When You Sing, Do it Right!

Apparently, there is a correct way to sing when the Church gathers on Sunday mornings to worship.

I don’t disagree.

Singing in church has not enjoyed a pleasant history.  At least, that’s the case in regard to congregational singing.  Believe it or not, in the grand history of the church, congregational singing, as it is now, is not so old.  Beginning with the New Testament church, and proceeding through the catholic (intentional small ‘c’) church into the modern era, singing hymns together on Sunday morning has not been as commonplace as you might think.

A Brief Walk through History

The New Testament church did sing hymns together.  They did it as part of their usual meeting time, and these congregational songs were used to proclaim the teaching of the Church and to encourage each other.  Paul says to the church in Ephesus,

…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

To the church in Colossae, Paul says,

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Singing was part of the fabric of the early Church and, as Christians, we are commanded to sing.

As time passed, though, singing was relegated to the leaders.  The congregation ceased to participate as much, if at all.  Singing in worship was a task given to trained choirs and musician leaders.  The people merely sat and listened as songs commented on the liturgy.

Yet, in the Reformation, congregational singing was returned to the pew, and, later, theologians such as Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, and others, began the proliferation of hymn-writing and singing that we know today.  Problem was, the people had forgotten how to sing…together.  So much so, that churches and church leaders began to create singing schools to teach the laity how to sing.  And, they were innovative.  They used shaped notes and relied on training the ear to hear and recognize intervals.

Singing was apparently pretty bad.  In his collection of hymns, Select Hymns, 1761, John Wesley writes in the appendix some guidelines for singing.  It was obviously a concern for him and of some importance that it be done correctly.

I. Learn these Tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

III. Sing All. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.

IV. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.

V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

VI. Sing in Time: whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your Heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

Wesley gave 6 points to consider regarding the technique of singing congregationally.  The last point, and the most important in my opinion, points us to the attitude of congregational singing.  While singing is a must, and there are simple guidelines to the “how” of singing, Wesley’s final point drives home the real issue of our singing today.

Many believers don’t sing spiritually.  

They don’t care about the biblical command to sing.  They don’t care about singing with brothers and sisters in Christ.  They don’t care about proclaiming the mighty works of God.  Above all, they don’t care about raising their voice in joy and hope, affirming that Christ’s death on the cross has saved them through grace.

If we are believers, then we have no choice but to sing.

I think John Wesley would agree.


Filed under Commentary

2 responses to “When You Sing, Do it Right!

  1. Andy Waites

    Best yet. Great piece. I am always somewhat saddened in the contemporary church with the vast amounts of “new” music that noone present recognizes and therefore can’t sing. How refreshing to hear some of the great hymns of faith. I often reflect on times as a child, standing next to my dad and hearing him singing. I believe the saying, “you must know from whence you came to know where you’re going”. The great hymns are part of our heritage of faith. I shudder to realize many of our young people today don’t recognize “The Old Rugged Cross”, “Amazing Grace, and “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Thanks for reminding us that we are commanded to sing because sometimes, frankly, I feel we’re just there for the “show”! God bless!

  2. Flea

    I’ve heard people say, ” I don’t sing because I can’t sing”. I remember a preacher once saying, “You don’t sing because you can sing. You sing because you have a song.”

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