What all those times of worship at our General Assemblies have had in common every year was enthusiastic congregational singing, from metrical psalms to classical hymns to contemporary songs. All of that made the recent article, that was so critical of the singing at the Assembly, to be so very disappointing.
One of the great privileges we enjoy in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is gathering each year with like-minded commissioners and guests at our annual General Assembly. The past two (Birmingham ‘22 and Memphis ‘23) were especially important in the issues we considered, and especially wonderful in the corporate worship in which we engaged. In addition to the major worship services, we were led in congregational singing at the beginning of each business session during the day. This is the reason we exist … to worship our glorious God, to sing His praise in the midst of the Assembly.
As has become customary, the three evening worship services at our General Assemblies were each led by a different set of local teaching and ruling elders and musicians from churches in the host presbytery. Each included great preaching, solid liturgical structure, and a variety of musical styles. One evening was with choir, orchestra, and organ. A second was with piano and a small acoustical instrumental ensemble. A third was by a praise band that included guitars, percussion, and vocalists. Each of these involved many hours of planning and rehearsal by talented, well-trained Christian musicians who were honored to offer their skills as a sacrifice of praise to enhance the worship of God’s people.
Speaking of skill, is a trained musician somehow excluded from using his/her talents in worship? Some would suggest so. Is musical creativity ruled out because it involves a level of richness beyond that of the amateur? Must hymns always be sung in the four-part harmony printed in the hymnal? Remember how God utilized the most skilled artisans in the decorations in the tabernacle. Look at how much literary excellence came from the skillful musicians/poets who wrote the Psalms. And remember how Calvin sought the finest poets and composers in France to put together the Geneva Psalter. What are we to make of the inspired command in Psalm 33:3, “Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” We who are musicians aren’t “showing off” our talents, as we are sometimes accused of doing; we are doing what God has equipped and commanded us to do, and to do what we pray is glorifying to God and beneficial to His people.
What all those times of worship at our General Assemblies have had in common every year was enthusiastic congregational singing, from metrical psalms to classical hymns to contemporary songs. All of that made the recent article, that was so critical of the singing at the Assembly, to be so very disappointing. It did not really come as a surprise, since the author has been posting negative comments of this sort for a number of years. Here is a link to that article, which also appeared in The Aquila Report. One of its key complaints was the lack of, or supplanting of, congregational hymnody. That is quite a surprising charge, since by my count, between the evening services and the daytime singing we sang a total of 25 songs in our two and a quarter days of convened gatherings in Memphis! Most of these were classical hymns from the “Trinity Hymnal” (like Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, and Holy, Holy, Holy). Some were more contemporary songs that are very well known across the denomination (like In Christ Alone and We Will Feast in the House of Zion). Some (just a few) were newer compositions that we learned quickly and easily.
I have known the author of the article for many years, and appreciate the great ministry God has granted him, both in his local congregation and for the denomination. He was the compiler of the 1994 paperback “Trinity Psalter.” While I have not agreed with all his perspectives about worship, his books and articles on the subject have been significant. His two recent publications on the attributes of God are splendid. And I’m so glad to join him in urging the singing of Psalms regularly in our worship services. It’s tragic that they have been so neglected, especially in Reformed churches. Our people are missing so much by their lack of familiarity with this biblical collection of songs for worship. At our most recent General Assembly, at the beginning of one morning business session, I spoke briefly about this before leading the commissioners in the a cappella singing of Psalm 100.
While it was not explicitly stated, it seemed that the author has a very negative view of the presence of choirs (or soloists?) in worship. Sadly, there have been occasions in some of our churches where the choir usurps the congregation’s singing, but these are rare. The choir’s role is to lead, support, and encourage congregational singing. In most churches, the choir rehearses the hymns at their practice, not just the anthem. And so on Sunday morning, the congregation typically sings much better when the choir is carrying out those roles. In many instances (as at our most recent Assembly), the choir director selects anthems based on familiar hymns. A creative accompaniment (varied harmonization, contrasting instrumental registration, modulations to a different key, etc.) enhances the beauty of the hymn and makes a more powerful impression on the mind and heart. Is it legitimate for a choir or soloist to sing in addition to (not in place of) the congregation? No more or less so than for a pastor or elder to pray in addition to (not in place of) the congregation.
