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Congregational Song (Bible Study)

In the dialogue of worship in the Reformed tradition, congregational song has primarily had the role of the people's response to God. And that role has been shaped by Scripture, as shown through a study of the Psalms as the songbook of the Bible. In our discussion on congregational song, we will examine closely the nature of the Psalm songs and how that can serve as a model for our songs today.

Lesson 6                           See all lessons
Scripture: Psalm 96 and Colossians 3:15-17


It is rather astonishing to think of how unique congregational singing is in North American culture. Where else in today's society do you find groups of untrained singers joining together in song? Long gone are the ‘gather around the piano and let's sing' days of a generation or two ago. Yet when we gather for worship, we join our voices in song. In the dialogue of worship in the Reformed tradition, congregational song has primarily had the role of the people's response to God. And that role has been shaped by Scripture, as shown through a study of the Psalms as the songbook of the Bible. In our discussion on congregational song, we will examine closely the nature of the Psalm songs and how that can serve as a model for our songs today.

The Spirit of the Psalms

The spirit of the Psalms can loosely be divided into three: psalms of praise, psalms of confession and psalms of lament. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in one of his lectures on worship, has likened these three spirits respectively as the psalms of trumpets, ashes and tears. The psalms of trumpets are songs of celebration and praise which glorify God for his character and his acts in history (i.e. Pss. 8 and 103). The psalms of ashes are songs of repentance and a humble heart (i.e. Pss. 32 and 51). The psalms of tears are songs of complaint in the context of faith (i.e. Pss. 13 and 42).

It is interesting to note that the three characteristics the psalms reflect most likely will be present among your congregational members on any given Sunday. Psalms exhibit a balance of thought and an honesty of emotion and expression that serves well as a model for the church's song today.

The New Testament also gives us a few examples of songs, such as the Canticles of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon as well as the creedal hymns of Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16. In the context of Colossians 3:15-17, we are encouraged to sing with thankfulness “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” Today's church often struggles with what that means and how to balance what they do with the modeling of Scripture.

The 21st Century Church

The church today has a wealth of musical material to select from. Various denominational hymnals, internet resources, publishing houses not associated with a denomination, and licensing programs have opened so many opportunities for congregational singing that one knows hardly where to begin the selection process. There are praise and adoration songs, songs of thanksgiving, songs of profession and proclamation, narrative songs, songs of intercessory prayer and confession, songs of fellowship and songs of anticipation. And the list goes on… How does one begin? Shaping and balancing our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs on the model of the spirit of the Psalms may well be the best place to start.

Perhaps it is also helpful to remember that each congregation has its own unique history and personality. The songs that have been sung over many years have helped to shape the congregation to be who it is today. Those songs should never be easily discarded. At the same time, newer songs need to be added to stretch the congregation beyond its current boundaries.

The Form of Today's Congregational Songs

Traditional or new hymnody that sequentially follows a thought process from the beginning stanza through the ending stanza can carry much theological content that is both instructive to the faith while it professes and encourages faith. In many ways they engage the mind. As an example, think of “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and “In Christ Alone.” Such hymns teach the theology of the church.

Cyclical and short chorus songs can be grouped or sung separately as response songs within the dialogue of worship. In many ways they engage the emotions. As an example, think of “Change My Heart, O God,” “I Love You, Lord,” or many of the Taizé responses. Cyclical songs tend to be expressions of feelings.

Responsorial songs are hybrid songs. They normally combine a hymn-like set of stanzas with a repeated refrain. They incorporate both instruction and expression; mind and feelings. Think of songs like “It Is Well with My Soul” and “There Is a Redeemer.”

A healthy congregational song diet should probably include some traditional, some cyclical and some responsorial songs that reflect the spirit of the Psalms. The best songs in any style or from any culture will engage your mind and your heart and your feelings! You will need to remember that there are both older and newer songs in each of the forms presented. You will also need to be committed to developing a song diet that reflects and nurtures an intergenerational church.

Congregational song is a primary means through which the congregation carries on its dialogue in worship with God. It needs to be encouraged and developed well. It is always wise to think of the congregation as the “big choir” of the church and all other choirs, ensembles and worship teams as the “little choirs” that help teach and encourage the people's song. To do so is both God-glorifying and enriching to his children!

