The role of congregational singing

Flickr photo by by Scott Schram
Flickr photo by by Scott Schram

There's power in song. Singing has been exercised throughout human history to express joy and sadness, to remember cultural history and to adore a deity. Voices, whether solo or corporate, singing in melody garner the attention and influence the whole man, awakening and enlivening even the soul.  Songs have the ability to encourage the downtrodden, strengthen the weak and motivate people to action for a consecrated cause. Singing is a powerful exercise.

Singing has a rich history among God’s people and an anticipated future. At the dawn of creation the, “morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). After the nation of Israel was delivered in the Exodus, they sang a song of thanksgiving, declaring God, “has triumphed gloriously,” (Exodus 15:1, 21). Song resounded as Israel returned victoriously from battle when the, “women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing,” (1 Samuel 18:6). The songbook of the Bible, the psalter, repeatedly challenges men and women to sing for joy, to sing praises to God’s name, to sing making a melody to the Lord, and to sing a new song.  

In the New Testament, churches flourished by “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Ephesians 5:19) and “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). According to author G.W. Icenogle, “Singing [was] simultaneously an act of remembering the past, celebrating the present and anticipating the future.” At the end of the present age the new song from heaven and earth resounds to the glory of God (Revelation 5:9, 14:3). 

There remain very few extant records of the role and conceptualization of congregational singing in New Testament times. In the first two centuries of Christianity, excluding the limited biblical record, there is sparse historical evidence to be found concerning the conceptualization of congregational singing. The 17th century Cardinal Bona stated the fact that, “from the very beginnings of the church, psalms and hymns were sung in the assembly of the faithful.” 

Sadly, by the middle of the fourth century the congregation in corporate worship had lost its voice. At the council of Laodicea it was decreed, “No others shall sing in the church, save only the canonical singers, who go up into the ambo and sing from a book.” The Second Council of Tours (567) strengthened the summation of the Synod of Laodicea stating, “that the laity, whether in vigils or at Masses, should not presume to stand with the clergy near the altar whereon the Sacred Mysteries are celebrated, and that the chancel should be reserved to the choirs of singing clerics.”

Ambrose (ca. 339-397), Bishop of Milan and father of Western hymnody, was one of the few exceptions to the compliance of the councils’ mandate of the prohibition of congregational singing. There is substantial scholarly evidence that Ambrose wrote at least fourteen hymns that he intended to be sung corporately. These hymns have survived the centuries to become a permanent repertoire for the church, establishing, according to Stapert, “structural features that remain the norm for congregational song to this day” (p. 100). Yet, Ambrose’s view of congregational participation in song was short-lived and the congregational hymnbook was closed and locked shut by the church, prohibiting participation of the laity in congregational singing.

The hymnbook of the church was unshackled and thrown wide open in the Reformation. The German Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), as pastoral musician, composed over 30 chorals focusing careful attention on the form and range of the music; this allowed for maximum congregational involvement. As theologian, Luther recognized the theological benefits of a singing congregation. R.A. Leaver, commenting on Luther’s view of congregational singing, stated, “for [Luther] voices and instruments sounding together are a theological opportunity.”

Although the Reformers John Calvin (1509-1564) and Martin Luther disagreed on the style of music to be utilized in corporate worship gatherings, they both understood the importance of congregational singing to promote theological understanding among the faithful. F.W. Baue concluded, “the Reformation in French-speaking lands, as in the German, was spread and strengthened by the singing of the faithful.” Convinced that psalm singing was one of the four major components of a corporate worship service, Calvin encouraged Theodore Beza (1519–1605) to compile the psalms in meter to be used in congregational singing; the resulting book is known as the Genevan Psalter. It appears from the historical record that Luther and Calvin utilized congregational singing to teach the faithful, but biblically illiterate, the word of God; thus promoting sound theology within the congregations each oversaw.

From the Reformation to 21st century America it is apparent that a radical shift has taken place in the understanding of the role of congregational singing. It seems the role of congregational singing to promote sound theological understanding within a congregation has been replaced by the elevation of musical style over theological content. A casual observer of congregational singing in 21st century American churches could concluded that songs for corporate worship were selected primarily with the intent of providing the congregant with an emotional experience of praise and worship, rather than promoting a foundation for solid theological content in song.

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Martin Elfert

Thanks for this history, Mark. Could you say a little bit more about your last paragraph? I don’t think that I have experienced the problem you describe. The hymnody I hear on a given Sunday is generally theologically solid and in continuity with the lessons we have heard. An example or two might help me understand where and what we might call “emotive above all else” hymns are being sung.

Ernesto Tinajero

Thank you for your post. How the human voice and sound generate towards to the divine does, indeed, draws us toward God. I also share some of your same apprehension about the current American popular hymn book, or as a former pastor call it, “Jesus is my boyfriend’ songs that merge pop music with a shallow upbeat theology.

Question, why do you, Mark, think we have retreated to “… songs for corporate worship were selected primarily with the intent of providing the congregant with an emotional experience of praise and worship…” rather music than moves us into the wonder of the incarnate God? I think you are right, I am trying to understand Contemporary Christian music.

Lace Williams-Tinajero

Thanks, Mark, for your insightful piece. It brought to mind something I once heard concerning hymnals, that they are ecumenical documents of the highest degree, meaning, regardless of one’s church affiliation, hymns have a way of bringing unity.

John VanDerWalker

Mark, outstanding treatise on the history and purpose of congregational singing. Thanks!

Mark Hudson

The music leader and I have analyzed over 200 songs being sung in about 15 churches across the U.S. These churches post their song sets online for all to see. After reading over 200 contemporary songs, many of them lack any theological depth. Often, church music leaders choose a song based on the music (it is cool to play with lots of interesting musical parts), but the text lacks any theological depth. A steady diet of songs like that is similar to only eating dessert and forgetting the other element for a healthy diet.


“This banjo surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
― Pete Seeger

For me, congregational singing affirms our unity in Christ in spite of our diversity in other matters. It also reminds me that I am part of something bigger than myself; that I am in church to learn how to be an instrument of God’s love and to receive God’s love through my community of faith.

“And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”
― Pete Seeger

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