Nobody's Singing

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.


About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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17 Responses to Nobody's Singing

  1. Mo says:

    Well said … mostly. You are aware that I commit some of the loud stuff that you refer to in your first point … most every Sunday morning. I don’t know what the volume levels are in the congregation … I have to trust my sound guys for that … and I do trust them.

    I commit “contemporary” at 8:30 and “traditional” at 11:00 … and I try to do both in ways that encourage people to lift their voices in praise of God in ways that make sense in their preferred cultural context. Sometimes that means we support them with full band accompaniment, sometimes that means we support them with full organ accompaniment (although we couldn’t do that yesterday because the digital portion of our Schantz/Rodgers organ malfunctioned right before the service started … and we didn’t have time to figure out how to shut it down and use only the pipes). At full organ, we can go louder than our band usually plays … so I don’t think it’s entirely a volume issue … although playing the organ too loudly falls under the same indictment as a too loud band.

    But sometimes it means that we, in the case of “In Christ Alone,” use primarily keyboard, bass, and drums (in the contemporary service) and I put down the guitar and pick up my penny whistle in D for the “turn-arounds” between stanzas. Our people appreciate the added Celtic flavor. When you wait until “No power of hell, no scheme of man … ” to really kick in the drums, it’s just like waiting until then add stops to the organ registration when in a more “traditional” (whatever that means) accompaniment mode for congregational singing (e.g. piano and organ).

    To quote my friend and mentor, Paul Richardson, “If you beat on the pulpit during the announcements, what are you going to do for emphasis in the sermon?”

    I’m going to quit before I ramble any more and go further off-topic. Suffice it to say that I’m 100% in agreement with the fact that our task (as far as this aspect of ministry is concerned) is centered around encouraging good, meaningful, thoughtful congregational singing (Reference Erik Routley’s 3 criteria: well written, well chosen, well sung).

    Kudos … well-written post.

    Grace and peace.

  2. RevJATB says:

    I should also have mentioned Stuart Townend in this post, who is writing great new hymns and whom I know you like very much. He actually collaborated on “In Christ Alone” with the Gettys, so even more reason that I should have mentioned him.

  3. RevJATB says:

    And you’re absolutely right than an organist can overdo it as much as a band. I’ve been in services where people give up singing because they can’t compete with the organ just as I’ve seen them give up competing with the band and praise team.

    Aside: I wonder how many people try to put an “s” in Stuart Townend’s name and make him a Townsend? Probably as many as try to put a “t” in mine . . .

  4. Cap'n Whook says:

    RevJATB, I soprano friend of ours–wish I could remember who–stated once in aural skills class (with K. Lee Scott, incidentally–you didn’t have him for theory, did you?) that whenever she would go back home, her family was embarrassed by her singing too loudly as a congregant. She protested that she was not even singing at one-quarter voice. They responded, on top of that, that she was singing TOO WELL. Go figure.

    A large percentage people, men in particular, cannot carry a tune in a bucket–bless their hearts. Maybe the world needs (and I’m not being completely fascisious) more people like Barney Fifle who study with Eleanora Poultice. That is, people who wish to sing and read music, know they can’t, and make up for it with private lessons enough to be good congregant singers or even choristers. (Barney did improve, you know. Just not enough to be entrusted with solos.) BTW, Clara Bertha Edwards Johnson might have been too fast, but never too loud. Betty Sue saved it for the last verse!

  5. RevJATB says:

    I did not have Lee for theory or aural skills. I had Dr. Dean (at 8: a.m. MWF, thankyouverymuch) for Theory I and II and Mr. Nelson for aural skills.

    Come to think of it, I guess I had Dr. Dean for Theory III and IV also. Then Dr. Jensen for V, VI, and VII.

    Weren’t there only two semesters of aural skills? I think I had Mr. Nelson both semesters.

    Mrs. Poultice also played one of the “fun gals” (the escaped convicts), didn’t she?

  6. kristen says:

    I will say that I made most of the same arguments before (and love all the new tunes written by leonard payton) but in our time here, I have noticed time and again that our church sings well and with great participation, singing only RUF-ish style. It can be done 😉

  7. Ed Eubanks says:

    A good example of what you describe, I believe, is James Ward’s arrangement for “Rock of Ages”– which I think may be better than the older tune.

    Good thoughts, all. I have an article idea I’d like to bounce off of you sometime– phone call?

