John Wesley, (1703-1791), was a reformer of the Church of England, and the founder of the Methodist Church. Together with his brother Charles, they served as pastors and evangelists both in England and America. Charles Wesley, (1707-1788), was a prolific hymn writer, and we sing many of his hymns to this day. (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, Jesus Lover of My Soul . . .and many more!)
In the preface to a new Methodist Hymnal, published in 1761, John Wesley presented these “Rules for Singing”. Methodism was new, and this was surely Wesley’s attempt to bring some structure and discipline to worship in these new churches as they broke off from the Anglican tradition and entered a more “free church” experience. Through their outdoor evangelistic services and revival meetings, John and Charles Wesley led a new movement of congregational singing – where the songs were more contemporary to the times and were embraced more fully by all the people as a personal expression of worship – not just trained musicians.
Here are John Wesley’s RULES FOR SINGING – with my thoughts and impressions for your consideration . . .
1. Learn these tunes before you learn any other, afterwards learn as many as you please.
Wesley seems to be wholly supportive of new songs – but not until you have learned the traditional ones. There is a great deal of value in this rule. I can tell you from years of experience that a worship service with all new, unfamiliar songs is a worship service people in which the people do not participate. And what is the point of that?
There are reasons why certain hymns and songs become classics and are sung for hundreds of years. We have an obligation to the younger generations to teach these songs and present them in a vibrant, dynamic way to our children – not as relics, or museum pieces – but sung passionately, focusing on the theological truths that the lyrics proclaim.
2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
This is a specific musical instruction to learn the notes and rhythms precisely so that there will be understanding/uniformity from church to church – which is important. More importantly for me, from a spiritual perspective, is that corporate, congregational singing is about the body as a whole, more than our individual preferences.
The musical choices we make must serve the congregation as a whole – thus, the keys and the tempos we choose are all important factors. If songs are too high, too low, too fast, too slow or simply too complicated . . . it limits participation. Paul admonished us to “sing with the Spirit and sing with understanding.” In a musical sense, if everyone sings “their version” of the melody or rhythm, it breeds confusion in congregational worship – not understanding.
3. Sing ALL. See that you join with 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.
I love this! Often, we do not FEEL like singing or participating, but Wesley says – do it anyway – and see how, in time – the burdens lift from your heart and the blessing comes. Sometimes, singing can become a true “sacrifice of praise” when our hearts and even our bodies tell us we don’t “feel like it.” But as we submit to Christ and focus on Him, our hearts and perspective move away from self and toward Christ and others – that is the call of the Christian life!
4. Sing lustily and with a 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.
What a great rule! If we truly understand and appreciate what God has done for us in Christ, then surely our singing will never be lackadaisical or half-hearted. And he is also saying: Show as much excitement for God as you do for worldly, secular pursuits. A more modern take I have heard often on this is: Why is it people can get so excited at a ball game and then act so disinterested in worship?
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 nor 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 out tunes just as quick as we did at first.
Again, both of these rules emphasize that the corporate musical experience is more important in public worship than our own individual enjoyment or preferences. If we are alone in our quiet time, or singing along with music in the car – we can be as free and individualistic as we please. But – when we are uniting our voices in worship as a Body – we must – as Scripture admonishes us – submit to one another.
These rules are ESPECIALLY true for a choir! In our efforts to harmonize and unify vowel sounds, harmonies, rhythms and dynamics, we present an “aural image” of the unity of the Body of Christ. This is one of the main reasons we rehearse – to bring about this unity of sound.
In 2013, we are blessed with an amazing amount of contemporary worship music from all over the world. Many of us access it on a daily or hourly basis and we sometimes desire to sing it “just like the recording”. But often – that is impossible in a group setting for many technical, musical reasons. Thus, we rehearse and adapt the music to serve the purpose of worshiping together as a Body.
7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye on God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or at 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.
Of course, he saved the best for last! Above all, sing spiritually!
I find the line, “see that your heart is not carried away with the sound” very convicting. As a singer, it is easy for me to get caught up in the sound of my own voice, or even the sound of the song, because I am so “into” the joy that making music brings me. But Wesley is warning us that even that can be a trap if our attention – and intention – is even slightly pulled away from the object of our affection – the Lord Jesus Christ!
“Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself or at any other creature.” What a powerful admonition! As has often been expressed – we sing for an audience of One. Corporate worship is not merely for our own personal edification, or to gain the approval of the congregation or entertain them – it is for God.
Wesley’s rules remind me of Paul’s instructions to the church regarding music:
And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
Colossians 3:15-17, (HCSB)
Further study? You can read more about the Wesleys here.