The Church 2: Congregational Singing as the Formation and Confession of Convictions
The mission of the Church involves more than evangelism; it also involves forming people in the faith. Music plays an important role in both activities of mission. I would, however, venture to say that most Christians would put singing during the church service in the category of ‘worship’. Yet singing is also a Christian practice for the formation and confession of convictions. Simply put, singing is one of the primary ways in which most believers learn and affirm what they believe. If so, we’re probably in trouble.
Why Have so Many in the Congregation Stopped Singing?
While anecdotal and, no doubt, a culturally sensitive issue, in my experience in American, Evangelical churches I find that fewer and fewer people sing. This is not my experience in Africa or Europe. So, what’s going on in America (if, indeed, I am right about this)? I have some suggestions, but they do not necessarily explain all the cultural differences that I think I have noticed.
I would venture, nevertheless, to say that there are several reasons for the decrease in congregational singing in America. First, children no longer have a regular music class in school, resulting in a culture that does not sing in groups. Second, church music has become professionalized, so that worshipers are spectators or an audience that joins in the music from the stage. Those who do not have musical talent are forced into a more passive posture. Third, worshipers do not know the songs due to the penchant for the latest songs. Fourth, the larger the congregation, the more anonymous a person becomes in a crowd. While this might encourage some timid souls to sing out more, apparently the more likely response is not to feel a need to contribute to the group’s singing. Fifth, undoubtedly some simply are apathetic, wondering what the point of the whole exercise is anyway. This may have to do with the distancing of singing from actual worship: the challenge in any church service is to connect an action with an actual religious practice—to connect singing with the practice of worship.
Who Controls the Curriculum of Christian Music?
If we are to understand singing in the church service as a lay theology class, a time to form and express our convictions as Christians, then we really need to ask what credentials our ‘theological educators’—the song writers and church worship leaders—have. We need to ask whether the catchy tune or the theological depth of the words rules the writing and the choice of Christian music. Churches that grow large in America, England, and South Africa—my more recent places to live—are churches with contemporary music played by a band on the stage (‘stage’ is a much better word than ‘platform’ to describe the architecture of many modern Christian worship spaces). If Paul had to face off against the Sophists of Greek culture, with their rhetorical skills trumping the substance of what they were actually saying, today we have to face off against the purveyors of popular music over against songs and hymns that have much theological depth. This is like the church that goes wild with the visiting Evangelist, with his sensational stories and wild claims while the pastor, charged with feeding his church with a balanced diet of good food, slumps lower and lower in his chair, praying that the damage being done to his congregation is reparable. (I’m thinking of some traditions more than others in this last example, where travelling evangelists are a feature of church life. Ask: ‘Which does a congregation prefer more: the travelling evangelist or the Bible teacher?’)
Why Keep Changing the Songs?
One feature of contemporary Christian music in the worship service is the compulsion to find the latest songs. Chasing whatever is trending is a feature of Western culture and urban life. If, however, people are to internalize the ‘theology’ of music, they need to become familiar with the good songs and hymns, having the words in their heads and the music in their hearts. In this way, music functions as both a confession of the faith and as a stimulant for faith. Hymnals used to function as deposits of a tradition’s faith; the latest songs on a screen undermine the important practice of ‘traditioning’ the believers. Churches that have jettisoned the congregation’s reciting of the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed have, typically, jettisoned the hymnal. In a day and age in which one of the most important things a congregation needs to do is declare what, indeed, it does believe, practices to help them do so have been dropped from the worship service.
The faith, to be sure, is living. Dead orthodoxy is not the goal here. Introducing a great new piece of music into the worship of a congregation is a positive contribution to worship. These should not, however, replace the theologically deep songs that connect the current congregation with the larger church, both the global church and the historical faith. The practice of ‘new music’ may leave new believers without a grounding in the universal Church and with an openness to anything else new, without any ability to filter out the bad from the good.
Where music in the congregation lacks connectivity with the historical and global Church, the mission of the Church is undermined. When new believers are not trained in the tradition of the Church, a very dangerous precedent to chase the latest winds of doctrine and practice is established. The need to know the faith and believe it from the heart requires taking great care as to what is sung and confessed regularly. Musicians are theologians of the local church, and the more their models are contemporary rock bands, the more trouble the Church will face in a culture that prefers mode of expression over truth and theological depth. The argument I’ve put forward here is that the tasks in Christian mission of proclaiming the faith and nurturing people in the faith involve congregational singing that contributes to the formation and heartfelt confession of Christian convictions. On this understanding, music is mission.