Directions for Singing

Remember the Roseberry – Courtney wedding a couple of weeks ago that sparked The Great Sacred Space Debate of 2007? It was also at that wedding that I saw again John Wesley’s Directions for Singing that he wrote in 1761 and placed on the inside cover of his “Select Hymns” book of that same year. Those instructions for congregational singing have appeared in the exact same form in the front of every Methodist hymnal since, even to this day.

I come across this historic set of instructions every couple of years or so — at a friend’s wedding or a community funeral or while browsing old book stores and antique shops. I saw them again last Saturday inside an old song book at a booth in Canton and I wanted to run them by you in case you’ve never seen them and to remind those of you who have.

There’s tremendous wisdom in these directions. A part of me (not all of me, but a pretty big part of me) would like to see these rules plastered in the fronts of our song books, too — those of us who still use song books, I suppose.

  1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
  2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
  3. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
  4. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
  5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
  6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before or stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
  7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

What do you think? I’m curious.

The rules certainly stress a congregational focus. Learning these songs that our church sings the way our church sings them. It’s clear that Wesley is committed to doing things in a way that will best encourage the entire congregation to enter into the singing. If a song is sung differently every time it’s sung, a lot of people will stop singing for fear of missing the cue or singing the wrong words at the wrong time or tempo. Unannounced surprises squelch full congregational participation.

Singing together — the same words, the same notes, the same tempo — embodies a rich theology of singing in that all the members combine to form one beautiful sound. All the different voices, all the ranges, all the skill levels and talents come together as one just as all of God’s different people with different backgrounds and different gifts form the one body, the Church. I’m reminded of Ignatius’ writings on congregatioanl singing in 110 AD while on his way to being martyred in Rome:

“It blends all voices together and causes one single fully harmonious chant to arise; young and old, rich and poor, women and men, slaves and free, all sing one single melody…all the inequalities of social life are here banished. Together we make up one single choir in perfect equality of rights and expression whereby earth imitates heaven. Such is the noble character of the Church.”

I especially like the instructions to sing with gusto, with passion, with enthusiasm. Don’t drag them out. Sing them like we used to. And make sure you’re singing these sacred hymns of praise and encouragment with the same passion and energy you sing your school’s fight song. Right?

Aim at pleasing God, not yourself or the person sitting next to you. I see older people all the time who refuse to sing a song based solely on what year it was written. And I see teenagers do the exact same thing. People my age will sulk and pout if there are a few too many “thees and thous” in an inspirational hymn. If the aim is to please God with our sacrificial servant hearts, song selection stops being an issue.

Anyway, I’m curious as to your thoughts. Hit the comments line at the top of this post and let me know. Is some of this stuff too strong? What parts are especially relevant today, 250 years later?




  1. Gary L. Villamor

    Very helpful perspective – I’m going to share it with my congregation in Dos Palos, CA. We are going through a series of Sunday morning Bible studies right now on our “Worship,” and this is very appropriate.

    Enjoy the walk home!

  2. Susan Clifton

    “Singing together — the same words, the same notes, the same tempo — embodies a rich theology of singing in that all the members combine to form one beautiful sound.”

    These words have prompted me to express something that I have been thinking for 2 or 3 years. When we sing songs where the men and women are singing entirely different words at the same time, I think of the passage that talks about speaking in tongues. If there is no one to interpret, keep quiet, because a visitor wouldn’t understand and might think we’re crazy. (I paraphrased.) When different words are sung at the same time, it is hard to understand. Also, sometimes trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be singing when, can interfere with concentrating on the words. The same goes for some of the clapping. I will not let myself be distracted by others’ clapping, but if I try to clap, it is distracting to me. Of course, I’m totally musically challenged, so this might not be the case for those with musical ability. (My father, who was blessed with a great bass voice always said I was tone deaf. Actually, I think I’m only tone dumb. I hear differences. I just can’t reproduce them.)
    Does this make any sense, or am I out in left field?

  3. Allan

    You’re not out in left field. You’ve just entered a conversation with other people that all of us are having with ourselves all the time.

    I wouldn’t equate men and women singing in “rounds” or even different words at the same time with speaking in tongues and the need for an interpretor to make sure the body is edified. We all have the words in front of us — either on the screen or in our books — and we know what’s being sung, even if it is a bit complicated or even confusing. I will concur, however, that it can get a bit tricky. Sometimes I think maybe it can be too complicated and we lose sight of the words or the message of the song and why we’re even singing in the first place. But then I’m blown away by a well-sung rendition of “O Lord, Our Lord” or the seven-fold amen at the end of “The Lord Bless You And Keep You” and I wish all our songs sounded that way. I do understand what you’re saying on the complicated songs. But I sincerely think a lot of that is just personal preference. One of my all-time favorite songs — and it’s relatively new — is “Blessed Be Your Name.” And as much as I like that one, I dislike “The Greatest Commands.” Go figure.

