Do you belong to a church where the number of songs approved for worship is limited? Has your church used the same songbook for decades? Perhaps you think it is time for a change. You can point to the many deficiencies, real or perceived, in the approved songbook. And maybe you are a bit weary of singing the same songs over and over again. I won’t say that it is impossible to revise or improve a songbook. But the article I call to your attention below demonstrates that we have far more reason to love and be thankful for our old songbook than to criticize it.
Why men have stopped singing in church.1
It happened again yesterday. I was attending one of those hip, contemporary churches—and almost no one sang. Worshippers stood obediently as the band rocked out, the smoke machine belched and lights flashed. Lyrics were projected on the screen, but almost no one sang them. A few women were trying, but I saw only one male (other than the worship leader) making the attempt.
A few months ago I blogged, “Have Christians Stopped Singing?” I did some research, and learned that congregational singing has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. It reached a high tide when I was a young man–but that tide may be going out again. And that could be bad news for men.
First, a very quick history of congregational singing.
Before the Reformation, laypersons were not allowed to sing in church. They were expected to stand mute as sacred music was performed by professionals (priests and cantors), played on complex instruments (pipe organs), and sung in an obscure language (Latin).
Reformers gave worship back to the people in the form of congregational singing. They composed simple tunes that were easy to sing, and mated them with theologically rich lyrics. Since most people were illiterate in the 16th century, singing became an effective form of catechism. Congregants learned about God as they sang about God.
A technological advance–the printing press–led to an explosion of congregational singing. The first hymnal was printed in 1532, and soon a few dozen hymns became standards across Christendom. Hymnals slowly grew over the next four centuries. By the mid 20th century every Protestant church had a hymnal of about 1,000 songs, 250 of which were regularly sung. In the church of my youth, everyone picked up a hymnal and sang every verse of every song.
About 20 years ago a new technological advance–the computer controlled projection screen–entered America’s sanctuaries. Suddenly churches could project song lyrics for all to see. Hymnals became obsolete. No longer were Christians limited to 1,000 songs handed down by our elders.
At first, churches simply projected the songs everyone knew–hymns and a few simple praise songs that had come out of the Jesus Movement. People sang robustly.
But that began to change about ten years ago. Worship leaders realized they could project anything on that screen. So they brought in new songs each week. They drew from the radio, the Internet, and Worship conferences. Some began composing their own songs, performing them during worship, and selling them on CD after church.
In short order we went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows.
Years ago, worship leaders used to prepare their flocks when introducing a new song. “We’re going to do a new song for you now,” they would say. “We’ll go through it twice, and then we invite you to join in.”
That kind of coaching is rare today. Songs get switched out so frequently that it’s impossible to learn them. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?
And so the church has returned to the 14th century. Worshippers stand mute as professional-caliber musicians play complex instruments, sung in an obscure language. Martin Luther is turning over in his grave.
What does this mean for men? On the positive side, men no longer feel pressure to sing in church. Men who are poor readers or poor singers no longer have to fumble through hymnals, sing archaic lyrics or read a musical staff.
But the negatives are huge. Men are doers, and singing was one of the things we used to do together in church. It was a chance to participate. Now, with congregational singing going away, and communion no longer a weekly ordinance, there’s only one avenue left for men to participate in the service–the offering. Is this really the message we want to send to men? Sit there, be quiet, and enjoy the show. And don’t forget to give us money.
There’s nothing wrong with professionalism and quality in church music. The problem isn’t the rock band, or the lights, or the smoke machine. The key is familiarity. People enjoy singing songs they know.
How do I know? When that super-hip band performed a hymn, the crowd responded with gusto. People sang. Even the men.
I know the writer’s purpose in this article is not to make arguments in favor of adopting and keeping an old songbook for use in worship. Yet, what he says about the biblical, Reformed practice of congregational singing and about the importance of familiarity with the songs is a compelling argument for keeping and using an old songbook, like the Psalter used since 1924 in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The article also makes a convincing case for limiting the number of songs used for worship. It is a blessing and not a burdensome rule for a congregation to be limited to under 500 songs. Everyone in the congregation is able to become familiar with that many songs. But 250,000! There is no way for anyone in the congregation to become familiar with that many songs. Even if the number were limited to a few thousand it would still be too many for everyone in the congregation to be familiar with them. Then perhaps only a few “professionals” would be able to say they are familiar with the songs. The result is, as the writer points out, not everyone sings. The writer singles out the nonparticipation of men of the congregation. But what about the children? They are part of the congregation too! Because the writer specifically mentions that he saw only the women singing it is probably safe to conclude that the children also barely participated. Familiarity with the songs of worship on the part of the men, women, and children in the congregation is a blessing enjoyed by a church with a limited number of songs approved for worship.
There are other reasons why an approved songbook is a blessing. The writer refers to the creation of “theologically rich” lyrics written during the Reformation. He may be referring to the theological soundness of the Reformation’s songs. Reformed churches understand that the content of the songs sung in worship must be in harmony with the truth of Scripture. If a congregation is open to choosing songs from a pool of 250,000 (or even just a few thousand) there is the very grave danger that some (if not many) of the songs will contain theological errors. Sadly, many churches that once sang from songbooks that included only theologically sound songs now sing many heretical songs on their projection screens (and without musical notes!). One of the obvious benefits of singing from a song book with a limited number of approved songs is that it helps to ensure that the congregation sings only the truth.
Another important issue is reverence. The songs must be reverent in content. Many of the new songs are not. But all of the songs in the old Psalter are reverent. Of course, that means they must be played reverently too. The writer does not mention the need for reverence, and he may not view it as important. He writes approvingly of a rock band playing a well-known song. And for him that is not a “problem” because at least the song was familiar. A rock band can lead a congregation in the singing of familiar songs. But can it do so in a reverent manner, along with flashing lights and smoke? Not in my opinion.
But my point is not to criticize contemporary worship practices. My point is that congregational singing from a familiar old songbook is a great blessing.
Does your church sing only songs that are appropriately reverent in worship? Does your church sing only songs that are faithful to Scripture in worship? Does the singing in your congregation include the voices of everyone who is able to sing? Do you even hear the beautiful sound of the children singing (as well as the men)? Can’t you hear them now:
Hallelujah, praise Jehovah,
O my soul, Jehovah praise;
I will sing the glorious praises
Of my God through all my days.
That is the beauty of a lovely old and well-known songbook!