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Take notes: Church music lacks true harmony, singing experts say

Is the tradition of four-part a cappella singing in Churches of Christ disappearing?
Are congregations singing fewer — and in some cases, none — of thegreat four-part hymns of the past and focusing on contemporary praisesongs?
Are church members losing the “common language” of the sacred song —meaning that grandchildren don’t know the music of grandparents?
The answer to all three questions is “yes,” according to some choral directors at the nation’s Christian universities.
But not all agree.
The Christian Chronicle surveyed singing experts at severaluniversities associated with Churches of Christ. The questions — andtheir answers — follow.
The interviewees:

• Ken Adams, professor of music and choral director at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City.
• Philip Camp, associate professor of music and director of choral activities at Lubbock Christian University in Texas.
• Cliff Ganus, professor of music and director of choral activities at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
• Lester McNatt, assistant professor of music at Faulkner University In Montgomery, Ala.
• Gary McKnight, assistant professor of music at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.
• Arthur Shearin, director of concert choir and former music department chairman at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
• Gary Wilson, director of choral activities and associate professor of music, Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.
Were you raised in cappella Churches of Christ? If so, what are your earliest memories of singing in the church? If not, please describe your own experience.
• Camp: “Yes. Some of my earliest memories of singing stem from singing the bass leads an octave higher in some of the ‘quartet songs’ included in the hymnal.  Even as a young child, I learned to recognize songs in the hymnal where the basses had the lead part, and the others had background parts. A favorite song of mine was ‘Seeking the Lost’ by W.A. Ogden.
“My mother sang a strong alto, and my dad a strong bass.  I also remember being able to sing a tenor or alto harmony part as a young child, but I was not sure how to find that part every time nor how I was able to do it.”
• Ganus: “Yes — raised in the College Church of Christ. I had most of the blue book (Great Songs of the Church) memorized by the time I was 10 or so.”

• McKnight: “I was raised in the a cappella Churches of Christ in Michigan.  My grandfather taught me how to sing by shape notes when I was 5 years old.  Until I got to high school and sang in a chorus there, I thought shape notes were the only way music was written.  When I got my first folder of music I was taken back by the absence of shape notes so I wrote shape notes over the notes of my choral music so I could read it. My director noticed this and asked what I was doing. He was amazed and asked me to teach him how to read shape notes.  
“I also remember singings that were held periodically around the area. They were fairly well attended. One of the things they almost always did was a ‘note-singing’ in which the leaders would pick out some well-known songs as well as newer, less well-known songs and sing the shape-notes to learn new songs.  In this way it was much like the Sacred Harp Singings that are still held in areas around the United States.  Most of this happened in the Flint/Detroit area in the 1950s and ’60s.”

• McNatt: “Yes, sitting with my family and singing from ‘Christian Hymns #2.’”
• Shearin: “Yes. I have been active in church singing from my earliest days. I began leading singing at age 8 (‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ on a Wednesday night). I was baptized at age 10 and directed singing pretty much from that point onward. I remember the Sunday singings of my youth. A special experience was attending two singing schools at the Highland Street church in Memphis. These schools were led by L. O. Sanderson, Paul Epps, Wilkin Bacon and Tex Stevens. At both Freed-Hardeman — it was a junior college then — and Harding, I majored in music, married a music major wife and settled into a career of teaching at Freed-Hardeman and Harding.”
• Wilson: “Yes. My earliest church singing memories are morning worship services, and Sunday night pew packers, a worship experience for children that included lots of singing. I also spent a lot of time in homes of church members at informal singing sessions.”
Some have suggested that the tradition of four-part a cappella singing in Churches of Christ is quickly disappearing. Do you agree or disagree with that statement? Why or why not?
• Camp: “While there may be some bit of truth to this statement, in general, I disagree.  Four-part a cappella singing still exists, and in many cases, continues to be a very strong tradition. Perhaps the reason for the notion that it is ‘quickly disappearing’ is that the Churches of Christ are vastly diverse in their worship practices, perhaps more so now than any time in our history.
“However, with the diversity of worship practices, the tradition has changed somewhat. Younger generations who sing generally are not as aware of the shaped notes and may not read music that well, but are much more capable of singing songs with rhythmic syncopations and can improvise harmonies. In the newer songs, the four-part designation has changed. Some songs may have fewer than four parts, and some may have more than four parts. Nonetheless, it may be true that there are fewer capable singers in our churches among the younger generations.
“I don’t think that the singing tradition has been cultivated as strongly in the recent past as it was years ago. Singing schools were really strong a few years ago.  Singing schools still exist today, but with fewer participating. Generally speaking, choirs in the public schools are smaller and in some cases less advanced than they were decades ago. However, church events such as Leadership Training for Christ (LTC) do help to foster a renewed interest in singing from our young people.”

