Two Streams of Congregational Music

The following article was included as the Preface to the second printing of Borning Cry – Worship for a New Generation in 1994.


When church members hear talk of “contemporary” worship, their usual reaction is, “We’ve never done that kind of thing before.”  Well, that’s probably not true.  The song tradition (contemporary, by our definition) has run parallel to the formal tradition all through the history of Judeo-Christian worship.  Even when one examines the synagogue/temple practice of the Hebrews, one finds quite a difference.  The synagogue style was more like a town meeting where a discussion would follow the “sermon” by the Rabbi.  References to musical instruments would include the timbrel (tambourine) and lyres and lutes (guitar-like instruments) suggesting a very rhythmic, popular style of singing.  At the temple they used trumpets, large harps and “loud clashing cymbals,” which would suggest a more classical, performance oriented music.  This practice continued on into the early church period.  St. Paul’s references to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” suggests that two new elements were added, “hymns” (a style borrowed from the Greeks) and “spiritual songs,” which was a new category probably resulting from the intimate sort of God which the Christians worshiped.  Jesus was a God who not only became human, but also had friends and siblings, and a mom and dad.  The spiritual songs were probably love songs to Jesus and story songs about his remarkable life here on earth.

Constantine’s conversion, and the subsequent “conversion” of the entire known world, made it possible for the Christians to experience the luxury of Temple worship again.  But, unfortunately, the pendulum swung too far to that end and got stuck there.  For over one thousand years (until Luther) worship music was the exclusive domain of monastic choirs, cantors and priests.  To compensate for this, the Christians would create parallel feasts and celebrations with accompanying music of a more popular nature.  This is the root of the carols, ballads, biblical songs and mystery plays.  It gave the people a chance to participate even though they were excluded from the official worship of the church.

Martin Luther introduced the German language into the worship life and also paraphrased the liturgy and psalms into songs that could be easily sung by everyone.  This was an attempt to not only involve the people in worship, but also to get them to come back after he removed the main reason why anybody went to church.  By attacking the Pope’s indulgence and merit systems, one of which was that simple church attendance could gain you favor or knock years off your stay in purgatory, Luther was also removing the main reason people went to church.  To encourage their attendance, he made the Mass more accessible to them.  However, on the high feast days, he continued the practice of the formal Latin Mass.

In the Anglican church, where formality continued on Sunday morning, Christians were encouraged to sing metrical psalms and spiritual songs in the home.  There was a practice of having more than one worship book.

This is true yet today in the Scandinavian churches, where two separate books and two separate buildings are in use.  The State Church has a “hymnal” and the people attend official services there (baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals) as well as the high church festivals.  But in the evening they attend a “Bed Hus” or prayer house, where they sing from a songbook containing many more popular and folk tunes than would be found in the State Church Salmebok.

In American Protestantism, if the morning worship was formal, there was always the opportunity to come to the evening service and sing the favorite “Spiritual Songs” that everyone knew and loved so well.  Or, one could attend a revival meeting.  The important point to be made is that it was the same people who attended the morning church who also came to the evening church.  It was the same people who met in the synagogue who also traveled to Jerusalem to experience Temple worship.  It was the same people who attended the Latin Mass in Germany who also celebrated the day outside the church in the community or came to Luther’s Song Masses.  It’s only recently that we’ve been forced to decide between formal and informal, between orthodox and pietist, between contemporary and traditional.  I don’t think it’s ever been a legitimate demand on the worshiper.  I, for one, can be nurtured by both streams.  I need to have my mind stimulated by the performance tradition and I need to have my heart touched by full participation in the song tradition of the church.

