If you were to meet me out and about today, and were to start talking to me, chances are you'd pick up on my passion for children, orphans, tongue-tie prevention, breastfeeding, advocacy & support during childbirth for every mom, health, critical thinking, good literature (literacy), and an active imagination. I sure hope you'd notice that I deeply love Jesus and think He comes to bear on every single one of those issues; that I think they each matter because of Him. But we probably wouldn't discuss one of my other passions, because it's so out of the sphere of my daily life nowadays: good music. I mean "good music" like I mean "good literature;" art that is well-written according to well-established, time-tested standards. There are books I read and enjoy that I know aren't particularly well-written; I wouldn't call them "good literature." Similarly there are plenty of songs I'll belt out or turn on that aren't particularly "good."
That said, I do care a lot about good music; it was beaten into my head for 4 years as a vocal student at Furman University, and then I took my own turn beating it into my students' heads for two years as a middle & high school choral director after I graduated. My degree was in Music Education, with an emphasis on Vocal/Choral Methods (as opposed to orchestra or band). We spent a long time discussing what made music "good," especially as it pertained to singability. We were trained to conduct choirs of varying talent levels, and dabbled in orchestra conducting as well, and we were also trained in leading church music. When leading congregational singing, you are in many ways a choir director leading a very untrained choir. The goal isn't a great sound so much as enabling 100% heartfelt participation before a very real, very Holy, God. There are "rules" about melody, instrumentation, and pitch (what key a song is sung in), to allow the most number of people to comfortably & confidently sing along.
Congregational worship through music has been on my heart a lot for a long time. In high school I started helping to organize the music portion of youth group services-- sometimes playing guitar or singing, but mostly intentionally picking the songs, arranging them to be most playable/singable, and compiling them into chorus books. I sang in the church choir high school-college, and in college choirs and ensembles throughout my 4 years at Furman. Also at that time I became very involved in my church's adult worship service (I was an intern for 2 summers), helping to select hymns, choruses, old and new songs, and trying to order the service in a way that effectively led the congregation through worship (realizing Who God is), self-examination, grief, confession, exaltation at our forgiveness, joy, and going forth with a mission. We also usually tried to reinforce the theme of the sermon. We often selected passages of Scripture to read responsively, or aloud, and tried to keep the rhythms of prayer and meditation. In college I also served on the RUF music team, again learning how to craft a service that draws a person's own story into the greater Gospel Story-- reminding them of God's holiness, their own sinfulness, His great Love, Christ's perfect sacrifice & victory, their new life in the Spirit, God's faithful nearness now through joy and sorrow, and our hope of Heaven. (Gotta love those Presbyterians and their Orders of Service.) I interned for one year in our school chapel too, where, guess what-- ordering the service was again a prime responsibility.
Through all of this I became enamored with the Indelible Grace movement; a movement to take forgotten hymn lyrics and put them to new music for congregational singing today. Some of the hymns they re-did also were hymns with tunes that were difficult to sing or somehow mismatched (for example, I far prefer their amazed, upbeat "O Love that Will Not Let Me Go" to the traditional somber tune). I grew up in a church where we sang many hymns; good, theologically solid hymns; also Scripture songs and praise songs ("Lord I Lift Your Name on High," anybody?). We sang them joyfully & well. To this day the Trinity Hymnal remains my favorite. :) I remember discussing the merits of non-hymns or hymns sung in new ways with older congregants. A bit ironic to be the old fogey now... But I'm getting ahead of myself.
My church in KY had excellent music. Our main worship leaders for the bulk of our years worshipping at Immanuel --first Nathan F.& later Ben B.-- were extremely gifted, both musically and spiritually. Worship was joyful and genuine without being flippant. The leaders did a great job selecting songs that were both singable and helpful; deep and relatable. Our services had a rhythm. Music was varied; old Gospel-style hymns, old hymns with new tunes, new hymns with good tunes, some "praise choruses," but always well-done. Occasionally a guest leader who would go off on solos that left the congregation a bit confused, or would attempt to get the congregation to repeat phrases several times too many, but these were not the norm and always reminded me just how blessed we were in our "regular" leaders! (Really good blog post here on good leaders.)
All right, all right... now that I've given a [cough, long-winded, cough] explanation for why I care... I'm getting to the point. As we have visited churches over the past few years-- in SC or wherever we travel-- I've been so discouraged at the music most churches are singing. Whatever has happened to good hymns (stories)? Whatever has happened to keys the congregation can sing along with? Whatever has happened to embracing the hope of Heaven (which includes the reality of death)? Whatever has happened to songs giving people space to mourn, confess sin, and grieve? Whatever has happened to songs about the character of God? And, my BIGGEST question: Whatever has happened to songs with a cohesive theme or general point?
I have three main thoughts on this topic... they all relate to this one truth: The average human thrives on familiarity and controlled change: in two words, on rhythm and narrative.
