Wesley’s Words to the Free-Spirited Singer in the Congregation

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music, Worship Leading Tips, Worship Theology & ThoughtLeave a Comment

This is the third installment on a series of posts exploring John Wesley’s Rules for Singing.

Reflections on Rule #1
Reflections on Rule #2

3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, 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.

Just as rule #2 was an expansion of rule #1, so this rule is a check on the previous.  Rule #2 encouraged us to “sing lustily” so as to not appear “as if you were half dead.”  Rule #3 places some boundaries around what Wesley means.

We’ve all experienced it if we’ve been in a worship context long enough: the free-wheeling singer who sticks out from the rest of the congregation.  Either it is their sheer volume, or it is their “theme and variations” we hear trailing off when the congregation is normally pausing or taking a breath.  Sometimes, people are just, as they claim, “in the Spirit,” singing freely and personally unto God.  Though I don’t want to discount our freedom in worship, there is a shocking irony in the fact that this rule comes from Wesley. 

If we know our modern church history, we’re aware that the holiness/Pentecostal tradition emerged out of that strain of Protestantism born out of the teaching and influence of John Wesley.  Pentecostals sometimes don’t realize it, but they are heirs of the Wesleyan tradition.  Ironically, it is perhaps the Pentecostal tradition (and its strong influence on modern evangelicalism) which most often departs from this rule of their spiritual grandfather.  Pentecostal worship is often a context in which people freely express their individual praise in a corporate setting.  I have been in some (moving and encouraging) services where open times of free singing “in the Spirit” have been created.  The sound is not quite cacophonous, because there is usually a tonal center (many times anchored by a keyboard pad) that tethers everyone to complementary melodies and harmonies.  But this is no doubt the sound of many individuals singing to God with their own song, who happen to be in the same room and share the same musical key.*

When we dial that down several notches, we experience perhaps what is more typical in some free mainstream evangelical worship contexts—one or two individuals singing more freely and loudly than the rest of the congregation.  You can hear them trailing off at the ends of phrases when others have stopped.  You can hear them singing drawn out “descants” above the congregation.  There’s certainly something I applaud and admire about this: they are unashamed; they do not want to let their fears about what other people think of them hinder their expression of their affection for God; they want to be an example of naked, undignified, David-style worship.

But Wesley’s words are appropriate here, and if you read between the lines, you realize he’s making a profound theological-philosophical observation.  Wesley is pointing out that congregational unity in singing is a symbol of our unity as one Church under Christ.  The oneness of our sound mirrors our oneness as the body of Christ.  Our doxology expresses our ecclesiology.  When we sing together we are making a theological statement about our unity, and Wesley is pointing out that something is robbed from that when individuals stick out.

This is admittedly tricky, and it probably requires some coaching of our congregations to have a rudimentary understanding of “choral sense.”  If everyone’s primary goal were to not stick out, we’d have a soft, weak congregational sound.  In choral singing, unification is not so much about everyone sharing equal dynamics (volume), but sharing a blended voice.  God made some voices naturally stronger than others.  So without making it overly technical, as we sing, we should listen to the people around us, seeking to match our tone, our vowels, and our overall sound.

One of the drawbacks of the dominance of the pop-rock genre in much of worship today is that you have to work harder to remind your congregation that they are, in fact, a choir.  The musical style is used to supporting soloists and more flamboyant vocals.  Some traditionalists say that this disqualifies pop-rock from being a good vehicle to carry congregational song.  I disagree, if only for the simple reason that I’ve seen plenty of counter-evidence.  Still, the worship leader should expect to have to fight the good fight of molding the congregation into a choir when they lead out of the pop-rock genre.

So let’s heed the good word of our mentor, Wesley, and let our praise reflect who we are—the one, glorious Bride of Christ.

*If you want an example of this, though not mentioned in my review of Hillsong’s album A Beautiful Exchange, you can note on Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood’s song, “Like Incense / Sometimes by Step,” she says before an extended musical interlude, “Lift up your own song to the Lord,” ushering in a time of free singing to God.

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