Easter 2024

01 May 2012
singing - congregational, the future of

Yesterday evening I attended a conversation with other church musicians about the future of congregational song which was thought provoking, but mostly depressing. Things aren't as they once were, and largely, they're about to get worse.

It seems to me that the future of congregational song is inextricably linked to the future of congregations, and congregations are in a steady, sustained decline.

It's true. Don't take my word for it. Read the first few chapters of Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass. There is enough data from different sources that to deny the decline of church attendance is like to deny the reality of global climate change. It's just bad science, and if you live near the coast you will drown.

The Episcopal diocese in which I live has seen a 25% decline in church attendance in the past decade. This doesn't necessarily correspond to a decline in membership of the same magnitude in the diocese, but it does point out changing patterns of worship attendance. Bass points out that someone can come to church on Sunday morning once every couple months or so and consider themselves an "active member".

This poses enormous challenges for liturgy and music, and church staffs.

Just some thoughts off the top of my head in light of this new reality:

  1. Does a three-year lectionary cycle make sense any more? (Related: Should we cut our losses and celebrate Christmas on the 25th of every month?)
  2. How does one have any kind multi-part preaching or education series?
  3. Making changes for the season after Epiphany? Will anyone notice?
  4. Why would someone come to our funny-smelling church to hear a sermon and music that has not been auto-tuned?

But the more immediate question, and one which I think is already being borne out in the pews is this: the core repertory of congregational song is being lost.

All of this takes place against a backdrop of severely depressed musical literacy in American culture, and the embarrassment many people face when expected to sing during liturgy - and their staunch refusal to do so.

People who don't even open hymn books in church tangent: I have to admit, I don't understand these people, and I lament that they are largely ignorant of the words that the rest of the congregation is singing. It's liturgical rudeness. But more frustratingly, I have no idea how to help them.

Coupled with the added reality of church shoppers being equal opportunity employers when it comes to denomination, many of the younger members of our churches have no familiarity with our particular "brand" of hymnody.

The core repertoire of denominational hymnody, I think, is lost first with hymns like "Praise, my soul, the king of heaven", "I bind unto myself today", "All my hope on God is founded", "Come down, O love divine", and "Lo! he comes with clouds descending" all falling into the realm of the unfamiliar. Hymns like "Abide with me" and other evening hymns don't stand a chance given how sparsely Evensong is attended in this country.

What was once part and parcel of Anglican hymnody is now no different than the more ecumenical choices in the hymnal: the Lutheranism of "A mighty fortress" or the Methodism of "The Church's one foundation" "O for a thousand tongues to sing". None of the origins seem to matter, and the number of hymns that are familiar to an infrequently attending population will continue to dwindle.

All of this can shake out in one of two ways.

The first option is an optimistic one: all of this is ripe for rediscovery, reclamation. We, as church musicians and clergy, can intentionally reintroduce this material to our congregations. I think we absolutely must do this.

There's a liturgical component here too. With local congregants who have come from other denominations and others who have never been taught, or who have simply forgotten, there is probably not a lot of understanding about many elements of our liturgical theology and practice. Some teaching might be in order, and musical teaching could be a natural part of this.

There could be a winnowing of the chaff as certain parishes (dioceses, denominations, the Church as a whole -- dare we hope?) reclaim Christian discipleship, and not Christian "membership". But key to this model is that somehow the trend toward increasingly infrequent church attendance is not slowed or stopped, but reversed.

Despite even a wholesale effort to help the church fall in love with its hymnody all over again, I think a second path is unavoidable. While enclaves of denominational and traditional hymnody will continue to exist for some time, the marked changes of the face Christian congregations will need to make some musical tectonic shifts. We've already been dealing with shifts of this type (post-Vatican-II-Disneyism, praise choruses) but I don't think these were results of the kind of Sunday morning demographic change that we are now seeing. They are just chunks of the iceberg for which we are headed.

