In his article Sound Theology: Teaching Your People Through Music, Bob Smietana interviews Keith Getty about the importance of congregational singing. I hope you’ll take the time to read through the entire article, but I’d like to highlight just a few things here as well.
First of all, there are few men living whom I admire as much as Keith Getty. His insistence on pairing beautiful, singable melodies with doctrinally rich lyrics has made his music an invaluable resource for today’s churches. And his emphasis on the value of teaching our congregations through music is one I share. I deeply value the work of the Gettys, and commend to you all of their albums, particularly the latest: Facing a Task Unfinished.
In Smietana’s interview, Getty makes the observation that the mandate for instructional singing is biblical. He cites the song of Moses from Exodus 15, which is also a particular favorite of mine (Aaron Keyes has a great modern musical adaptation of this biblical text, Song of Moses). Scripture is full of examples of music being used educationally, and of exhortations to sing songs like this.
Getty shares an anecdote about Irish hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander, who composed a book of Hymns for Children in the mid-19th century, to help children learn the doctrines of the faith. He laments the extent to which modern evangelical churches have lost our patience with songs which eschew musical novelty in exchange for lyrical depth:
“You take these hymns, shortened down to five or six verses, and they’d still be considered “unsingable” in many large, modern evangelical churches, because there are too many words. Yet these songs were written for 8-year-olds.
If we’re going to build a generation of people who think deep thoughts about God, who have rich prayer lives, and who are the culture makers of the next generation, we need to be teaching them songs with theological depth.”
Isn’t that sad? I’m grateful to serve in a church which celebrates these kinds of songs, but I am simultaneously convicted that I don’t sing enough songs like this, either in church or at home with my own children.
The Internet is full of articles lamenting the lack of congregational participation in singing in our churches. Everyone seems to have advice on how to correct the problem: Turn the lights down, turn the lights up, find a more dynamic worship leader, grow your choir larger, etc. Yet it seems to me that Keith Getty’s solution of simply singing songs that teach rich theology—by far the simplest, cheapest suggested remedy, and one which can be immediately implemented in churches of any size and budget—makes the most sense.
When we evaluate our worship services, we must always ask the question, how did our congregation sing? If the answer is, as it seems so often to be, that they did not sing much or at all, we must then ask ourselves whether the songs we sang were great. There are plenty of good songs out there, but as T. David Gordon writes in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (my review), there is no reason to settle for merely good songs when there are so many great songs available to us. And so Getty is right: “Great songs sing well. Bad songs do not. So sing great songs.”
For more excellent teaching on the importance of singing in our worship, check out Keith Getty’s recently-released book Sing!: Why and How We Should Worship.