“The lack of participatory music in daily American life is a major obstacle to our well-being.” So writes Ethan Hein in a 2014 blog. “We in America tend to place a high value on presentational music created by professionals,” says Hein, “and a low value on participatory music made by amateurs.”
Hein’s article does not discuss church music. But can his diagnosis of this missing element in American music shine light on the state of singing in our Sunday gatherings? Would you call the music in your church mostly “presentational” or “participatory”? My own experience in churches over the past few decades points to a “lack of participatory music” in congregational singing. But why? Let me suggest two reasons—reasons relating to the people in the pews (or chairs) and to those on the platform.
I believe that when we gather as Christians the New Testament puts a priority on one-anothering. So, yes, I confess to looking around during “worship time” to see whether that’s happening. In doing so, I watch mouths. Typically, in half or more of the people, I see lips moving. Even though I sit within earshot, I usually can’t hear what—or if—they are actually singing. In the rest of the people, I see lips remaining sealed.
To my way of thinking, neither lip-syncing nor lip-sealing counts as real singing. What, I ask myself, explains what I see? Are people today unwilling to sing? Unable? No, because when songs like “Amazing Grace” or “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” come along, sealed lips open and nearly everyone sings with audible voices. Why, then, the lack of heartfelt participation with so many other songs? Too often, stifled voices apparently result from unsingable songs. Songs written for musicians to perform can easily outdistance the musical reach of those in the typical congregation.
Another reason for the “lack of participatory music” in church gatherings comes from up front. First, the “worship team” has probably rehearsed that Sunday’s songs several times during the scheduled practice time. Most likely no one in the congregation has had the time or opportunity to master the melodies, intervals, cadences, and pauses.
Second, someone on the platform has chosen what to include in the musical menu for the meeting. This song-selector (as each of us does) will have selected music that suits his or her musical tastes. So, week in and week out, the decision-making on the music is non-participatory. Again, the congregation has no voice in this.
Third, those on the platform hold a monopoly on the microphones. Any sound from the stage—whether voice, drums, guitar, or keyboard—can be boosted to a volume that will overwhelm even the strongest unamplified voice coming from the pews. Some musicians on the platform wear earphones to hear each other. Hearing the congregation, on the other hand, often appears to be secondary or even irrelevant.
Corporate Singing in the New Testament
The New Testament says very little about music in Christian gatherings. So, when it does address the subject, we need to pay careful attention. Two verses speak clearly to the matter of Christians singing in community.
- Eph 5:19. “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.”
- Col 3:16. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”
Both verses put signing in the context of of one-anothering. Through “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” we are to “speak to one another.” Those same musical genres show up in the Colossians verse that says to “teach and admonish one another.” Both verses link this kind of singing with making music “to the Lord” or “to God.” In one-anothering—even our musical one-anothering—we obey Jesus’s new command (John 13:34-35). And he himself said that by obeying him we show our love for him. In this way, our one-anothering becomes worship.
But, of course, to speak, to teach, and to admonish one another in song requires that we hear each other. Neither lip-syncing nor lip-sealing permits listening to one another. Nor can we hear each other if the amplified sound from the stage overpowers all voices from the congregation. In a blog, Jordan Richmond wrote: “I attended a church service . . . and felt almost assaulted by the sound (around 90-95 db).” And John Stackhouse, in a Christianity Today article asks: " Why does everything every Christian musician performs nowadays seem to require high amplification?"
Why Do We Gather?
By noting why we should not give up meeting with other Christians, the writer of Hebrews indirectly explains why we should gather: to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” and to “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:24, 25). Notice—again—the twice-repeated reason given for meeting together: one-anothering.
In concerts, we rightly expect presentational music. We go to enjoy hearing talented artists perform. But in our regular church meetings, the New Testament calls us to gather for another purpose--to build up and strengthen each other. This one-anothering purpose calls for participatory music. In this way, the Body of Christ "builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4:16).
Practical Action Steps
What can a church do to make its music less presentational and more participatory? Let me offer three suggestions. Perhaps you can add others in the comment box:
1. Give the congregation a voice in choosing the songs. Paul’s instructions for church meetings in Corinth imply that those present could participate in song-selection (I Cor. 14:26).
2. Have two musical leaders—one for the congregation and one for the musicians. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include an interview with a pastor whose church does just that: “The band leader focuses on the musicians (repeating a verse or adding a chorus). The congregational leader focuses on the congregation to make certain people are connecting and singing.”
3. Consider relocating the music team. In Trinity in Human Community, Peter Holmes describes what Christ Church Deal, UK, did to shift the focus back to one-anothering. “We moved the worship band to the back of the congregation, requiring each person to proactively visualize worshipping Christ in relationship rather than continue to be passively ‘led’ in worship by the singers and musicians. This change has also allowed the singers and musicians to be more part of the body of worshippers (e.g. on the same level, rather than at the altar or on stage in front of everyone).”