Instead, I think that the "hymn explosion" and a diversity of congregational singing options that we've experienced in the last half century or so will actually be detrimental as the Sunday morning attention span wanes, and the liturgical memory grows ever more foggy. There will always be a "market" for new hymn texts and tunes, but these may find residence in self-selecting boutique congregations. I think by and large the trend of hymnody in church will be one of decline and diminishment. First the denominational repertoire loses prominence and significance. As it is subsumed into the broad swath of classic ecumenical Christian hymnody, this too ceases to be held in cultural memory due to irregular attendance patterns. Finally, all of this material is equally forgotten and unfamiliar, and in many places replaced with another mode of congregational song.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe that we can reverse demographic trends through any one approach to congregational song. These forces are larger than our denominations and certainly uninfluenced by the musical practice of the local congregation.

What will a new model of congregational song look like? I think the Music that Makes Community movement shows us the first strokes of what this could be. These "paperless" styles of music are more effective in smaller settings, and do not require a sustained cultural memory.

There is some irony in the name of this movement. The community that is being made through this music is an incarnational one, made up of those few who give up on the New York Times, Starbucks, and their favorite brunch spot for 75 minutes on a Sunday morning. The new community being made is one being formed in the moment, but not one that is graced by the past or offering anything the future -- at least in any kind of musical sense.

Though this "incarnational" model or one like it may evolve and take hold in some places, many churches, however, may give up on singing, or on music altogether.

It seems that these are the two paths of song that lie before the church today: a small "discipleship" or "faithful remnant" path that would necessarily buck the trend of larger church attendance patterns, and more visible "incarnational" path in which the de facto hymnal becomes music "for about 25 panicked singers."

This is the future of congregational song as I see it. The questions remaining are how will our existing church structures (local, regional, denominational) and complementing professional organizations facilitate these transitions?

There's a lot here, and I'm not going to try to respond to all of it, but I feel a little more hopeful than you do.

I think there's a viscious circle: people aren't used to singing (and all the music they ever hear is auto-tuned), so they don't sing, so they're not used to singing...

...but I think that easier access to recording and broadcasting equipment is changing this. I can put stuff on YouTube. You can put stuff on YouTube. We can both go there, or to Soundcloud, or wherever else, and hear what loads of people are doing. It isn't perfect, and that's a good thing. People who want to are in a position to listen to amateur music in a way they weren't, twenty years ago, and that isn't just because they weren't born yet.

John Bell wrote a couple of books on getting congregations to sing. I've read one of them. The two things I remember from it are 1) don't be afraid to have congregational rehearsals (hard to do in my parish, but not impossible) 2) make sure people stand close enough together, if they're too far apart they won't sing properly no matter what you do. To that I would probably add 3) get 'em young -- make singing a lifelong thing and start early (and how does the way our churches minister to children affect this? worth consideration) and 4) don't go too slowly all the time, it's dreary.

The way to help people who won't open the hymnal is probably to put the words elsewhere. I loathe projector screens but they do stop people having to juggle a news sheet, hymnal and prayer book/Mass booklet all at once, and save paper compared to printing stuff out each week.

I have some half-formed thoughts here about the West Gallery tradition and the sort of folk music that might re-invigorate congregational singing... you might enjoy reading, though there's rather more to it than that.

Post a Comment

The page you're reading is part of

©MMXVII a site for fun and prophet

Organ and church music, esoteric liturgics, and a site that changes color with the liturgical year.


Looking for Carol Spreadsheets?

Hungry? Try the Liturgical Guide to Altoids Consumption

Thirsty? Try the Tibia Liquida

The Eric Harding Thiman Fan Page: The greatest composer you've never even heard of.

Infrequently Asked Questions

picture of a chicken

Questions? Problems? email the sexton.


The author of this website is an organist whom the New York Times calls “repeatedly, insisting that he pay for his subscription”. He likes to read parking meters, music, Indianapolis Monthly, and weather forecasts in Celsius, particularly whilst wearing cassock and surplice. He serves lasagna, overhand, as an example to many, and on ecclesiastical juries. He mixes salads, drinks, and metaphors. He takes photos, lots of dinner mints, and a little bit of time to get to know.