Suggestions for Congregational Song

1. Make a conscious decision that song is the voice of the people in the conversation with God.

2. Provide for prompters—your accompanists, ensembles, choirs, cantors, etc. Encourage them, affirm them, and provide resources for them, printed resources as well as educational and conference opportunities. Draw them into your worship plans so their contributions may reflect the themes you are developing. Maintain your instruments well so they can enjoy their work.

3. Provide musical tools. Learning new songs is easier when the musical language of notes and rhythm is given along with the text of the song. Musical notation also provides the opportunity to sing in harmony. Those people who read music will appreciate being able to do so, and those who do not will benefit from the leadership of those who do!  

4. Remember that new songs cannot become expression of faith songs without repetition in the learning process. Try not to sing a new song once and then let it set for a number of weeks. We have found it most helpful to incorporate a new song each week over a course of 4-6 weeks for the congregation to sink it into their souls. Since they are shorter, easier, and more repetitious, cyclical songs do not need the same amount of concentrated introduction and use. Responsorial songs can be introduced by soloists, worship teams, ensembles and choirs singing the verses with the congregation joining on the refrain. A congregation may be ready to sing with the team on final stanzas already the first week of introduction to the song.

5. Provide musical education for the youth and the adults. In today's budget conscious society, the first educational programs to get cut are the fine arts programs. If our children do not receive musical education in a school setting, the church should provide opportunities for them to learn the basic fundamentals of reading music. A generation down the road will be very limited in what they sing if we neglect such opportunity today. Think of how many times you have heard someone say, “I wish I knew how to sing better!”

6. Encourage and enliven your singing by incorporating variety in the ways you sing and plan for singing:

•  Do you always sing all the verses to the same accompaniment?

•  Do all the people sing all the verses all the time?

•  Does anyone ever give verbal transitions so that you know why you are singing a song?

•  Is it possible for you to provide instrumental or vocal descants?

•  If you have a choir, does it lead and assist your congregation in learning new worship songs?

•  Does your worship team ever assist your congregation in learning new hymnody or responsorial songs?

•  Do you ever sing either unaccompanied songs or individual stanzas?

•  Do you select your songs enough in advance so your accompanists have time to learn them well?   

•  Do you keep records of what you sing and how often you sing a particular song? Assess those records for balance. Over the course of weeks or a few months, do your song selections reflect a fair representation among the forms of music [hymnody, cyclical, responsorial] as well as among the spirits of trumpets, ashes and tears? The goal is to achieve balance over the course of time, not necessarily within each service.

Tips for Discussion Leaders

It may be easy in this discussion for the group to assume that it is legitimate and permissible to engage in an evaluation of the leadership that musicians are providing. We suggest that it is better that such an evaluation, if needed, be done in a different and more confidential setting. The goal here is to increase the understanding of the importance of congregational song and to make its role in public worship more central. This is quite separate from how certain persons are functioning as leaders.

The leader's responsibility is to ask questions, keep the discussion on course, but not give answers and certainly not to talk too much! Encourage everyone to participate in the discussion. If some are quiet, try to draw them out with "let's hear from some of those who haven't spoken up yet."

The general outcome of this session should be an awareness and appreciation of the privilege of participating in congregational song!

Discussion Starters

After reviewing some orders of worship from previous weeks, discuss some of the following:

1. Identify what motivates your congregation to sing well.

2. How much does your congregation sing in a worship service, and how does the singing help advance the dialogue in worship?

3. What is being done to teach your congregation to sing thoughtfully?

4. Does your congregation actively encourage your musicians? In what concrete ways?

5. Is your song diet balanced? Is there a fair representation of the three forms of songs? [see above]

6. Is your song diet balanced? Is there a fair representation of the three spirits of song? [see above]

Further Reading

The Singing Thing. A case for congregational song by John L. Bell (GIA Publications, 2000) G-5510

Sing! A New Creation. Leader's edition (CRC Publications, 2001), ISBN 1-56212-812-4; eight essays on song performance practice from various traditions, pp. 408-437.

Lesson 7
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