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Is congregational singing dying out?

March 2019 | by John Thornbury

‘And when they had sung a hymn, they went out’ (Matt. 28:30). There is not a lot of information in the New Testament about music, but what there is certainly is very instructive.

For example, in the text above we can see that singing was a part of the worship of the church which Jesus established. Pastors and worship leaders need to carefully study the Scriptures, to see how they should lead God’s people in worshipful singing.

In the last few years, since I left my pastoral ministry (44 years in the same church), it has been my privilege (I use that term loosely) to visit a dozen or so churches in our town, Lexington, Kentucky, and it is my decided opinion that congregational singing has to a large extent been abandoned by the leaders.

I will state my case with three points, which describes to a great extent what I have seen.

1. Performance not participation.

I will never forget attending a large church, there must have been a thousand or so in attendance, and here is what I saw. There was on the stage a group of people, armed with an assortment of musical instruments, singing various songs flashed upon the overhead screen.

The people were standing around watching what I would loosely call a performance. Few were singing, because I believe few knew the songs — certainly I did not. It is obvious to me that this church had lost the precious practice, instituted by Jesus — that of the singing of the worshippers.

But it would be easy to show that singing by the congregants was a part of the worship of believers in both the Old and the New Testaments. My next point is closely related to the performance, not participation situation.

2. Theatre, not teaching.

I am decidedly of the opinion that many people going to church in modern times, conceive of themselves as attending a sort of show. The preacher is the actor (the more entertaining he is the better) and the musicians are the support cast.

I regret to say that in many churches hymn books have disappeared, and this is only one symptom of the problem we are facing. There are many things that could be said in favour of hymn books in the church. For one thing, a book is something people can take home where one can not only learn the songs but sing them in family worship.

Please: I am not talking about traditional hymns as opposed to contemporary. There are many great modern songs that are full of gospel truth, such as ‘How Deep the Father’s Love’ and ‘In Christ Alone.’ Such songs will no doubt take their place soon in hymn books, because they teach great truths of the Christian faith.

I regret to say that many of the so-called ‘praise and worship’ music, is essentially thin theologically and inferior aesthetically. The great hymns teach. Take the classic hymn, ‘Come Thou Almighty King.’ Each verse tells something about the work of the triune God in redemption. Many modern ‘songs’ if you can call them that, do not teach solid Christian themes.

3. Rhythm not reason.

For about 25 years or so now I have been trying to figure out why so many of our youth in church do not like hymns. This problem has been studied by godly Christian teachers for some time.

One reason, suggested by T. David Gordon is that the churches have sold out to what could be called the ‘culture of the world’. In his book, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, he asks this question, ‘But why should the sensibilities of those who may not even know God, or the sensibilities of a commercially driven, banal culture, rule in the worship of God?’ (p. 43).

This points to a rather scary fact that there is a philosophy now dominating the churches, and that is that while the Bible should be the basis of truth, culture should be the rule of the style in the church. I have thought a lot about this view, and I am afraid that this is a case of the well-known problem of letting the camel get its head in the tent.

If this happens, soon the animal will want to move in as well. I am afraid that by allowing modern styles of the world to dominate the church, the morals and doctrines of the world will soon come in.

I fear that many people simply will not sing a song unless it is accompanied by some modification of the ‘rock and roll’ type beat. Why is this? Perhaps it is because that is all the type of music they have heard. At any rate let us pray that God will help us to deal with this problem.

John F. Thornbury served for many years as a pastor in Baptist churches in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, USA.