Active and passive singing
Singing is (or should be) an important part of our walk. The words of hymns can help us reflect upon the Word and what we learn on Sunday. Historically, Psalms played a significant role in congregational singing in reminding God’s people throughout the ages of God’s character, to encourage, to rebuke the nation and provide a way to respond to God in times of joy and need. For Issac Watts, Psalms had a leading role in worship and should be imitated via New Testament language. However, our singing shouldn’t be limited just to the Psalms only; as shown in the following passage from Colossians:
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Colossians 3:16, NIV)
Singing has always played a significant role historically. Hymns were an important part of the Protestant Reformation as shown by those written by Martin Luther. Throughout the centuries, Issac Watts and then Charles Wesley, George Whitfield and Charles Spurgeon produced hymn books to equip believers. Pastors valued the role music had in church life, they took every precaution to ensure what was sung was biblical, evangelistic and God-honouring. Still, the question remains about how and what we sing now which is the focus of this article. In recent years, worship music had undergone significant transformation. During the 1990s and 2000s a rift emerged between traditional forms of music versus contemporary worship in Church. However, whilst the ‘worship wars’ focused on style and instruments, the big issues about what was exactly sung and why we sing were often ignored. We believe it important to consider the question of engagement in our singing; we feel there is an important distinction between active and passive singing.
Active singing means engaging and reflecting on the Word in worship in a deep and meaningful way. Music should encourage us to open our hearts to the Lord by either explanation or response to His word (or ideally both). Active singing involves the congregation of God singing biblical truth to one another, encouraging each rather than simple watching a music group or choir. According to, Bob Kauflin from Sovereign Grace Music stated that, ‘regardless of what we think or feel, there is no authentic worship of God without a right knowledge of God.’ Active singing makes it all about Him and who He is and what He has done and will do! As shown in the hymn What a Friend we Have in Jesus (1855) by Joseph M. Scriven reminds us to seek the Lord in prayer, and to follow and love the Lord more.
Active singing is also about engaging with important truths which should be at the heart of the Christian faith. Keith Getty openly declared that many contemporary songs fail to engage with fundamental truths such as eternity. He goes on to say that to have a proper relationship with God, we must understand all His character in its entirety. He uses the analogy of the husband-wife relationship to illustrate that, a long-lasting marriage would not last if you only knew your spouse partially. Singing should therefore have a vital role helping us understand God’s character.
Active singing focuses on helping us learn about God and the Bible. However, it is not about whether we focus on traditional or modern hymns or not. There are many classic hymns which are powerful, truthful, and encouraging. We do feel these should be our starting point. But equally, there are many new hymns which can also help us in our walk. Active singing is therefore about equipping both the Church and the believer singing a combination of old and new hymns.
So, how should this be reflected on Sunday? Today, music and preaching are becoming more separated. But, if worship is to be all-encompassing, we should sing about what we learn in Church. After all, a service should be all about worship to God, as we seek Him and pray together as a congregation. Songs should be structured in a way to help us do this. The hymn Speak, O Lord (2005) written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend is a good example of how this should work:
Speak, O Lord, as we come to You
To receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us
All Your purposes for Your glory.
Teach us, Lord, full obedience,
Holy reverence, true humility;
Test our thoughts and our attitudes
In the radiance of Your purity.
Cause our faith to rise; cause our eyes to see
Your majestic love and authority.
Words of pow’r that can never fail—
Let their truth prevail over unbelief.
Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds.
Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us—
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we’ll stand on Your promises,
And by faith we’ll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built
And the earth is filled with Your glory.
This hymn is often sung just before the sermon asking the Lord to:
- Plant key truths in us via the message
- Sanctify us via the Word
- Use our deeds of faith as a witness for Him for His glory
- Call us to draw near to Him in faith and humility
- Renew our hearts
- Give us faith in His eternal truth, His sovereign grace, and His promise that the Church will prevail
In short, this hymn is a call to actively engage with God’s character. However, Sundays can vary from week to week: if a service is about the importance of prayer, then your songs should reflect prayer as a primary theme, if your theme is about sanctification, then the songs should reflect this too and so forth. Services should include a call to worship, and a call to repentance. An active singing culture, we feel can therefore equip us for the week ahead, where we continue to reflect on what we have learnt on Sunday
Passive worship concerns both the writing of songs and the singing itself. Firstly, some contemporary worships tend to be quite descriptive or superficial. The songs may talk about things such as the Cross, but they do not fully engage with doctrines like justification, sanctification, eternity, sin and so on. We therefore are unable to learn much from singing these types of songs.
Secondly, our concept of passive worship is very much linked to the remarkable growth of the ‘concert church’. Congregants become more like spectators and the music group more like entertainers. Instead of directing our worship to God, the music group on the stage are placed into the spotlight. Yet, congregants should play an active role building each other up. Ultimately our focus should be on God and God alone when we sing.
A recent rock song by Fireflight has made some interesting comments upon this passive singing culture. Passive singing makes church into an extremely comfortable place where eventually singing just becomes a show. The danger of this is clear, if this is the way our church goes, will we fully know the Lord?
Do you worship a God?
That you don’t really know?
Do you long for the truth?
Do you just want a show?
This kind of singing creates a church and a people that don’t know the Lord in all His glory, but rather just an image of God which makes them feel good and comfortable. People just want their favourite songs, a feel-good atmosphere, but they end up leaving without having met God.
Finally, we feel the sensory aspect of singing links very much to our concept of passive singing. Here the emphasis is on ‘feeling good’ or satisfying your own emotional needs. The focus here is often about singing what you want to hear not what you need to hear. We are not saying that we should not have emotional response which in active singing reveals our hearts and the intrinsic worth we place on the Lord. But ultimately, we don’t meet God through music but through Jesus Christ our Great High Priest. It is in Him that we should find satisfaction, hope and Joy.
This is only a brief introduction into worship and singing and we have more than enough material for a book! But in this article, we wanted to introduce these terms active and passive singing. As Christians we have seen the decline of active worship and the steady rise of passive worship in the Church which poses a danger to many of our brothers and sisters. We must pursue an active worship culture that is alive and focuses upon the Glory of God. When the Church pursues active singing it will stir hearts, it will move our souls, it will set our theology on fire. Churches can be so lukewarm, even cold, and engagement is limited to Sunday services; attendance at prayer meetings and other Church activities is declining. No doubt this in part product of passive singing culture where spectating and being entertained is more importance than engagement. Let us pray that the Church turns back to Her Lord and pursues a worship culture that is active and strong in the Lord.
Psalm 80 (NIV):
Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,
shine forth 2 before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might;
come and save us.
3 Restore us, O God;
make your face shine on us,
that we may be saved.