Congregational Singing: Can Musical Style Dilute This Ordinary Means of Grace?
As a somewhat creatively minded musician, writing with clarity has always been a challenge. I have a point in my mind, and it feels clear and compelling—until I write it down. The words I use to make my point sometimes dilute the point. I try to do too much. I think I’m doing something cool like making a play on words, but instead I’m muddying the water. I have to work hard on my writing style to clarify my points, not dilute my points.
The same can be said for musical style in church worship music. Does the style clarify or dilute the main point, i.e., congregational singing? A singing church is a means of grace as a Spirit-dwelt congregation gathered by grace exhorts one towards faithfulness as they worship God. The entire church speaks the rich Word of Christ to one another.
So here’s the question: does your musical style make it clear that this is the main event? Or does the singing of the church get lost because the style is trying to do too much?
I want to make a simple case: the more clearly our worship style puts the focus on the congregation singing, the less we dilute this means of grace. To work this idea out, we’ll look at congregational singing as a means of grace. I’ll then define what I mean by worship style, and close by applying what we’ve learned.
A COMPELLING MEANS OF GRACE
Congregational singing is the sound of a people saved by grace. After God saves his people by grace, they sing (Exod. 15; Acts 2; Rev. 15). Delivered from the world, they no longer belong to or look like the world.
In the New Covenant, what’s one way the Spirit leads us to godliness? By the church singing (Eph. 5:18-19). How do we know the rich Word of Christ dwells in us? By the church singing (Col. 3:16). The Word of Christ reverberates as the Spirit-indwelt people of Christ exhort and encourage one another.
And what a compelling means of grace this is! A singing church is hard to ignore. It’s audible and visual. It’s tangible and mystical. It’s individual and corporate. It’s cognitive and emotional.
If the Spirit wants to grow us in grace by the sound of the church singing, then that’s where we should put all the focus. As the music leader at our church, I want people walking away from our gatherings having heard the Word of God in the mouths of the people of God. How do we try to do this? That brings us to the question of style.
STYLE – DOES IT CLARIFY OR DILUTE?
Style can clarify or dilute congregational singing. If congregational singing is what we are doing, style is how we do it. It’s the form church music takes through things like genre, instrumentation, and the use of lighting and sound. We must remember: there’s freedom and joy in different styles! After all, a particular style isn’t prescribed, but a particular goal is—congregational singing.
So we must ask a few follow-up questions: does our style clearly present congregational singing as the main event? Or does it muddy the water? Can we hear our church? Are the melodies singable? Like a preacher honing his craft to clearly present the Word of God, we want to hone our craft to present the Word of God through singing. The sneaky thing about style is that it can become the end in of itself. When style becomes the what instead of the how, the richness of congregational singing is diluted.
I’m still learning how to do this better. I’ve been playing in worship teams since I was twelve. I’ve led singing for over twenty years. I’m grateful for the variety of experiences I’ve had—from small churches to large churches, from campfires to skate parks to jampacked stadiums, from bright stages with big sound to little amplification and no extra light, from classical hymns to modern songs. Every step of the way, I sincerely wanted to see God’s people worship him with full hearts and voices. But those experiences and God’s patient instruction have convinced me that style is more important than we realize.
I could make many applications about this, but I’ll focus on three—genre, sound and lighting, and creativity.
While our churches are diverse, our church music often isn’t. We should delight in singing diverse kinds of music because God is saving a diverse people! In other words, don’t just sing new songs. Or just sing old songs. Or songs just from your ethnic heritage. Or just songs you like as a music leader. Sing rich theological songs you may not even like because you know someone else will like it. Sing songs that built up the church in ages past.
This shifts our focus beyond individual expression and compels us to sing in a way that glorifies God and encourages other members. We’re forced to notice how God’s Word is dwelling richly in those in my church and how God’s Word has dwelt richly in churches throughout the world, which should makes us want to exalt Christ more!
In short, our style should honor the diversity of the people God has saved and continues to save.
SOUND AND LIGHTING
What does our sound and lighting tell the church member they should experience? In the past, I used the phrase “a worship experience” to talk about church gatherings. I’ve since realized that this phrase isn’t helpful because it can accidentally communicate that the goal in corporate worship is some kind of subjective, emotional experience. That’s not the case.
However, it’s still true that our singing should cover the full range of human experience. Consider Israel’s hymnbook, the Psalms.
It should be obvious that sound and lighting can either dilute or clarify that our goal in corporate worship is congregational singing. We should do everything we can to make that the primary experience—not whatever’s happening on stage. It’s reductionistic to say that congregational singing can’t happen when the lights are dark above the congregation and the sound on stage is loud.
But we should be honest about how we’re using these tools—are they highlighting the experience of a few or the whole congregation? We should turn down the sound enough so that the congregation is the primary engine. We should push up the dimmer faders so that we can actually see the congregation and, as a result, concentrate our experience on the whole church speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
With all this focus on the congregation, am I implying that musical creativity and musical beauty isn’t important? Not at all! I’d argue that it takes creativity to play music that clarifies and doesn’t dilute congregational singing. Creativity informs style. So like style, creativity is not something we do, but how we do something. In particular, I would argue for a pastorally sensitive, biblically informed creativity.
Who doesn’t want to be known as a church with good music? But Spirit-animated and Spirit-directed creativity asks more than “How’d the music sound?” It asks, “Did everything we do serve the singing of our whole church?” This doesn’t diminish creativity; it aims it toward a goal.
Creativity matures beyond self-expression to humble service to all. This shift should be evident. Here are a few examples:
- Creativity prizes musical simplicity that doesn’t overpower the voice of the church; it adorns the voice of the church, pushing it forward.
- Creativity shapes our instincts so that we know when to highlight joy and when to move toward lament.
- Creativity uses fills that aren’t just cool riffs, but function as cues for the congregation to sing.
- Creativity teaches the band to find joy in cutting out often so that the church can hear itself sing.
- Creativity teaches even sound engineers to mix so that the congregation is the main instrument.
Last Sunday I was leading the singing and I was tired. It had been a heavy week and the weight of the week hung over me. But that heaviness quickly evaporated as I heard our church sing “How Firm a Foundation” and “Christ Is Mine Forevermore.” As their words washed over me, I remembered God’s steadfast, unshakable love for his people. I needed to be encouraged to grow in the grace of Jesus. And you know what? That’s precisely what happened . . . as my entire church sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs over me.
What a kind means of grace. Let’s do everything we can to let our style bring clarity to this means of grace, not dilute it.