THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The question in that headline accompanied a provocative article about U.S. Protestant church trends that The Guy will turn to in a moment. The answer is important, and it’s quite obvious to observers of the long-running “worship wars” that are about far more than guitars and drums supplanting pipe organs and hymnals.
(For Catholicism’s parallel debate, check out the lively book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” in the revised edition subtitled “With New Grand Conclusions and Good Advice”(!). Author Thomas Day, retired music department chair at Rhode Island’s Salve Regina University, laments destructive inroads of popular culture.)
The headline question accompanied this April piece on GetReligion.org by its editor Terry Mattingly: www.getreligion.org/getreligion/2023/3/28/new-question-in-the-worship-wars-why-have-many-worshippers-stopped-singing-in-church/ That might suggest slant from a boyhood Southern Baptist turned Eastern Orthodox. However, Mattingly was not promoting his own liturgical preference but reporting concerns raised by Kenny Lamm, the worship strategist for the Southern Baptists’ North Carolina state convention, who leads workshops nationwide.
Lamm recently posed these issues on his Web site in response to a pre-Easter e-mail from a frustrated man who’s been searching for a new church to join and visited one possibility four weeks in a row. Here’s what he experienced there.
Earplugs and vocal gymnastics
Programmed lighting that blinds the “audience” (notably, not “congregation” or “worshippers”) in a pitch black room so you cannot see your fellow Christians. Haze machines. Unfamiliar songs “we can’t follow” with “unmemorable” melodies that leap uncomfortably, and with a vocal range running so high “the average singer” cannot reach the notes (a la the National Anthem!). Amplified instruments so loud they bury the sloppily dressed singers on stage and far moreso those out in the seats, and make the ears hurt (earplugs are kindly provided in the lobby).
Result: “We did not see one person singing – not one.” (In The Guy’s experience at many stage-band styled church services, many folks do sort of mumble along but the observation is roughly accurate. Lamm regularly receives complaints about all this.
For contrast, let’s consider poetic lyrics that Bethel University English professor Daniel Ritchie praised Easter weekend in The Wall Street Journal’s artistic “Masterpiece” column – Isaac Watts’ 316-year-old hymn for the ages, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The words, bathed with phraseology from the Bible, develop out of Galatians 6:14.
Can lyrics be a “masterpiece” when one-syllable words dominate and only two, “sacrifice” and “amazing,” have as many as three syllables? Yes, Ritchie insists. The language “is easily understood, yet fully capable of communicating the profound personal meaning of Christ’s atonement. It obeys strict rhythms as the hymn genre demands,” but nonetheless channels emotions that build to the climax in which Christ’s saving gift on the Cross surpasses the entirely of the natural world and demands “my all.”
Watts’ deceptively simple words are perfectly matched by Lowell Mason’s familiar 1824 tune, with its sturdy 8 8 8 8 rhythm, consisting of just five adjacent notes, one of which is used 40% of the time!
In a word: Singable. By everybody.
By comparison, Chris Tomlin’s recent rendition mingles Watts / Mason and his own well-meaning lyrics and tune using the syncopation and glissandos so commonplace in Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) performances designed for onstage soloists or singing groups that congregations cannot cleanly or easily imitate.
Worshippers = Spectators?
Now – Baptist Lamm is no fuddy-duddy or proponent of “high church” ritual. He likes new music and worship methods. What worries him is the “standard practice in so many of our churches today – a high-production environment that in many cases is leading our congregations to become spectators rather than active participants.”.
“We must do all we can to help our people sing the songs with all their might.” In line with Ephesians 5:19-20, he thinks it’s vital that the gathered ordinary worshippers “speak to one another” through singing of hymns. Turn the lights back up.
His message is “care and moderation.” Worship planners “need to identify and eliminate as many distractions as possible” and help “the people to participate in offering their worship in praise,” never calling attention to themselves as “performers” or making those who attend church their “audience.”
Worshippers become mere “spectators” watching the folks on stage if they are “singing songs they do not know and singing in keys that the average singer cannot attain” or with difficult leaps. New tunes are OK but “should be introduced, taught, and reinforced by repetition.”
An “explosion” centuries ago
A prior Lamm article summarized “9 Reasons People Aren’t Singing in Worship,” (see www.renewingworshipnc.org/nine-reasons-people-arent-singing-in-worship/), There he makes a partisan historical point, arguing that the Protestant Reformation “gave worship back to the people,” replacing professional musicians singing in unfamiliar Latin. An “explosion” occurred as everyday parishioners joined in hymns that had “simple, attainable tunes with solid, scriptural lyrics in the language of the people.”
For more on Protestant music trends, see two Religion News Service articles by Bob Smietana: 1) “There’s a reason every hit worship song sounds the same” https://religionnews.com/2023/04/11/theres-a-reason-every-hit-worship-song-sounds-the-same/. 2) “Like that new church worship song? Chances are, it will be gone soon.” https://religionnews.com/2022/05/02/like-that-new-church-worship-song-chances-are-it-will-be-gone-soon/ .
The Guy concludes with a medical note: Protestants whose churches’ booming amplification at worship creates a risk of permanent ear damage should consult the professional guidance at www.cdc.gov/nceh/hearing_loss/what_noises_cause_hearing_loss.html/ :