Singing on High: investigating the use of singing in Christian worship
Diana Meadows BA (Hons) MMus
42 Yarmouth Road
Department of Music
University of Sheffield
Sheffield S10 2TN
The role of singing in Christian worship has always been important. References to early examples can be found in the Bible. In the Old Testament, in Exodus 15:1, after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea the Song of Moses was sung, and in the New Testament, in his Letter to the Colossians 13:16, Paul writes:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
Hymn singing is seen to play an important part in uniting a community during public worship, with the congregation standing, or sitting and singing as one. This can provide comfort and strength to the individual as well as the entire congregation. (Tamke, 1978). Singing in worship provides an opportunity to praise and worship God, to provide a focus in prayer and can be seen as an aid to evangelism. (Archbishop, 1992).
Music and dance have united communities for centuries, not only in a religious context but also within battle and sport. The relationship between religion and sport is of special significance. Liverpool, Everton, Celtic, Rangers, Manchester United and Manchester City Football Clubs have their roots in Protestantism, Catholicism and Methodism. Christian rallies such as Spring Harvest, Easter People and Soul Survivor share several characteristics with football matches. (Percy & Taylor, 1997)
Historically these rallies have attracted large crowds. In the eighteenth century two great preachers, John Wesley and George Whitefield, preached to crowds in excess of 20,000 people, while during the nineteenth century, the American evangelists Ira D. Sankey and Dwight L. Moody drew similar numbers to their meetings in the large cities in Britain.
There is anecdotal evidence recording the effects of singing at these meetings. In 1859, when Revival came to Britain from America there were reports that congregational singing changed from being formal and constrained to joyful and full of praise, the result of which was a sense of peace (Phillips, 1989). This was followed by the Welsh Revival where the quality of the singing was especially noted and the crowds were singing with great joy making use of their bodies as well as their voices (Evans, 1969). Similar accounts can be found in reports of Christian events past and present.
Today thousands of people attend the large Christian events, and now, as in the past, singing by those who attend has been of great importance.
Those who would be reluctant to sing anywhere else, carry out singing at large sports events and Christian worship, whether at a large rally or a small congregation, and there has been little detail given to the role congregational singing plays within Christian worship.
This paper seeks to investigate what might constitute a psychology of singing in Christian worship. This is of particular importance because since the 1960s there has been a significant increase in the numbers participating in worship in Evangelical and Charismatic churches which make use of more popular styles of presentation. Anecdotal reports indicate that singing is a critical component in drawing people into a particular church.
A quantitative questionnaire was distributed to church leaders and music directors of 75 Christian churches within a five-mile radius of the centre of Norwich, U.K. These churches represented all denominations, including Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and New Churches. The questionnaire sought to discover ways in which the congregation participated in worship. For example by singing traditional hymns or modern worship choruses, playing musical instruments or dancing. Leaders were asked to provide information on who selected the music for a service, their qualifications and experience in church music. There were also questions about the age groups represented within their congregations and whether music had resulted in bringing people to their church or driving them away. Church leaders were asked whether they believed music to be important in worship, and to place in order of importance the reason for including music in their services.
Norwich was chosen, as it is seen within the Christian community as an interesting and active site for all forms of worship in the United Kingdom.
A second study followed with a series of qualitative interviews with worshippers from a carefully chosen selection of these churches, as well as participants in the large Christian rallies, Spring Harvest, an ecumenical event, and Easter People, organised by the Methodist Church. The churches selected for this study represented a cross-section of congregations, including High Church, Evangelical, Non-conformist and Charismatic churches.
A qualitative questionnaire was given to individual members of these churches asking for reasons why they attended their particular church and in what way music is important to them in worship. They were also asked whether they would sing in any other setting. Finally they were asked to name their five favourite hymns or choruses and, if possible why they were of special significance.
Analysis of the data found that the more popular Evangelical, including Anglican and Nonconformist, and Charismatic churches recognised the importance of congregational singing in worship, especially those which use music written in a style accessible to the singers.
There are eight churches within a five-mile radius of the centre of Norwich, which have congregations in excess of 200 people. Of these, five churches, two Anglican, two New Churches and the Salvation Army, regularly use modern worship choruses accompanied by a variety of musical instruments. Two churches, one Anglican and one Methodist, occasionally sing choruses. All age groups are represented at these churches, and at three of them the 18 - 30 age ranges made up the highest proportion of the congregation.
At the other end of the scale, ten churches have congregations with less than 50 people. Five churches, four Anglican and one Evangelical Free, rarely use worship choruses, and five Anglican churches never use them. The majority of these churches have no members under the age of 50 in their congregations.
Many church leaders reported that they chose the hymns or choruses purely for the words, and gave little thought to the setting of the verse or whether the congregation could sing them. Worshippers found that in many cases, the tunes to some of these texts were unknown and difficult to sing, which often led to dull, uninspired singing.
On the other hand, church leaders liasing with their musical directors or worship leaders chose settings to the texts, which enabled meaningful participation in worship.
A selection of reasons for including music in worship was given and leaders were asked to place them in the order of importance. 'Praising God' was by far the most significant reason for the inclusion of music, and 'establishing a mood' to aid worship followed this. 'Fostering a sense of community' and 'aiding evangelism' came at the bottom of the list. Interestingly, individual worshippers believed these two points to be important factors for the inclusion of music.
