Allison Twigg, who used to be Allison White, who used to be Allison-White-Jeff-Stith’s-cousin (well she still is Jeff Stith’s cousin: it’s just that when she first came to SU everyone called her that as a point of reference, to the extent that it sort of became her unofficial name), sent me a link to this thought-provoking piece entitled “The slow death of congregational singing.”
The piece echoes many ideas I’ve expressed before, even on this little ol’ blog. In a nutshell, here are some of the reasons I believe congregational singing is at such a low ebb:
- Nobody needs to sing. At least they don’t feel that they need to sing. There’s an over-amplified band up front. There’s a line of emoting soloists up front, with their foam-covered mikes, working the room like seasoned Vegas headliners. Even if people do sing, they won’t be heard above the din. Why bother?
- People are too embarrassed to sing. Maybe it’s the over-the-top emoting of said “worship leaders.” Maybe it’s the saccharine sensuality of the “Jesus-is-my-heavenly-boyfriend” songs. The swooning women up front, the same ones who used to be sure to add the annoying “aah” echo to “In the Stars His Handiwork I See” back in elementary school, who made sure to inject the word “precious” as cloyingly as they could when singing “You Are My All in All” at summer camp, now close their eyes and sway and sing about “how desperate they are” without Jesus. Desperate housewives indeed. The rest of us are more than a little creeped out by the not-so-subtle eroticism of the whole thing.
- People are unable to join in. Maybe they don’t know the song. If they don’t, those words on the screen do little to help them. Maybe they know how to read music and could participate if you’d bother to provide the notes. Maybe the song is so riddled with syncopation (a lot of the RUF songs fall into this trap) that it makes it nigh to impossible for people to sing together, so the result is a sort of confused heterophony. As I’ve said before, a little syncopation in a tune is nice, like a little paprika sprinkled on top of the potato salad. (Think of that thrilling syncopated “Alleluia” in Vaughan Williams’ SINE NOMINE.) When virtually every note is syncopated, however (as is the case in too many of the RUF tunes to mention) the effect is like eating a big bowl of paprika with a spoon. Less is more.
I’m not saying only old hymn tunes will “work” in worship. But “new tunes” does not have to equal “pop tunes.” People in the PCA, especially, need to get out of their confines and understand there is a lot more happening in congregational song than what is going on in RUF circles, and much of what is going on out there expresses a clearer understanding of what makes a successful tune for congregational singing. And I’m not just talking about more serious composers like K. Lee Scott, but I would be seriously remiss if I left him out: some of his hymn tunes, such as SHADES MOUNTAIN, are some of the most singable, and will prove to be some of the most enduring, tunes that actually encourage congregational song rather than smother it. But even in a more “popular” or lighter vein, people like the Gettys are writing very usable, very singable tunes. “In Christ Alone,” for example, will no doubt stand the test of time. I’d venture to say that Christians will still be singing it 100 years from now.
A decline in congregational song is often an indicator of spiritual decline, but churches aren’t helping matters. If we give people good, singable tunes, provide the means for those who don’t know the tunes to learn them (i.e., words and music), pay attention to the content of the texts and the demeanor of those leading in worship, and employ musical accompaniment/leadership that actually encourages congregational singing instead of replacing it, maybe we’ll see things begin to turn around.