Recently a URC minister shared with me some fascinating comments on a cappella worship. On the way home from synod he had visited a congregation that sings psalms exclusively and without musical accompaniment. Comparing it with the norm of organ- or piano-accompanied singing across our own federation, he observed that the non-accompanied congregational singing at this church was surprisingly rich. “With a cappella singing,” he said, “it can go either really well or really poorly.” In this case, thanks to a song leader who carefully explained each psalm before it was sung and a congregation that responded joyfully, it was a wonderful and God-honoring experience.
This pastor’s reaction to a cappella worship echoes my own in several ways. Growing up I was exposed to a variety of worship styles, but predominantly the simple piano or organ accompaniment used in West Sayville. As I prepared to go to a college where not only Sunday worship but even Wednesday morning chapel services are conducted without instruments, I wondered how the singing would sound. The potential for problems seemed high. An untrained congregation that struggled to stay on key might make singing unbearable. On the other hand, a church that viewed its a cappella accomplishments as a source of pride and superiority would be even more troubling.
Thankfully, in the several a cappella churches I’ve worshiped in, I’ve experienced neither of these extremes. Geneva’s unaccompanied chapel services draw a disdainful reaction from some of the freshmen each fall, and most of us have been tempted to poke fun at the various presentors with their pitch pipes and quirky conducting patterns. But to my great surprise, I’ve never missed the presence of a piano or organ to bolster our singing—and as a pianist and organist, that’s almost scandalous to admit!
In most of our United Reformed congregations, we seem to have a definite favoritism for the organ as our instrument of choice. At my home church we might occasionally go a cappella for a single verse in a familiar hymn like “When I Survey” or “It Is Well.” Beyond that, we’re reluctant to plunge into the deep end of singing with no instruments from beginning to end, even for just one song. Perhaps this is because we feel the discomfort of singing in a small congregation, when our individual vocal blemishes and differences in musical skill can quickly become apparent. As a friend put it, the organ helps “paper over the cracks” of our shaky singing. Yet even at some of the youth conventions I’ve attended, with an assembly of six hundred or seven hundred young people eagerly singing, the a cappella selections are slim and the presence of accompanying instruments seems to be almost taken for granted. I wonder if our churches’ singing might benefit from an occasional challenge to this instrumental assumption.
In the case of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and other denominations, there are specific theological grounds for a cappella worship which I won’t get into here. I’m not qualified to comment on Old Testament temple worship or the references to instruments in the Psalms, for instance. Nor do I think these arguments are particularly useful for the case I’d like to make here, which is simply to recognize a few of the various blessings and benefits that can come from unaccompanied singing. Even if we only sing a cappella occasionally, I believe it is not only a useful exercise but also a beautiful practice that will build us up as the body of Christ.
Singing a Cappella Has Historical Roots
Whether complex or simple, the development of musical instruments has been one of the earliest human activities, dating right back to the time of Jubal and Tubal-cain (Gen. 4:21). And I think it could be fairly suggested that the pipe organ, “the king of instruments,” is the most well-developed expression of these multiple millennia of musical craftsmanship. In the seventeenth century, Baroque pipe organs were “the most complex of all mechanical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution,”1 and many of these gorgeous instruments graced the sanctuaries of Protestant churches during the Reformation—especially in the Netherlands. The love of these beautiful products of human ingenuity and creativity has stuck with us through the centuries, and whether our churches have the budgets for acoustic models or merely electronic imitations, most of us appreciate the classic sound of a pipe organ played well.2
There’s only one kind of music that predates Jubal’s pipe and lyre, of course, and it’s singing. When man had not yet been created, the Lord told Job, “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Readers of C. S. Lewis know that he describes the creation of the world with the picture of a Lion singing in The Chronicles of Narnia. While we can’t pin down the origin of music itself, surely we can attest that its source is God and that His entire creation sings in response—no instruments needed.
The point is not that vocal music is necessarily more worshipful than instrumental music, but that it penetrates closer to our fundamental nature as human creatures. And for varying reasons throughout history, the people of God have often opted to sing without the aid of instruments. In fact, the very term a cappella is Italian for “as is done in the chapel.”3
While we may be aware of traditions like Sacred Harp or the Plymouth Brethren that include a cappella worship as a distinctive, it’s less commonly known that our own Dutch Reformed ancestors tended to oppose organs in worship as well. Synod Dordrecht 1574 held that the use of organs even after the sermon “mostly causes the people to forget what was previously heard,” and Synod Dordrecht 1578 and Synod Middelburg 1581 both urged that church organs “be removed at the earliest and most suitable time.”4 Indeed, many of the beautiful instruments that graced the sanctuaries of the Dutch Reformed churches were opposed by the elders of the churches, for various theological and practical reasons. While historical precedent alone is no reason to remove instruments from our worship, I cite these examples merely to show that unaccompanied singing is not an anomaly. Indeed, Christians from many traditions over the course of the church’s history have chosen to worship a cappella.
