be careful when anything we do continually overshadows the reason we sing together in the first place. Paul says that the direction of our singing is “to one another,” and that its purpose is to “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16). How then shall this be accomplished when we can’t even hear ourselves singing over the racket (albeit talented) coming from the “stage”? Most congregations are more or less being sung at than being encouraged to “sing to one another.”
My wife Jessica read a very interesting article recently concerning the decline of congregational singing. The article is titled, “Why They Don’t Sing on Sunday Anymore.” While I will not recount the entire article for you (you may read it via the link above), I will provide the author’s four main points”
Spectator set-up. Increasingly, the church has constructed the worship service as a spectator event. Everyone expects the people on stage to perform while the pew-sitters fulfill the expectation of any good audience–file in, be still, be quiet, don’t question, don’t contribute (except to the offering plate), and watch the spotlighted musicians deliver their well-rehearsed concerts.
Professionalism. It seems it’s paramount for church music to be more professional than participatory. The people in the pews know they pale in comparison to the loud voices at the microphones. Quality is worshipped. So the worshippers balk at defiling the quality with their crude crooning. It’s better to just fake it with a little lip syncing.
Blare. The musicians’ volume is cranked up so high that congregants can’t hear their own voices, or the voices of those around them, even if they would sing. So they don’t sing. What would it add? The overwhelming, amplified sound blares from big speakers, obliterating any chance for the sound of robust congregational singing.
Music choice. Sometimes people refrain from singing because the songs are unfamiliar, hard to sing, or just cheesy. Sometimes worship leaders choose a song that may thematically tie into the day’s sermon topic, but it’s unsingable. Sometimes worship leaders choose lame songs written by their favorite songwriters–themselves.
Facing the Problem
Much like the famed 12-step programs encourage, it’s time for some of us to take our music ministry to the mirror and acknowledge our problem.
In the way of assessing your music ministry’s place in all of this, here are a few questions you can ask about your setting.
1. Do you ever hear complaints from the congregation in which terms like “show,” and “performance” are used? Sure, there’s always going to be some of this; but at some point, we must acknowledge, “where there’s smoke, there’s a fire.”
2. How often do you feature the congregation by themselves? By this I mean full-on acapella singing. This requires familiar songs, accessible keys, and low to no instrumentation.
3. Do you make it a point to be able to hear the congregation singing?
4. Do you overpower congregational singing with loud bands, vocal teams, and excessive vocalizing?
It’s not too late to turn around.
A few shifts of thinking concerning your worship and music philosophy, a few shifts on the sound board, a few key shifts down, and a few well-placed congregational features will begin to send your people a message: “We want you to sing!”
Think of ways your ministry can encourage and strengthen people to view their very own throats as a divine instrument with which to praise and glorify God, “the sacred harp.”