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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Get Them Singing!
September 6, 2018

The Psalms repeatedly urge us to sing to God. (Psalm 68:4, etc.) Not to listen to people singing to God (no offense to Christian radio or television intended), but to sing ourselves. The Psalms are in fact songs – whether of gladness or sorrow, celebration or mourning. And all of them are intended for the whole community to sing.

John Calvin hired the best popular musicians of his time to set tunes to the psalm texts, so everyone in the congregation could sing them. Prior to the Reformation, the faithful had just listened to them being chanted or spoken by worship leaders. Calvin’s approach would be akin to asking the likes of Elton John, Stevie Wonder, or Dolly Parton to provide truly popular music to ancient words. Calvin stipulated that each psalm have its own tune, specifically fitted to that text. Some of those tunes still survive in our hymnal, such as our tunes for Psalm 100, “All People That on Earth do Dwell,” and for Psalm 48, “People, Clap Your Hands.”

The early Christian church continued the Jewish tradition of singing Psalms during worship and around the table. Hymns about Jesus emerged quickly as well, some of which are preserved in the New Testament. (For example, Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16.) The apostles urged the early Christians to sing together unto the Lord. (Ephesians 5:19-20; Colossians 3:16)

I have been thinking a lot about “singability” recently, as Tammy and I have been composing a hymn for the 2019 conference of the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators. As a musician, I want the music to be interesting; as a worship leader, I want it to be singable. Is it possible to have both?

Last week, Tammy and I attended a concert of a popular acapella singing group. Thousands crowded the outdoor amphitheater to hear this amazing vocal quintet, and we happened to be blessed with seats near the stage, surrounded by “groupies” who knew the songs inside out, and sang along at the top of their lungs (sometimes, I confess, to my chagrin). Tammy and I also chimed in when they were singing a song we knew. Participating in something creates a far deeper sense of identification than merely observing something.

A member of the Pastor Nominating Committee that called me to serve their church gave me a gift at my installation that she had lovingly prepared – my own copy of the hymnal with all the hymns that their church sings highlighted. She meant only to be helpful in giving me a heads up about which hymns people would sing, and I appreciated her efforts, because I knew that getting people to sing rather than just to listen gets them much more invested in the life of the church. I also learned that they would gladly try new music so long as they knew a majority of my selections.

Participation is key to ownership. Singing along rather than just listening to the professionals is one marker of such ownership, but only one. Congregants who read Scriptures together with the worship leader, rather than simply listening to them being read, are more engaged with the sermon. Small groups that encourage everyone to offer their contributions are more effective in keeping people coming than those in which just one or two do everything.

As we enter the church’s new program year, let us beware the trap of thinking that if only our offerings are good enough, people will come. People do come when there is a star presentation, to be sure, but that doesn’t get them to stick around.

It is easy to get a crowd to attend a first-class presentation. A splendid preacher, a great praise band, a spectacular choir, gripping drama and videos onstage – all of these draw crowds. Hundreds of megachurches are built on such enticements. What is much harder is to get people to stay for the long haul. Megachurches often have as much activity at the exit turnstile as at the entrance. Keeping people in community requires their investment through participation.

What builds a community for the long haul is the engagement of every member. Everybody sings. Everybody works. Everybody has a part to play in the community’s public witness to the Gospel. Nobody is just an observer.

As our new program year begins, let us not only strive to get people to attend church programs and events, but even more so to get them to do something in the life and ministry of the church. Get them singing, and they will stick around!

Singing with you,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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