• Ganus: “Yes, it’s severely diminished. Our congregations do not read music as they did at one time.”
• McKnight: “I agree that in many congregations the tradition of four-part a cappella singing has degenerated.  I get to travel around the country with my chorus and get to worship with a number of congregations.  It has been my observation that there is not a tremendous amount of emphasis on the singing part of our worship.  In some congregations the singing has been relegated to a feeling of secondary importance.  The song leader may not be well prepared or he may be the only person who is brave enough to stand up in front of the congregation and try to lead.
“Another problem I have observed is the change from four-part singing from songbooks to PowerPoint presentations with just words.  I was shocked recently when my wife and I visited a fairly large congregation (500-plus members) that had just about lost the ability to sing in parts.  They had bought into the PowerPoint technology very early and had used it exclusively with words only.  We sat in worship and were stunned by the lack of parts being sung.  Nearly everyone sang melody with a few trying to sing bass and alto and no tenor.  What was sad was they had just hired someone to lead singing and find out what could be done to improve their singing.  It was easy to see that the biggest problem was that no one had seen musical notation with the words for over ten years.  They had lost the ability to sing parts in less than a decade.  I hope this is an isolated incident but I am afraid it is being repeated in many congregations around the country.”
• McNatt: “Yes. I agree. Nothing is done to teach music fundamentals and sight singing anymore. The use of the overhead screen and words only as well does not give a person the tools needed to learn and participate wholeheartedly in the singing service.”

• Shearin: “I agree. It’s disappearing for several reasons: (1) Four-part congregational singing is not so much a part of society’s church and overall musical culture. (2) Our church culture has shifted from a classically oriented approach to one that is more popular in nature; this in itself is not a bad thing. For example, the hymns of Watts were the popular music of his church in his time. (3) Almost by definition, the popular style of contemporary Christian artists does not employ traditional hymn texts and musical styles. We as a society buy into this contemporary church style; our young adults and youth buy, play and sing this music. (4) Contemporary Christian artists almost always use instruments in their recordings and concerts. Their music is instrumentally conceived, and without instruments (in traditional a cappella settings), the music doesn’t work effectively. Instrumentally accompanied church music provides the singers/congregation with harmonic and rhythmic backgrounds. In such an environment, there is much less need for singers to employ and appreciate harmony. Praise teams to a great extent exist to provide, promote and perpetuate harmony for the congregation.  When churches embrace the contemporary sound, they are led to make accommodations — trained singers, sound systems, instrumental accompaniment, vocal and instrumental percussion, and the like. I find it interesting that among instrumental churches of various descriptions that I have visited, I don’t hear much real singing by the congregation going on. I have thought on many occasions that if the electrical power were cut off, there would be very little sound of singing by the congregation. The congregation increasingly is playing the role of observer rather than participant.   
“There are some excellent, singable contemporary a cappella settings out there. I have always been a fan of unison singing and use it occasionally when I lead. Rounds are especially good (‘Sing Alleluia to the Lord.’). Partsongs that are easily singable (“The Greatest Commands,” for example) work well. I appreciate those who have taken texts literally from the Bible and set them.  Far too many musical settings are substandard: Many violate established principles of part-writing, to the detriment of singers attempting to sing harmony.
“To some extent my professional musical colleagues and I share some blame for this situation. A few — Jack Boyd and Randy Gill, for example — have provided quality a cappella original compositions and arrangements. Most of us should be doing more of this and simply haven’t.   
“I believe that traditional songs eventually will make a partial comeback, but I don’t expect to see this in my lifetime.  
“An anecdote: Several years ago my Harding choir was in tour in Uniontown, Pa. The local minister asked me to lead any well-known song prior to the prayer for the evening meal. I chose ‘Blest Be the Tie,’ assuming that everyone would know it. To my amazement, no more than half of the choir knew the first verse of it, much less the remaining ones. I might as well have chosen ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.’ 
• Wilson: “I don’t think it’s disappearing, but it is certainly changing.  Our perception of what a cappella singing means is vastly different from what I grew up with.  Many of my college students believe that an SATB a cappella arrangement of a contemporary Christian piece is equal to, or better than, a hymn originally written in a cappella style.  The styles are not the same.  Good a cappella originals are written in a vocal style that is completely different from pieces written in an instrumental style.  As I’ve pointed out in the past, accompanied contemporary Christian pieces are difficult to adapt to a four-part, a cappella vocal style.   Most of the arrangements that are being published in current hymnbooks are very low quality, and fixing the problems is almost impossible.
“Another real problem is that we’re getting farther away from using printed music to sing, instead projecting only lyrics on a screen.  That leaves the congregation, most of whom have little or no music training, to make up the harmony parts.  As a result, the harmonies tend to be very simple, relying on only two or three of the most common chords, the same ones used in most country western music and pop music.   The great hymn writers used a variety of chords to make the music of their hymns interesting and challenging.  Combine simple musical textures with trite, simplistic lyrics that are repeated over and over, and we’ve created a situation where or music is vastly different than it was 50 years ago.”

