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The Power and Purpose of A Cappella Singing in Congregational Song, Part 1

by Eric Wyse
 
An Historical Look at Singing in Worship

Throughout the history of the Christian Church, congregational song has been an important part of the worship service; and for much of Church history, the primary instrument utilized was the unaccompanied human voice. Since the Middle Ages, the addition of musical instruments for accompaniment to the human voice has increasingly diminished the role of a cappella congregational singing. And today, in the ever-changing landscape of modern Church music–whether traditional, contemporary or an convergence of styles–there seems to be little room for the chorus of human voices, unaccompanied by any instrument, singing together in worship of God.  What is the importance of unaccompanied singing in the worship community? Why has this ancient form been virtually lost in modern practice, and can it be restored in the context of 21st century Christianity? These timely questions must be asked, and then answered satisfactorily, if the Church desires to corporately worship Almighty God in a more meaningful and excellent way.


Psalm 150, one of the most eloquent Scripture outlining the use of instruments in worship, paints a picture of Hebrew temple worship before the time of Christ that utilized instruments with the voice, including flutes, trumpets, harps, stringed instruments and percussion. The New Testament is silent about instruments in worship, but the historical record indicates that at the time of Christ’s incarnation on earth, instruments were prominently used in the temple worship that included sacrifices, while music in the synagogue was quite simple, and predominately vocal chant of Psalms (Kidd, 2005, p. 148). In the Upper Room, after the Last Supper, both the gospels of Matthew and Mark record in the account of that evening, “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out…” Patrick Kavanaugh, in his book “The Music of Angels: A Listener’s Guide to Sacred Music from Chant to Christian Rock” surmises that with that hymn, Jesus “inaugurated the beginning of Christian music (1999, p. 9).” According to the historical context, it would have been sung unaccompanied. Kavanaugh elaborates: “Since the earliest Christian worship services had much to do with reenacting the Last Supper, Jesus’ hymn singing established an important precedent.”

In the early Church, the Apostle Paul refers to “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” that were to be sung in the gathering of Christians, with no mention of instruments. His admonition is to “sing and make melody in your hearts to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19). Early Church leaders, including Ignatius of Antioch, and the martyr Origen, wrote about the Church singing both the Psalms and Odes of Solomon (early hymns of the Church) in detail, using words to describe the believer’s singing that are translated as harmonious, in unison, singing with one voice, and in concord; in all of those writings there is never indication of any instrumental accompaniment (Kavanaugh, p. 12). It is hundreds of years later until the earliest records indicate use of an organ in Western worship: a 10th century reference to an instrument that would have been of a very primitive design, bearing little resemblance to the organs in wide use by the Renaissance. Interestingly, while the Church in the West began to incorporate accompaniment to the human voice in the Middle Ages (Webber, 1994, pp. 397-398), the Eastern Church has, to this day, retained the singing of music unaccompanied.

By the time of the Protestant Reformation, organs and orchestral instruments were in frequent use in many Churches. Martin Luther and John Calvin’s calls during the Reformation for a return to a cappella singing were only heeded for a short period of time. (Hustad, 1993, p. 490). In the 16th century, the newly formed Mennonite movement in Switzerland, Germany and France began a tradition of unaccompanied hymn singing that continues around the world to this day. Churches of Christ congregations, formed out of the mid-19th century American restoration movement that called for a return to the apostolic tradition of unaccompanied singing, still worship with hymns and gospel songs, sung in four-part harmony, without any instrumental accompaniment (Webber, 1993).

Still to come:  Part 2 – The Why and How of A Cappella Singing in Worship

Eric Wyse is the Director of Music & Organist / Choirmaster St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Nashville, TN. He served as the editor of The Christian Life Hymnal (Hendrickson, 2006), and is the co-writer of the modern hymn “Wonderful, Merciful Savior.” Eric has recorded a series of four 3-CD sets of piano-based music for Christian Book Distributors Reflections, Reflections 2, Christmas Reflections, Praise Worship Reflection. For more information: www.ericwyse.com