September 19, 2017

Congregational Singing Is Cool Again

Chuck Phelps

Congregational singing has suddenly become cool (again). Just listen to Mark Dever, who testifies that, “The effect (of congregational music) on my own soul is electrifying.” Dr. Dever counsels pastors to reduce the praise band and the organ “by 80%” so that the voices of the congregation may be heard. After all, says, Dever, “We’re not required to play any instruments. We’re not required to be quiet and listen to somebody sing a solo. The only thing the New Testament requires us to do is to sing together.”

Dr. Dever is not the only one emphasizing the importance of congregational singing. In September 2008, John Piper posted this on his Desiring God blog: “Thirteen years ago we asked: What should be the defining sound of corporate worship at Bethlehem, besides the voice of biblical preaching? We meant: Should it be pipe organ, piano, guitar, drums, choir, worship team, orchestra, etc. The answer we gave was, ‘The people of Bethlehem singing.’”

I’m very much in favor of congregational singing. Having literally grown up in church, I have been blessed to participate in congregational music all my life. Sometimes the churches I attended had a piano and organ accompanying the congregation; sometimes they just had a piano. In some, the marimba could be heard in the Sunday evening service, and in some a small orchestra played as the congregation sang. Thankfully, I’ve never been part of a church where the congregational music was drowned out and consequently discouraged by a “praise band” or by five guys with mics, singing loudly. While I’ve visited such churches, I’ve never endured the cacophonous sounds of the so-called “worship team” week in and week out. The truth is, I’ve not recently discovered the joy of congregational singing, because I have always been involved in congregational singing. My whole life has been lived in fulfillment of the New Testament commands found in Ephesians 5:18–19 and Colossians 3:16. While I’m thankful that congregational music has become cool again, I would encourage church leaders to exercise discernment and caution in order to receive the counsel of Mark Dever and John Piper with wisdom. Let me explain.

When pendulums swing they tend to knock over the good with the bad. Currently, it is vogue to advocate for the removal of “special music” (i.e., solos, instrumental numbers, choir numbers, and ensembles). After all, Mark Dever says, “Congregational singing is the only thing we’re required to do in the New Testament, with music.” That’s true. Yet even Mark Dever acknowledges that in his church congregational singing is done “with very little accompaniment.” He does not say, “with no accompaniment.” Therefore, Pastor Dever admits that his church routinely fulfills the essential biblical mandate to edify through congregational singing while going beyond the limited instruction of the New Testament by adding musical accompaniment.

As one compares the instructions and accoutrements of worship in the New Testament to those of the Old Testament, it becomes readily apparent that the revelation of the New Testament is quite limited, because New Testament believers worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), not in temples with traditions. Unlike those who worshiped in the Old Testament, those who worship in the New Testament have no instructions regarding the dimensions of the building in which they gather for worship or the texture of the clothes they wear when worshipping. Yet New Testament believers still find it beneficial to gather in buildings and to wear appropriate clothing. Shouldn’t we also conclude that those who sing in the Old Testament benefitted by musical accompaniment, orchestras, and choirs (II Chronicles 5), and that those who sing in the New Testament can benefit from these as well?

In Ephesians 5:19 we are told to be, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” “Speaking to yourselves” is a reciprocal pronoun. The verse is literally commanding that we be “speaking among ourselves.” This verse makes congregational singing a priority, but it doesn’t diminish the benefit of solos, ensembles, or choir numbers when the congregation gathers. The truth is, when some sing while others listen, we are fulfilling the mandate of Ephesians 5:19 by “speaking among ourselves.” “Speaking to ourselves” doesn’t mean that we all must sing at once in order to fulfill the intent of the apostle’s instruction.

In I Corinthians 14:26–33, we learn that God wants His people to gather in an orderly fashion, speaking one by one (not all at once) for instruction to be received. Most often, solos, duets, ensembles, and choir numbers are musical testimonies and prayers offered by the few for the edification of many. Just as one leads in prayer while all benefit, one can lead in singing while all are instructed. Just as the Levitical singers, choir members, and instrumentalists instructed the Old Testament congregation, musically trained New Testament priests ought to inspire and instruct the assembly of the saints to worship our Great God (II Chronicles 5:11–14). Those who understand the medium of music will agree that a well-prepared special number is a very instructive tool for congregational worship.

We need to be careful when pendulums swing. I’m glad that twenty-first-century Christians are rediscovering the blessing of congregational singing. I’m thankful that wise spiritual leaders are pushing praise bands off the platforms, telling organists to tone it down, and encouraging congregations to do what God commands — to sing. I rejoice that Mark Dever, John Piper, and the Gettys are making congregational singing cool again. But watch out for those who fail to understand that when pendulums swing, things like choirs, ensembles, quartets, and solos can get broken if we neglect to understand that special numbers are simply an element of congregational singing and should therefore be viewed as an integral part of the worship service.


Dr. Charles Phelps is the pastor of Colonial Hills Baptist Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Comments

  1. Gary Emory says:

    Well spoken. Overreaction is a dividing factor to the glory of balanced congregational praise to God.
    Gary Emory

  2. Par for the course. It seems to be hardwired into our older leaders to attack people who aren’t like them (e.g. Dever). I’m disappointed that Phelps couldn’t resist the urge to issue backhanded compliments. He could have made his point without them. I think it makes him sound pitiful and cheap.

    • Tyler, I posted your comment to air your reaction, but I wonder if you aren’t being too defensive of those Chuck mentions in his post? You aren’t really dealing with any substance, you are simply declaring a fairly emotional response. The point of the article is that we should not consider the efforts of choirs, soloists, ensembles and instrumentalists as something separate from congregational music. There are some who might say, “Get rid of it all,” following the present trends (fad?). Wouldn’t it be better to think things through a bit? That’s what Chuck is saying, as I read him.

      Perhaps you might address what you disagree with in his point rather than simply offer a broad-brush negative response.

      Your friend,
      Don Johnson

      • Tyler, thanks for coming back. Since the point Chuck is making is a response to trends observed among evangelicals (Dever, Piper), it escapes me how one can avoid mentioning them.

        Here’s a suggestion. Write your own article making the same point without the reference to evangelicals or evangelical trends. I’ll be glad to post a link here.

        Don


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