Repetition and repertoire

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 3.

In the days of hymns, people sang a hymn through once, and that was it. Fair enough, as many hymns had five or six verses, often with a chorus between. Modern Christian songs tend to be shorter, and thus lend themselves to having sections repeated several times. That’s fine, as repetition can drive a point home like nothing else.

worship bandBut repetition, if overdone, has the very opposite effect. It becomes mind-numbing, so that, far from entering more fully into the sentiment being expressed, the congregation is pushed towards either a semi-hypnotic state where meaning goes out of the window, or into crashing boredom. With me it’s always the latter.

Few aspects of music, therefore, need more careful handling than this if we are to get it right. How can we get it right? One obvious step is for the worship-leaders to look and see if the people are actually singing. There has been quite a bit on the web recently about Christian meetings where the congregation have virtually given up singing altogether. Why would that happen?

  1. Because the music has entered ‘performance mode’. This is especially true of mega-church congregations, where the scenario is ‘rock concert’ rather than ‘people at worship’. May we never allow that to happen!
  2. Because even if they sang as loud as they possibly could, they still wouldn’t be able to hear themselves above the high-volume sound pumped out from the sound-system. So they stop competing. The sound system should serve the congregation, not browbeat them into silence.
  3. Because the guitarist-singer is singing in the style of a performer, playing about with timing, cutting bits short, bending notes etc. They are singing, in other words, as if they were on stage, or singing in private. A congregation is made to feel insecure by this and tends to opt out rather than risk singing out ‘wrongly’.
  4. Because some of the songs are virtually unsingable.

This last point leads on to the issue of the repertoire. Speaking for myself, I am increasingly uncomfortable with many of the songs presented for us to sing. The words of some are at best lightweight, and in a few cases dubious in both their theological content and their standard of English. But here I will address a couple of the musical aspects.

  1. A competent songwriter knows the range within which a typical congregation is comfortable. In broad terms that will be within an octave from the D just above Middle C to the D or E above it. It’s possible to include the odd note outside that range, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Some songs, alas, go so low that many people stop singing. Let’s ditch them.
  2. Many recent songs were originally composed for solo or group singing by Christian musicians and bands that tour around performing. They are fine for that context, and for listening to on mobile devices etc., but most don’t transfer at all well into a public setting. They often include non-intuitive modulations that throw a congregation completely and put them off trying to master the tune, as they quickly come to believe that there isn’t really a tune there to master.

In all this are we, perhaps, neglecting our rich heritage of older hymns and songs? I believe we are. Why, I wonder, is that?

One young Christian who was preparing to speak at a Bible study at his church was asked, ‘What commentaries are you using?’ He replied, ‘Oh, I don’t touch commentaries. I think it’s important to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to me today about the passage.’ To which another Christian, who had overheard the conversation, commented, ‘Strange, isn’t it, how those who make much of what the Holy Spirit is saying to them have little time for what the same Holy Spirit said about the passage to others?’

The same applies to songs in worship. We have a rich heritage of 2000 years-worth of Christian music and song, and we rob the congregation if we fail to include some of that heritage regularly in our times of singing and worship.

In particular, from the 18th century on there have been some superb examples of Christian songs. True, many of them will have the ‘thees and thous’ typical of that generation, but Christians today are surely robust enough not to let that put them off?

To me it’s very sad that, at some churches, they have two separate services, one ‘traditional’ (with the organ and hymn-books) and the other ‘contemporary’ (with a worship-band and projected words). This is unnecessarily divisive, in my view. Let’s have a good, rich mix.

There’s more to say on all this…in a future post.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]

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10 Responses to Repetition and repertoire

  1. Ian Deakin says:

    I totally agree with your observations and comments on these subjects of congregation participation, and worship leaders need for sensitivity and understanding. They are their to lead and enhance not dominate. Many of the old hymns have a rich content that is helpful.

    Many leaders don’t know the difference between worship and praise so it would be good to read your comments on that subject.

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  2. Janet Tyne says:

    I can remember when you and your dad used to look at each other and know just how you were going to play some hymn . The good days when people sung to God from their heart’s hymns that were so uplifting to the soul.

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  3. Jim & Valerie Brock says:

    Over the years I have become more appreciative of the wealth of scripture in the old hymns and how you can get the gospel from them. Its such a loss when all we get are five or six pop choruses, some with very little content or message, sung week after week. it seems like worldliness has entered the church meetings.

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  4. I enjoyed your book and have just been introduced to you blogs by Ian Deakin. Wow how refreshing.
    I would love to know why the church does not appear to teach on spiritual sins any more? There seems to have been a drift towards ‘image’ rather than character development.
    Please add my email to your list. Hannah.

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  5. Richard Robinson says:

    Roger Aubrey’s website http://vintageworshiptapes.com/ provides a wonderful resource for finding music albums from previous Dales and Wales Bible weeks and from Christ for the Nations. In these recordings the vocal input from the congregation was far greater than today and the input from instruments was less emphasised. I find it easier to worship with these types of choruses than today’s modern equivalents.

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    • Thanks, Richard. Just to note, however, that the vintage worship tapes site is run by Anthony Cutcliffe, not Roger.

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      • Richard Robinson says:

        Whoops, careless research on my part. It was one of Roger’s You-Tube videos that provided a link to the site… but, as you say, not his own site.

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