The Devolution of Christian Congregational Song

The Devolution of Christian Congregational Song December 29, 2019

The Devolution of Christian Congregational Song

Over the years of this blog (about ten) I have often broached the subject of contemporary Christian worship and especially congregational singing in contemporary worship. I have visited numerous American evangelical churches in many locales across the U.S. and heard from many people who are dismayed about what I am here calling the devolution or degradation of congregational singing in contemporary evangelical worship. I grew up in American evangelical Christianity and have taught thousands of Christian students most of whom were and are evangelicals of some kind. What I have witnessed is a direct connection between the change in worship and the decline of knowledge and understanding of theology.

I first learned theology (as interpretation of the Bible) through music—performed and sung congregationally. Especially our congregational songs piqued my interest and propelled me into further study of theology. The hymnbook was my first theology book. And especially for those of us in churches without formal doctrinal confessions and catechisms, the hymnbook took the place of a book of confessions.

Now let me lay out my bona fides for talking about this subject. For forty years I have had close colleagues who I consider friends who are experts, scholars, historians of Christian music and who have written Christian music. I have attended weekly chapel services in three different evangelical Christian institutions of higher education and have witnessed the changes in Christian music used for congregational singing first hand. I was present one of the first times Larry Norman performed “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” and I promoted one of Petra’s first concerts. For years and years I have asked my classes to sing Christian hymns and spiritual songs that express the doctrines we are studying at the time. I have heard from them about hymns and Christian songs and CCM. I have listened to Christian radio all my life.

Many of my students—for the past twenty-five years—know few hymns. Some of them testify that they have never touched a hymnbook. Many of them who grew up in evangelical churches have never sung a hymn.

I observe contemporary Christian worship in numerous evangelical churches around the country and the pattern is nearly identical—regardless of the denomination (or none). First, loud instrumental music by the worship band. Second, thirty to forty minutes of standing and listening to the worship band sing songs most people can’t sing. And most of the songs are what we would have called “ditties” in the distant past (fifty years ago). Many of them lack any semblance of a “pleasing melody” (definition of “tune”). During the “worship time” (what we used to call “song service”) the worship band plays many riffs and bridges with no words. The worship bands seem oblivious to whether or not the congregation is singing. Many in the congregation don’t even attempt to sing; they sip coffee and watch the band and listen.

So when I have whined about this people here have sometimes asked me to give examples. Okay, I’ve worked up a list of songs about the love of God (or love for God) that I hear often now and sang in the past. Compare and weep.

1) Build my life (I will build my life on your love)…

2) I love you Lord (and I lift my voice)…

3) I could sing of your love forever…

4) The love of God (is greater far)…

5) Love divine all loves excelling…

Now, all five of those could EASILY be sung in one worship service (“blended worship”) but recently ONLY the first one would be sung—together with others like it.

I see a downward progression (or regression) here—in terms of congregational singing. Just compare Love Divine All Loves Excelling with the first three. Compare the beautiful poetry of numer 4 with the words of the first three and especially number 1. (If you don’t know some of these songs just go to Youtube and you will find video clips of them being sung often with words superimposed.)

Many of the songs now typical of contemporary worship would have been considered Sunday School or Youth Group songs back in the day. They would not have been used in congregational worship.

So what’s missing—between “5” and “1?” Well, first of all, at least the chorus of 1 is flat, only four or possibly five notes. I would not call it a tune. Second, the theology of 4 and 5 is deep and profound—provoking thought and reflection as well expressing intellectual as well as poetic worship of God. Third, only people who listen to contemporary Christian radio will know the “latest” songs and possibly be able to sing them. They will most likely disappear quickly and be replaced by others liked by the worship band and “worship leader.”

Now, please don’t tell me that Mercy Me has recorded a version of “The Love of God.” I know that. But when is even it sung in contemporary worship?

Not long ago I visited an evangelical Baptist church where the worship band seemed to sing to each other as the congregation observed. I knew only one of the songs and it was a contemporary version of the great old evangelical hymn “One day (when heaven was filled with his praises)”. But the new version was unsingable—except by Casting Crowns and the worship band. The leader of the worship band did not even know that is a great evangelical hymn written by J. Wilbur Chapman a hundred years ago.

I pointed out (kindly) to the worship band leader (after the abrupt ending of the service) that almost nobody in the congregation sang that song with the worship band. He hadn’t noticed that. I sang part of the original song to him and asked him whether he thought the congregation would have been more likely to sing that. He wouldn’t comment. I’m certain they would have.

Over and over again I have noticed this pattern in churches that use blended worship or that continually “introduce” new hymns and songs. The congregational singing during the contemporary songs is muted at best. The congregational singing bursts forth with loud enthusiasm as soon as “Great is thy faithfulness” or “Blessed assurance” or “How great Thou art” is sung.

People over fifty especially simply cannot sing the contemporary ditties with their no tunes. Almost always they were written for performance, not for congregational singing. And yet the worship leader and worship band insist on singing them in worship.

No, I have nothing against one or two (what we used to call) “special numbers” sung by an ensemble or even a single vocalist (solo) in worship. What I object to is attending a Sunday morning “worship service” where most of the congregation can’t sing most of the songs and where most of the songs are repetitious ditties with no tunes.

*Note: Here I always speak only for myself; I never speak for any organization or institution. If you choose to respond, stick to the subject and be civil if not respectful. Keep your comment or question fairly brief and on topic. If I discern that you did not read my whole post or that you are putting words in my mouth or misrepresenting what I have said here, I will simply delete your comment.

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