One of the criticisms made by the author of the recent article was that the sound of the choir and instrumentalists drowned out the human voices in the congregation. That’s a very subjective call, and it may depend on where one was seated in the room. In such a large space as the Assembly Hall, with extremely challenging acoustics and with congregants so spread out, there has to be enough volume to keep everyone on pitch and in time with the rhythmic movement of the music. Otherwise, it becomes chaos! I know that in the church served by the author of this recent critical article, there is a very large pipe organ that produces a substantial volume in morning worship, volume that I’m sure the organist uses in appropriate measure. And at the Assembly, the room was so large that it was absolutely necessary to amplify the sound of musicians and speakers. If one was sitting close to the speakers through which the sound was coming, it could well have seemed excessively loud, but we trust the expert sound technicians monitoring the volume and quality of the music at the sound booth to adjust it appropriately for everyone present.
Speaking of the sound volume of our music in worship, what do we make of the inspired words of Psalm 150 concerning both the instruments we use and the volume at which our music is presented? That Psalm lists a large array of instruments that are used in worship: trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, strings, pipes, sounding cymbals, even loud clashing cymbals! And when we come to passages like Revelation 1:10, 14:2 and 19:6, we read of John’s description of a massive sound in heaven, sometimes like the sound of an enormous (deafening?) waterfall. There are times in the Bible when we hear of “a still, small voice” and “peace, be still.” But there are also numerous times in the Bible where we are commanded to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” Surely these passages give guidance for us in our temporal worship here, preparing us for the eternal worship we will find in heaven.
Without a doubt, congregational singing of hymns must always be one of the major elements of corporate worship, along with scripture and prayer and the preaching of God’s Word, etc. Our hymn singing is significantly improved by several things. These include the selection of hymns (are they singable, are they familiar – or learnable), are they placed in the service at the appropriate place in the liturgy), what instrumental accompaniment is utilized, and how do the acoustics of the room impact the singing (not too much carpet, draperies, cushions, sound-absorbing ceiling tiles, etc.). We who lead can also help the congregation by our rubrics in announcing hymns, informing them of the theme, and perhaps something about who wrote the words (John Newton?), who wrote the music (Martin Luther?), and a story behind its composition (as with “It Is Well with My Soul”).
By the way, to help with that, I am in the process of writing 3-5 page hymn studies each week that include that kind of background information, along with brief commentary on the text of each stanza. I have now completed 160 of those studies, and email them free each week to hundreds of you who have requested to be on my distribution list. If you would like to be added, email me here. You can find the entire set of hymn studies thus far here.
In conclusion, our worship should always be guided by what God has revealed in His Word. And there is a huge body of revealed truth in Scripture regarding worship, “from Genesis to the maps!” It has been a joy to consider that material over the years, not only in the worship I have planned and led in churches where I have served as a pastor, but also in the years that I taught the required “Reformed Worship” course as a seminary professor. We have in Scripture the timeless principles that should shape our theology and practice of worship, in whatever age we live and in whatever nation where we serve. But we need to distinguish between those abiding principles and the cultural practices and preferences of our particular time and place. I fear this article has not adequately distinguished between the two.
And let me add a few words about beauty. Our God is beautiful beyond description. Beautiful in the truths of His character. Beautiful in the acts of grace for His redeemed. Beautiful in His design of function, variety, and complexity in creation. Beautiful in His painting in vivid, kaleidoscopic colors all around us. We could go on and on and on with examples of His beauty. But He is also beautiful in the matter of sound and music. After all, who was it who invented and created musical sound, and who prompted the creation of man-made musical instruments (including the divinely made human voice), and who created the human ears that hear music and the minds that respond with appreciation to music-making? Revelation is filled with imagery of the beauty of heaven that includes not only the colors around His throne, but also the glorious sound of music sung by saints and angels. And so should we not strive for beauty in the music we create and offer to Him in our worship as a sacrifice of praise?
So I join my voice to the many (thousands?) who came away from our General Assembly, thrilled to the bottom of our hearts with the worship in which we were privileged to participate, and grateful beyond words for the great work invested by those who planned, prepared, and led us into the throne room of God through the music. I’m already looking forward to next year!
Larry Roff, is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, served as Editor of the Trinity Hymnal, and Organist for the General Assembly.