The Slow Death of Congregational Singing?

At a conference recently, I led a number of delegates through a seminar stream entitled ‘Leading a Congregation in Song’, we thought through how to best foster a culture of congregational singing in our churches.

This is a key issue, as many are concerned by what one writer has called ‘The Slow Death of Congregational Singing’, observing that many in churches up and down the land are disengaged from singing, either because they don’t value it’s importance, because it’s poorly led, or because the church has adopted such a culture of ‘performance’ that congregational singing has been pushed out the back door. To whatever extent that analysis is true of our churches, we must fight the trend with all our might. Singing, especially congregational singing, is of tremendous value to the church. God in his kindness has given us this gift for a purpose. The way we use it and enjoy it could even be a marker of our spiritual health as a church.

Why bother with congregational singing?
While the Old Testiment is packed full of music and song, choirs and psalms, there’s remarkably little said about singing and music making in the New Testiment. Some conclude that means it’s no longer of importance and can be largely ignored (or even done away with). The apostle Paul will have none of this, however. Two important passages in his letters stress the great value of congregational singing. Lets look at one of them.

Colossians 3:16 reads…
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”

We all expect that the ‘word of Christ’ (that is, most especially, the word of the gospel, recorded in the scriptures) to dwell richly with us as we are taught. We rightly gather around the Bible in various settings to learn, so that truth of the gospel might ‘take up residence’ in our hearts, captivating us, changing us, growing us to be more like Jesus himself. What is startling about this verse in Colossians is that Paul wants congregational singing (as well as preaching, teaching and discussion) to perform this same role. Read the verse again…

the word of Christ takes up residence in our hearts as we are taught and admonished… but also as we sing.

Far from being a peripheral activity to be engaged in half-heartedly, or a filler for church services , congregational singing is (amongst other things) nothing less than a ministry of God’s word, and, as such, it should be valued and prioritized by all..

Many implications flow from this point. For example song-choosers need to remember that we will all learn whatever theology is contained within the songs they chose. They must therefore do so carefully, (with fear and trembling!). It’s also true that we all have a responsibility to one another to sing wholeheartedly. You need to remember that when you sing, you are teaching me, encouraging me, helping me get my priorities straight, drawing my focus to God and the gospel… and I’m doing the same for you. When our singing is poor, we’re neglecting one another – failing to love and serve one another properly.

Secondly singing is an opportunity to express our thanks and praise to the Lord – we are to sing ‘with gratitude in (y)our hearts to God’. Gratefulness is such a cornerstone of the Christian life. We are those who have been given eternal life with Christ, and wonderful access to God through him now. That is not to say the Christian life is easy, or that our singing is glib, twee, or unrealistic about the difficulties we face (just read the Psalms). Rather there is an underlying assurance that God has met our biggest need, which brings a deep sense of peace, joy and gratefulness.

I grow in gratefulness as my mind is stretched to know and understand more of the gospel and, of course, this gratefulness spurs me on to obedient living. But gratefulness is also an affection of the heart, the gospel does move me to feel as well as to think and act. Good congregational singing is so wonderfully helpful to us in this regard. John Piper puts it well…

‘The realities of God and Christ, creation and salvation, heaven and hell are so great that when they are known truly and felt duly, they demand more than discussion and analysis and description; they demand poetry and song and music. Singing is the Christian’s way of saying: God is so great that thinking will not suffice, there must be deep feeling; talking will not suffice, there must be singing.”

Congregational singing does the wonderful dual-job of helping me to express feelings of gratefulness, and (at the same time) refocusing my mind and heart (as we encourage one another) to love God all the more.

The way you sing, therefore, is not a neutral issue. Heartless mumbling does not reflect well the state of our hearts before God (although it’s worth saying singing with charismatic gusto is no guarantee of sincerity). Can I plead with you then, to love your brothers and sisters enough to sing well to them and for them? Can I plead with you to let your love for the Lord overflow into heartfelt congregational singing for the good of us all and for the praise of our glorious King Jesus? If congregational singing is dying, then fetch the defibrillator. Quick.

Peter Turnbull- Christ church Fulwood

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