May 20, 2021

Worship through Song: Could Adventists Do Better?

When I think of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, one of the first things that comes to mind is the abundance of musical talent that dwells amongst us. Across the globe, we find what seems to be a very blessed group of people throughout all genres and instrumentation. 

Having been a member of the Seventh-day Adventist community since birth, I can say with certainty that a Saturday (Sabbath) service is never complete without the delights of a special item, contemporary movement routine, and (most importantly, to me) congregational singing. 

In several of our churches, I have heard a common thread of conversation on the frequent use of current contemporary Christian music instead of older hymns and gospel classics. In some instances, I have seen certain demographic groups exit in protest of the music choices selected for congregational worship. 

I have spent a great deal of time asking myself what it is about congregational singing that fills me with such joy that it can overwhelm me to tears (or should I say, it used to). 

To explore this shift in my own diminishing worship experience, I delved into some of the key fundamentals of group music. I tried to establish what elements are common throughout history as forming the core of a good chant, battle cry, national anthem, or campfire song that stirs the soul and moves even the most tone deaf to want to raise their voice to the heavens. Surely there had to be more to the argument than a generational intolerance to a new era of music and change in genre style. 

Of course, this is not the first time that congregational singing has been a hot topic. Martin Luther identified the need for congregations to participate effectively in church services and recognized that one of the best ways for people to learn Scripture was to weave it into the repetition of a song — hence his development of a framework, especially for congregational singing. Some of the fundamentals of this framework involved keeping both the lyrics and tune simple to allow for greater participation of the whole congregation. 

As a conservatory-trained musician and lover of a vast range of genres (especially contemporary), I found myself asking, Is our church music encompassing the needs of the greater congregation or primarily appealing to the church's musicians? After all, isn't music for everyone, not just musicians?

Through prayerful searching into more information on this topic, I was blessed to discover a thesis by Daniel Read (2017) titled, “Why We Sing Along: Measurable Traits of Successful Congregational Songs.” Finally, a pioneer who had gone before, exploring just what elements of music are recognized as fundamental to congregational singing.

Read’s work looks into common elements that encourage congregational participation through the genres of hymns, gospel songs, praise choruses, and contemporary worship music and identifies the main regular features to look for when selecting repertoire. While these features are delved into with great complexity, the following points outline a brief explanation. 

  1. Pitch proximity.This element demonstrates how a listener is able to respond faster when the notes of a song are closer together rather than where larger intervals are written. This ability to respond faster during singing provides the singer with a positive response that is encouraging and satisfying.
  2. Step declination. Here, the musical pattern of a song and how far it travels from the central pitch are studied in conjunction with the impact this has on Christian congregation singing. It has been found that songs that follow a lesser melodic contour and remain close to the pitch center receive greater participation from an untrained singer. 
  3. Melodic regression. Looks into the pattern of intervals written into the music. As a result of larger intervals, we see a melody travel in one direction further from the central pitch as opposed to smaller intervals that can be easier to predict by the layperson’s limited vocal ability and don’t travel as far from the central pitch.
  4. Exposure effect. It is known that we all prefer familiarity, and repetition is a factor that develops such familiarity. Importantly, studies show it is less effective when repetition is conscious; rather, subconscious exposure such as background radio listening or exposure through a solo performance enhances this exposure effect.

When learning the fundamentals of choir leading, musicians see commonality with these ideas. Just as a trained choir director has to choose appropriate repertoire for a group of (possibly) untrained vocalists, so too do worship leaders in our churches need to factor in the “singability” of the repertoire chosen for their congregations.

In a nutshell, congregational music should be simple, easy for the layperson to follow, and have a level of familiarity to it. Most importantly, congregational worship should be oriented toward participation and not performance. 

Too often, I have heard an older church member groan about the modern music that is becoming increasingly predominant in congregational singing. However, what might appear to be a gap between the stylistic taste of music amongst generations could instead be explained by the fact that our older members have both witnessed and experienced the thrill of congregational singing at its peak. It is possible that composers of past eras have encompassed the above elements more successfully than our latest contemporary Christian songwriters. 

In the 1900s, we saw the emergence of brilliant contemporary Christian music that began to emulate the sounds of pop and rock enjoyed outside the church setting. I wonder, however, if we have taken these brilliant songs (that were written primarily for solo artists) and added them into the repertoire for congregations where their success (measured as congregational participation and satisfaction) is decreased. And while challenging and enjoyable for the church’s musicians to perform, they do not meet the criteria of being predictable, singable, or successful for our less-musical congregants to feel connected with.

This said, the purpose of this commentary is to urge worship leaders to think of the entire church when selecting the repertoire for congregation singing. While a change in bar length between verses might add something new to an old hymn, it might also be the defining factor that causes a participant to stop singing after they’ve begun to sing at the wrong time. Sure, that technical, syncopated phrase might add artistry to a repetitive song, but does it throw off the congregation to a point where their worship experience with the Lord has been interrupted?

I would encourage the many talented musicians of our Adventist churches to continue to share their God-given abilities at church through solo pieces that bring great joy and amazement to the less musically talented. Better yet, to put such talents into creating new compositions written primarily for the congregation, where scripturally founded lyrics, simple melodies, and familiarity encourage greater participation and satisfaction from all participants looking to enjoy the experience of worship through song.

Corina Sills has a Master of Vocal Pedagogy degree from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in South Brisbane, Australia.

The original version of this story was posted by Adventist Record.