The opening pages of the United Methodist Hymnal bear a preface that has bemused and bewildered distracted worshippers for ages. These seven rules, titled Directions for Singing, were first included in the 1761 publication Select Hymns, a hymnbook for early Methodists. A few things to keep in mind when you read these directions. First, the hymns we take for granted as “traditional worship” were almost all new in John Wesley’s day (I mean, Charles was writing them), and most of them would never be sung in church building walls in Wesley’s lifetime. Newton’s Amazing Grace wasn’t even written yet. The Methodist movement was happening outside of church walls, where all the artful music could be made, and usually only the preacher had a copy of the hymnbook with all these cool new songs. They would sing one line out at a time, and then the gathered crowd would repeat what they heard. Apparently George Whitfield (the white-haired guy in the comic above) was a master at lining out hymns after he finished preaching. In this context, Wesley’s directions are really rooted in his belief that worship is the work of all the people, meant to unite us as a priesthood of all believers in service to God.
Truth be told, the church historically has a tendency of elevating musicians and preachers as somehow separate from the larger crowd, a crowd which tends to become spectators instead of participants. Wesley’s directions for singing are meant to offer practical ways we worship together. Here they are:
Directions for Singing. That this part of Divine Worship may be the more acceptable to God, as well as the more profitable to yourself and others, be careful to observe the following directions.
I. Learn these Tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
II. 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.
III. 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 a blessing.
IV. 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.
V. 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.
VI. Sing in Time: whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
VII. 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 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 of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
When you break them down, Directions I & II emphasize uniformity across the Methodist movement. Remember, Methodism began as a revival outside church walls. Wesley carefully chose certain hymns (many of them from his brother, Charles) to define the worship experience of the movement. It would be important for everyone across the movement to learn the same words and tunes to the same songs so they could easily join in at any Methodist gathering (remember, they weren’t reading the music out of a book or off a screen). In today’s worship music, (especially the contemporary scene) we need to be careful about choosing songs that sound great on a recording but are impossible for a congregation to sing. Modern worship songs are often written for radio, and mimicking the instrumental solos in moderation may provide an appropriate Selah, or pause, in the song, but often they become distracting and the congregation becomes unsure of what they’re supposed to be doing.
Direction III focuses on the importance of everyone’s participation, even the ones who don’t enjoy singing or have no musical ability. The point of all singing is that worship is the work of all of us together. Community is formed in the experience.
Directions IV, V, & VI offer practical directions for how to sing united in community. Be bold, but not so bold that you make it about you. Be modest, but not so modest that someone standing next to you can’t hear you at all. Keep an upbeat pace to the music. Apparently, there were a lot of obnoxious people who thought singing as slowly as possible was more worshipful. You know the type.
The final direction clears up the purpose for having directions and music at all. It’s all about glorifying God. It’s not about impressing someone else with your awesome personal worship experience. It’s not about you being so impressed with the musicians or the choice of song. If you can’t worship because the songs are to difficult for people to sing together, then it’s time to question the music ministry of your church. But if you just “can’t worship” because the music isn’t your style, or the songs aren’t artful enough for you, it’s time to check your motives.
Here’s a link to the best essay I found on Wesley’s Directions for Singing.
This week is the beginning of an Infograph series I’m doing. If you’d like to purchase the info graphs in this series for use in your setting, they can be purchased as $5 digital downloads or $3 prints through the Wesley Bros store.