Culture and sung Christian worship

Introduction: music in Christian worship

If people attend a Sunday service at a Christian church, it is almost certain that they will hear music, and very likely that they will be invited, or expected, to share in making that music, probably when everyone sings together. Christians value their music, which often forms a significant part of their acts of worship. However, there is also a great variety of music in churches, with different musical styles, different types of instrumental accompaniment and different proportions of the service being sung.

What part does singing play in worship?

The function of songs

Singing can perform a variety of functions within Christian worship, including:

  • Allowing participation – shared songs are a practical way for a hundred or more people to contribute in a service.

  • Fostering unity – a Christian group may draw on a shared repertoire of songs; this will enhance their sense of community and identity.

  • Explaining theology – Christian songs may express doctrine and have a teaching function. Some songs will be narrative in form (re-telling Biblical stories); others may be credal (expressing the core beliefs of a denomination).

  • Releasing emotion – some Christian songs have an emotional rather than an intellectual focus, helping worshippers to engage with God at a different level. These songs may express joy, penitence, gratitude, longing or commitment. Music can reach deep into the heart; there is a strong link between Christian song and Christian revival (the times when the church grows rapidly with large numbers of people converting to the Christian faith in a short period). Revivals are often characterised by intense, heartfelt singing, and may lead to the writing of many new songs.

  • Carrying liturgy – in some Christian traditions almost the whole act of worship will follow a standard pattern, often printed in a service book. Some congregations will say these words but others will sing them. Often, when this pattern of service is followed, there will be places at which other songs or hymns can be inserted into the regular pattern, giving a mixture of regularity and variety.

  • Voicing prayer – addressing God in prayer, whether for the congregation's own needs or those of the wider world. A number of hymns are based on the Psalms or other Biblical passages such as the Lord's Prayer.

The power of music

The quantity of music used in a service will vary from denomination to denomination, but often also within denominations. Some of this will depend on a congregation's particular theological emphasis; another significant factor is the local resources available. The presence of a strong choir or a number of competent musicians in a congregation increases the scope for using a broader range of song.

The effectiveness of Christian song is beyond question. Many people can remember hymns and songs they learned as children; Christians often find that these songs nourish their faith and help their private devotion as well as their public involvement in church life. It has been said that ‘no-one ever sings the sermon in the shower' – but songs, once learned, take root.

Who are the songs for?

An interesting exercise in assessing the breadth of Christian song is to take a hymn or song book and look at who is addressed in different songs; this may include:

  • The Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit)

  • God the Father, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, separately

  • Other believers – using words which offer comfort or encouragement

  • Non-believers – urging the hearers to consider Christ's call to repentance and faith

  • The singers themselves – songs of self-examination, songs encouraging worship, praise and prayer, etc

How have songs developed through church history?

Medieval and reformation worship

  • Chant provides a way to sing prose sections of the Psalms and similar texts; its roots go back to an oral tradition in the 8th century, developed further in the monastic orders.

  • With the reformation (16th century) came a growth in metrical psalmody – the Psalms paraphrased in regular verse format for singing. Many Christians considered this the only proper thing to sing in church.

18th to 20th century hymnody

  • The first major figure of classic hymnody was Isaac Watts (1674-1748) who adapted parts of the New Testament for congregational singing and also introduced newly-composed verses expressing Christian faith and devotion. Many modern hymn books still contain some of his words.

  • Charles Wesley (1707-1788), one of the founders of Methodism, wrote several thousand hymns expressing the theology and experience of the early Methodists. Many of Wesley's hymns are still in common use. It has been said that ‘Methodism was born in song.'

  • The period 1820-1980 saw the production of a large number of hymnals, often containing 600-800 hymns, selected from a particular doctrinal or denominational standpoint. Congregations would generally use one or two hymnals, with music copies for the choir and words editions for the congregation.

More recent developments and influences

Roughly since the 1960s there have been many new developments in sung worship. These have included:

  • Songs of a less formal nature, often taking their form from popular contemporary music

  • The ‘hymn explosion': a large amount of new writing in the form of classic hymnody, but exploring more recent ideas, addressing current concerns, and moving away from things which now look unacceptable (for example, military imagery or male-dominated language)

  • Contemporary ‘praise and worship' material, written for small-group musical accompaniment (guitars, flutes, piano, drums etc.) rather than the more traditional organ. Just as choral anthems can sometimes become the reserve of the trained chorister, this material can on occasion lean towards performance by a small group rather than participation by a whole congregation.

  • Material from beyond the Western / English-speaking world: for example, South African songs from the struggle against apartheid, and simple Latin songs from Taize (an international community in France where Latin is used in worship, echoing the universal language of Christendom).

Almost all of the above are still widely used. Some congregations employ a mixture of musical styles, whether in the same service or varying from week to week: traditional hymns one Sunday, newer praise songs the next.

Seasonal songs

Some Christian songs belong to a particular time of the year:

Most hymnals also contain material most suitable for:

  • the major seasons of the church year (eg Lent, Epiphany),

  • specific occasions such as harvest festivals or Remembrance Sunday, and

  • saint's days when particular individuals are commemorated.


The shape of the song

The use of verse as a vehicle for Christian song depends on metre: a description of the shape of a hymn using the numbers and stress patterns of syllables –

e.g. ‘There is a green hill far away (8 syllables with 4 stresses)

Outside a city wall (6 syllables, 3 stresses)

Where Jesus Christ was crucified (8 syllables, 4 stresses)

Who died to save us all.' (6 syllables, 3 stresses)

This shape will typically be repeated several times for the different verses / stanzas of a hymn. Examples include:

  • 8 6 8 6 (known as ‘common metre') of which the verse above is a sample

  • 8 7 8 7 D (where D indicates ‘double' – this is an 8-line verse)

  • 10 10 10 10.

One shape, many tunes

Traditional hymns are mostly based on a limited number of metres for which there are many different tunes. This allows:

  • words to be sung to a variety of different tunes

  • tunes to serve various sets of words

  • words and tunes to be written separately and put together later.

Different groups frequently disagree about the ‘right' tune for a particular set of words, but overall the use of regular metres has proved to be a strength, giving variety and flexibility in the use of hymns.

More recent songs are often less regular in metre and have one specific pairing of words and music.

Christian music and contemporary culture

There has often been interaction both ways between the words and music of Christian songs and the culture in which they are used.

Culture absorbed by worship

  • Poems have sometimes been set to music for use as hymns; examples include work by Anne Bronte (1820-1849) and George Herbert (1593-1633).

  • The structural model of a typical pop song, with verse, chorus and bridge, has been followed by many contemporary Christian songs.

  • Classical music by composers such as Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827) have been adapted for use as hymn tunes.

  • The music editor of the English Hymnal (1906), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), collected numerous folk melodies and arranged them as hymn tunes.

  • William Booth (1829-1912), the founder of the Salvation Army, approved the use of secular melodies for Christian songs with the words, ‘Why should the devil have all the best tunes?'

Worship absorbed by culture

  • Since 1927 the first verse of the hymn Abide with me has been sung at the start of the English FA Cup final, whilst at rugby matches the spiritual Swing low sweet chariot, and hymn Guide me O thou great redeemer are often heard .

  • Several Christian songs (including Amazing grace and Morning has broken) have been pop hits

  • The influence of the spirituals sung by Afro-Caribbean slaves in the USA has fed into various musical genres including not only gospel music but also the blues, R&B and soul.

This kind of interaction is both understandable and inevitable: Christian songs, like any others, are written and used in a cultural context.

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