The Future of Congregational Song

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Over the next couple of years Hymnary.org will be undergoing a new strategic planning process, and to prepare we have been thinking about the future of congregational song. What are the long-term trends? Where will we be in ten years? As one way of approaching these questions, we looked at trends in hymnal publishing. Hymnary.org indexes nearly 6,000 hymnals that have been published in the United States and Canada. It’s not a complete index—we estimate it may have only a quarter to a third of the hymnals actually published—but it’s a decent proxy for the actual number of hymnals published.

Hymnary.org has seventeen hymnals that were published in the 1780s and fifty-eight that were published in the 1790s. The number per decade increases to the 1910s, peaking at nearly six hundred. The number then starts a long decline, temporarily reversing after WWII and after the 1980s outbreak of new song (as shown in the chart below). But the trend generally continues downward, and the number of new hymnals indexed at Hymnary.org from the 2010s may be the smallest since the late 1700s. We wondered whether perhaps the number of hymnals indexed at Hymnary.org was not indicative of the number of hymnals published, so we performed a search at FirstSearch of the number of books published containing the word “hymnal” or “psalter” in the title by decade. That graph shows a similar shape, suggesting that the numbers are representative. It is therefore possible that the number of hymnals actually published in the U.S. and Canada this decade may be the smallest since the 1790s; at any rate, it is clear that the number being published has been declining for the last century.

Of course, other kinds of publishing are contracting, with many magazines and newspapers folding, book publishing hard hit, music recordings declining, and the like. New media such as the web could be a factor. However, they can’t account for a decline starting in the 1920s. It may be that the cost of publishing a new hymnal has risen high enough that the number of different hymnals is declining while the total number of copies printed is not. New copyright licensing requirements add to the difficulty of publishing a hymnal. It also appears that the number of hymnals published for uses other than worship services, such as for clubs or societies or schools, has declined greatly. In fact, it seems that there is much less communal singing outside of places of worship. Still, the decline in the number of hymnals being published is dramatic.

Congregational singing is ancient—as ancient as the Psalms, at least—and no doubt it will continue into the future. But even as congregational song may wax and wane, experiencing fads and fashions, the means or technology of congregational song also changes. An obvious question is the extent to which such a change is occurring now—a change from printed hymnals to projection, from an approved collection of songs to a top-100 chart on the web, from congregational singing to performance by leaders. And to what extent are these changes beneficial or harmful to worship?

Theology of congregational song

Augustine generally approved of the use of singing in the church, though his opinion was not unmixed. He believed that the beauty of music could overpower reason and lead to error. Nevertheless, Augustine concluded that singing in the church is so moving that the benefits outweigh the risks when used appropriately:

However, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of thy Church at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now I am moved, not by the singing but by what is sung (when they are sung with a clear and skillfully modulated voice), I then come to acknowledge the great utility of this custom . . . by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional mood. Yet when it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the singing. 1

For Augustine, then, music must be in service of the text, enhancing what is sung and promoting a devotional mood. When the music is more in focus than the words being sung, it is harmful rather than helpful.

Calvin presses the point a bit further:

And certainly if singing is tempered to a gravity befitting the presence of God and angels, it both gives dignity and grace to sacred actions, and has a very powerful tendency to stir up the mind to true zeal and ardour in prayer. We must, however, carefully beware, lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words . . . If this moderation is used there cannot be a doubt that the practice is most sacred and salutary. On the other hand, songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming the majesty of the Church, and cannot but be most displeasing to God. 2

For Calvin, congregational singing adds grace and dignity to sacred actions and stirs up ardor. Yet he also warns of the risk that the music itself can distract from the prayer. In addition, Calvin’s strict focus on the word and his particular interpretation of the principle Sola Scriptura led him to advocate unison singing of Psalms and a few other scripture passages only, without adornment that may distract.

Luther was a musician, author, composer, and lover of music. He believed that

The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them. . . . In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits. . . . Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence we have so many songs and psalms. 3

For both Luther and Calvin, “stress on congregational participation in worship became a lynchpin of the Reformation.” 4 Yet while Calvin advocated unadorned unison singing of Psalms, Luther advocated the use of hymns as well as Psalms, with harmony and instrumental accompaniment. 5

John Wesley also promoted congregational singing as an expression of corporate prayer. He included a short list of seven “directions for singing” in his collection of hymns for Methodists, Select Hymns: with Tunes Annext (1761). 6 In it, congregants are encouraged to “join with the congregation,” “sing lustily and with good courage,” and “attend strictly to the sense of what you sing.”

In the Catholic Church, music is understood to play a “ministerial” role in the liturgy, “helping the assembly to rejoice, to weep, to be of one mind, to be converted, to pray.” 7 While the music may at times be performed by musicians, Vatican II also placed an emphasis on congregational participation, stating that

bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation that is so rightly theirs. 8

Congregational song therefore fulfills a number of roles and provides a number of advantages over spoken prayer in worship gatherings:

  • Music helps express the affective content of a prayer
  • Music helps some toward a “devotional mind”
  • In singing together, a congregation prays in unity
  • A musical setting makes a text more memorable
  • The beauty and affect of music can be attractive

The primary risk is that the music or musicians draw attention away from the prayer being sung rather than enhancing it. To that extent it is harmful. Music that draws attention to itself or its performers is harmful. Loud instruments that prevent us from hearing each other sing detract from the experience of praying in unity. Light shows or images or video or other elements that don’t serve to draw attention to the text and the affect of the prayer are harmful and even “wickedly sinful,” according to Augustine’s way of thinking. On the other hand, when these elements are used to stimulate a devotional mood of the communal prayer, they may be a valuable aid to worship.

 

1 Confessions of Saint Augustine, tr. Albert C. Outler, Book X, Ch. XXXIII, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confessions.xiii.html
2 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion III.20 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxi.html)
3 Luther, Forward to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae (http://www.eldrbarry.net/mous/saint/luthmusc.htm).
4 Fromm, “New Song: the sound of spiritual awakening,” Oxford & Reading Research Conference, 1983, as quoted in Barber, “Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship,” Reformed Perspectives Magazine 8:26, 2006, p. 1.
5 Barber, p. 7.
6 https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/wesleys-directions-for-singing
7 Liturgical Music Today: Guidelines for The Catholic Church Liturgical Musician (http://www.ccwatershed.org/media/pdfs/13/12/17/11-52-27_0.pdf)
8 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html)

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What do you think the future holds for congregational song, in terms of technology, theology, style, or practical aspects? Join the conversation at the Hymnary.org discussion forum, http://www.hymnary.org/forum/86