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What Does the Church Sing?

Blogger Shannan Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in music and digital humanities at Baylor University, where she recently finished her Ph.D. in Church Music (2022). She is a member of The Center for Congregational Song’s blog team.



How Little We Know

I recently became aware of how little we know of what the church sings though recent work with the Worship Leader Research (WLR) team.  WLR is a collaborative group that studies the contemporary worship music industry and church practice.  Some of the feedback to our findings largely focused on what was missing.  We identified the primary contributors of contemporary worship songs by looking at the Top lists from CCLI and PraiseCharts, but there were artists that are widely used that were not found on both lists.   Many churches that sing songs from other artists, such as Sovereign Grace, City Alight, the Gettys, etc., noted that our research didn’t include songs from those artists.  People commented on social media and in direct messages to our team about the songs that they sing regularly at their church that weren’t mentioned in our study because of our methodology for creating our list.

This made me wonder: what does the church sing?  I mean more broadly than contemporary worship.  Even what we know of the most used contemporary worship songs, there are gaps in the knowledge and powers at play that distort the data we do have.



Contemporary worship churches use songs that are under copyright.  Copyright allows songwriters to receive compensation for the use of their songs.  To streamline this process, companies like One License, CCLI (Christian Copyright License International), and (recently) MultiTracks provide licensing subscriptions.  This means that by churches signing up for their service they can use copyrighted songs in exchange for reporting the songs they use to those companies when asked.  CCLI is one such company that publishes a list of the songs that are most reported.  Many people, researchers especially, have wondered who those lists represent.  For example, what denominations, church sizes, geographic locations, etc., are these lists representing?  However, CCLI when asked will not provide demographic information about who reports.  Therefore, we do not truly know who is singing the songs that are represented on the CCLI lists.

But the lack of knowledge expands.  What hymns are being sung by the Church?  Many churches either exclusively or occasionally will sing a traditional hymn.  Many of these hymns are written before 1923 and are therefore no longer under copyright.  So, the hymns that are selected for congregational singing do not have to be reported to anyone.  Furthermore, the use of a hymnal instead of a projector instantly relieves the burden of any reporting since songs that are sung from a purchased book do not need to be reported.


The Hymnal

So how do we know what hymns are being sung by the Church? Well, the answer may seem simple—look at the hymnal.  But which hymnal?  There is a vast number of hymnals and many denominations have their own hymnals which contain a careful curated collection of songs that is different from other denominations. Even if one focused on a singular widely used hymnal, the Church does not simply start at #1 and go to the end of the book.  Specific hymns are selected each week for worship.  Again, churches are not required to report what hymns they are singing.  So how do we know what the church is singing?



Another common type of song used in church is gospel music.  Gospel music is often the primary type of music used in predominately black churches.  What gospel songs are sung every week?  While gospel music is copyrighted, much of it is missing from CCLI’s list (for various reasons that should be explored further). Since it is not on CCLI, there is no way to report the songs that are used.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a singular book that contains a collection of gospel songs from which to choose.  If there is no requirement to report, how do we know which gospel songs are being used the most? How do we know what the church is singing?


Questions Remain

The different types of songs used in churches could continue, but the point remains.  We do not know what the church sings.  The feedback given to Worship Leader Research (WLR) has prompted this new conversation related to the gap in our knowledge of the Church’s song.  While I’ve identified some of the problems about why we don’t know what the Church sings, the question remains:

So what does the church sing?

While we do not have the answers right now, Dr. Monique Ingalls and I are working to create a project that will discover what the church is singing.  What hymns are sung most?  What songs are sung in smaller churches that can’t afford a licensing subscription?  What service music is used in various liturgies?  The goal of this project is to provide people and researchers with a picture of what the church is actually singing across denominations and worship styles.  The collection of songs that are sung will continue to change and expand over time; however, what we hope is that over time we will discover the richness of the variety of songs that are sung by the church in worship.


Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.


In this blog post, I want to offer some simplified responses to the question, “Why do Christians sing in worship?” My response is not simply my own, but a compilation and summary of a wide variety of church music and worship textbooks, ethnomusicology books, popular worship books, and other commentary I’ve encountered in the adventure of preparing for my doctoral exams. I offer this not to recommend any one of these rationales, but so that we can see a fuller picture of why faithful Christians across the spectrum of denominational and ecclesial tradition have found it fitting to sing as an act of worship. (N.B. I’ve likely left something out, so fill in the gaps by commenting below!)