    As for distractions, my first question in that conversation is always “distracted from what?” I struggle, just like all humans, with distractions. But I always try to keep our assembly time in focus with what Scripture tells us. It’s first for God. In a very close second, it’s for each other, for building and edifying each other and the body as a whole. I come in somewhere much further down the line.

    I love your “tone dumb” line. I’m stealing it right now.

  4. Brooke Hollingsworth

    Like you, Allan, I like the emphasis on “corporateness, ” if that is a word. We so often focus on individual salvation and individual likes and dislikes, that we forget that our worship on Sunday morning is distinct from the rest of life because it is corporate, not individual. I get chills during a song where the harmonies suddenly all go away and all four parts sing the melody in unison; it does symbolize our unity.

    However, we have to find some balance between rules and helpful suggestions, don’t we? I don’t think Wesley’s authority will quite work in most of our congregations.

    One more thought–I’m not sure where the idea arose that worship should be “free from distractions.” I haven’t really thought it all the way through, but I think the incarnation implies distractions, even in worship.

  5. Chris

    I think he was on target with his comments. It doesn’t specifically address me but #5 gets pretty close since I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. It was only a few months ago that i learned that the men sing the bottom lines on the songs.

  6. Paul Dennis

    Having led singing for many years allow me to add my thoughts. The uniformity bothers me a bit. Whose rendition do we use as our basis? Tedlie, Slater, Boone, Walker or heaven forbid Dennis? All spirtual songs are the outpouring of someone’s emotions and thoughts which come from thier heart. This is true of the lyrics and the music. My greatest criticism of song leaders in the past has been the failure, in my estimation, to capture what I call the mood of the song. This involves both music and lyrics. “Sing and be Happy” must be sung differently than “I Need Thee Every Hour”. Tempo is important. Good songs can be ruined when sung with tempo that betrays the mood. Songs can be sung too slow and too fast. A song leader needs to capture that mood with pace, voice inflection, volume, posture and poise. If he does it right it is such an easy task for the congregation to pick it up and reflect it in their participation. In my counseling with young song leaders I would tell them that there is a very thin line between being energetic and performing. Song leaders are not to perform but to lead as inconspicously as possible. If after a song service the audience remembers the leader more that the content of the songs than the leader has failed. I have other thoughts but perhaps this is enough for now.

  7. Jim Gardner

    Hey Larry,

    Based on Susan’s comments, I remembered what Everett Ferguson shared at a seminar at Harding several years back (The Eye of the Storm, January 26-27, 2001):

    “The same doctrinal purposes that eliminate instruments will eliminate uses of the voice which do not edify, that is, which do not make intelligible sounds, which do not express the indwelling word of Christ, which do not preach Christ and confess faith…Can descants, singing rounds, and choosing songs with complicated music be justified in the assembly? These practices work against congregational singing and the principles of vocal music stated in the Biblical text. They put the emphasis on the music quality rather than on the words. They make it difficult for the ordinary person to understand what is being said and to participate meaningfully…Some outstanding and powerful music, such as Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ is out of place in any congregation that I know — not because of unscriptural content but because it requires professional voices to sing it.”

  8. Allan

    Ferguson’s comments speak directly to the trickiness of complicated music and the line that has to be tread between drawing everyone into participating in the singing and sacrificing the very best we can offer to our God. My response to Ferguson is that I completely understand what he’s saying and why he’s saying it. In a lot of ways it makes sense. And in a lot of ways I agree. But, I wouldn’t go as far with it as he does.

    I can’t judge the man. The only conversations I’ve had with him have been about the Lord’s Supper. But is there a chance he says this — knowing it’s way way out there — hoping it will cause people to think and reflect on why we do what we do. Is it an intentional over-corrective so that the Church will at least stop and think about these things and come his way a tad?

    I believe there’s something significant to God’s people giving him the very best we have, whether it be in our sacrifices of money or time or song. And I also think there’s something very beneficial in calling God’s people to more, to a higher plane, to a more excellent way. Why not occasionally strive to raise a song to God that represents the best we can do?

    Finally, I think four-part harmony (which was condemned by every faith tradition which it was first introduced)is an even stronger statement of unity and presents an even stronger image of the Church as the body of Christ because we are blending different parts — different voices, different notes, different ranges — to produce one beautiful sound, one beautiful song. Just like the Church with all its various members with different backgrounds and different talents and skills and different experiences and viewpoints blend together to form the perfect Body of Christ.

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