Is it true that our congregations are singing fewer (and in some cases, none) of the great Protestant four-part hymns and are moving quickly to praise songs? If so, what does this mean for the church as a whole?
• Adams: “Across the country, our congregations are singing fewer (and in some cases none) of the great Protestant 4-part hymns (or even the Stamps-Baxter songs, which used to be the more “popular” style of our song repertory).  Instead they are quickly moving to praise songs.  Thus, we are producing a generation that, if they are not in school music, may have never looked at a piece of written music.  They have not learned to sing a harmony part in church, and that musical concept is generally foreign to them.”
• Camp: “This seems to be a very ‘leading question.’  True, there are some great Protestant four-part hymns that Christians from all generations would benefit from knowing. However, there are also some fantastic ‘praise songs’ that all Christians would benefit from knowing.  The problem is that some from older generations refuse to accept the new ‘praise songs’ from the younger generations, and some from the younger generations do not value and appreciate some of the great Protestant four-part hymns. Each style of worship has merit, and we should bring the best of the songs from each of these styles into our worship assemblies.
“The church as a whole should appreciate the value of songs from all generations. Young generations prefer the new praise songs, but should also be taught to learn and appreciate the classic hymns from the past.  Likewise, older generations should be given the opportunity to learn and appreciate the newer Praise songs. All would benefit in their worship experience.”
• Ganus: “It’s true. I don’t know what it means for the church as a whole, other than ‘it’s true.’  I personally lament the trend for two reasons: one is our loss of connection with the traditional hymns of Christendom, removing us even further from those traditions; the other is our unwillingness to engage more thoughtful expressions of faith.
“However, if we honestly view the large picture, we see that the church grew up in its earliest years without a common language of song; that we’ve gone through a lot of changes regarding our congregational singing; and that singing today is largely social and recreational rather than expressive of our personal faith assessment and commitment. Perhaps what we’re doing is ‘working’ for us in that it’s accomplishing what we think needs to be accomplished. As we assess our needs differently in future years, our practices will change again.”
• McKnight: “The congregations I have visited still seem to sing a balance of the old hymns and newer praise songs. But the majority of the congregations we visit are more conservative and traditional in their worship services.  I don’t know if that is a factor in this.
“One of the things I have noticed is an almost exclusive use of ‘praise songs’ at youth events. Very few, if any, of the old four-part hymns are being sung at these types of activities. If the youth are not being encouraged to learn the older hymns then we are only a short generation from losing the desire to sing them in our worship.”

• McNatt: “Yes, many of our churches are not making an effort to mix the historically great hymns with the contemporary.”
• Shearin: “It means that we quickly are losing an important part of our heritage of hymns and gospel songs. In my university choir, I have students who have never sung ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ or ‘Blest Be the Tie that Binds.’ It’s not their fault; it’s simply the only church culture that they have known. They’re not singing many of our traditional hymns and gospel songs in Harding chapel.”
• Wilson: “It seems to be true.  I’m often in worship services around the country when I tour with my choir.  Many of the churches I visit sing only praise choruses and devotional songs.  I don’t hear ‘O Sacred Head,’ ‘A Mighty Fortress,’ or ‘Jesus the Very Thought of Thee’ very often.  I rarely lead these kinds of hymns at my own congregation because most of the younger members don’t know them, and when I do lead them, I get lots of complaints.
“I’m afraid that our low-quality music is eventually going to drive away the younger generations of the church.  Right now, this is the music they want; but they don’t understand that a steady diet of this kind of singing is going to leave them unsatisfied and malnourished.   Eventually, they’ll want and need something that will help them grow, and will go looking for it somewhere else.”
Are we losing the “common language” of the sacred song in Churches of Christ — meaning that grandchildren don’t know the music of grandparents? If so, are we experiencing a fragmentation of the main corporate activity in our common worship experience? Please elaborate on your response.
• Adams: “The Church of Christ is quickly losing the ‘common language’ of sacred song.  The different generations no longer have a body of worship songs that is known by the entire congregation. Grandchildren don’t know the music of grandparents, let alone the music of the worldwide body of believers from the past four to five centuries.  We are experiencing the fragmentation of the main corporate activity in our common worship experience.
 “The general participation of full-throated singing appears to be on the decline. Often, young people don’t sing much in church — even when the music is ‘their own.’ Older members often don’t sing because they are unfamiliar with the newer music.
“Ironically, most church leaders (or members) seem to be unaware (or maybe just unconcerned) that this huge shift is taking place.  I’ve heard no one ask publicly ask questions such as: ‘What does this mean to the church?’ ‘Is it good, bad, or irrelevant to the future of our fellowship?’  ‘Has the move to modern music indeed kept our youth more engaged as many argued that it would?’”
• Camp: “In a sense, music is NOT the universal language. Each generation has its own music. Seventy to 80 years ago, the Stamps-Baxter quartets began appearing, and interest in these songs ran strong for decades. However, at one point, they were new.  I grew up singing these songs and occasionally would learn a new one, though it had been around for a few years.  However, these songs did not replace the established canon of hymns, which was governed completely by their inclusion in the hymnbook that was adopted by the church.
“Now, inclusion of the newer songs with some of the great classics is completely up to the worship leader. If the leader wants to use it, he can project it on the screen and lead it for the church, whether it is a new song or song that’s been sung for centuries.
“If older generations do not know the newer Praise songs, and if younger generations do not know the Classic hymns of their forefathers, the best thing that can be said is that each generation has lost out on a blessing. There are some tremendous ‘Praise songs’ that would bless a church if they knew them and could sing them, just as there are tremendous four-part hymns that are centuries old.”
• Ganus: “We’re developing a different ‘common language.’  ‘Our God, He Is Alive’ is still the ‘national anthem’ of the Churches of Christ.  We’ve always been somewhat fragmented, having had significant issues over gospel songs, Stamps-Baxter songs and traditional hymns. It’s interesting that in the current climate the traditional hymns are losing out, while gospel songs, Stamps-Baxter songs and praise choruses are more supported. To me, that indicates a swing toward feeling rather than thinking, toward Dionysian rather than Apollonian, to ‘worship experience’ rather than thoughtful adoration, to sentiment rather than meditation. I infer nor imply no judgment in those observations, just assessment.
“Honestly, I believe that when we used to sing ‘Lead, kindly light’ and ‘In Emanuel’s land’ and ‘Lead on, O king eternal’ and ‘Am I a soldier of the cross?’ we didn’t really understand what we were saying in those songs.  There was musical participation, without mental engagement, with an accompanying sense of incompleteness, of lack of fulfillment. I believe that the gospel songs, Stamps-Baxter songs (should I say ‘convention songs,’ instead?), and praise choruses engage us musically and emotionally (if not intellectually), providing a different sort of reward.
“I do think, though, that we’re tiring already of the repetitiveness of the praise chorus experience. A number of our college students report that they don’t care to sing the same songs and the same words over and over.”

