The Slow Death of Congregational Singing

Michael Raiter at The Briefing has a very good and interesting essay on the state of congregational singing. He wrote it in 2008 and I think the situation he raised is even more evident now. I'll post the first third of the essay but I encourage you to read it fully. After this excerpt Mr Raiter goes on to a good biblical exposition of congregational singing. I recommend the piece.

So, how is the singing at your church?

It seems like genuine, heartfelt congregational singing is experiencing its dying gasps. But why does it matter and why should we care? Mike Raiter brings us back to the Bible to inject our singing with new life.

I was at a convention recently, seated near the rear of the auditorium. The music team at the front were ‘leading’ (and I use that word advisedly) and we were singing. Well, we were meant to be singing. And so I did what I’ve done quite often lately: I closed my eyes and listened to the singing. The song leaders with their microphones were clear and distinct. I could identify each of the several instruments accompanying the singers. But if you blocked out the ‘worship team’, all that was left around the building was a barely audible murmur. I opened my eyes and looked around. Most folk were either standing silently, not even making a pretence of singing, or were little engaged in the activity.

I turned to a friend next to me and commented, “No-one’s singing”. He looked at me as if I’d just observed that no-one was flying. Of course they’re not singing; we haven’t really sung here for years. Whatever was happening that morning, it was most decidedly not congregational singing. In many churches, genuine, heartfelt congregational singing has been in its death throes for some years now. So I feel motivated to write about it. Surely we should be concerned that we’ve allowed our congregational singing to come to this.

Now, I know I’m not talking about every church. And I may not be talking about your church. But I travel around a great deal. In fact, I’m in a different church on most Sundays, and it’s true of virtually everywhere I go. I can’t remember ever coming home to my wife after church on a Sunday and saying, “Now, honey, that church really knows how to sing”.
What’s it matter?

But more about that later. What’s the big deal about singing, anyway? Does it really matter if we sing well, poorly or not at all? Singing is yet another one of those topics about which Christians disagree—sometimes quite passionately. Focusing on the Old Testament, one writer concludes that “it is evident … that music played an important part in Hebrew culture”.1 His implication is clear: music was an important part of the life of God’s people before the coming of Jesus, and so it should also be important for us who live after our Lord’s first coming.

Another Christian leader, preferring to focus on the New Testament, concedes that there is a place for music in the life of the church but “it is in no way a major place”.2 He argues that singing was peripheral to the life of God’s people back in the early church, and therefore there is no basis for making it any more important in the life of the church today.

It is evident that the Old Testament gives a significant place to music. Three of its books are songs, or collections of songs (Psalms, Song of Solomon and Lamentations). In fact, one scholar claims that as much as one half to two-thirds of the Old Testament is poetry! Does this emphasis give us some clues about the place we ought to give to singing and music in church today?

But on the other hand, perhaps music and singing is like circumcision, temple attendance and Sabbath observance: it’s commanded in the Old Testament, but fulfilled by Jesus and the apostles in the New. They broadened and reinterpreted the definition of ‘worship’ to embrace a life of faith and obedience. Can we say that those who want to emphasize the importance of music for the church today are still stuck in an old covenant view of worship? Are all these things matters of Christian freedom? In Christ, you’re free to sing or not to sing, but what you are not free to do is bring music in from the margins.

So who’s right?

more at link. How is the singing at your church?


  1. I used to attend this conservative church where people were too self-conscious to properly worship God. After a couple of years, I finally found a church where the focus is on Jesus and Him alone. You can hear people singing in abandon, crying, and giving praise to the living God. We are told to worship God in spirit and in truth. It goes beyond mere human emotions. True praise can only come from a changed life, a new creature in Christ.

    I heard a pastor once said that one of the biggest mistakes committed by the modern church is failing to strike a balance between worshiping God in spirit and in truth. On one end, you have conservative churches intellectualizing the Bible at the expense of worshiping God in spirit.On the other end, you have pentecostal churches who confuse emotional worship with true worship. The church must know how to balance these two. We need to live our lives in reverence to the Word of God, while at the same time, being led by the Spirit.

    Remember that the greatest commandment is to worship God with all our heart (emotions, values, character), mind (both the conscious and the subconscious), and with all our strength (energy).

    1. "Properly worship"? What *is* proper worship? I do not raise my hands or dance or sing with abandon or cry loudly or move around during worship. But I believe I am worshiping the Lord in spirit and in truth even though another person may think I am being too conservative and not expressive enough.

      I agree with your overall thought, we do need to balance the expressive emotional and outward worship with the true submission to the Spirit for sanctification inwardly.

      But I am not for disorderly worship. Jesus isn't either. "But all things should be done decently and in order." 1 Cor 14:40. I am glad you found a place where you can express yourself in the way you want to express yourself. I have found mine, and in all, we are privileged to worship the Lord together in our own ways.


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