Singing a Cappella Teaches Us about Living in Harmony
My second point requires a little bit of music theory, so forgive me; but I’ll try to keep it simple. All songs contain a single musical line which we can think of as the melody or tune. Even if you’re not a musician, you can probably hum the melody of “Amazing Grace” with no problem. But if you get a handful of people to sing the melody of “Amazing Grace,” you will probably notice that it sounds like something is missing. That’s because a song with only a melody is incomplete without additional musical lines beneath it that provide harmony, or musical context, for what’s being sung. Hymns like “Amazing Grace” are traditionally written in four parts—soprano (melody), alto, tenor, and bass—which, when combined, create rich harmonies that are very satisfying to sing.
Unfortunately, singing “in four-part harmony,” as it’s called, has become less and less common in worship today. Many potential causes could be suggested: poorer musical education in the school system, less musical instruction within the church, or the rise of worship choruses that are designed for solo performance rather than congregational singing. But in addition to these possible factors, I think it’s easy to become lazy in our singing when an organ is present to fill in the missing notes and play the vocal lines that would otherwise be sung. Today, both in the URCNA and elsewhere, we tend to sing in unison. The result is that we only sing about one fourth of the printed notes for any given song—a waste of ink, if nothing else!
Here, with fear and trepidation, I must beg to differ with John Calvin’s view of church music. As Robert Godfrey notes, Calvin thought the congregation should sing the melody only, fearing that an excess of emotion in music would distract from the Word.5 Yet whether or not music can be used to exploit the emotions of its participants, no song is complete without harmony. How we sing together should parallel how we live together in the church. In this case, we do not live in unison. We do not pursue identical vocations or possess identical preferences. Instead we live in harmony, supporting each other in the highs and lows of life as we all pursue the same goal of following Jesus. And what a beautiful picture of the church’s life when our different musical lines, high and low, weak and strong, combine to form a unified offering of music directed to the praise of God!
Practicing unaccompanied worship will not instantly enable a congregation to sing in lush four-part harmony, but it may be an opportunity to recognize how we might improve. If combined with a commitment to learning how to sing, the discipline of a cappella worship can yield rich rewards. Here is one possible model for teaching psalm singing, from the Articles of Wesel (1568):
In those churches where there are schools with one or more teachers skilled in music, the teacher shall lead the children in the singing of psalms, after that the audience [i.e., congregation] itself shall join the children in singing. In those places, however, where there are no schools, or where the school teachers are unable to lead because of their inexperience, it will be useful to have at least one music director, especially when the minister of the Word is unskilled in music, who will lead the people in singing and give them guidance.
Nor will it be improper to hang signs in the churches on which the manner in which the psalms should be sung is precisely described and on which the regular manner of singing is briefly explained so that in this way the poor singing of the congregation is avoided and there will be no cause for offense or laughter on the part of unbelievers.6
Singing without musical accompaniment is a skill that takes practice, dedication, and sometimes even multiple generations to develop. As the pastor I quoted earlier pointed out, some of our first attempts at a cappella worship might end disappointingly. Nevertheless, the facets of unaccompanied worship mentioned here, plus many others I omitted, should motivate us to at least give it a try now and then. Instruments are wonderful tools to be used in the service of God, but they are just that—tools. Whatever instrumentation a congregation uses, nothing should supplant the primary musical offering of worship enjoined throughout the Scriptures: to sing!
1. S. Sadie, “Organ,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (London: Macmillan, 1984), 2:838–916.
2. See, for instance, Marian Van Til, “Praise Him with Organs,” Christian Renewal (June 15, 2016).
3. Norman Lloyd, “A Cappella,” in The Golden Encyclopedia of Music (New York: Golden Press, 1968), 9.
4. P. Biesterveld and H. H. Kuyper, Ecclesiastical Manual: Including the Decisions of the Netherlands Synods and Other Significant Matters Relating to the Government of the Churches, trans. R. R. DeRidder (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), 68, 95, 124.
5. W. R. Godfrey, “Reforming the Church’s Singing,” The Outlook (February 1990).
6. Biesterveld and Kuyper, Ecclesiastical Manual, 28.
Mr. Michael Kearney is a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, NY, and studies communication and music at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at email@example.com.