Scripture’s Model and Command

Throughout Christian scripture, music-making is regular. Unfortunately we don’t know very much (if anything) about the actual musical sounds or music-making practices. However, some scriptural examples seem to expressly command the practice of music making in worship. One important reference is Paul’s recommendations to the Christians in Colossae (Col. 3:16, also Eph. 5:19) to “sing Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual songs to God.” The presumed context for this command is corporate Christian worship (and possibly simply as a way of being in community in general). Likewise in the Psalms, the Psalmist commends the reader/singer to “come into God’s presence with singing” (Ps 100), to “sing to the Lord a new song” (Ps. 98), and many more.

Beyond commands, scripture models song and singing. Job suggests that the stars sing, Psalm 150 suggests that all creation praises in song, and in the OT prophets and in the NT scriptural canticles, song is modelled as an appropriate action for Christians. In particular, some songs are presented as fitting responses to God for God’s actions in salvation history: the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis as well as the heavenly chorus’ song in Revelation 4, 5, 7. Paul also potentially embeds song lyric in the ‘kenotic hymn’ in the letter to the Philippians chapter 2.  

Especially in the scriptural canticles and in the Psalms we see that song is an appropriate action for responding to God’s mighty acts of salvation—the logic that is preserved in the so-called “Great Thanksgiving Prayer.” Because God has acted for the salvation of God’s people, God’s people sing praise in response. Many commentators from various backgrounds assume that when God is praised in the OT, some musical activity is presumed (i.e. the traditions of interpreting “the seven Hebrew words for praise”). 

These examples point to one last, related point: song is part of telling God’s story to others; in song, God’s actions are preserved, remembered, and communicated. In this way, singing to others can be part of sharing or witnessing to the Gospel.


The Human-ity of Music

A second set of rationale for using music into Christian worship is two-fold: music is deeply human and it has great potential for forming social/ecclesial relations. Some authors go further and suggest that singing is part of becoming more fully human. They suggest that given that such a marginal portion of the population is, scientifically-speaking, ‘tone deaf,’ it is safe to assume that the capacity to produce differentiated pitches in song is part of being human. We might call this simply an anthropology that centers singing. 

But it is not simply limited to the idea that individuals are able to sing, but that their singing nature is able to help them participate in a larger web of social relations. Take, for example, the fact that singing has an especially important role in the history of social movements and reforms, from the Reformation to Civil Rights to Hong Kong. Song and singing capacitate humans toward action outside of themselves (both for good and for potentially for ill). 

Music also has the capacity to both create and communicate group identity. Because music is a part of culture, it can embody the particularity of a local community and extend that community’s identity beyond itself. Music and song have an important role in the cultural preservation of diasporas as well as in forming new communities. For this reason, it is also essential in the multicultural worship conversation that diverse musical practices are led by persons who are able to ‘authentically’ represent the communities from where those songs come. In this way, cultural communication and authenticity are intimately intertwined with music-making in worship.

Musical style in particular has been contested because it carries with it the capacity to structure social relations in very specific ways and thus is a site of ethical formation. One great example of this is in Monique Ingalls book Singing the Congregation (Oxford, 2018). She describes how worship at the Passion and Urbana conferences is the prime way in which the community is formed as an ‘eschatological’ body. The musical worship practices situate social relations both now and as a reflection of future heavenly social relations.

Lastly, music is seen as uniquely able to evoke or embody emotional responses. As such—and insofar as this is a desirable goal of Christian worship—music is capable of creating or generating emotional responses in persons and groups. For the sake of the “warm ups” of Finney-esque revivalism, music is seen to ‘plow the [emotional] soil’ so that the seed of the Gospel can be planted and take root. This same is true, though in a different musical register, in church contexts where so-called “art music” is presented for detached aesthetic contemplation.  The logic is this: because people are naturally vulnerable to emotional states produced by music, music might make them receptive to a certain kind of Gospel message. 

One additional note here of historical importance: the creaturely or emotional effects of music have been highly contested. In the Protestant Reformation, for example, there was deep suspicion from Zwingli and Calvin (drawing on Augustine) on music’s capacity to move the emotions. It was also seen as being able to affect the internal humors of the body and have effects on the health of the hearer. In metaphysics, it was understood that earthly music could sync up with the cosmic ‘harmony of the spheres’ (Plato, Boethius, and neo-Platonists around the time of the Reformation) through formal mathematical relations. Some Reformation debates on the topic of music can be summarized as to the question of the extent to which music was tainted by the effects of sin (especially pre- or post-lapsarian). To render it simplistically: is music inherently good or bad? The answer has some determination on the utility of music for Christian worship today. Luther, for example, saw it as inherently good and therefore trusted that it was good for humans to participate in it for Christian worship. The issue lingers on today when, for example. mid-20th century evangelicals resisted Rock-n-Roll music on the basis that the rhythm was evil or could conjure up undesirable, ecstatic, emotional frenzies among ‘the youth.’ This fear of particular musical styles was rooted in a not-so-veiled musicalized racism–only their music is tainted by sin and evil, ours is pure.


