My Dad and Stepmom recently sent me a copy of the United Methodist Hymnal. I was immediately struck when I opened it up to the third page and read John Wesley’s seven directions for singing from his Select Hymns of 1761. I share these tips now because they had an impact on me and I hope they do for you as well. I’ve placed a few of my own comments as well (in italics).
1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please
2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
These directions seem a little strict at first glance. I think the reason for Wesley’s first two directions here is that he takes seriously the necessity of congregational singing (Eph 5:19, Col. 3:16), and he wants to prevent as many barriers to that as possible. Think about it: how often do we fight over the version of an old hymn that we are singing, rather than just rejoice in singing the hymn together? Perhaps if we had stuck to only one way of singing “Be Thou My Vision” there would be less worship wars. I’m not saying Wesley is 100% right here, but there might be some wisdom in his advice.
3. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
There are many days where I have not wanted to attend church due to some weariness or burden currently in my life. However, I have often found that the days I do not want to gather with the church the most are the ones in which I come away the most blessed by my time gathered with God’s people. There is wisdom in what the writer of the Hebrews instructs us with, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25).”
4. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
One thing I have found lacking in most churches I visit is the willingness of men (in particular) to sing loudly and clearly in worship. This should not be! We are not self-conscious of what our brothers and sisters think, we are gathered to praise the Lord. He as gifted us with voices, let us use them in one accord.
6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor say behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
I’m not against elaborate instrumentation in corporate worship. However, one side effect I have noticed in some congregations is that the time of worship is more like a performance rather than an opportunity for the congregation to be led in worship. Such performance cultures have a tendency to remove people from the act of what they’re actually doing and instead get caught up in the sound of the songs. Whatever our instrumentation and philosophy of worship may be, they must facilitate the act of congregational worship – not performance.