• McNatt: “Yes, I’m amazed for instance how many times in a choral audition for my choruses, how many students, for instance do not know ‘Fairest Lord Jesus,’ which is often a part of the audition process. It seems only logical that if we are ‘forced; to learn the contemporary that we not forsake the rich heritage in song we have and bring that along. It gives us a common musical thread.”

• Shearin: “We do suffer somewhat in this regard. Nevertheless, some congregations make special efforts to plan services that blend our hymn, gospel song and contemporary styles, thereby offering both the preferred/familiar and contemporary/unfamiliar to the church. This is the culture of the College church where I work and worship, and this approach has proven to be successful.”

• Wilson: “Again, that seems to be true.  I’ve always tried to have a balance of musical styles when I lead worship.  That’s become increasingly difficult in the last 20 years.  The teens don’t know many of the traditional hymns that their grandparents love, and of course, the older members (including me) don’t know the contemporary Christian arrangements that the teens are singing in their devotionals.  It seems to me that when I was a teenager, we sang “our” songs in devotionals, and did “congregational” songs in corporate worship.  I don’t remember this bothering me.  In fact, it seemed logical.  True, I often didn’t know the tenor line of the congregational songs, but there was always someone close by singing it that I could follow.  Eventually, I learned the part, and in the process learned something about sightreading music that I didn’t already know.
“What we seem to have is not a fragmentation, but a dumbing down of our corporate worship.  I find that there are so few songs that most members can sing, that I sing the same ones over and over again.  I think it takes about 8-10 experiences to learn afairly easy, new song, and since I don’t want to rehearse during worship service every week, it takes about a year to introduce a new song into the congregation’s repertoire.  Some of my members object to that, and would prefer singing only the few songs that they already know.”
How would you describe the overall quality of singing in our churches? Better or worse than in the past?
• Camp: “I would say that it is different — not necessarily better or worse. If churches have good attendance but fewer who sing in worship, then it’s worse. If most or all of the church sing, the worship is probably different just because the nature of the songs are different. Churches may not be singing the Stamps-Baxter quartets as much, nor would they be singing some of the classics as much, but they would probably be singing more of the newer praise songs. In my opinion, a church that sings songs from each era will have a better worship experience.”
• Ganus: “It’s different.”
• McKnight: “I firmly believe it is getting worse.  There are some elderships who do not see the necessity of having a song leader who is well-equipped musically to lead the Lord’s singing.  Some elders feel more people need to be involved in leading the worship services.  This is not a bad thing in most areas of the worship.  What usually happens is a less than adequate leader or leaders will end up leading a portion of the time.  The song leaders’ inexperience will, over time, allow a congregation to degenerate in their singing.  I know of a congregation who has seven to eight different song leaders that rotate on a regular basis.  This used to be a very good singing congregation but they have now, in my opinion, lost some of the vitality and excitement that used to be present at most of the worship services.  They still sing well, just not as well as they used to. 
“Elders and congregations want as good a preacher in the pulpit as they can possibly have — why not the same for the song leader?  After all, when we get to heaven the preaching will be over.  We’ll be singing all through eternity.  We do not put enough emphasis on singing in our worship.”

• McNatt: “Worse.”
• Shearin: “It’s clearly worse.”
• Wilson: “The quality of the singing is about the same.  It’s the quality of the music that has declined.”

