Toward a Sacramental Theology of Congregational Singing
1. The Problem
In twenty-first century America, it is difference in musical taste not difference in doctrine that poses the greatest threat to congregational unity. Look up the service times of any large mainline Protestant church and you are likely to find multiple services offered on a Sunday morning. This is nothing new of course, churches have often had two or even three services on a Sunday morning with, for example, a simple service at 8 a.m. and all the stops pulled out for the 11 o’clock service. What is new is offering different services simultaneously. Consider this description from the website of a large Baptist church: "during the 9:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services in the Sanctuary, the worship style is best described as “blended” - singing a mixture of contemporary praise choruses and traditional hymns. . . [There is also] a contemporary service called The Link at 10:30 a.m. in the Fellowship Hall." The Link is ‘a casual worship experience." These worship experiences--with names like The Well, The Crossing, and The Gathering--divide congregations over aesthetics. But this is more than a change in musical taste or a preference for comfortable chairs and jeans over pews and suits: this is the emergence of sub-congregations sharing the same church buildings. Put simply, musical preference is dividing churches.
Can we really think of the separation of the body between the hymns in the sanctuary and the contemporary worship songs in the fellowship hall as a rupture in the body of Christ? Is this not perhaps overstating the case? I do not think so. Even if these two worshipping groups celebrate the Eucharist on the same day--and many do not--they do not gather around a common table and share in the common cup and loaf. Ignatius, the first-century bishop of Antioch, would certainly have thought this a problem. In a letter written to the church in Philadelphia, he insisted that a church should not have separate sittings for the meal. "Be careful then, to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar."
In many Protestant churches today, the greatest symbol of the Church’s unity--the Eucharist--is sundered over song choice and most people are unaware this schism has even happened. One solution would be to convince people that what we sing and with whom we sing is unimportant. To take this line would be to make a terrible mistake. The problem is not that these churches are taking congregational singing more seriously than their Eucharistic identity; it is that they are not taking congregational singing seriously enough. Rightly understood, congregational singing is a sacramental practice of the Church.