In Defense of Congregational Singing
Church music was my first language. I was raised in a church tradition that did not allow musical instruments in worship. Instead, 3 times a week for 16 years I sat in a congregation that sang better than most choirs; basically kids raised in the Church of Christ can sing harmonies before we can speak.
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As a teenager I left the church. I would not be part of another Christian community for 10 years and did not miss most of what I left; but I missed the music. I missed joining my voice with others and making something beautiful and transcendent.
Becoming a Lutheran at age 26, I fell in love with the ancient liturgy (singing the prayers and praise of the faithful as the church has done for countless generations). But the hymn singing? Well, it may have been ok...but mostly I heard the organ. Occasionally people would sing out but not in harmony and more often than not they seemed to make a little sound that came meekly out of their mouth and promptly fell right in front of their hymnal.
But sometimes during a communion hymn, the organist would drop out and the congregation would sing without accompaniment and it was glorious. In those moments people sang much differently than they had when the organ was playing...they stepped up and sang out and even picked out some harmonies.
And the emerging churches I visited were no better, often having a band playing music written by one of their members. With unfamiliar singer/song writer music (not conducive to congregational singing to begin with) and nothing but lyrics on a screen, I seldom heard people really singing.
While I have deep respect for the impulse behind communities writing their own music I have this conviction that I cannot shake: I prefer for congregational singing to be the primary musical expression in church. The experience of creating music in worship solely from the bodies of those present is one which cannot be matched by listening to someone else make the music for everyone else which the congregation can sing along with if they feel like it,as though singing is the optional acompanyment to the instruments.
Now, before I get all kinds of comments about how I'm wrong let me say that I fully understand this to be a minority opinion and that some churches with instruments sing well. I am not saying that the musical life of every Christian community should match ours. But singing is our birthright as human beings and since the advent of recorded music we have lost this essential part of what it means to be human. We have sadly left music to the professionals. People used to gather and sing together in each other's homes as evening entertainment. But why sing somewhat poorly if you can listen to a professional make much better music? Take Me Out To The Ballpark is about the only public singing we have left; unless you count karaoke.
When I set out to start House for All Sinners and Saints I had a few non-negotiables. One was that this was to be a singing congregation. And we are. Visitors are amazed at how 40 some odd people in an old church can create such a beautiful rich sound. They're often amazed too that (mostly) young people are singing the old hymns of the church with such passion. The result isn't always beautiful though - sometimes it's a bit shaky, sometimes it's a bit awkward. (It helps that our motto is "We're anti-excellence, pro-participation") But often, really often, our a cappella singing makes my heart soar because when we add our voices together in harmony we are not just creating music...we are creating community.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.