hristian believers have gathered for worship in China. It is time for congregational singing. There is no piano, organ, or other instrument. In the midst of the group, a man stands. To establish tempo and key, he sings the first phrase of a song in praise to Christ in a clear, strong voice. Then, as all join in, he sits and his voice blends into the group for the remainder of the song. He is unselfconscious about the reason for the method he has used, but the leader’s procedure nevertheless says to the group, “Our song is a corporate act of worship and I am only here to help you.”
In a medium-sized evangelical church in middle America, thousands of miles away, a congregation is led in the worship of God through song in a different way. There, a worship leader steps to the microphone and announces the song. Then, accompanied by several musical instruments, her loudly amplified voice rings out over the group for the full duration of the singing. Because her voice is husky that day, at one point she says to the congregation, with unconscious irony, “My voice is not good today so you need to help me.”
Which of the two churches came closer to doing it right? One person might say that both methods are equally valid — they take place in different cultures. Another, a wounded veteran of the worship wars, might respond, wide-eyed, in urgent but hushed tones that the question ought not to be asked, because the ensuing discussion might lead to argumentation or hurt feelings. Another, a carefree sort, might suggest that we not get hung up on principle, but let each leader decide; in fact, why not alternate among various methods?
Corporate Praise of God
With such a variety of ideas afloat, are there any universal and unchanging principles that give universal guidance on this issue? How about the following: Fundamentally, congregational singing is for the corporate adoration and praise of God. Therefore, whether a congregation sings a cappella, or to the accompaniment of a pipe organ in a cathedral, with a worship band, or with a piano in a mission church, the offering of the group should be facilitated, and everything that detracts from that be removed or minimized.
Solo offerings certainly have merit during worship. And when we sing corporately, we participate as individuals, to be sure. Yet, when we raise our voices unhindered together have we not all noted that this amplifies the offering of our individual hearts or magnifies the song’s truth to us as we sing together? Is it not reasonable, then, to affirm the value of corporate singing as distinct from solo offerings?
Leadership takes Sensitivity
Leaving musical styles aside, one might conclude that our Chinese leader is fostering what singing in the assembly should be: an unhindered group-offering to God, while the second leader might be regarded as confusing and even detracting from this activity by overlaying congregational singing with individual performance. Leaving leadership styles aside, what methods are useful for fostering corporate singing? Consider the following possibilities:
The individual or group “leading” the singing might do what is necessary and helpful, but no more. In some worship spaces, the instrument alone may be sufficient to lead, whether organ, piano, guitar, or musical combo. A song director may be needed at most to announce the selection. That person would not ordinarily need to sing with amplification sufficient to be heard distinctly above the group throughout the entire song.
Congregational singing, even though vigorous, can be drowned out and essentially frustrated by an overly loud organ or band. In such cases, the instrument or instruments, however well-played, detract from the very purpose of congregational singing.
If in fact congregational singing at its best is for the glory of God and to further his work in our hearts, leaders will be sensitive not to draw any sort of unnecessary attention to themselves.
May I Introduce You?
What about the introduction of songs never before heard by the congregation? With some exceptions, they might not be sung for the first time in the congregation’s high hours of worship. Creative ways to learn such songs can be devised. Unfamiliar songs may first be used as offertories or as a choral anthem, or be learned in smaller group gatherings at other times. In this way, what is used at the special community gatherings for worship will have some measure of familiarity so as to be sung with broad participation.
Honoring God is the Best Style
Of course, to best honor God with our music, quality of selections will require continual scrutiny. Whether centuries-old or modern, not all material for congregational singing is of equal worth musically or lyrically. Poor grammar or awkward syntax are distracting and even disaffecting to some. So are sentimental lyrics or melodies unsuitable for group singing. If, in fact, congregational singing is to glorify God, believers should be helped to offer God their very best.
It will always be necessary for congregational singing to be matched in some degree to the background and culture of the congregation as a whole. This is not to suggest a “give-them-whatever-they-want” approach. It instead recognizes and respects the cultural makeup of any particular group of believers so that accessible songs comprise a significant part of their congregational singing. At the same time, church leaders will recognize when work needs to be done slowly and respectfully to move that congregation to newer and/or better selections.
Congregational singing—does method matter? Many believers will answer “yes.” Countless congregations have done the hard work of finding the right way in an era of diverse options to set the people free to sing God’s praise. But in other places, much remains to be done. The process of distinguishing between egocentric and theocentric, good and mediocre, edifying and distracting, in those congregations still lies ahead.