What Makes a Song a Congregational Song?
Author’s Note: With this 3-part essay I want to be positive not negative. I want to encourage Worship Leaders to follow the three essentials of this ministry: your heart, the Word of God, and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. I believe there is a Renaissance of the Worship Arts coming as part of the Latter-Day Outpouring of the Holy Spirit. My goal is to help pastors, Worship Leaders, Worship Team members, and congregations participate in this Renaissance for their own benefit and for the benefit of a lost world.
Dr. Stephen Phifer, June 26, 2022
Sing to the Lord, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day. 1 Chronicles 16:23 NIV
I will sing and make music to the Lord. Psalm 27:6 NIV
Bless God in the congregations…Praise the Lord! I will praise the Lord with my whole heart, In the assembly of the upright and in the congregation. Psalm 68:26; 111:1 NKJV
“…don’t criticize what you don’t understand…” Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”
The Wonder of Public Worship
The people out there standing in the congregation have come to church willingly. No one forced them. Why did they come? At least one of the reasons is this: they want to praise and worship the Lord. They didn’t come to be spectators but participants. Many of them are not sure of their voices so they want some good, loud music so they can participate fully without being discovered as a poor singer. Many of them need these few minutes of public worship, so sweet and inspiring, because they want to meet with their Savior in the power of the Spirit. They came to church for a taste of heaven, these few minutes for a brief stint in the heavenly realms, a healing touch from the Great Physician, and a deep sense of divine connection “in the midst of the congregation.” What is their means of transport to the heavenly realms? The music of praise, worship, and prayer. There is a song form designed for exactly this—the Congregational Song. To lead public worship well is a delight to those charged with this responsibility. It is fun to find the songs, old and new. It is fun to put them together and prepare them. These duties demand the skillful use of music which is fun for a musician. It is really fun to see the People of God coming before their Lord to worship in Spirit and in Truth and to see their lives changed “from glory to glory” as they “behold” the Lord through worship. To understand the demanding song form that enables all this fun, we must pull back the camera for a larger view.
What is a song?
In its most basic sense, a song is a musical composition designed to be sung. To get more specific we must ask, “Sung by whom?” There are many answers to this question. Sometimes the song needed will require a professional singer. This will most likely send the listener to recordings. At church, the song needed is a simpler but just as artful composition—the Congregational Song. Why?—because music is the language of the emotions and True Worship requires emotion. When people need to get in touch with their emotions, they will find a song to help them do that. Want proof? Consider these facts:
- Young people in love need love songs, if not to sing, at least to listen to.
- Old people who want to celebrate the good ole days will sing or listen to songs of days gone by.
- When a government needs to send young soldiers off to war, they have the band play stirring military marches.
- When politicians need to reignite patriotic passions, patriotic songs are called for.
- When they need protestors in the streets, there will be somebody somewhere singing a protest song.
- When your football team needs to make a first down or score a touchdown, fans need to hear that fight song.
On and on we could go. Music is not some optional entertainment; it is a functional tool to help us get through life. Selected songs serve as audible signals for events we need to carefully observe.
When I taught Church Music Administration, I learned the human need for music explained this way: “music adds significance to an event.” Want examples?
- When you or I walk into a room, there is no musical accompaniment. When the President walks into a room, a military band has to play “Hail to the Chief.” Could his/her entrance be more significant than yours or mine?
- When a bride walks down the aisle, she is always accompanied by a wedding song.
- When a loved one is enclosed in a casket, mourners need a comforting song of hope.
Obviously, moments of great significance demand specific musical accompaniment, songs carefully chosen to express the significance to those moments. These are the facts of a civilized society.
Now let’s apply this to public worship. In this essay, I am not going to repeat what so many others have said about the spiritual, doctrinal, and devotional aspects of worship songs. That has been thoroughly covered. I want to deal with the musical and artistic aspects that congregational songs demand.
Congregational Songs are work songs.
They are the tools we use to do the work of worship. There is important work that must be done in corporate worship services: thanksgiving, praise, adoration, worship, remembrance, and prayer, to name some of these tasks. Songs help us do these things.
From a biblical perspective, a worship service is a journey into the Holy Presence of God. This is revealed in the symbolism of Moses’ Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple.
Each station in the Tabernacle/Temple model of a worship service involves special, holy tasks for the worshiper.
- We need to enter His gates with thanksgiving. We need to come before the Lord with “joyful songs” because the joy of the Lord is our strength.
- We are called out of darkness to sing His marvelous praise in the “courts of praise.”
- We need to pray together as a church in the Holy Place of the Word and Prayer.
- There are sweet relationship songs that help us spend quality time with the Lord in the Holy of holies.
- In the public worship service, we need to tell the Jesus story to those who have gathered. Gospel songs do exactly that.
- In His presence, humility is the demanding work we must do. We need to prostrate our hearts in worship. Prostration is a root Hebrew word for Worship.
- We need to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
- We need to corporately confess our faith for there are trials ahead for each of us.
- We need to rehearse the details of the Lord’s Return for surely, He is coming soon.
- We need to come to His table to remember the sacrifice of Jesus and celebrate our “new and living way” with “great thanksgiving,” the exact meaning of “Eucharist.”
- We must memorize and quote scripture so the Holy Spirit can write the Word into our hearts.
- We must demolish the dividing lines between races and generations as we express “like, precious faith.” Paul said that Jesus was good at tearing down the walls between cultures and generations.
All these tasks are about exalting the Lord, edifying the church, and doing so in “decent and orderly” ways. We must choose the songs—the tools—that fit each task. When we need a wrench, we don’t choose a hammer.
End of Part One
Please Continue on to Part Two
 2 Corinthians 3:8
 Psalm 100:1; Jerimiah 9:1
 “Jubilate! Music in the Evangelical Tradition,” Donald P. Hustad
 Hebrews 8:5-6 indicates the pattern of the Tabernacle and Temple was based on the revelation to Moses of the Throne Room of God in heaven. So, the Wilderness Tabernacle still stands as a pattern for worship in the New Covenant.
 Psalm 100:1,2 NIV
 Nehemiah 8:10
 1 Peter 2:9
 James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5
 WORSHIP: shachah OT:7812, “to worship, prostrate oneself, bow down.” (from Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words,)
 Mark 12:30
 Hebrews 10:19
 NT:2169 eucharistia; from NT:2170; gratitude; actively, grateful language (to God, as an act of worship): KJV – thankfulness, (giving of) thanks (-giving).(Strong’s)
 Hebrews 8:10
 2 Peter 1:1
 Ephesians 2:14
 This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit in worship. See: https://stevephifer.com/worship-leading-2/