Are we producing a generation that does not know how to read music or shaped notes? What are the ramifications to moving from hymnals to singing from a big screen?
• Adams: “The number of college students interested in and trained for college level music participation is declining.  This is a cultural issue for the church. There will likely be fewer ‘musically literate’ people in our congregations in the future.  We are becoming, like the culture, music consumers rather than music creators and participants.”
• Camp: “Yes. I have a doctorate in music, but to the surprise of some, I do not know how to read shaped notes. However, I do read music quite well. I believe that most people in our churches read music better than they think they do, but few are proficient.
“If people are singing from their hearts, and in some cases, doing that more effectively by reading the words off of the big screen, then this is an improvement. I often lead songs with the words and music notation projected on the screen. In this case, there is no difference and it is actually much easier to look at a screen than to hold a book.”
• Ganus: “Yes, obviously. I, and other choral directors, used to expect an ability to read music in C of C kids. That’s no longer true.
“It’s not just moving from hymnals to big screen. It’s moving from singing with notes to singing with only words. That has obvious ramifications.”
• McKnight: “The ability to read music and/or shape notes has been falling off over the past number of years in my experience.  I have a chorus of approximately 55.  Of that number only about one-fifth can read music well.  All of them have good musical ears.  They ‘go up when the music goes up and down when it goes down’ and they know when something is not in tune, but to stand alone and sight-read is a difficulty for the majority of my singers.”
• McNatt: “If we would utilize a score in handouts and on the screen, we might not lose as much. But unfortunately, we are taking away the tools from our congregations whereby they can learn to read.”
• Shearin: “Yes. I doubt that the trend to big-screen singing is a cause of declining musicianship. Rather, I believe that this trend enables churches to access multiple song sources efficiently. Moreover, there is the psychological experience of everyone looking toward and singing from a single source.”
• Wilson: “Very few people under the age of 60 know how to read shape notes, and I didn’t learn how to do that in church.  I learned how in college because I wanted to as part of my music education degree.  I doubt that any of my college students can.  But as I’ve already stated, we certainly don’t read as well.  The ramifications are obvious.  A cappella singing is one of the identifying marks of the COC.  If we’re not giving our children the tools to read music, how will they be able to learn new a cappella music?
“Many of the students who audition for my college choir can’t sightread at all. Those who can have generally come from outstanding high school choral programs that have emphasized the importance of reading, and have taught them how to do it.  When I got my first job in 1985, many of my choral colleagues at other schools teased me about not having to teach sightreading at a COC school.  I’m not sure they would say that anymore.
“Singing from a screen instead of a book is not the problem. The problem is projecting only lyrics instead of lyrics and well-written music.”
Have you noticed a difference in the quality, experience, ability to “hold a part,” etc., of students moving from high school to your university music groups in recent years? Please elaborate.
• Camp: “1. In many cases, their sight-reading ability is good, but usually not tied to shaped notes.
“2.  They are comfortable singing more complex rhythms. Those from older generations who know the shaped notes quite well and hold their part often struggle with rhythmic syncopations that are prevalent in the newer praise songs, such as appear in ‘Thank You, Lord’ by Gary Mabry.
“3.  They are quite capable of improvising a new harmony. Many of the newer songs are often sung to improvised harmonies, resulting in regional differences in the way that songs are sung.  For instance, in the 30-years or so that youth groups and churches have sung ‘Seek Ye First’ by Karen Lafferty, I have noticed a number of different descants and other harmonic parts that gradually appeared as someone would make up another part and then it caught on.”
• Ganus: “It’s a bit difficult to tell. What I notice most is that fewer of our students audition for our choral ensembles. Thirty years ago, perhaps a third of our incoming students would audition for a choral ensemble.  Now maybe a tenth do.  Of that bunch, a number of them are really fine singers.”
• McKnight: “Yes. Part of this (maybe a big part) is the situation of the Arts in public schools. There seems to be a lack of interest in the arts on the elementary and secondary school levels.  More and more programs are being cut back or even eliminated in the public schools.  In our town the arts have to continually fight to keep what little bit of a program we have.  There is no theatre, the choral program is a “red-headed stepchild” and the band program only exists because the football team needs a half-time show.  That may be a little over-exaggeration, but not by much.  Unfortunately, this is happening all over the United States.  In our University I have heard one of the business faculty say there is no need for a music program.  It is a waste of money and should not even be a part of a university’s offerings.  I was shocked and probably would not have believed it if I had not heard it myself.  I am afraid this attitude is much more prevalent than we expect.”
• McNatt: “Yes, they depend 80 percent on learning music by rote. They do not usually feel comfortable in a mixed ensemble until they have truly learned a part.”
• Shearin: “My students in choir don’t hear chords as well as they used to. In general, unless they are music majors, they don’t regard music reading as an essential skill. For some, music reading is something to take pride in. For many, it’s largely a non-issue.”
• Wilson: “In the last couple of years I’ve had some bad experiences with new singers.  After I’ve given them a place in my choir, I’ve discovered that they can only sing the soprano melody when their voice needs to be singing alto, tenor or bass.  In the future, I’ll be adding a component to my audition process where prospective students who should sing alto, tenor or bass will have to demonstrate their ability to sing their part on a standard hymn that they already know. I’ve also had some students refuse to try the sightreading component of my audition.”
Any other comments or thoughts?
• Camp: “The problem with trying to ‘canonize”’ the newer praise songs, in the tradition of the sung worship of young generations, is that many of these songs are taught aurally, without musical notation, but resulting in freshly improvised harmonies that often change through the years.  The result is a freshness of style each time the song is sung. The instant that a composer or arranger jots down the musical notation, the song becomes ‘stilted” — locked in to singing it the same way every time.
“Perhaps, in singing these songs, the melodies themselves should be notated with instructions to improvise the harmonies to keep them fresh. I have often been frustrated when I see a new praise song in a hymn book that has been arranged for four-part singing for the church, but the music is nothing like any way that I have ever heard the song.
“Each generation has songs with which they strongly identify. Every generation should learn to appreciate each other’s songs. However, in the interest of defending songs from previous generations, the songs of other generations are often scrutinized and criticized unfairly. If younger generations are less capable of singing in the standard four parts, is that because churches sing too many praise songs? Is worship better when a song has four parts, and each of them is sung accurately by the church participants?
“Really, who is qualified to make a judgment in these matters other than the Lord himself?  I believe the Lord cares more about the heart of the participant rather than the actual sounds that the vocal cords are making.    If more people are participating with their voices and worshiping with their hearts through homophonic chant singing, then bring it. Likewise, if more people are participating with their voices and worshiping with their hearts through singing praise songs ‘off of the big screen,’ then bring it.  I believe that our worship will improve in this area if we bring songs from diverse cultures and appreciate the thoughts and the spirit behind their composition.
“In my own experience at the rather rural congregation of 200-plus in Shallowater, Texas, the recent introduction of singing praise songs with notation off of the big screen has seemed to encourage such participation.”
• Ganus: “The church is not called to be musical. It’s called to be holy, edifying and serving.
“Singing did not play a large role in the early church.  Christians were known for their commitment, for their hospitality, for their generosity and for their willingness to persist in the face of persecution.
“When congregational singing was reintroduced with the followers of Hus, Luther, Calvin, Knox and the Wesleys, it took on different functions.  With the Moravians and Anabaptists it was often encouraging, in the face of great persecution, and instructional; with the Lutherans it established tradition; with the Methodists it became more social. In the 19th century, gospel songs introduced a distinct entertainment component which was amplified by the convention songs of the early 20th century.  Add a mix of commercialism, and we get today’s situation.”
• McKnight: “As far as singing in worship I am reminded of a comment I heard brother Gus Nichols make in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the middle 1970s that rings as true today as it did then: ‘If it’s right to sing, then it is wrong to not learn how to sing.’”
• Shearin: “Let’s not lose sight of the object and purpose of our worship. Worship is an offering of praise to our Creator. It’s a spiritual experience for the congregation. Our entire congregations need to be active participants on the praise team.”
• Wilson: “One other thing that seems to be on the rise: using recordings of a cappella singing to lead or supplement congregational singing.  I’ve been in lots of worship services where the singing was pretty bad and could certainly use lots of help.  But I’ve got concerns about this solution.  Do we really want to encourage members to rely on a CD instead of singing themselves?  Isn’t this going to produce weaker singers who can’t sing independently?  As a collegiate music educator, I want the musical quality to be outstanding; but as a Christian and worship leader, I know it’s really more important that the music come from the heart, regardless of the quality.  I think this is something we should certainly think about carefully.
“As I read back through this, it sounds pretty dismal.  I don’t think that’s accurate.  I got a call recently from a congregation interested in having me come work with their leaders and members to improve their singing.  I haven’t been involved in a church “singing school” in at least twenty years.  Maybe we’re beginning to realize that this is an area where we need to do some work.  There’s still time to make adjustments in what we’re doing and make it better.  The denominational church world has begun to move away from the devotional songs back to the traditional hymns.  We usually follow, but about twenty years later.  I hope we’ll get so sick of trite, badly written music that we’ll demand something better.  Fortunately, there’s a wealth of great material readily available.  When we put well-written music in front of our congregations, our reading will improve.  And as we sing good hymns, our singing will improve as well.”

