A good question: Do we sing too much in church?
One question four answers
‘Do we ask enough questions about why we sing?’
When we couldn’t sing because of the lockdown rules, many people said it was one of the key things they missed. Now we can sing, albeit mainly in masks, the joy it can bring to our worshipping life is perhaps all the more appreciated, so my initial answer to the question was, ‘Of course not!’ As someone who has led many a discussion on the power of music and singing in worship many people would expect me to say that. After all, as the composer John Tavener said, sacred music has the power to ‘to lead us to the threshold of prayer or to a true encounter with the living God’.
However, after my initial determined response, I did wonder if perhaps we don’t ask enough questions about why we sing, how much we sing, and what we sing.
I can give lots of answers about why we sing in terms of its connecting us with others, its physical benefits and the profound truths about God which notes put together can open us up to, but I wonder if sometimes we sing because we are afraid of silence. Silence gives us the space to listen for God and reflect on what God might be about; sometimes singing can make it difficult to do that or can ensure that we only think about God in particular ways. So perhaps sometimes we do sing too much in church…
The Revd Anne Sardeson is Minister of Maldon, Burnham-on-Crouch and Southminster United Reformed churches and author of the forthcoming book, Fifty Hymns for Fifty Years
‘The things used to make worship must also be found in the rest of the week’
The question of whether we sing too much in church depends on the more important question of whether we are making worship and church in ways and forms that people can find themselves at home with or not.
The way we express faith in church is always culturally robed. By that I mean we use particular language, rituals, art, music, spaces to gather in, and so forth. At its best there is an at-homeness that people experience as they connect with these elements, especially when they are familiar. It is helpful if the things used to make worship and church are also found in their life the rest of the week, in everyday life. That way people experience both the real world brought into church and recognise what they have encountered in church in the rest of life. It avoids a split where the world of church and the rest of life seem to exist in different universes.
When forms of worship and church do not relate to someone’s world or culture, faith and Christ tend to be experienced as foreign. This has been the tragic result of Western mission where outside forms and ways of doing church have been imposed on people in other cultures. I have just read a book called Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, which is the story of how Native American followers of Jesus have rediscovered ways of doing church and worship that use music and rituals from their native cultures to express their faith. They meet in the sweat lodge, burn sage grass in prayer, use Great Spirit as the name for God and use tribal drums in the worship. This is a homecoming for many who had been made to turn away from their culture and had previously used evangelical American worship music and preaching that their own people found alien…
Jonny Baker is Director of Mission Education for the Church Mission Society
‘Hymns give the opportunity to make a direct vocal response’
I have to confess that this question takes me somewhat by surprise and, speaking from my own experience, I would have to answer, ‘Of course not!’ Though I suppose what I am really saying is that: No, there is not too much singing in church as I experience it. However, there might be some acts of worship in which there would be too much singing for me, but not for those who like to sing a lot of worship songs.
I think that hymns are a very necessary part of worship: not only because they give the congregation the chance to stand up, but because they also give the opportunity for the congregation to make a direct vocal response to the readings and prayers they have heard. I have always been used to a call to worship and prayer followed by a hymn, or a call to worship and a hymn, followed by a prayer. Then there would normally be Scripture readings (two or three), interspersed with prayers and hymns. The way I plan services, this would normally include four hymns. In some churches, of course, there might sometimes be an anthem sung by the choir…
Alan Gaunt is a hymnwriter and a retired United Reformed Church minister
‘Something is lost in silence, but I prefer it’
Quaker liturgy is based on silence; the silence may be broken, but usually by the spoken word – a prayer, reflection or reading. I’ve known only a couple of occasions in my 40 years as a Quaker when ‘ministry’ (as we call these contributions) has been musical.
But I grew up in a Church of Scotland household where music was important, and the words and tunes of many hymns have been with me all my life. ‘We plough the fields and scatter’; ‘Immortal, invisible’; and – mainly for its wonderful tune – the great ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’.
When I first encountered Quakers, I missed communal singing. Church and Scout campfires were the two places I would sing together with others, and both are now lost to me, except on the odd churchgoing occasion. When I started taking my son to football matches I encountered it again; and remembered that there is something very special about singing together, with minimal musical supervision….
Alastair Cameron is Clerk of South East Scotland Area Quaker Meeting, and lives in Edinburgh
This is an extract from an article published in the February 2022 edition of Reform