In many ways the song leader is the single most important person in leading great congregational singing.
A friend sent me this quote last week, found buried within promotional material for something called a “Word in Song” conference put on by some group called Emu Music. A look at their “Who We Are” tab reveals this group to be predominantly Anglican. Keep that in mind. We’re not talking about a bunch of Hillsong disciples or quasi-charismatic evangelicals here.
In case you’re interested, here is a representative sample of their own music.
Naturally, as one who believes wholeheartedly that each Christian church should be a singing church, this quote and its source made me shudder. It’s long been obvious that as modern society moved from being one of music-making to one of music-consuming, the free church was following suit. But increasingly the liturgical church is giving itself over to the standards of commercial pop music, as well. And one of its central tenets is that you’ve got to have someone singing into the microphone. You’ve got to have a song leader.
Here are a few reasons why I must disagree.
1. It leads people toward music consumption, rather than participation.
During my most recent trip to the dentist’s office, my hygienist asked me what I did for a living. After I finished rinsing and spitting, I told her that I was a church music director. As normally happens when people don’t understand sacred music, she proceeded to tell me all about her church, which of course meets in a converted grocery store. Apparently, her pastor once played in Tommy Lee’s band. No, not Mötley Crüe, one of his other equally awful but less well-known bands.
“So, as you might expect, our pastor really makes sure our worship is awesome. It’s like a rock concert every week.”
“Yeah, that’s just about what I’d expect,” I said.
The worshiping church doesn’t consume music, it makes music. But the modern concept of a lead singer arose from commercial pop music, written for a soloist or a small group. It’s no wonder, then, that most live pop worship sounds quite similar to the concert hall. A “leader” singing with pop inflection and affected tone, while ad libbing and improvising rhythm and melody, doesn’t ask of a congregation, “Sing with me.” It says, “Approach congregational singing like it’s a concert.”
2. Amplification suppresses congregational singing.
A solo leader singing into a microphone sends a message to the congregation that its role is similar to that of an audience at a rock concert: “Sing along if you like, but it doesn’t really matter.” As a result, the corporate nature of gathered worship is deemphasized, and the voice of the congregation becomes entirely dispensable to the whole thing. Though some may be singing, even loudly at times, the congregation’s function is more passive than active.
3. The organ is a better leader.
Many people, especially song leaders, will say this is simply my own opinion. I don’t think so. And while many would also point to a couple historical examples of organs being banned from some churches, they often fail to recognize that the pipe organ actually developed from within the church in service of the church’s liturgical needs.
The instrument itself is unequaled in its ability to enable good congregational singing. The organ can sustain pitches without decay, leading through the phrases, drawing the song out of the congregation. Precise articulation at the console punctuates the phrase for the congregation, breathing with them and pacing the following phrase. An organ that is well voiced and sized for the room will emphasize the lower and upper partials in the tone, while leaving room in the middle for the human voices to fit in. And while it can provide a supportive musical framework to embolden singers, it cannot sing the text for them.
4. Singers with microphones tend to talk.
The worst theology happens in worship when we go off script, and coupled with the fact most (but certainly not all) so-called “worship leaders” are not well-trained theologically, even planned statements tend to fall short of good theology or meaningful connection to the liturgy. Even if they are trained theologically, corporate times of sung prayer have traditionally used refined, elevated language, seasoned by ages, steeped in Scripture and theology. It isn’t the time to throw out a bunch of extemporaneous babble, which can be nothing short of disastrous.
5. The song leader often becomes a showcase for ego and personality.
We are living in the days of the celebrity Christian. As I’ve said before, we have witnessed the advent of the “worship superstar,” especially over the last two decades. Granting a microphone to a musician is offering them a whole lot of power and prestige. Some turn corporate worship into stand up comedy routine with their wit and charisma. Some take the opportunity to showcase their own affected pop stylings and build their celebrity in the mold of so many others. Some have exploited the vulnerability of an emotionally-compromised congregation Just look at the record sales for the so-called “worship industry.” Even those who would shy away from the title of “superstar,” well, can they really deny that’s what they are?
The so-called “worship industry” has exacerbated this phenomenon. Because our culture is so used to listening to music for entertainment, we make our own celebrities. Make no mistake about it. The church does this, too. We begin to associate worship with a person and a performance, rather than corporate prayer through Word and Sacrament.
6. The traditional music of the church practically sings itself.
We have a rich history of psalms, hymns, chants, and songs, set to beautiful, eminently singable melodies with a rich harmonic framework, a group to which each generation added their best. Then we decided we didn’t need that stuff anymore. So we replaced our hymns with new songs, written for solo commercial recordings.
And that’s when we decided we needed a song leader, with a top-notch house cover band.
But we didn’t. We never did. We just needed to sing.
Let’s Move On
I’m ready to move on from the song leader in worship. I’m ready to move on from the amplified musical assault. The church should be, too, and it’s time to self-correct.
We need to teach our congregations to sing, not just have someone with a mic singing at them.