Before we were known for our massive processes for doing ministry; before our bureaucracy grew to a size rivaling only The United States government; and before our Book of Discipline grew to the size of a graduate school textbook:
Methodists were known as a singing people.
Those were the days when the movement was new and fresh. People were excited to be apart of something new and growing. And thanks to John and Charles Wesley, singing was at the heart of what it meant to be a Methodist (so much so, Mr. Wesley felt it necessary to print “Rules For Singing” that all Methodists were to follow and which are still found on the first page of our United Methodist Hymnal).
As time has marched on, we’ve seen a great deal of evolution in worship. Styles have changed, some have been blended. We’ve evolved from a liturgical church with an emphasis on disciplined living through class meetings, to a denomination focused on revivals and being a central power in the nation, to a church in decline searching for an identity with various styles and influences vying for our attention. All the while, we’ve tried to discover and rediscover what it means to worship God in such a way that gives proper praise to the Triune God and also seeks to connect us to God and each other in meaningful ways.
In that spirit, I would like to make a modest proposal:
Let’s have fewer choir anthems, fewer solos, less volume from our praise bands, and turn our focus back to congregational singing.
I know this may sound crazy at first. Who doesn’t love a stirring anthem or a moving offertory solo? Who doesn’t love hearing their favorite praise song led by that worship band who knows right where the drum solo or guitar riff goes to make the song soar to a new level? Who doesn’t enjoy going to worship on Sundays to hear talented, and in many cases professional, singers and musicians showcase their talents in ways that we only wish we could do?
But worship is not about listening — it’s about participating.
If church leaders fear that people are becoming consumers of worship, then we need to plan worship that places the average worshipper in the role of participant and not observer. There’s already a big chunk of the worship service devoted to listening to a sermon (15 minutes…or 25 minutes…or 45 minutes). That time needs to be balanced with opportunities for the gathered assembly to offer itself as a sacrifice of praise. And there is very little sacrificed when we’re afforded too much time to sit back and passively listen. Worse yet, it comes all too natural when we’re already formed as a people who enjoy consuming.
Let me recommend an article written last year by Dr. Timothy Tennett where he advocates we learn to unplug worship, turn down the electronic sound, and turn up the lights. His best lines for me are when he makes the case to emphasize the priority of the congregation singing together over the individual focused on their own personal time of worship:
It is very common today for worship leaders to dim the lights of the sanctuary during the singing part of the worship service. As a worshipper, you may not be able to see people across the room or even down the row. However, the lights on the “stage” or “platform” are very bright which tends to focus the attention on the worship band rather than on the people. I actually think it makes better sense to keep the lights in the sanctuary on during worship. One of the big conceptual differences between the “chorus movement” and the earlier “hymn movement” is that the former tends to conceptualize an individual singing and worshipping God, whereas the latter tends to conceptualize the corporate people of God, singing. I think dimming the lights has tended to send the message that this is your “personal” time before the Lord. Since it is impossible to “compete” with the electronically amplified voices, people often either just stand and watch, or they quietly move their lips but don’t feel that “joining in” can really make a substantial difference.
Before you think I’m simply picking on contemporary, praise band style worship, let me also offer a word to the more liturgical worship planners (because I am one):
- Put some creativity into choosing congregational music and emphasize hymns over anthems. Replace a solo with a congregational hymn from time to time.
- Find ways to talk about what you’re singing — some of our best theology is found in the hymns we sing. Our United Methodist Hymnal contains theological depth most of us wish we could express in our sermons. Use them!
- Let music connect the liturgy — work to fit your liturgy and hymn selections together so it doesn’t feel like you just filled in the blanks when you planned worship.
A friend of mine told me recently, “a theology you cannot sing is not a very deep theology at all.” Singing requires we engage our faith with more than just our brains and this can be hard in a culture that says religion is simply a set of beliefs you either agree with or not. True faith, the kind of faith that shapes and forms us in ways we cannot begin to describe, will touch on all of our senses. And congregational singing has the power to reform us from individuals who simply ascend to a set of ideas, into a community that instinctively understands our shared life and faith are best sung about.
[For a powerful non-church example of congregational singing check out this clip. The National Anthem is one of the greatest soloist hymns of our time but I bet you’ve never heard it sung with this kind of power and emotion]