Sunday, July 25, 2010

Singing in Church

Today, my last day of vacation, we decided to attend a larger, well-heeled Episcopal Church.  It is a beautiful Gothic cathedral in a nearby affluent community.  We went with high expectations and came away greatly disappointed.  I won't go into the details, but our experience today reminded me of the importance of congregational singing, which I believe may be a dying "art." 

My experience this Sunday stands in great contrast to what we experienced last Sunday up in Omena.  Now, I have to note that my music minister is the summer organist up north, and he provides wonderful support to congregational singing.  I need to also say that the people who attend this church love to sing.  So, the service we planned last week featured a lot of singing -- I did a sermon that is rather unique in that each movement of the sermon included hymns.

So, back to the issue of singing, and my observations about its place in worship.

One of the keys to congregational singing is "singability."  I think one of the reasons why people like to sing gospel songs is that they are melodic and easy to sing.   Many of the early praise songs -- from the 1970s -- were also very singable.  But there is a lot of church music, especially more recent material, that is very performance oriented and difficult to sing.  Obviously that was true of the hymns that we sang this morning.  It is also true of much of the recent "contemporary praise music."   

A friend who has a Ph.D. in worship and the arts has been studying worship in these large churches which feature praise bands, and what he noticed is that no one was singing.  There was a praise band with professional-level singers, and the folks in the "audience" might hum along, like you might at a concert, but there was very little fully engaged singing.  This is very different from what I experienced years ago (back in the 1970s)

Now, I love to sing and I sing out -- as my congregants will tell you -- so I like to choose music that is singable. Now, I don't always succeed.  Sometimes I'll choose a piece that doesn't work, and so we either move on or work on it some more.  And when introducing new songs and hymns, I try to balance them with songs we know (again, there are times that I fail in this, but that is why I keep track of the songs we sing, so I know how often and when last we had sung a piece). 

So, here are my questions: 

  1. How important is congregational singing to worship? 
    2.   What have your experiences been regarding congregational singing in your settings?

5 comments:

Mystical Seeker said...

I can't speak for others, of course, but I have to admit that the whole subject of singing is part of what turns me off about the church experience. I have the worst singing voice in the world and the music generally doesn't do anything for me anyway. Songs take up a big part of most church services I have attended and I end up standing up with everyone else looking at the pages of the hymnal but not singing, and that whole part of the service seems like a waste of my time.

I've been to some Episcopal services that are short and music-free, and those have been more to my liking.

Of course, this is just my own experience. I guess that a lot of people must like the singing part of worship, or otherwise it would not be such an entrenched part of most of Protestant worship.

Rial Hamann said...

I love to sing, on beat, on pitch, and on the theme of the service.

"make a joyous noise unto the Lord"
Key words are "joyous and unto the Lord"

I also like the use of musicial instruments in the service. Sometimes a horn, sometimes a guitar, somtimes a solo voice.

To me, like I think Bob, I love the sound and fellowship of community singing. This is possible in a large congregation, or a small one, but feels best in a small group, when you know you are adding to the group experience.

Keith Watkins said...

I'm not much of a singer; key, pitch, and rhythm are problems for me. Yet, in church, when the congregation sings with full voice and the organ's bass is strong, I can sing with full voice. Vibrations in the room and in my body combine in a way that transports me into a special realm. If the sound level is firm enough, I can participate with freedom in quieter music, such as Taize chants. What I can't do is the half-voiced vocalization that sometimes is cultivated in churches. I am persuaded that the full-voiced congregation is the most important musical instrument in worship and should be cultivated.
Years ago, Hoy Hickman, then the executive for worship for the United Methodist Church, made a survey of congregational singing in large Methodist Churches. The factor that was most constant in full-voiced congregations was a song leader who seemed able to encourage the congregants to join in the song.
While I agree with Bob that singability is important, I believe that familiarity is also a key to good singing. Congregation's can sing challenging music if they are familiar with it. Some of the complex Christmas music would be my example.
There's a place for non-musical services. Some people with hearing challenges find music especially hard to bear. There is much larger body of worshipers, however, for whom congregational singing is important.

Julia said...

I am a Singer. In my own Eastern Orthodox church, the whole service is chanted. So as a singer I am part of the liturgy.

Raised Methodist, with beautiful music. That's what Methodists used to be -- art-driven.

Simplifying the music and blanding-down the lyrics (sometimes politically challenging) was disastrous for congregational singing.

I think it mostly came from removal of music education in the schools, to allow lower taxes. The secret sin of the age: Thinking the only education our children need is vocational.

If your child asks for a loaf, do you give him a stone? And in 20th century America we learned that that is exactly what you do ...

David Mc said...

Song of hope.

http://video.coolstreaming.us/watch-a1c3ad668b8bb5df7963.html