A Tale of Two Types of Church Music

I’ve been leading the music ministry of my church for a few years now. Music has never been a primary pursuit of mine, but there was a need our young church plant had for a music leader and I was the only one who knew how to pound out a few chords on the guitar while attempting to carry a tune. So, I volunteered.

It’s been a stretching experience. I’ve grown a bit in skill, been blessed with an extraordinarily committed and gifted team, and learned a good deal from Scripture about what singing in church is and how it should look.

During this time, there are two lessons that have made an impression on me. First, the music from church to church can be very diverse in terms of musical style (coral, folk, gospel, rock, blues, etc.), instrumentation (organ, piano, acoustic guitar, trumpets, violins, etc.), how many vocalists or instrumentalists (anywhere from one to a hundred), or song choices (contemporary songs, ancient hymns, new hymns, etc). I enjoy this diversity and praise God that Christ is praised in so many different ways.

Second, though there is great diversity in how music in practiced in churches, there seems to be two very ideas for what music on Sundays should be accomplishing: to perform for the congregation or to lead the congregation to participate. Whether they’re aware of it or not, each local church seems to have made a decision about which of these aims they pursue. Their decided aim, either to execute a performance or to lead unto participation, more than anything else, determines what their music ministry will become and how they’ll behave.

Performance Vs. Participation

Let’s describe the two aims of performance music and participatory music. A performance music ministry aims to create an experience or cause emotion in their listeners. If people have a noteworthy experience or feel a unique emotion, then the music work is a success. A participatory music ministry seeks to help the congregation sing the truth of God’s Word to God and one another. With this aim, success is seen when the whole congregation sings the truth of God’s Word loudly to one another and ultimately to the Lord.

There are significant & important differences between performance singing & participatory singing (also known as congregational singing). Here are a few.

Performance music is what we enjoy and expect at concerts. Participation music is the specific kind of activity God invites to participate in at church (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19).

Performance music is very difficult to sing without instruments. Participation music is very easy to sing without instruments. I’ve thought often about this measurement from Jonathan Leeman,

“Here is a general (not absolute) principle: the more a song depends on the musical accompaniment and cannot be sung by a couple of children in the car on the way home, the more performance-oriented and less congregational it probably is.”

Performance music first focuses on the voice(s) on stage. Participation music first focuses on the voices of those in chairs.

Performance music creates a culture where success is measured by how well the band plays. Participation music creates a culture where success is measured by how well the congregation sings. The first seeks to perform. The second seeks to facilitate.

You are (as a member of the congregation) allowed sing with the performance music. You’re expected to sing with the participation music. I often say participation music is like singing “Happy Birthday,” everyone joins in no matter how good or bad your voice is. The point is participating with one another, not performing for one another.

Performance music tends toward individuals fulfilling their preferences. Participation music tends toward the individual joining their community.

There is much more here we could point out, but this gets us a good start to at least have the knowledge to know such different aims exist and be able to identify them.

Why Even Talk About This?

You may ask, if you’ve made it this far, why even talk about this? To avoid unnecessary length, I’ll give one reason: what churches do affects who churches become. Therefore, a church will be deeply affected not only by their preaching, praying, and fellowship each Sunday, but by their singing too. Music forms individual people and churches in significant ways. How we sing is no small matter to be left to preference or taste alone.

How a church sings will have a dramatic effect on that church’s unity, theological knowledge, spiritual health, emotional health, and much more. In an age of extraordinary musical technology, intensely held traditions, & all sorts of pop-Christian music, it’s good for Christians to not just ask, “What have I experienced church music to be?” but “What should church music be?”

I grant, I haven’t said anything about the positive or negative affects of each type of music. Even more, I assume in this piece that participatory music is what the Scriptures call us to. I’ll likely share thoughts on those topics later. For now, I just want to identify the two types of aims that exist in church music ministries today. I will leave to you to think upon which one the Bible seems to be pointing us toward.

For more on congregational singing, check out this free online journal or this book.


About Dana Dill

I'm a Christian, husband, daddy, pastor, professor, and hope to be a friend to pilgrims on their way home.
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