“Acappella Singing and Church Size”

Categories: Worship

A couple of days ago, I encountered a video of a saxophonist performing a. . . memorable rendition of the hymn “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart”.  At least, that’s what I think he’s playing.  I reposted the video with the comment, “The real reason why the Lord only commanded us to sing was to save us from bad church bands.  Not totally sure I'm joking.”

In all seriousness, I think there may be some truth to that.  I’m not sure that the performer-audience model of worship works well anywhere, but I think it has to work particularly badly in average and smaller-than-average churches. 

Across all denominations, the average church size is about 80 in attendance on Sunday morning.  If you want to put together a competent church band from the talent base of those 80 attendees, how successful are you going to be?  (Note, by the way, that churches of Christ are not a good gauge here.  Because of the practice of congregational singing, brethren have much more musical interest and ability than the norm.)  I’d guess you’d have a dude who used to play guitar in jazz band in high school, a woman of a certain age who gives piano lessons sometimes, and a girl in her late teens or early twenties who thinks she can sing. 

They could make music together, kind of.  You wouldn’t necessarily want to be in the same room with it.  If, perchance, they turned out to be pretty good, it wouldn’t be long before a larger congregation snapped them up. 

I’m not an expert, though I’ve watched some recordings online.  I would guess, however, that the attendee of the average church is subjected to bad music on a weekly basis.  The spotlight is not kind to people with marginal musical talent.

For churches of that size or smaller, congregational singing is simply going to work better.  Once you get people who are willing to sing (which is an American obstacle not generally present elsewhere), an 80-member congregation will be able to do so in an appealing way, even if the singers only have modest musical gifts.  The massed voices mask the flaws of any one voice (which, come to think of it, is a lovely metaphor for a church generally).  I’ve worshiped with lots of churches all across the country, but I can’t think of a single one where the singing discouraged me.

This is true not only for the average church, but even for the small one.  When I still lived in Illinois, I would preach once a month for the church up the road.  I believe the congregation has grown since, but back when I visited on Sunday evening, attendance would be in the teens.

Trying to get a band together from those brethren would have been a disaster, but you know what?  They could still make congregational singing work.  I didn’t dread singing with them.  I enjoyed it.

I think this illustrates the wisdom of God’s commandment to sing.  Acappella congregational singing scales pretty well.  Maybe it doesn’t compare to a Hillsong extravaganza, but singing “Our God, He Is Alive” with 1100 people has some power to it. 

However, it’s most important not for larger churches, but for smaller churches.  Even in the absence of standout musical talents (which usually aren’t going to be present in smaller congregations), congregational singing works.  It works here, it works in Africa (again, haven’t been, but have seen the YouTube videos), and I’d imagine it worked 2000 years ago.  Like everything about God’s plan for the church, it is suited to all places and times.

If you find yourself taking that for granted, go back and listen to the video at the top until you don’t.