Congregational Song: Hard Times or Hard Hearts?

“They Just Don’t Sing Like They Used To.”  The headline jumped out at me as I meandered through the vast and oft-unhelpful expanses of the world-wide web.  The article, by Princeton Theological Seminary professor Martin Tel, purported to analyze “Why Congregational Singing Has Fallen on Hard Times.”  It appeared in an online archive of Reformed Worship magazine from June 2007.  Absent-mindedly I added it to my bookmarks, intending to return to it at a later date.

Eventually I found the article again, and this time I investigated it a little further.  Reformed Worship, I learned, is a quarterly magazine that aims to provide guidance on how to coordinate modern—well, Reformed worship.  As a product of the Christian Reformed Church’s publishing arm Faith Alive Christian Resources, Reformed Worship reflects many of the liberal leanings of this rather perplexing denomination.  But rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I decided to at least offer this article the courtesy of my time and thought.  Today, I’d like to at least briefly evaluate Tel’s conclusions here.

Tel summarizes his thesis this way:

I’m all for improving congregational singing. In fact, I’m passionate about it. But rather than jumping to solutions, I’d like to dwell a little bit more on the problem. Why don’t people sing like they used to? If we spend some time considering the problem, our solutions may be better grounded.

Tel evaluates four short phrases that he identifies as the roots of the congregational singing crisis.  At the very least, his evaluation is extremely interesting.  These are the problems Tel identifies:

  • “I can’t sing”: Congregants are often too reluctant or embarrassed to sing.  Tel says, “More and more today we are observing an epidemic of people sensing that they cannot sing well enough.…We are surrounded by music, much of it sung.…But in fact we are not a singing culture.  We are a culture that is sung to.  Most of this music is produced professionally through a series of edits that in essence artificially removes all ‘imperfection.’  The net result of being immersed in all this ‘perfect’ music is that we feel ashamed of our imperfection.  And this shame leads many to silence.”
  • “I only hear myself”: Tel blames much of the singing problem on poor acoustics in modern church buildings, and (though this blends with the third point) he notes that the prioritization of comfort in our worship atmosphere (sound-absorbing carpets, cushions, curtains, and so on) has degraded the quality of the sound we produce.
  • “I can’t hear myself”: Using the analogy of the rood screen that separated the clergy from the laity in medieval churches, Tel points to a harmful “sound barrier” formed when amped worship teams drown out congregations.  “They are, in essence, being screened out.”
  • “I don’t know the song”: Tel explores multiple factors in congregations’ limited familiarity with a broad musical repertoire, but he makes a surprising proposition.  Perhaps, he says, the repertoire of the church is too big to begin with.   Tel refers to the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, whose congregational singing about fifty years ago was possibly unprecedented—and he notes that prior to 1972 their repertoire was limited to the 150 Psalms and less than 100 hymns.

Overall, I’m inclined to agree with the author regarding these specific areas.  His evaluation of our culture’s impact on congregational singing is very insightful; his critique of the effects of building acoustics and worship teams, in my opinion, is spot-on.  And I love that the last point highlights the benefits of a solid psalm-based congregational repertoire.

But did Tel miss something?  While these might all be significant factors in the downfall of congregational singing, let’s not forget that singing is a divine commandment, and any of our excuses for not singing primarily present a problem of the heart.  God’s people should sing his praises regardless of the acoustics of their sanctuary or the unfamiliarity of the song.  When our priorities are straight, those minor factors can easily be resolved.  Certainly we should recognize the problems confronting congregational singing today, but let’s not put all the blame on our surroundings.  As we consider Tel’s comments, let’s remember that any singing is pointless if not for the glory of God.

Read the original article here.

–MRK

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