Good Congregational Singing

By Robert F. Turner

This writer has only memories of singing in a men’s choral group, with a quartet, teaching “Singing Schools” or leading singing for gospel meetings. The years have taken their toll, so my scratchy voice barely makes it through a weak bass as we worship. But experience has taught me some things about worshiping God in song, and my hearing (poor as it is) tells me many churches are not attaining their potential in good congregational singing. It may be they do not care enough to make the effort necessary for good singing. But “singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” is within the reach of every saint, and we should do all possible to encourage that response.

First, we should define our use of “good” for there are wide differences here. We mean “good” within the scriptural purpose of worship: “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” and “making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). We do not mean “good entertainment” to please ourselves or impress our visitors. We do not expect classic choral excellence, or a talent display. It seems, however, that coming together before God demands that we do our best within our worship purpose. We should not be satisfied with anything less than our best.

Good congregational singing is the result of worshiping together, a true blending of happy hearts that are one emotionally. True, each of us must sing his own praise to God, and to this end he must understand the message of the song, and genuinely repeat it in his heart. But congregational singing takes the individual’s worship further, making it a mutual praise of God, and uniting brethren as little else can. Done properly, our voices are joined in a general caress. We feel together, exhibiting a fellowship of love of God and for one another. The basis for mutual love is another subject, but we can make suggestions for its expression. We believe whatever is necessary for such oneness should be encouraged and pursued.

Good congregational singing can only follow the proper selection of songs. They should be scriptural: suited to the mood of exhortation, the Lord’s supper, prayer, invitation, etc. They should be neither choral numbers, requiring an expertise we do not have; nor foot stomping, country-western type songs that substitute sensual enthusiasm for genuine worshipful emotions. An inexperienced song leader may select some fancy song he “likes,” but which is completely unsuited to the abilities of the group he is leading. It may require an alto or bass lead when there are few who can carry these parts. Too, how can hop, skip, jump, repeat, and the like help us “sing together”? This is more than a matter of musical “taste.” When either the aesthetic or rhythmic appetites of man dictate and motivate our singing, it ceases to be worship.

To sing together we must sing the same tune in a key all can reach. That means a song leader must know the song, and how to correctly pitch it. If he does not know music he should feel responsibility enough to get with some one who does, and allow him to help him correctly lead the songs selected. The basics of music necessary for congregational singing are not difficult for most who really try, and are willing to practice. We are not saying one must know the technicalities of music to worship acceptably. But since the majority of members sing from memory it is extremely important they learn the songs correctly from the first. Those leaders and singers who want to do their best will welcome positive correction.

Singing together involves time and rhythm, a feeling for the “beat” of the song. Most people can pat their foot with some degree of regularity, which means they have inborn timing, but it may need practice and adjusting to the rhythm of various songs. Four-four time (look for the “signature” at the beginning of the musical notes) has a marching rhythm: Left, right, left, right; or strong, weak, strong, weak. We can best stay together if the leader indicates the correct, positive rhythm with hand and voice, and all singers feel this inner pulsation as they sing. Three-four time is a “waltz” rhythm: strong, weak, weak; strong, weak, weak. Practice at home, by just saying “strong, weak, weak,” over and over, with emphasis on “strong.” All songs have their distinctive rhythms, and it is well within the capability of most congregations to sing better by observing them.

Finally, beyond the mechanics of music, yet very necessary for good congregational singing, is the attention that should be given to the words and mood of the song selected. “Praise Him, Praise Him, Jesus our blessed redeemer” is a joyous song. The music is like the ringing of bells: they are pealing as for a wedding, not tolling as for a funeral. Tune your heart to the mood and meaning of the words, and you will find the music matches that attitude. Done in a spirited way we truly sing praises unto God; but dragged along, it becomes monotonous and more like a dirge than praise. “Peace, Perfect Peace” with its slower, steady and even progression, is written to compliment its words, and produce a mood of peace. It “whispers peace within,” is “calm” and “restful,” in keeping with its words.

Worship should come from the heart, and we do not wish to encourage some mechanical process for stirring emotions. We are saying that if songs are selected that fit the phase of worship at hand, and used properly, they will express our deepest emotions and improve our service to God. We are well aware we cannot “teach singing” via this article, and that is not our purpose. Instead, we want to encourage song leaders to take their job seriously and responsibly; and we hope brethren in the pews will make a greater effort to improve their singing.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 12, pp. 359-360
June 21, 1990