Monday, December 08, 2008

A Few Notes on Music in Churches of Christ

I've been thinking lately about the quality of singing in Churches of Christ. I don't have anything like statistical proof or scientific research to back up any of this. What I do have are my observations. What they tell me is that there are several things that sometimes work against vibrant musical worship in today's congregations. Here's a short list:

1. Poor Acoustics

Something I see (and hear) over and over again are newer, plush church facilities designed to be cost-effective and comfortable, but not to be "sung in." Carpeted floors, padded seats, noisy heating/air-conditioning units, and porous ceiling tiles conspire to create a worship space that sucks up sound. Some church leaders, aware of these kinds of problems with their buildings, have made changes to worship areas so that the setting will be more conducive to genuine worship. Good for them.

2. Praise Teams

I have no theological or aesthetic objection to praise teams. But I do think that they can be a barrier to the participation of the whole assembly. In some of my experience, it seemed to me that the praise team was a little too loud. The distinctive, amplified voice of the team was saying, "Listen to the performance" rather than "Sing along with us." Sometimes this feel is compounded by the on-stage music minister/worship leader who doesn't acknowledge the assembly, encouraging them to sing, but who constantly looks to and directs only the team. These sights and sounds combine to communicate: "We're going to sing for you. Just sit and listen." When it comes to good congregational song, I think that praise teams can be most effective when their amplification is subtle, their presence is inconspicuous, and when the worship leader looks to and leads the entire congregation.

3. Performance Music

That Christian recording artists sound great singing their songs on the radio is no reason to try to get a congregation to sing the same songs. Sometimes the differences make a huge difference. For example, sometimes music performed by Christian entertainers requires a vocal range that most people just don't have. Sometimes a song is just too complex for a group of non-specialists. Too, sometimes the rhythm and feel of performance music is generated by instruments, a major problem in most Churches of Christ. I realize that many of the traditional songs sung in congregations include moving parts, alto leads, etc. But those songs were introduced and learned at a time when a good number of Christians attended annual singing schools and when the musical training of a congregation was much more of a priority than it is today.

4. Unfamiliar Songs

Every well-known song was once brand new. Some of today's newer songs can be worthy additions to the church's repertoire. But new songs should not be sprung on the church in the context of Sunday-morning worship. Small groups, Bible classes, and Sunday-evening worship times can be the setting in which new songs can occasionally be tried out and learned.

5. Lowered Expectations

It seems like singing in worship is no longer understood to be a religious responsibility. Does anyone under twenty years old sing in worship anymore? In some churches, it seems like the musical part of worship is a time to look around, talk to the person next to you, watch the music minister and praise team, etc., but not sing. Not so long ago, there was a time in Churches of Christ when not singing was about as unacceptable as "forsaking the assembly" (that is, not going to church). After all, the same New Testament that said "not forsaking the assembling our ourselves together . . ." also said "speaking to yourselves in songs, hymns, and spiritual songs." Case closed. Singing was considered an act of worship that God required. So you either had strep throat, bronchitis, or laryngitis plus a doctor's note, or you sang. Looking back on that time in my life, I happily realize that sometimes the theology of our mostly-borrowed songs was actually more-balanced than the theology of our pulpits. Consequently, we sometimes sang our way into a truer way of seeing. But what if we hadn't sung?

These are some of my observations. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

This was really good, bro! Thanks for the BD card.

Anonymous said...

def stuff to consider, also people's hearts.
our sunday night singing often sounds better than sunday morning?

why? we had morning warmup-spiritual and physical. less people but they want to be there, less of a habit...who knows

i remember my first preaching for a group of 50-60 old people (my grandparents were the youth group), who would sit spread out in a 500 seat capacity auditorium.

a friend came to hear my speak, from either a methodist/presbyterian background and was IMPRESSED!!

there's an argument for a capella,

Royce Ogle said...

I love the singing at WFR and have not liked it nearly as well several other places I have been.

I don't remember it being done for us though, is it?

The melody in the heart matters most in my view.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks for your comments.

I agree that, no matter what our singing actually sounds like, the engagement of the heart is first and foremost.

If heart-felt singing that happens to be off-beat and off-key is the best a group can do, then God will accept it.

I'm simply saying that churches should do what they can to maximize the quality of their singing. The secondary audience is one another. And, just like some preaching is better than other preaching, some singing is better than other singing. We should make it the best it can be.

Odgie said...

Good points Frank, and good comments from everyone else. Song-leading is a tough job and although I have done it when nobody else would, I have never really wanted to do it and I have never been first-picked. I don't want to be mean but sometimes a song leader can kill the singing. I am referring to the overly enthusiastic guys who like to stomp their feet for no apparent reason, yell out "Sing!" on an impromptu basis for no reason, and basically make certain that they are heard above all else. The other thing is when they make the "holy face." I hate to say it, but that face always makes me want to offer them some Immodium.

And while it is true that one's heart is the most important thing in singing, far too many folks use this as a cop-out. This is most evident in congregations with low attendance where people scatter all over the auditorium with no regard for how that kills the singing.

Anonymous said...

Song leaders who have at least a little musical knowledge helps, too (if available). The congregation needs to be encouraged to sing. Sing out, sing from the heart, sing like you really mean it with joy and love and confession and as prayer. We're singing to God. Lyrics have very powerful meaning. It needs to be just as much part of the lesson as the sermon. I find it very interesting and thought provoking to learn some history of the song writer, as well. Most people like music, even if they're not musically inclined. It's therapeutic in every way.

Good post. Thanks!