  8. Cap'n Whook says:

    John: No, there were four aural skills. I had Dr. Dean for Theory Un and Deux. I think I had 9:00 classes and his adenoids were just starting to vibrate freely by then. 🙂

    K. Lee was wonderful for Trois and Quatre. He was interested in how our exercises SOUNDED, imagine that. We did LOTS of composing by the end for Theory IV. (He said I had talent as a composer, thank you. What happened to all that?)

    Yea, I think you’re right about Mrs. Poultice. She had range!

    Lots of English class -2 deductions in that last comment. I can only say that I’m having a “going farsighted day”–can’t really see what I’m doing.

  9. cancerman says:

    Well said. I just ranted last night about how self indulgent many “worship teams” have become.

    One final note, pick a style for the night and stick with it. Going from country to rock to shaped note singing makes it excessively difficult for me.

  10. Mo says:


    Self-indulgence is definitely a potential pitfall in contemporary worship leadership … as it also is in the consumeristic approach to “doing church” that came out of the church-growth movement of the late 20th century. There is a great video clip of Brian McLaren on the “worship industry” on YouTube where he unpacks several aspects of the phenomenon. Some of what he has written or said pushes the envelope a little too far for my personal comfort (and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?), but he’s spot on in what he says about how we approach worship as consumers rather than as people approaching the Almighty Creator and Redeemer of our souls.

    But consumerism has been present in every church I’ve served … even the ones with primarily one approach to worship “style.” I’ve never served anywhere that I didn’t have an occasional note (usually anonymous) asking that we sing more of the songs “we like” (whatever that means).

    One of the things I have had to remind myself and the people I lead is that our personal preferences will always be a part of the picture, but that they don’t need to be the primary deciding factor (unless we are sure that God likes what we like … and we all know that He does). When I remind the people I lead of that, I also tell them that I sometimes select a congregational hymn / song that is not a particular favorite of mine because I know that it will be effective in enabling our congregation to encounter God … which is the whole point.

    Now, years of engaging in that practice will change my personal preferences, and have … to a point. There are still some “contemporary” worship songs that I resist using because I find them aesthetically inferior. Same with some “traditional” ones as well. The first commandment of church architecture applies here: Thou shalt not commit ugly.

    Boy, RevJATB, you really hit a hot button with me on this one! But I need to shut up and finish cleaning my office.

    BTW: Finally had a chance to go through “Welcome, Child of Mary.” In a word: beautiful.

  11. RevJATB says:

    Morris, I’m so glad you liked the piece. Here’s hoping someone at Augsburg Fortress likes it too . . .

    Kristen, I’m glad the folks at Red Mountain participate in congregational singing, but that is still not going to get me to join all the “cool kids” in the PCA in saying those tunes are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Many of the tunes have a syncopation on every darned syllable. Others never have a cadence, so there is no feeling of ever having arrived at a conclusion (one must wait for the guitarist to conclude the song). Some are so musically repetitive (such as the Twit tune for “And Can It Be,” that repeats the same four-note figure about 36 times) that they just drive me nuts! Yes it’s often refreshing to sing old words to a new tune, but it can be done better. I maintain that all PCA congregations would do well to step outside their own self-imposed boxes and open themselves up to the possibility that there is other music out there.

    Some PCA-ers think the Trinity Hymnal (whether the “old” one or the “new” one, itself almost 20 years old) is the be-all, end-all, and while it has some good material, in many areas it is woefully inadequate. Some think the Book of Psalms for Singing is the bee’s knees, but there are far better resources out there for metrical psalmody. It’s as if no one in the PCA will accept that perhaps there is good stuff going on beyond the walls of our own denomination, perhaps even in the (gasp!) more mainline denominations!

    Similarly, the RUF crowd talks as if they invented the idea of putting old hymns to “new” tunes, but that reflects a sort of self-gratulatory tunnel vision that ignores the contributions of the larger church. In Reformed circles we decry the “evangelical ghetto,” but in practice our worship is the most ghetto-ized of them all, whether we are talking about traditional, contemporary, missional, liturgical, or anything else: we really need to get out more.

  12. RevJATB says:


    Sure! Please call!

  13. kristen says:

    We don’t sing Twit’s And Can It Be, I don’t like that one either. Brian T. Murphy actually writes some pretty good tunes, I think, some that don’t fall into some or any of the traps you mentioned. He’s a pianist and not a guitarist and that makes a difference, perhaps. We also do sing things to the original tunes, just more with a Red Mountain sound, like “My Jesus I Love Thee.” We sing over half red mountain tunes (either on CDs or otherwise) and very few indelible grace ones and I do think there’s a difference. I find the RM ones a lot easier to pick up for congregants.