This leads us to a clarification of the differences between the two traditions:

The Two Streams of Congregational Music

1. Formal – performance oriented
(participation is optional)
Separates musicians from congregation – gives them a featured  role.
1. Informal – participation oriented
(everyone expected to sing)
The good singers should be in the congregation to help them sing.
2. More academic
(Appeals primarily to the mind)
2. More experiential
(Appeals primarily to the heart)
3. Texts are called “poems”
The look of a poem is as important as its sound – (“eye” words such as love/prove or word/Lord)
3. Texts are called “lyrics”
The sound of a lyric is more important than its look . . . vowel dominated.  (rhyming words such as love/enough or word/earth)
4. Texts are more objective
Theological in nature (following the priestly tradition) – less risky
4. Texts are more subjective
Biblical in nature (following the prophetic tradition) – more risky
5. Music is the servant of the text
(words always more important and seldom modified)
People select hymns because of the text.
5. Text is the servant of the music
(The medium is the message.)
People select songs because of the music.
6. Music set to existing text –
The rhythm of the text informs the way the music is crafted (or it just sounds awkward.)
6. Words written to existing music
The rhythm of the melody informs the way the words are crafted.  (The words are the flexible part.)
7. Music is usually composed
The music can be of any style (even jazz, rock of Broadway), but classical styles dominate.  Durability is important and old is usually better than new.  The text is written by a person other than the composer of the music.  The tunes can be popular or traditional melodies that have been adapted to meet the hymnic qualifications.
7. Music is borrowed from popular or traditional sources.
Popular, traditional and country styles dominate because of their accessibility, repetitive nature and storytelling quality.  New is usually better than old, and there is a much faster turnover of resources than in the hymn tradition. Tune adaptation and text are often written by the same person.
8. Very few have choruses or refrains
(Textual repetition is considered redundant.)
8. Most songs have a chorus or refrain and lots of repetition.
(Textual repetition is planned for and the musical structure encourages it.)
9. The more chord changes per measure, the better
(as in the classic tradition)
9. The less chord changes the better
(Invites a wider variety of instrumental accompaniment)
10. Characterized as tight or precise
(Easy to make mistakes and the mistakes are noticed.  But at the same time, tempo, rhythm and structure tend to be arbitrary.)
10. Characterized as loose
(Difficult to sing it wrong.  But under the loose melodic interpretation, rhythm, temp and structure are consistent and predictable.)

Traditionally, the song service would be “dressed down” to better fit the informal nature of the event.  The officiants would become more a part of the congregation, not vested and not visually dominant.  There would be no processionals or recessionals unless they included everyone.  The preaching would be from the middle aisle, not the pulpit.  The prayers would be free prayers, not formal, published prayers.  The accompaniment would be piano or “pop” instrumentation, or no accompaniment at all.   The congregation is responsible for carrying the music, not the choir or organist.  The prelude and the postlude would be a song that could continue to be sung as the people leave the sanctuary. Leading would be done by one individual (or small group . . . too many, and people think it’s a choir and quit singing) who is well trained in the art of getting folks to sing.  This is an art, and the various techniques and skills of this art form can be learned by anyone.  In the Hebrew tradition, this person is called a Cantor.  The German Protestant version was the Vorsanger.  In Finland it was the Lukkeri, and in the rest of Scandinavia, it was the Klokker.  In contemporary America, this person is the lead singer or worship leader.  The leader’s purpose is to engage the congregation in active participation and to discourage “spectatoritis.”  Whether the style is new or old, people can easily slip into being spectators if they are permitted or encouraged to do so.

What one sees above is evidence of strongly contrasting styles of worship.  But the most fascinating thing about it is that the same people are moving gracefully back and forth between them.  The horrible decision of trying to determine which you are just isn’t there.  If you swing too far to the formal side, you end up in rationalism; if you swing too far to the informal side, you end up in emotionalism.  Please note that Martin Luther was very critical of both of these extremes.

In the past, supplements to hymnals tended to be more like songbooks.  These were provided by the mainline denominations for informal settings such as camps, conferences, retreats, youth gatherings, Sunday schools, and the like.  Only recently have these supplements become extensions of the hymnal, i.e., more of the same.  The Borning Cry worship book is not a hymnal.  It is a songbook intended as a resource for informal settings.  Seventy-five of the tunes in Borning Cry are also found in the Lutheran Book of Worship and its supplements, but an attempt has been made to restore them to their song origins.  Hymnals have a twenty- to fifty-year life expectancy.  Songbooks should be revised every three to five years.  Borning Cry will experience many revisions before its life is over.

John C. Ylvisaker, Editor