Last month we listened in to the Trinity discussing among Themselves how congregations are singing these days. This month we eavesdrop on a panel of three progressive worship leaders who have been evaluating the current Church scene. They discuss the same question: “How does the congregation sing?”
“I think we have been quite successful in shifting the singing from those antique psalms and hymns, that were so boringly traditional,” said Alec. “Most churches don’t sing them anymore. They are all into our favourite contemporary worship songs, which fits the biblical category of ‘spiritual songs’.”
“Yes,” said Celiwe, “We’ve got them hooked. In spite of Stuart Townend’s and the Gettys’ efforts to produce contemporary hymns.”
Betty reminisced: “I remember when we started the revolution. We were wise in doing it slowly, by first introducing the ‘praise and worship’ movement. Because this has a biblical precedent telling us to praise and worship God (Praise the Lord, sing unto him (Psalm 33:2); Come, let us bow down in worship (Psalm 95:6)).
“Yes, that was good, because it was easy to get singing that focused vertically on God.” mused Celiwe. “Once we had sidelined all horizontal ‘singing to one another’ (Ephesians 5:19), it was easier to forget most of the hymns. Contemporary worship songs (CWSs) became the only genre of songs which many congregations sing today.”
Alec chipped in: “In fact it was easier than we thought it would be. We didn’t ban the hymns, we just substituted CWSs. ‘Spiritual songs’ is also a biblical genre, and because it fits in with the world’s musical culture, the transition to this exclusive style of singing in church was so easy.”
“And there are some really rich CWSs,” added Betty. “God really blesses them to the people. Some of them make the Scriptures come alive. And it’s refreshing to learn and sing new songs. Isn’t that what Isaiah 42:10 urges us to do? Sing to the LORD a new song.
“Did you see what that WeAreWorship blog said recently – about the shift from hymns to CWSs?” asked Celiwe. I quote: “A generation ago, Christianity went through a massive shift. The formality of corporate worship gave way to ‘intimacy’, and we were forever changed.” (25.9.2020). Celiwe went on: “That’s why CWSs are so popular – they express our intimate feelings toward God. In our impersonal world, people long for intimate relationships. CWSs help us to relate to God in a personal way.”
“Yes, we notice how the Top Fifty most popular Christian songs are all recent CWSs, in the ‘spiritual songs’ genre.” remarked Alec. “And Churches choose to sing what is popular on the charts. These are the songs that pull in the people, especially the youth. A diet of “psalms and hymns” would drive them away!”
“Yes,” agreed Betty, “and because the world has built its industry on big-name artistes, we are able to promote our CWSs by harnessing big names to sing them, with professional musical backing. Because Christians enjoy listening to them sing, they use their songs for congregational singing too.”
“So I’ve noticed,” said Alec, “and most of the time most of the congregation doesn’t really sing them. They stand and listen to the song from the miked worship group up front, and get their singing by proxy. That’s a pity, because it isn’t congregational singing any more. We’re missing out here.”
Betty concurred, and remembered how, in her childhood, the congregation had sung hymns and choruses with united enthusiasm. “I wish we could get that kind of congregational singing back in our church. The truth is, when I’m leading, the band and worship group around me are so loud that I can’t hear how the people are, or are not, singing.”
The panel of worship leaders agreed that they must do something intentional to get their congregations singing again.
But how? “Let’s tone down the volume on the stage” said one. “Then we can listen to the congregation singing. This will give us feedback so we can lead the singing more sensitively.”
“We should choose songs that are singable by ordinary people, whether or not there’s a big-name artiste promoting them.” said Celiwe. “Does that mean we should include some hymns occasionally?” … “What’s wrong with that?” asked Betty mischievously. “After all, the Bible says we must always sing a mix of song-genres in our church services. See Colossians 3:16.”
“You’re right” affirmed Alec. “I’ve always been niggled by that Scripture. It also says that our singing should “teach and correct” us as we sing. Very few of our CWSs do that. But psalms and hymns often fulfill this requirement very well. We’ve been wrong in chucking hymns out of our repertoire. We’ve thrown the baby out with the bath-water! We must bring some of them back.”
Betty quickly agreed: “My dad told me that the shift from psalms and hymns to praise and worship CWSs was part of the Church Renewal of the 1970s, when the Holy Spirit moved among Charismatics, Pentecostals and traditional Churches. And now I see the wider connection. Ephesians 5:19 says that, when we are filled with the Spirit, we will sing a mix of all genres – psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. This all fits together! God has been guiding our discussion today.”