I have been clear that I do not believe a church needs to embrace CCM in order to sing well. (In fact, I think it eventually makes them sing worse, but that is another discussion altogether.) The churches that have swallowed the rationale that contemporary music will liven up what is otherwise a dead service are taking a spiritual shortcut. Enthusiastic, skillful, scriptural church music is within the realm of possibility for every church provided we embrace five scriptural concepts related to singing.
First and foremost, we must emphasize participation. Everybody ought to join in with the congregational singing. I realize not every person is musically gifted, but a lack of musical ability does not justify any person sitting there like a bump on a log during corporate singing. The psalmist said, All the earth shall worship thee, and shall sing unto thee; they shall sing to thy name. (Psalm 66.4) Elsewhere David sang, All the earth shall worship, and shall sing unto thee. (I Chronicles 16.23) I realize these are Old Testament passages and so do not reflect directly on the New Testament church service but I think there is a principle established here that carries through: all of us owe God praise, thanks, and worship so all of us should sing. Additionally, it could be argued that the two primary passages regarding music in the church (Ephesians 5.19 and Colossians 3.16) are broad instructions clearly aimed at the entire church. In other words, no one is exempt from singing in church any more than they are exempt from other instructions given in these epistles.
Having established this the practical question that then follows is how do you do this? How do you emphasize wide participation in corporate singing in a culture that increasingly wants to watch music being performed but does little corporate singing at all anymore? Part of the answer has to be that you need to sing out boldly yourself. Doing so put others around you more at ease about singing. Sunday School teachers can get their entire class to sit together periodically in the main service and then give a prize to the child who sings the best. Song leaders, rather than paying attention to giftedness, can and should emphasize widespread participation. Parents can actually require it of their children once they reach a certain age. Shy individuals can be encouraged to sit with someone who is not shy about singing out. The choir special can be moved to the beginning of the service so that choir members can then go sit among the crowd for the balance of the service and so encourage participation around them.
When I moved to our church thirteen years ago the congregational singing was not, well, what should I say here… It was not inspiring. I have done all of these things and others, and over time our church has come to embrace corporate singing with enthusiasm.
Second, let us emphasize singing with joy. Let us lead people to sing with genuine emotion. I realize some hymns are solemn or reflective, but most are not, and even in those that are there is a deep inner joy therein if you are close to Him.
This is how God Himself sings. The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing. (Zephaniah 3.17) This is how we will all sing in the Millennium. Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head; they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away. (Isaiah 51.11) Indeed, we see the importance of singing with a genuine and deep emotional joy all through the Psalms. (Psalm 9.2, 43.4, 71.23, 81.1, 95.1, 95.2, 98.6, 100.1, 100.2)
Each Wednesday night I open the service by bringing our Patch Club children to the platform and singing along with them. Often, as they ascend the steps I will put a big grin on my face and issue them one instruction, "Big smiles, everybody." It is my considered opinion that people sing better when they physically form their mouth into a smile. And even if that emotion of joy is only attempted at the beginning before a person gets to the second verse they will find their attitude genuinely changing.
Third, we should emphasize volume. The Levites sang with a loud voice. (II Chronicles 20.19) The priests sang with loud instruments unto the Lord. (II Chronicles 30.21) The services Nehemiah led included singers who sang loud. (Nehemiah 12.42) Isaiah called for people to lift up their voice as they sing to the Lord, to cry aloud. (Isaiah 24.14) Not to be outdone the psalmist paid his respects to the importance of volume in singing numerous times. (Psalm 51.14, 59.16, 98.4, 149.5, 150.5)
When I sing during a church service I belt it out. The level of volume is not my attempt to impress people with a performance any more than volume in preaching is. It is simply the result of genuine joy accompanied with a desire to share that joy with others. When the pastor sings this way, and the deacons sing this way, and the Sunday School teachers sing this way, and the choir members sing this way while they are interspersed with the crowd it becomes infectious. The entire church begins to sing louder. And that is a wonderful thing.
Fourth, we should seek to develop skill in our church music program. Sing unto him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise. (Psalm 33.3) There is a gigantic place in church music for everybody to participate regardless of skill level. There is also a place reserved for those who have talent, and who have sought to develop that talent with diligence. This would be those who are leading, those who sing apart from the entire congregation, and those who accompany instrumentally. Like any other gift, such people should not attempt to skate by on talent. They should be encouraged and helped to actively and diligently and painstakingly develop that talent. They should be taught not to bristle at practice, but to embrace it. There ought to be in the area of music as in all other areas a ceaseless striving for excellence.
Lastly, there should be an emphasis among us on teaching music to the younger generation. And Chenaniah, chief of the Levites, was for song: he instructed about the song, because he was skilful. (I Chronicles 15.22) So the number of them, with their brethren that were instructed in the songs of the Lord, even all that were cunning, was two hundred fourscore and eight. (I Chronicles 25.7)
The average musically inclined person in American Christianity leading, performing, or ministering with music received their musical instruction from the world. These worldly influences (musicians, styles, modes of performance) show up far too often in the American church. The solution to this is to ensure that those who lead, perform, or minister with music in the church are influenced as much as possible by those with great experience in church music.
One way to do this is to enroll in music classes at a Bible college but that is not feasible for most people. Thus, in reality, the responsibility for teaching the philosophies necessary for church music fall squarely on those who lead in a musical capacity in the local church. You do not have to be arrogant to accomplish this. You do not have to step into someone else's area. You do not have to go beyond your expertise. But you do need to teach somebody else what you know about church music.
With this approach there is no reason for a church to ever be without an instrumentalist, without a song leader, or without a choir that knows how to sing four part harmony. There is no reason a church should have to hire intermittent music help, or embrace a carnal, worldly Christian man or woman simply because they are desperate for musical talent. The musically gifted people your church has now ought to be constantly teaching other people music, and doing so specifically as it relates to church.
Participate. With Joy. With volume. With skill. And if you lead teach somebody else how to replace you. Emphasize those five things and over time your church's music will blossom.