  • Feedback
    Please help me find this song! I learned it when I was 16 going to Church of Christ in Cocoa Beach, FL ~ ‘I know that Jesus is well and alive today. He makes His home in my heart. Never more will I be all alone since He promised we never would part.’ There is a chorus I beleive w/’rainbows and moonbeams and sunshine from heaven’??? Is this song available on MP3 anywhere? What is the name of it? Thank you and God Bless, Lora
    Lora Youngken
    Palm Bay, FL
    August, 29 2009

    Why is it necessary for churches to sing the songs of their grandparents? Does the church today realize that shape-note singing resulted from a Puritan crutch to learn notes? Does the church know that the musical scale,as we know it,is less than 300 years old? Should we teach the church six & eight part music, which is really cool? John Poore, Wesley Chapel, Florida
    Dr. John Poore
    Lake Tarpon church of christ
    Wesley Chapel, Florida
    United States of America
    August, 29 2009

    I thought Dr. Ganus’s response put it in perspective well: “The church is not called to be musical. It’s called to be holy, edifying and serving. Singing did not play a large role in the early church. Christians were known for their commitment, for their hospitality, for their generosity and for their willingness to persist in the face of persecution.”
    It’s my understanding that in the first century, the Gregorian chant had not even come along, yet.
    You know, the Bible says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Perhaps it is Satan who is dividing us–and often blinding us–with the singing conflict so that we lose sight of what’s most important to God.
    Cynthia Phagan Bittick
    Legacy Church of Christ
    North Richland Hills, Texas
    August, 14 2009

    This is a great discussion. I believe that God is pleased when we sing with the spirit and with the understanding. I’m not sure that He is concerned with whether they are 4-part traditional or contemporary praise songs etc…Those are our issues. As long as the songs reverence God, edify the church, and teach truth, the style is unimportant to me.
    Elijah Cole
    Church of Christ
    Elijah Cole
    Church of Christ at Olney
    Olney, Maryland
    August, 14 2009

    The question of “common language” seems quite misleading. I hear very few lamenting the decline of KJV in our churches. Music, like language, has and will always be changing. Shakespeare is to be admired and respected, but nobody I know talks like that today. True hymn style may have much to teach us, but it is not the music (language) I sing in today. With respect to those lamenting musical or lyrical decline;
    Today’s music may use fewer ii’s, vii’s, III’s, or II. However, you won’t find as many I9’s, vi7, or IV2 in yesterday’s music. Different does not mean better or worse. Lyrically speaking, examples in this article include “visage languish” and “asunder part”. Are we really wanting to hold on to that? Give me today’s language.
    Thomas Chapin
    Little Rock, AR
    August, 12 2009

    I think all song leaders should incorporate both the old hymns and the praise songs in their worship services,you can’t learn the new if you don’t sing them and remembering the old songs from our youth is something I never want to forget. I was raised in acappella churches and can’t fathom hearing a musical instrument clutter up and shut out all of those glorious voices in unison in 4 part harmony singing praises to my Lord. I’ve heard it on t.v. and always wonder why they don’t realize how beautiful it is to “sing and make melody in your hearts” without all of the instruments. We are His created beings and our voices were created by Him!
    Pam Jaquish
    West Milton Church of Christ
    Pace, FL
    August, 12 2009

