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A Song Worth Singing

Reclaiming the Congregation's Voice

This article continues the conversation begun in RW 84 by Martin Tel on the state of congregational song. —JB

 

Martin Tel’s article “They Just Don’t Sing Like They Used To” (RW 84) outlines several cultural and architectural challenges to congregational singing.

First, our culture has turned music into a commodity that is professionally produced and passively received.

Second, some congregations sufferfrom a sense of incompetence or uncertainty about singing. That feeling may be heightened by the level of difficulty in some pop and classical literature, by a lack of repetition or familiarity, and by leadership of such overwhelming amplitude that individual voices become unnecessary.

Third, church architecture often deadens all ambient sound, the lifeblood of congregational singing. Inthe absence of acoustical warmth, individual worshipers cannot hear and be encouraged by the group;they literally lose their voice, drowningin isolation, hidden by a loudly registered organ or an over-amplified praise band.

Alas for those who are passionat eabout congregational song!

Why Sing?

Before we go any further, we need to ask why congregations should sing at all. Indeed, some people do not instinctively choose song as a mode of expressing their faith either because of a perceived incapacity to sing or because of personal preference. And when wrestling with questions of preference or taste, congregations can fracture and individuals may refuse to sing particular hymns or songs because of text, style, or other reasons. Again, why bother singing with such potential for disunity, discomfort, and disengagement?

We sing for the same reason that we gather, pray, give testimony, listen to Scripture and sermon, participate in the sacraments, share the peace, and attend to living the gospel in the world. We sing because we have something worth singing about. We sing because Jesus came among us, walked with us, died for us, rose again, and abides with us. We sing to give witness to the Spirit within us and to give voice and body to the reality of the Spirit in our midst.

The singer expends costly gifts of breath, body, attention, memory, and time as a sacrifice of praise to our Creator. The sacred quality of these gifts is made audible and tangible in our corporate song. Vital congregational singing overcomes isolating fear and hesitancy, unifies individuals into a cohesive group, and embeds the text deeply into our physical and mental memory. We put flesh on the Word when we sing, and the Word dwells in us and abides with us.

Singing is therefore an essential part of any Christian community. It is as much a mark of the church as the celebration of sacraments, the centrality of Scripture, the commitment to justice and peace, and the practice of prayer. It enlivens all facets of church life. For example, without remembering Luther’s writing about reliance on God’s grace, you can still, in the face of uncertainty, sing his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” And without remembering the minister’s last sermon about God’s kingdom, you can still sing songs that promote prayer, justice, and praise, such as the South African chorus “We Are Marching in the Light of God.”

Claiming Our Inheritance

How then shall we claim this rich and ever-developing inheritance? The following suggestions are particularly for those responsible for choosing and leading congregational song.

The first step is to discover what is well-known. Let your congregation sing these songs frequently, getting out of the way while they sing; try an acoustic praise band or a lightly registered organ. Allow the congregation to sing without any accompanimentat least once each service. Send your choir and soloists into the midst of the congregation for worship, emerging as a group only when singing an anthem. Learn your context and honor the musical vernacular of your congregation, find out what makes them want to “raise the roof.” Once you honor their particular sound and history, you will have built enough trust to expand into other genres and into newly composed pieces.

When increasing congregational song, two issues arise: how much variety and repetition should occur, and what are the contextual considerations for new repertoire? Here are a few thoughts on those questions.

Variety and Repetition

Our congregation sings a fairly large body of traditional hymnody. It is easy to make this the area of greatest variety, since hymn texts are constantly in dialogue with the Scripture, sermon, and theme of each Sunday. Opportunity for repetition exists in the form of shorter songs during our liturgy, such as the introit, the response of praise, and the benediction response.

One example is a chorus from Zimbabwe: “Jesus, We Are Here.” This was introduced with minimal instruction one Sunday prior to worship by an unaccompanied vocalist, and it was sung as a congregational introit for one month. After three Sundays, we no longer needed to print the response in the bulletin, except as an act of hospitality for visitors. Soon it was being sung spontaneously at home, at session and committee meetings, and on other occasions. Three months later, it was sung in worship without the need of anything other than a soloist singing the first line, and the congregation joined in.

We have repeated this process witha handful of global songs this year, and now the congregation has internalized this repertoire and can call it up at a moment’s notice. Through repetition of shorter songs that have a liturgical function we have added world music to our core hymnody and expanded our capacity to sing devotionally and fervently, freed from the printed page.

Context

Context is also a very important elemen tin considering the introduction of new material and in determining the need for repetition.

Once a month, the senior high fellowship prepares and leads an evening worship service in our chapel, and the repertoire of music comes from their experiences. Much of this music is Christian pop, and we have roughly ten songs that can function as a call to worship, preparation for prayer, response to Scripture, movement during communion, or sending. The youth leaders have added traditional hymnody that they find meaningful: songs from Iona and Taizé, and world music that is used at our regular Sunday services.

The intimate size of the congregation and chapel and the resonant ambiance of the room enable acoustic instrumental support and the use of repertoire that would fall flat in our bigger and acoustically drier sanctuar yor that might not work with other age groups.

The praise chorus “Sanctuary,” a favorite of the youth, was sung by our session at one of their meetings as they began a short chapel service centered on the significance of baptism; and a light gospel setting of “Taste and See” was effective both in the evening chapel service and on a subsequent Sunday morning service in the sanctuary during the distribution of the communion elements.

Many North American churches should look honestly at worship environments and address how their buildings help or hinder the voices of their congregations. We need to find the right level of ambient sound so congregations can hear themselves better. We have a faith that sings, and we need rooms that do not swallow our song. However, this costly and potentially controversial work should only begin once the congregation has found its voice and hungers for more.

Meanwhile, those responsible for leading the congregation’s singing may ask some worthwhile questions to guide them in their task:

  • Is the congregation’s core repertoire honored and frequently used?
  • Is the congregation learning and adopting new songs that expand their capacity for varieties of spiritual expression and for hospitality to all God’s people?
  • Does the congregation take the responsibility of singing seriously and joyfully, and are they permitted and enabled to do so by leadership that is non-coercive and gently confident?

When congregations recover their voice and renew their song, the world will hear what the church sounds like.

The gospel that claims us finds worthy embodiment, through God’s grace, in the mystery of voices raised together. We have a song worth singing!