Lowell Mason

Performance Worship is Nothing New

While recently visiting a typical contemporary service where few in the congregation were singing, an article I read about hymn writer Lowell Mason came to mind.

Mason composed or arranged several hymns we still sing today, like Joy to the World, Oh for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, There Is a Fountain and Take My Life and Let It Be. Wikipedia reports that while Mason was music director of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City in the mid 19th century, he “radically transformed American church music from a practice of having professional choirs and accompaniment to congregational singing accompanied by organ music.”

“During his tenure, which lasted until 1860, he developed congregational singing to the point where the church was known has having the finest congregational singing in the city.”

Lowell Mason wouldn’t have seen much difference between today’s contemporary worship and the worship from over a century ago he worked to improve: a crowd of people entertained by performers on stage.

At this church and others like it I’ve repeatedly observed the same thing: congregations who simply watch the worship leader and music team. No attempt is made to participate – they aren’t even mouthing the words to the songs.

Why is this happening? I’ve discussed this problem many times here at WorshipIdeas but it bears a repeat analysis since the issue is epidemic. I see a few common barriers that are preventing the typical, non-musically inclined person in your congregation from singing:

The music is way too loud. Loud is fine, way too loud is too much. If the music is so loud I literally can’t hear the sound coming out of my own mouth, let alone the mouths of those around me, I won’t want to sing.

The songs are too high. I was so intrigued by watching the lack of singing I wasn’t singing myself. So when I tried to join in with the worship leader I found I couldn’t. It’s not that the song was so high that I’d have to strain my voice or push a little harder to hit the notes – the song was so high my vocal chords were not physically able to vibrate at those frequencies – nothing came out when I tried to sing along. So I didn’t.

The songs are too complicated. “Whoas” are the latest worship fad. This praise set had some “whoas” that featured such bizarre octave leaps and weird intervals you’d need a master’s in ear training to keep up. Read more.

The songs are unknown. Churches are singing too many songs that nobody knows. Read more.

What’s funny is the typical contemporary worship leader wouldn’t be caught dead having a soloist “perform” a solo (that’s so 1998) – yet he’s really doing nothing but with the congregational music.

Bottom Line: Make it a point this week to prepare a participatory praise set.

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