    I appreciate your sensitivity to licensing and other such ethical and legal issues when producing copies or projecting words. In my experience, every church that I’ve visited that used a screen to project words or distributed photocopies, with or without music notation, also showed their CCLI license number, or used Paperless Hymnal. I hope that most churches are indeed in compliance with licensing regulations, as was assumed in my comments in this article.
    Philip Camp
    12th Street Church of Christ
    Shallowater, TX
    August, 12 2009

    One comment missing from reader contributions has been the failing of general music education in our schools, and I say that as a trained music educator. Not to blame anyone, but funding cuts and administrative de-emphasis has really hurt the music programs in our schools. At the same time, churches began to cut back on singing schools as newer programs came along. Many “fell through the cracks” because we’ve misunderstood that some things don’t “just happen.” We’re now “singing from the cracks,” in my opinion.
    The GOOD THING is that people can be stirred to sing from their hearts, even without musical training. That can lead to a desire to improve their own ability, as individuals and congregations. But… “where your heart is…”
    Barry Wiseman
    Glenview Church of Christ
    Glen Rose, TX
    August, 11 2009

    I find it interesting that one of the questions wasn’t, “Does it matter?”. With our faith being based on true Biblical principles, many seem to overly interested in the tradition of 4-part harmony singing. If we are truly concerned about the influence of culture on our singing, perhaps we would should be researching the singing style of the 1st Century church.
    Terry Cross
    Central Avenue Church of Christ
    Fairborn, Ohio
    August, 9 2009

    Amazing Grace can be just as powerful today as How Great is Our God if the worship leader takes them there. Leadership today is just as important as in previous generations. My encouragement is let’s teach, let’s learn, and let’s praise God for His Amazing Grace because above all He is a Great God.
    James Cribbs
    Meridian Woods
    Crawfordville, Florida
    August, 8 2009

    I appreciate the experience and the views of these brothers. I believe as worship leaders we need to change our view of all the songs. In the timeline of the church, all the songs we sing are contemporary songs. It is the role of the leadership to incorporate any songs available to the congregation for edification. As one learns the personality of the the congregation, one will know the songs that strike true to the hearts of the church. I know that it is the response of the worship leader to the song that the congregation responds to.
    James Cribbs
    Meridian Woods
    Crawfordville, Florida
    August, 8 2009

    I never could understand why we needed books to sing songs we sang away from the church building without any trouble. On the steps of the Moody at LCU we managed just fine in 4 part harmony and never a book. On the banks of the Merced river in Yosimite, the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard and no light to see much less books to use.
    Roaring Springs
    Dickens, Tx
    August, 7 2009

    In most part of the Philippines, the need is for song books. I therefore address an appeal to those who have discarded their song books to please consider sending them to us. Even used song books will be appreciated.
    Thank you.
    Felix R. Garlitos
    Central Church of Christ
    Quezon City, Metro Manila
    August, 6 2009

    Wow I never sang those others songs, did not know there was a problem. our songbooks are 30 yrs old. I am 53 and am one of the young ones. I love singing, I am concerned for this generation lack of love for the Lord, It is hard to not only baptize them but to keep them. If singing these songs were to keep them, sing them. I also think praise songs art beautiful, the little that I have heard.
    TIm Gean
    Ovid, MICHIGAN
    August, 5 2009

    When Horatio Spafford wrote the lyric of “It Is Well With My Soul” I doubt that his intention was to write, what is perhaps, the greatest hymn of it’s generation. My guess is that he was attempting to communicate a sentiment to his creator that stemmed from his experience of sustained faith in the midst of great tragedy. The purpose of music is to engage the heart of the worshipper with the creator. And so song selection as well as music style should not be chosen to preserve a tradition. It should be chosen only if it connects the worshipper to the heart of God. The church becomes irrelevant the minute it starts preserving “forms” that no longer function as viable means by which to express the heart & mind of the worshipper to God.
    Bret Testerman
    Metro Church
    Winter Springs, FL
    United States of America
    August, 4 2009

    Our congregation uses a mix of hymns and praise songs with both projection and hymnals. Most projected songs have the notes also on the screen. Some of the newer praise songs have only the words. This works as a good compromise for us, I think.
    I do think it is important to note that culture is ever changing, and our expression in music will always be changing if we wish to relate to future generations. Four-part harmony is wonderful and I love it. Contemporary songs are also great expressions of faith and praise. We should not feel threatened by change. Music has changed a lot since Jesus walked on this earth. Change should not threaten our faith. Let’s be glad the next generation is following Jesus and wants to praise God in song!
    Norma Cook
    Newberg Church of Christ
    Newberg, Oregon
    August, 4 2009

    I think it’s sad that the divisiveness of this topic has existed for so long. It seems clear from the comments that each new generation seems to make it an issue with the others. Perhaps we should just worship in spirit and truth without dogmatic opinions on which style is best for all. Perhaps our Good Lord prefers the songs David sang and played on his harp.
    Mt. Paran
    Atlanta, GA
    August, 4 2009