Anglicans Online
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise
Book of Common Prayer
Brain Pickings
The Daily Office
The Lectionary Page
Sed Angli
Ship of Fools
The Sub-Dean's Stall
Vested Interest - Trinity Church in the City of Boston


Andrew Kotylo - Concert Organist
Anne Timberlake
Bonnie Whiting, percussion
conjectural navel gazing: jesus in lint form
Friday Night Organ Pump
Halbert Gober Organs, Inc.
in time of daffodils
Joby Bell, organist
Musical Perceptions
Musings of a Synesthete
My Life as Style, Condition, Commodity.
Nathan Medley, Countertenor
Notes on Music & Liturgy
The Parker Quartet
Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers
Steven Rickards
That Which We Have Heard & Known
This Side of Lost
Wayward Sisters
Zachary Wadsworth | composer

Archenemies Aviary



Advent (Medfield MA)
All Saints, Ashmont (Boston MA)
All Saints (Indianapolis IN)
Atonement (Bronx NY)
Broadway UMC (Indianapolis IN)
Cathedral of All Saints (Albany NY)
Christ Church (Bronxville NY)
Christ Church (Madison IN)
Christ Church (New Haven CT)
Christ Church Cathedral (Indianapolis IN)
Christ's Church (Rye NY)
Church of St. Stephen (Hamden CT)
Congregational (Belmont CA)
Coventry Cathedral (UK)
First UMC (Lancaster SC)
Gloria Dei ELCA (Iowa City IA)
Immanuel Lutheran (St Paul MN)
Immanuel Lutheran (Webster NY)
John Knox PCUSA (Houston TX)
St Andrew (Marblehead MA)
St Andrew's, Oregon Hill (Richmond VA)
St Bartholomew the Great, (London, England)
St James's (Lake Delaware NY)
St James's (Richmond VA)
St James Cathedral (Chicago IL)
St Mary's Cathedral (Memphis TN)
St Matthew and St Timothy (NYC)
St Paul's (Cleveland Heights OH)
St Paul's (Indianapolis IN)
St Paul's Cathedral (Buffalo NY)
St Paul's, K Street (Washington DC)
St Peter's (Lakewood OH)
St Peter's ELCA (NYC)
St Stephen's (Richmond VA
St Thomas (New Haven CT)
St Thomas ELCA (Bloomington IN)
Second PCUSA (Indianapolis IN)
Towson Presbyterian Church (MD)
Tremont Temple Baptist (Boston MA)
Trinity (Indianapolis IN)
Trinity on the Green (New Haven CT)


BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong
New College (Oxford, England)
St John's College (Cambridge, England)
St Thomas (New York NY)


Like the site? Buy the shirt.

Areyou . . .

selling diphthongs?
Yes, but they're not the kind you buy on Wheel of Fortune.

the owner of a bower at Bucklesfordberry?
Full daintily it is dight.

interested in touch lamps?
And fountain pens.

this site used to be better:

March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
June 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
October 2008
November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
April 2009
May 2009
June 2009
July 2009
August 2009
September 2009
October 2009
November 2009
December 2009
January 2010
March 2010
April 2010
May 2010
June 2010
July 2010
August 2010
September 2010
October 2010
November 2010
December 2010
January 2011
February 2011
March 2011
April 2011
May 2011
June 2011
July 2011
August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
April 2012
May 2012
June 2012
July 2012
August 2012
September 2012
October 2012
December 2012
January 2013
March 2013
April 2013
May 2013
June 2013
July 2013
August 2013
September 2013
October 2013
November 2013
December 2013
January 2014
February 2014
March 2014
April 2014
May 2014
June 2014
August 2014
September 2014
October 2014
November 2014
December 2014
January 2015
February 2015
April 2015
May 2015
June 2015
July 2015
August 2015
September 2015
October 2015
November 2015
December 2015
January 2016
February 2016
March 2016
April 2016
June 2016
July 2016
August 2016
September 2016
October 2016
November 2016
December 2016
January 2017
February 2017
March 2017
April 2017
May 2017
June 2017
July 2017
August 2017
September 2017
October 2017
November 2017
December 2017
January 2018
February 2018
March 2018
April 2018
May 2018
June 2018
August 2018
September 2018
October 2018
December 2018
February 2019
March 2019
October 2019
December 2019
September 2020
December 2020
January 2021
September 2021
October 2021
December 2021
November 2022
December 2022
March 2023
July 2023
March 2024
April 2024