Leaders were asked whether their congregations made specific requests for hymns or choruses. The majority of congregations preferred a balance of traditional hymns and worship choruses. Some would like to have the opportunity to sing new hymns or songs, but because of small congregations did not have the confidence to attempt them. One congregation specifically often commented that they wanted to enjoy "a good sing" when attending a service.
The wish to improve the music and singing in a service was widespread, but unfortunately the resources were limited, either with personnel or restrictions of their building. One church, with a small congregation, accompanied the singing with a flute, a trombone and a euphonium.
In reply to the qualitative questionnaire, it was clear that worshippers from all denominations recognised the importance of singing in their worship. They reported that the involvement of joining with fellow Christians in praising and worshipping God through song heightened their emotions, encouraged an intimate personal relationship with God and provided a sense of belonging. A hymn or worship song provided the opportunity for the individual to communicate on a personal level with God, praising Him, giving Him thanks and asking Him into their lives. New traditional-style hymns provided the opportunity to sing their concerns with texts written about issues of today such as homelessness, the environment and racism.
Today's worshippers report that if the first hymn was dull, unknown or difficult to sing, this had a detrimental effect on their enjoyment of the service, whereas if the first hymn was joyful and easy to sing it lifted the spirits and prepared the way for worship. One person stated that they could be enjoying a service, but when a hymn or song was sung which they did not like, it ruined the entire service.
The confidence to sing was encouraged when the texts were set to music written in an accessible, secular style. Many churches now make extensive use of musical instruments to accompany singing, and this again helped to increase confidence. The use of percussion was particularly helpful in heightening awareness and emotions. One church has a collection of African drums, tom-toms and other percussion instruments for worshippers to use during worship.
The singing of hymns at funerals was found to help, as it provided the opportunity to express personal grief and emotion.
A significant number of those worshipping at New Churches admitted that it was the singing that drew them away from the traditional denominations. Others, who preferred quieter services with less personal participation, found a church offering this. There is no doubt that one of the most important factors for changing the place of worship is the music used for congregational singing.
The growing use of overhead projectors and computer-generated lyrics instead of hymnbooks initiates other forms of personal involvement for the worshipper. There is more freedom to clap, wave their arms or dance as they sing, leading to increased feelings of euphoria and well being.
Several individuals reported they had experienced tears, joy, euphoria or ecstasy as a result of singing within worship.
There is also a contextual element to worship. When attending a service in Norwich Cathedral for an alternative Halloween service the congregation was identified, in the main part, as consisting of members of the Evangelical and Charismatic churches. In this context, worshippers who would, in their less traditional church buildings, have sung enthusiastically and with great feeling, but in the Cathedral were controlled and restrained.
First hand reports record that many worshippers became Christians during the singing of a hymn or chorus, and they can remember vividly which hymn this was. Billy Graham, the great American evangelist, provided an excellent example of how to build an atmosphere with the use of hymns and choruses. The hymn 'Just as I am' (1834), led to his conversion and this hymn has meant a great deal to many new Christians. Other favourites include 'How great Thou art', again made popular by Billy Graham and 'And can it be' by Charles Wesley, especially the fifth line of the fourth verse 'My chains fell off'. These and other older hymns have remained popular with their strong melodies that are easy to sing and members of congregations often sing spontaneously in four-part harmony. In the Billy Graham Crusades in Britain during the 1980s a popular chorus was 'Majesty' to which many made a commitment. Recently the modern worship choruses 'Lord, the light of your love' by Graham Kendrick, and 'My Jesus, my Saviour' by Darlene Zschech have been sung with great assurance.
Worshippers may use singing in order to heighten an emotional experience. The simple repetitive music found in worship choruses can be very effective in setting the atmosphere for a service. Feelings of joy, praise, sorrow, love, compassion and contemplation can all be encouraged by music with the help of a sympathetic worship leader or musical director, but it is not always possible to know which particular hymn or chorus will affect members of the congregation, or when. Churches of all denominations are becoming increasingly aware and sensitive to this and are making use of singing to promote a sense of community, both within and outside the church. The implications for the power of singing in psychological terms are immense. There is a need for the theory of religious singing to be developed, using music from the past and present.
Tamke, S. S.: Make a joyful noise unto the Lord (Ohio, Ohio University Press, 1978)
Archbishop's Commission: In Tune with Heaven (London, Church House, 1992)
Percy, M. & Taylor, R.: 'Something for the weekend sir? Leisure, ecstasy and identity in football and contemporary religion': in Leisure Studies 16 (1997)
Phillips, T.: The Welsh revival (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth trust, 1989)
Evans, E.: The Welsh Revival of 1904 (London, Evangelical Press, 1969)
Diana Meadows BA (Hons), MMus is Chairman of Musical Keys, a Norfolk Charity providing music and movement for children under the age of eight with special needs. The author has had a great deal of experience as a music director in nonconformist churches.
This research is part of doctoral research undertaken under the joint supervision of Dr. Jane Davidson, Department of Music and Rev. Canon Dr. Martyn Percy, Director of The Lincoln Theological Institute, both at The University of Sheffield.
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