    The overriding issue is individual attitudes. People are labeled and positions are set. I have asked several preachers why we call what we do on Sunday worship and none as in -0- have responded. The reason being there is no bible support for calling it so. Not knowing why we assemble leads to an attitude of -me-first. If the scriptures tell us to sing isn’t it sin not to learn to sing? The church is comfortable and therefore not interested in learning anything and that includes singing and the Bible. Contemporay folks are establishing the tradition of tomorrow so they havd better be kind as well as tolerant.
    John Jenkins
    Gatlinburg, TN
    August, 4 2009

    Church music deserves attention.There are many things to be considered here.Worshippers should sing right,as one manifestation of ‘in spirit’worship.Classic or contemporary music,to me,is not not much an issue.We’ll leave that to the discerning worship leaders.Harmonious singing requires diligence.Let’s strive for harmony to get in tune with the spirit of worship.
    Orlando Braga
    City of San Jose Church of Christ
    San Jose City, Nueva Ecija
    August, 4 2009

    This whole thing plays into why we as a Church are in a state of decline. We just cannot let go of the old and embrace the new. The two youngest generations just will not be hamstrung by the older music. Putting notes on the screen? Are you kidding me? And we wonder WHY our kids are leaving.
    Bay Area Church of Christ
    Tampa, FL
    July, 30 2009

    In regards to the issue of the problems stemming from the way in which the songs are done in powerpoint, I’m in the process of developing my hymnal supplement on powerpoint. Right now, I have the entire book on powerpoint and tested it where I currently worship. Right now, the slides are very readable and I am now trying to figure out how to best use it without a delay in time. Basically, the entire song is laid in powerpoint.
    As to the issue of whether shaped note singing is going to disappear, we already see that in the contemporary hymnals in many churches of Christs.
    Ira Mikell
    Bethel Church of Christ
    Bell, FL
    July, 30 2009

    It seems obvious that as music styles change toward contemporary “praise” music that the traditional 4-part harmony & shape notes selections will continue to fall be the wayside. Contempoary Christian music is written and arranged for almost anything other than a cappella singing or 4 part harmony, and many of these contemporary songs do not translate well into the a cappella world. Music is perhaps the most powerful influence in our culture. It seems only reasonable to assume that Christian music industry will continue to have a profound impact on both song selection and presentation. As evidence for this growing trend, I would offer the observation that most churches no longer deal with the plague of disappearing hymnals!
    Gary Kirkendall
    Broad Street Church of Christ
    LaGrange, GA
    July, 30 2009

    I’m not sure we should be focusing on shape notes as much as standard music notation. Today, shape notes make about as much sense as the chant notation in the Liber Usualis. I’m as much a fan of the Sacred Harp style of singing as anyone, but I’m also a fan of early music. Much as I enjoy both those styles, I think it’s unrealistic to expect this age to embrace musical traditions that are generations old. Now, if you’d like to reintroduce medieval styles, especially hocket, I think you’d be on to something.
    Robert Floyd
    Central Church of Christ
    Durham, NC
    July, 30 2009

    Eric, a CCLI license is relatively inexpensive (about $100/year for congregations under 100) and will allow you to make legal copies of most contemporary worship music. It’s one of the better bargains around and, IMHO, a must have for congregations today.
    Robert Floyd
    Central Church of Christ
    Durham, NC
    July, 30 2009

    As a worship leader, I’ve had countless dialogue about these issues. Though I have no time to elaborate, please allow me to paint with some wide strokes (knowing it’s all more complex than this!)
    1) A lack of teaching music theory is causing the “4-part experience” decline in the youth. THIS IS LITTLE TO DO WITH WHAT IS ON THE SCREENS! Notes on screens are meaningless without proper teaching.
    THEN, once we learn the parts, we need to shift focus onto the MESSAGE of the songs… which is found in its words.
    2) Modern songs like “How Great Is Our God”, “In Christ Alone, and “Mighty To Save” hold just as much theological depth and musical integrity as some of our hymns. Many need to give the “new songs” a chance.
    Chris Lindsey
    Rochester Church of Christ
    Rochester Hills, MI
    July, 29 2009

    …cont. To illustrate the gap that exists, I am an MDiv student at HUGSR. During an intensive course chapel this past summer, one of the fellow students decided to sing “Lord Reign in Me” and made a comment to the effect, “It’s on page so-and-so, but I don’t think anyone should need it.” This young man, who is engaged in full-time ministry probably didn’t realize that my congregation probably has half a dozen members that have heard this song let alone sung it in an organized worship.
    Is this truly a generation gap, or a gap in taste and ever changing musical styles? I suspect there are other issues at work.
    Eric Hallett
    Fountain Square Church of Christ
    Greenwood, IN
    July, 29 2009

    cont…We do not have projection capabilities and simply cannot afford them. Ethically, I have serious problems with copying or projecting words or music for which I have not acquired permission for congregational use. Securing such permission is also cost prohibitive, whether through a license, Paperless Hymnal, or purchase of new hymnals. I know many churches have not been sensitive to this issue, but the discussion in this article seems to assume that new music is simply available to all, when it is not either financially or ethically. cont…
    Eric Hallett
    Fountain Square Church of Christ
    Greenwood, IN
    July, 29 2009

    As thought provoking as this article is, it seems to assume much when it comes to the changing sound of a cappella in the body of Christ. There is indeed a gap, but that gap might be more financial and technological than many recognize.
    Eric Hallett
    Fountain Square Church of Christ
    Greenwood, IN
    July, 29 2009

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