  14. RevJATB says:


    That sounds very encouraging. I think this will turn out to be a situation much like that of the Lutheran chorales. In the early days of the Reformation, when congregational singing had been newly introduced into the German-speaking churches by way of the chorale, thousands upon thousands of chorales were written. Today, only a few hundred of them are even remembered, and the average non-Lutheran, Protestant hymnal may have fifty. Some of those chorales served their purpose at the time but proved not to be able to stand the test of time. It sounds like you have some musicians there who are looking ahead: if their tunes are “easier to pick up for congregants” now, then they will likely be more readily picked up by congregations in the future than other tunes which are so married to their time and place.

    I think you’re right, too, about a keyboardist perhaps writing more versatile tunes. Not that a keyboard instrument is superior to other kinds of instruments (I’m sure at this point Cap’n Whook will disagree!), but there is a difference between a tune that may be accompanied by guitar and a tune that must be accompanied by guitar.

    Most (if not all) of the oeuvre with which I am familiar that has come from the RUF “folk song army” (to borrow a phrase from Tom Lehrer) is of the “must be accompanied by guitar” variety. Maybe that’s why so many of those tunes (should we call them “first-generation” RUF tunes?) do not end on an authentic cadence: they give the guitarist a chance to show off his chops, but it leaves an unsettled feeling on the part of the congregation. The guiarist wouldn’t necessarily notice this: he or she gets to finish the piece. The poor congregation doesn’t.

    (Sorry for the long comment!) Closely related to the above idea, I believe, is the reason why so many non-liturgically-minded PCA pastors don’t see that their congregations are not being afforded the opportunity to participate in worship: the pastor is worshiping! He’s reading Scripture aloud, he’s praying aloud, he’s preaching, etc. He’s having a grand old time. He is fully participating in worship, but he doesn’t put himself in the congregation’s shoes. What are they doing while he’s up there worshiping. In a word: bupkes. Nada. Nichts. Diddly squat.

    So too, it seems, the guitarist-as-folk-hymn-tune-writer Doesn’t put himself in the congregation’s place. As a pianist or organist is more attuned to the interplay of vocal lines, he/she tends to be more aware of this dimension.

    I know this is a generalization, but it has been my observation, both as an RUF participant in grad school and as one who has worshiped in many congregations that rely heavily on that sort of music. (I must add that I have never had the privilege of worshiping at RMC, although I have long wanted to and have recommended the church to many.)

  15. RevJATB says:

    Having said that, I must say that I believe there has never before been a more inappropriate tune for a set of words than this one:

    I cannot sing it without thinking of Greg and the rest of the Brady Bunch Kids singing “We Can Make the World a Whole Lot Brighter,” and that is not something one should be thinking about when one is singing a penitential Psalm!

  16. kristen says:

    Yeah, we oft lamented that one when we lived in Austin. Our current pastor produced a CD when he was the RUF campus minister in NYC and it does include Psalm 130 with a different, much more penitential, tune, for the first two verses or so with just a naked piano and vocalist sound… there are people in those circles that care and notice.

    I think what’s most interesting to me is that the PCA congregations using RUF music are more likely to have some form of liturgy and weekly communion than those who are singing hymns to traditional tunes only, or those who sing hymns and “contemporary” songs. There are, of course, high church PCA congregations that sing beautiful, traditional hymns and have liturgy and the sacrament but they are few and far between.

    We have visited so many churches that sang traditional hymn tunes poorly after we left Redeemer Austin that we were happy to settle for something different.

  17. Cap'n Whook says:

    Oh my, that setting of “From Depths of Woe” is Brady-esque!

    A keyboardist will often have a more objective view of what constitutes a good melody because the piano is less suited to strumming. Often, I guitarist can doctor up boring melody and dull singing with “dance rhythms” accompaniment. Strip that away . . .

    Rev JATB wrote: “Not that a keyboard instrument is superior to other kinds of instruments (I’m sure at this point Cap’n Whook will disagree!)” It’s not the keyboard that is superior, it’s keyboardists! 🙂

    It got rather tiring in music school that the keyboardists were expected to be good at EVERYTHING (playing, accompanying, conducting, composing, choral singing, researching, teaching recorder, etc.). The singers could always get away with saying, “But, I’m just a voice major!” The guitarists greeted everything with, “All that’s well and good, but just give me the [chord] changes?”

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