For Doing Worship

The final rationale for the use of music is in music’s capacity to help facilitate the doing of worship. A number of authors advance this basic position, though there is some divergence as to what exactly the essential actions or dispositions of Christian worship are or should be. 

On the most basic level, historically-speaking, singing has been useful for carrying the voice through worship spaces and for facilitating group proclamation (eg. chant). Admittedly, electronic amplification now serves to carry the voice in many spaces regardless of one’s ecclesial tradition. 

Traditionally, music also has enjoyed a close relationship with, and is especially fitting for the activity of praise. Whether that praise is enacted by the entirety of the gathered worship assembly, or on their behalf by clergy. Again, Christian worship’s model here is the scriptural witness in songs and canticles.

Evangelical church music texts especially highlight the capacity for music to convey a text while rendering music subservient to the text. Music is seen to function primarily in its instrumental capacity to support the communication of a text and aid in the text’s comprehension. Specifically the musical poetic form of the hymn is useful for unfolding doctrine in poetic form as well as telling the story of the gospel in successive, storied stanzas. The church music literature especially likes the hymn form for its capacity to produce inter-textuality as a kind of exegetical tool—again, revealing the emphasis on communicating texts.

On the other end of the spectrum, some theologians suggest that music (especially non-texted music) can disclose something about God in a way that goes beyond a reliance on words. This “non-discursive disclosure” is a counterpoint to the potential heresy that God and God’s character can be totally understood through language alone. Pointing to the person of Jesus Christ as “The Word [who] became flesh” is an important underpinning for this idea.

Music is also an aid to prayer. The phrase “he who sings prays twice” has been attributed to Augustine and is a commonly-invoked rationale (though undeveloped). I’m compelled to note here that the quote from which this adage is drawn might more appropriately be rendered as ‘he who sings well prays twice,’ but that is merely a quibble. Music helps worshippers attend to the Spirit and to the text in such a way that it can aid congregants in quiet contemplation on the one hand, or ecstatic experience on the other. In both cases, music making provides the frame for holistic attention to God. Of course, many songs themselves are prayers to God and thus they function dually in that way.

Lastly, I turn to contemporary praise and worship. While contemporary praise and worship is far from a monolithic tradition, there are some common themes that are shared. The most critical of these is that music and song itself is the essential action when Christian worshippers gather. This goes hand in hand with the way that the mainstreaming of praise and worship has engendered a collapse between the words ‘music’ and ‘worship’ in so many settings. The significance of this is understood by some because it is based on a musico-theological anthropology. Being a Christian means being part of the priesthood of all believers who, like King David and the order of OT Levite priests, minister to the heart of God through musical worship.

In contemporary praise and worship, rather than think about how music can serve some other worship action, music is the essential act that other actions might serve. For charismatics and pentecostals, other ministry time (exercising spiritual gifts) within the service is regularly accompanied by music, if not directly facilitated by it. Experiences of prophecy, healing, deliverance, or other products of the direct encounter with the manifest presence of God are often supported or facilitated by music-making. 



While not comprehensive or inclusive of every strand of Christian thinking on the role of music, the above three areas are lenses through which many leaders today see the importance of music and singing in Christian worship. It’s important to note that music and song are not necessary for Christian worship (a variety of Christian traditions attest to this), but that Christians have found lots of thoughtful ways of understanding the role of music in Christian worship: as a commanded and commended by scripture, for deeply human reasons, and for engaging in the acts and encounters of Christian worship.




This episode is with ethnomusicologist and professor at Baylor University Monique Ingalls. Recorded at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship during their annual Worship Symposium, host Ben Brody once again hosts a lovely conversation that is both informative and challenging.


Season 2 – Episode 2

In this interview with Dr. Monique Ingalls, she shares her story about a home church that struggled with worship music style changes and her journey to becoming a ethnomusicologist focusing on modern worship music and congregational singing.



Listening time: 43 minutes


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