It is easy to assume that congregational singing has always been a part of Christian worship. Indeed, if anything it has something of an old-fashioned air at present, conjuring up seemingly timeless images of dusty, yellowed hymnals, of the old mainline church in the center of town, of Garrison Keillor paeans to the Lutherans of Lake Wobegon. But of course, none of those images are in fact timeless, and congregational song has a quite precise history: like the hymnal, the mainline churches, and Lutherans, congregational singing is a product of the Protestant Reformation.

Today, however, the practice of congregational singing in church is threatened by a sea change in how people relate to music outside of church. All is not lost, however: the church, if it commits to the weirdness of congregational singing, might work to rebuild a culture of communal music-making within and outside the church, use that culture to invite people into the church, and – most importantly – continue to offer psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to Almighty God.

Of course, it is not that music was wholly absent from Christian worship before Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. In the Christian West prior to the Reformation, the priest would have chanted the Mass, and in larger parishes and cathedrals a choir might have sung the principal parts. In their monasteries and convents, monks and nuns marked the hours of prayer by chanting services of great complexity. But music in worship was generally the preserve of clergy, monastics, and professionals. It was a great innovation of the Reformers in both Lutheran and Calvinist churches to open up participation in music during worship to all Christians. And what a transformation of the experience of public Christian worship this must have been! The Lutherans were the first great hymn writers, with Luther himself composing numerous hymns still in use by Christians of all traditions today (one can even find “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in Roman Catholic hymnals). The Reformed typically restricted church music to metrical psalmody, that is, verse paraphrases of psalms. Many of the psalm-tunes that early Reformed composers wrote are also still in use today, even as most contemporary Reformed churches allow a somewhat wider array of music in worship.

Thomas Webster, The Village Choir, oil on panel, 1847 Image public domain

Not only was congregational singing a Protestant development, but it was also a significant means of Protestant success, of building popular attachment to the new articulations of doctrine, new ways of worship, and new churches that emerged from the convulsions of the sixteenth century. Andrew Pettegree, in his excellent Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (2005), notes the incredible popularity of both hymns and metrical psalmody, in church and beyond. Protestants sang these new songs at worship, at home, at work; such music became an important badge of Protestant identity. Indeed, in a darker key, violent iconoclasm and Protestant-Catholic street fighting were often carried out to the sound of the new Protestant music. The bands accompanying Irish Orange walks, no less than a congregation singing hymns in four-part harmony, are a fruit of the Reformation development of Protestant song.

What explains the Protestants’ success? Pettegree argues that they built upon a robust culture of communal singing in a way which Roman Catholics of the period largely failed to do. Singing was woven into the fabric of early modern European culture: at work, at home, in the field, while traveling, while gathered at the marketplace or in inns or taverns, really anywhere and everywhere. The genius of the Protestant pioneers of congregational singing was to take this musical practice and make it a part of public worship and religious identity. People were used to singing – they liked to sing – and the early hymnodists used this to enrich people’s worship of God and strengthen their allegiance to the Protestant cause.

And of course, the development of congregational singing did not stop at the Reformation: from Isaac Watts to the Wesley brothers to African American spirituals to the prolific hymnist Fanny Crosby and beyond, Protestant Christianity has always been a faith sung by the people. Nor did it stay within the churches of the Reformation; especially after the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church came to widely adopt the use of hymns in worship as well. One might well argue that congregational singing is one of Protestantism’s greatest gifts to the church catholic.

But a remarkable transformation has taken place over the last hundred years or so. Many Christian churches retain congregational singing, but the robust culture of popular amateur music-making that undergirded it is no more. At the Reformation, the ubiquitous practice of popular singing and music-making was baptized and brought into the churches; today, in North America at least, churches are one of the last holdouts of a tradition of popular singing and music-making that has largely disappeared from the broader culture. It is not that music has somehow disappeared; given how many of us go through our days with headphones in, it’s quite possible that music plays as large a role in our lives as it did in those of our sixteenth-century forebears. But the way we relate to music has changed. We are more likely to be audience members than participants, and more likely to listen to recorded music than live music. We have moved from active music-making with those around us to passive music-consuming individually. Isolated exceptions remain: parents still sing lullabies to their children; people still sing “Happy Birthday” at parties; the crowd at Fenway Park belts out “Sweet Caroline” at the bottom of the eighth inning. But all the same, it remains the case that there was once a set of communal practices around singing and making music that is now gone.

This transformation poses a problem for churches where communal singing has historically been an important part of worship. It is a common complaint in church circles that congregations don’t sing like they used to. While some of this complaint might well be chalked up to nostalgia, it surely has some basis in the reality of the broader abandonment of popular music-making. So what should churches do about this? Some have adjusted their own musical practices. If the original Protestant transformation of music in worship was a matter of bringing contemporary practices into church, many evangelical and charismatic churches have done the same thing some four hundred years later. Live music is often retained, but it is performed by a set of professionals on a stage much like at a rock concert. And like at a rock concert, one can sing along but need not; one might also be moved to silent or ecstatic forms of prayer. The music is not primarily a matter of communal, amateur song, even though people might very well participate.

There’s nothing wrong with this choice to be seeker-friendly, to present the Good News in the context of a familiar cultural experience to make newcomers comfortable. But for those churches that choose to continue to practice the unfamiliar cultural experience of congregational singing, this practice may serve as its own attraction to seekers looking for something more than the wider culture offers. Might this something be joining voice with others in song?

Churches that choose to embrace this mission should do so with the awareness that people may need help acclimating to the practice. To this end, churches might make musical education something not just for children’s choirs but for all churchgoers. Churches might also bring into their space other forms of communal music-making, both inside and outside of worship. Some already do: Sacred Harp music groups often meet in churches, even when the groups themselves are not necessarily religious, and when I was in divinity school I knew a church nearby that held a weekly folk song jam. By holding regular events for singing or making music together, churches can bolster a culture of communal singing. It also provides a genuine service for communities without many chances for casual music, and is the sort of low-stakes event that can make a good evangelism opportunity, to boot!

Martin Luther wrote in 1523 that he penned hymns “so that the Word of God may be among the people in the form of music.” Looking back from the distance of five hundred years, it seems clear that he succeeded marvelously. Today, however, this musical reformation stands to be renewed. There is a unique quality to making music together, whether around a campfire or around the piano at home or in church, that other forms of interaction with music don’t quite match. Giving up these traditional musical practices wholesale would be a great loss, especially since church is one of the few places where people still make music together in this way. The church will always be weird in a secular culture, in far more ways than our music. In music – as in so many other parts of the church’s life – this is a weirdness worth embracing.