“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
Proverbs 29:18 KJV
THE GREATEST THREAT TO A CAPPELLA WORSHIP IS NOT INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC; IT IS LOUSY WORSHIP. Some church leaders believe they can keep a cappella alive by preaching against instrumental music semi-annually, but the most effective method is to worship the Lord with consistent, spirit-filled praise. When it comes to the perseverance of a cappella Christian hymnody, in some circles, it has become its own worst enemy.
Ensuring there is “nothing wrong” with our worship will not make it worth preserving. The next generation will not adopt their parents rote, lifeless tradition simply upon the premise that it “isn’t wrong.” They will need to experience genuine, heartfelt, spiritual worship. Meaningless, empty worship that is performed without much thought leaves people feeling unfulfilled and longing for something more. If shallow, lousy worship is all they know, that may be the perfect segue into superficial praise team or instrumental worship. At least it sounds better!
A cappella worship done well may thrive because it is counter-cultural, not in spite of that fact. So don’t apologize or feel embarrassed because your church doesn’t have a band! Our worship may be the very thing outsiders come to experience. Any art form practiced with skill and passion will likely perpetuate, even as cultural shifts occur around it. Often, the novelty of an art is its draw. However, if the artists themselves lose their purpose and passion, the form will soon be forgotten. It will slowly wither away from neglect rather than by direct outside forces.
When is the last time you experienced passionate, engaging, life changing worship?
How many of your church’s worship leaders even know what they’re doing up there?
When is the last time you heard a sermon that inspired you to worship our awesome God versus just telling you not to use instruments or praise teams?
Part tradition, part doctrine, the church holds dear its rich heritage of a cappella worship. The term “a cappella” means “in the style of the chapel.” Simply put, vocal only–without instrumental accompaniment. First century Christians worshiped this way (Colossians 3:16, 17; Ephesians 5:18-20). But God left to our liberty certain methods and mechanics.
Four part harmony choral music is merely one style of several that Christians have used over the centuries. The main alternative would be unison singing. Unison singing is every bit as acceptable and worshipful as part singing. Many song writers will sometimes vary between unison and harmony to illustrate unity corresponding to appropriate hymn text phrases (e.g. Come, Thou Almighty King/Whitefield/Felice de Giardini). There is no right or wrong here. It is a matter of stylistic preference. Each may be effective means of worship and communication. The early Christians employed chants and call and response hymns. Four part harmony choral music is nothing more than a tradition. However, it has many merits that I believe are worth preserving.
- It blends many different voices as one
- It allows each unique voice to fully participate with all its strength and beauty
- It produces rich, multi-layered chords that not only please our ears, but God’s
- It demonstrates how the diverse parts combine to create something more blessed and beautiful than any one voice could produce alone
If church leaders are ignorant or indifferent toward the methods that built and sustain a cappella four part harmony singing in the church, it is only a matter of time until it is lost. I have observed that the fundamental building blocks of four part harmony a cappella singing are slowly being forgotten in the church. Many churches have carelessly tossed aside various methods such as pitch pipes and shaped notes while seemingly innocuously “micing” in a praise team… and they act stunned when the harmony disappears and the church stops singing enthusiastically! What follows are 12 ways to keep a cappella alive, and 12 ways to kill it.
12 ways to keep a cappella worship alive
- Teach your church who we worship: our awesome God!
- Teach your church why we worship: He loves us and redeemed us!
- Teach your church how we worship: in spirit (intellect, emotion, will) and in truth!
- Appoint men to oversee the worship who understand every aspect of worship and worship leading because of their own experience or else their regular attendance of Singing School with the worship leaders
- Carefully select and teach an edited repertoire of songs that are worshipful, edifying, accessible for non-musicians, and purposefully written for congregational singing
- Provide hymnals and slides with shaped notes
- Train your worship leaders and attempt to use only trained leaders in your main worship
- Train your church on the basics of shaped notes, sight singing, dynamics, pitch, and rhythm so they can follow the leader, learn new songs faster, and worship at home
- Introduce fresh content at an appropriate rate for your church’s ability (perhaps learn 12 additional songs per year, more or less)
- Host well coordinated worship events with skilled leaders and a planned theme including monthly on Sundays and annually in an area wide event—do it so well that people come from miles around and pack the building to join in praise!
- Worship at home and in the car with your family
- Consult with worship leaders, acoustical engineers, and audio/visual specialists to ensure the building and tech helps the singing
12 ways to kill a cappella worship
- Never bring lessons that directly evoke awe and worship of God—keep it academic and devoid of emotion
- Don’t teach why we worship God, only that we must
- Don’t teach how we worship God, except to hammer that it must be a cappella—and devoid of emotion
- Appoint men to oversee the worship who know little to nothing about worship and therefore cannot understand how the decisions they make are detrimental to the worship
- Leave the repertoire to chance and total anarchy with no standards or clear leadership so that you can bore the church with tired old mediocre songs, weird them out with cheesy camp songs, or confuse them with conflicting arrangements–be sure to try to force the church to sing songs written for professional bands and praise teams WITHOUT the help of a band or praise team
- Display conventional notation or “lyrics only” on a trendy inspirational background because you “really want to sing that new radio song” and don’t think anyone reads the shapes or music (you’re wrong)
- Don’t train your worship leaders–let anybody lead who says they’re a song leader
- Don’t train your church because you’re sure nobody needs or wants to understand how to read music
- Either introduce too few new songs or too many for your group’s desire and ability so that the worship either becomes stale or else feels like a sight singing class
- Center all of your churches activities and events around preaching–never or rarely hold special worship services, and when you do, do it so poorly that nobody attends
- Let the singing become that weird thing we do at church, and nowhere else, and even then, we do it poorly
- Have men who know nothing about worship build an acoustically dead building and use tech that distracts more than it helps
“I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Luke 19:40 ESV
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the real though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Thru all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
ROBERT W. LOWERY, 1868
6 thoughts on “12 essentials to keeping a cappella worship alive in your church, and 12 ways to kill it”
Like your article brother. Can I add a point to keep Acappella singing alive:
Teach 3,4,5 graders shape notes in a class setting once a year.
If we teach our younger kids shape notes, when they are in high school they will engage in worship.
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Yes! Thanks, Luke! That is an excellent practice.
Thank you for all you do to help the church worship our great God!
Good article. The important thing in a cappella singing, and it’s real strength, is in the fact that the whole congregation is singing, preferably in harmony. I agree about having people directing the singing who know what they are doing, but do not want to see worship leaders taking over from the congregation, whether with their voices or their guitars and drums. Or organ, for that matter.
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A leader who knows what he is doing understand he is there to help the church worship, not perform.
I’m not all that keen on shaped notes myself. Why not teach people to read stave notation properly, or just use tonic sol-fa? “In countries other than the US, the moveable doh” is incomprehensible. But I know that the system has contributed to good congregational singing among the churches of Christ in America.
In my opinion, it is much more difficult to read music without the shapes. The ONLY people who think conventional is easier is people who already know how to read conventional…