1. We crave comfortability: The average congregant is not a virtuoso nor a rock-star.
- If a song is in too high a key, most of the congregation will drop an octave to try and sing along... this means they're going to be rumbling along, which makes it both hard to hear them, and hard for them to actually sing. This article has great tips for pitching a song. (Transposing is much easier for a guitar and chord-style piano than for a full orchestra, I know). If you pick up a hymnal it's easy to see that most of the notes of the melody stay "inside the staff"-- they stay in the average range of the average Joe.
- The melody itself (the "tune") is a big deal: most people do not know how to hear or sing harmony. They want to get a clear picture of "the tune." In evaluating whether a song's melody is strong or not, ask "could I hum this tune and people recognize the song?" Many modern choruses aren't so much a tune as a collection of the same four note pattern sung over and over again; and many sound alike. However, you know "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" the second the pianist starts banging out the first chords.
- Also make sure this melody is CLEAR. I've heard way too many songs sung by praise teams where it was almost impossible to tell what the main tune was-- the guitar was playing chords, the violin was doing some cool lyrical lines, three vocalists were singing but none more loudly or prominently than the others. By all means have instruments doubling the melody, and/or have a vocalist only singing the melody for the first several verses, and even after parts (harmonies) are added, make sure that melody is the loudest. I would also not recommend having any harmony above the melody until the congregation is very familiar with the song, and even then would make sure it was soft & understated!
- Sing familiar songs the same way. If you must change a tune or words --even slightly-- to a hymn or song most people know, you absolutely must warn the congregation of the change! There's nothing more discouraging to an enthusiastic, engaged worshipper, than singing the song "wrong."
2. We crave narrative: tell us a story to draw our story into the Great Story.
- This applies to both the order of service and individual songs. I plan to write another post entirely on this topic, as it's so far-reaching. Basically, a good hymn tells a story; usually the same one most psalms tell: someone is struggling (often especially in light of Who God is), they remember or encounter God's grace, it transforms them, and then they go forth in praise to tell others who are struggling, looking forward to Heaven where we won't struggle ever again but will see God as He Is. In shorthand, we call this The Gospel.
- The order of service tells this story, too, usually following the pattern: Call to Worship, Confession, Praise, God's Word Preached, Response, Benediction/Sending. Do you see the rhythm? We're going about our business of life as we walk into church, and then.... we remember. We remember who God is, we take a good look at who we are, and we are undone. However that undoing leads us to confession, which reminds us that we are forgiven! And that leads us to joy, to praise, and into a frame of mind where we now can hear God's Word and take it to heart. After the message has been preached, we need a reminder of His empowering so that we can go forth and live in light of everything we've just remembered... until next week, when we come in again, having forgotten so much.
(If this sounds to you like the story of your own conversion, it should! When we were saved we followed that same path of realizing, despairing, calling out, meeting God, rejoicing, hearing, being empowered, and joyfully obeying. WE NEED TO SING THE GOSPEL!)
3. We crave variety: remind us of all the facets of Truth lest we get sick of one part of it.
- Sometimes, we are really joyful. We are walking in victory perhaps, seeing God answer prayer, or maybe have just been forgiven in a huge way. We love singing songs about the joy we have in Christ. However, other times, our grandfather just died, our child is very ill, we just miscarried (again), our sibling has rejected Christ, our neighbor is destroying himself, our marriage is failing, our sin seems hopelessly entangling, and our body is broken. Those times we want to sing about the Man of Sorrows, the Friend of Sinners, and about Heaven, where all the sadness will end. Sometimes we are self-focused and we need to remember that others are around us, and sing songs of fellowship and encouragement ("Brethren, we have met to worship," "Soldiers of Christ in Truth Arrayed" or "O Church, Arise" come to mind). Other times we are looking everywhere but at our own hearts and need to sing songs of confession and entreaty. And many times, we have forgotten who God is and we need to sing about Him.
- This applies to styles of singing, too. Let us sing some hymns in their familiar glory-- no syncopation or extra chorus. Let us also sing some refreshed hymns, with a stirring chorus or more singable tune. Let us sing some simple choruses so we can just latch onto a simple phrase when we are too tired or sad to do anything else. Let us sing some fast, some slow, some upbeat, some mournful. But it's frustrating to only ever sing one style of song. (Good blog post on this topic.) (I promise, it's possible to sing a hymn without adding a chorus Passion-style. Really.)
- We want to be left with Truth stuck in our head. What will we leave singing? Is it something meaty enough to sustain us through whatever comes our way? Or is it too vague and emotional? Are we singing about God or just about how we feel about Him? We need the Gospel. In every song.
Lastly, this should go without saying, but... let us always be reverent... and let's avoid cheesy metaphors that detract from the serious joy of our worship. When we sing, we are praying to a God who is described as "a consuming fire." It's only because of Jesus our High Priest that we can enter into His presence without the fear that we will be like Nadab & Abihu, or Uzzah, all of whom God struck down with Holy Fire. Somehow "sloppy wet kiss," and "living on the inside, roaring like a lion," don't do Him justice. ...And if my "heart turns violently inside of my chest" then I'm calling a paramedic, because that sounds like a serious health problem.