A Reason to Sing -- By: P. J. Janson

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 04:4 (Fall 1995)
Article: A Reason to Sing
Author: P. J. Janson


A Reason to Sing

P. J. Janson

Why do we sing in church? Some will give the logistical argument: since much of what happens in the worship service occurs at the chancel, singing a Psalm, hymn, or spiritual song will provide the congregation with an opportunity to become actively involved. Others may cite the “community argument”: They see congregational singing as an activity which dissolves social and community differences. In their opinion, therefore, it serves as a tool which creates a sense of unity and solidarity.

While statements such as these are undoubtedly true, they merely note some of the “beneficial side effects” instead of the true reason for congregational singing. If we wish to establish why it is we sing in church, we need to examine the roots of singing. There is indubitably no one else who has played such a central and pivotal role in the establishment of the congregational song as Martin Luther, and we will do well to find out what it was that caused him to incorporate congregational singing as an essential element of the worship service. Nearly half a millennium has passed since Luther restored congregational singing and, as often happens over time, the original intention is easily forgotten. It is important, however, to regain an understanding of the original intent since it can teach us not only what Luther believed about why the congregation should sing, but also why we have a reason to sing. Therefore, we will consider the four points: (1) Martin Luther and the chorale; (2) The hymn text in service of the Word of God; (3) The relation of both text and tune in the service of the Word of God; and (4) The purpose of hymn singing.

Martin Luther and the Chorale

The introduction of congregational singing in the Lutheran church was not an invention of Luther, but existed already in some form before 1517. As with all of Luther’s reforms, he did not really introduce something new; rather, he excised from the Roman Catholic practice that which was contrary to the

Bible, and restored what had become misused and neglected by the Roman church.

In earlier times the Roman church did allow the congregation to take part during the singing of doxologies, kyries, hymns, and amens but, with the reform of Pope Gregory the Great (590–604), the song of the church was transferred from the congregation to the priests and the choir. In Roman Catholic practice, singing was done by a special group of trained singers

which, unlike a Lutheran church choir, represented not the congregation, but the clergy. Because of the hierarchical character of the Roman Catholic services of corporate worship, the choir thus constituted a lower...

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