In 1761, John Wesley penned these iconic guidelines for corporate singing for church congregations who would be singing out of the Select Hymns with Tunes Annext hymn book.
Believe it or not, in the 18th century it was fairly cutting edge to sing the hymns that we know and love today. So, with a heart towards helping people express their worship through song, Wesley added these directions to the beginning of this hymnal.
As a worship leader (and a worshiper) these rules seem a little archaic, but if you really look at them, there is a lot to be gleaned from them. The original rules are bold, I’ve added commentary below each point in italics.
1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others, afterwards learn as many as you please.
The lesson to be learned here is to form a familiar repertoire. It doesn’t mean don’t incorporate new music, but don’t be so “new” driven that you lose your congregation. As a worship leader of a specific congregation, you should have a core selection of songs that resonate with people.
2. 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.
The lesson to be learned here is: if you want to teach your people music you need to have everyone sing the the song melodies the same way. Sure we can arrange songs according to instrumentation or tailor them to whoever is leading vocally, but we should stick to the same melody lines that people know if we’re doing that specific songs (rewrites not included in this rule).
3. Sing All – see that you join 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.
The lesson to be learned here is: worshiping together is good for the individual. Encourage your people to join you as you all come together in song. Invite folks to lift their hearts (and voices) in worship even if they don’t feel like it) and lead in this by example. Teach people to worship through their song.
4. 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 sang the songs of Satan.
The lesson to be learned here is: it’s ok to sing heartily and joyfully. In a lot of cases, people get the idea (and hold on to it) that worship through song somehow needs to always be quiet, stoic, and “reverent.” There is Biblical precedent for song and music that is filled with exuberance and joy! Encourage your congregation to sing with their whole hearts, to not be ashamed of their individual voice, and to remember that it is the collective of voices that join together that is important, not the individual voice itself.
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 melodious sound.
The lesson to be learned here is: there is a balance between the above guideline and this one. Sing heartily, but sing modestly. If worship through song (corporately) is about many individuals joining as one voice, then it should follow that one voice shouldn’t distract other people’s attention from the “chorus” of sound. Teach your people to sing out heartily and appropriately! Lead by example in this. Lead well, but don’t over sing and ad lib so much that people quit singing themselves to be amazed at your vocal chops. The same lesson can be applied to musicians in the worship bands.
6. Sing in time – whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before and do not stay behind it; but attend closely 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 among us and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
The lesson to be learned here is: unity is important. Teach your team vocals to sing rhythms correctly. Don’t approach melodies and rhythms lazily. Emphasize the importance of singing together. This doesn’t mean you can’t have lead vocals, but the goal should always be to present a musical offering that encourages our congregations to join in singing. Of course, there are exceptions to this as we occasionally utilize special music or songs that are intended to be contemplative (not corporate singing). But in all corporate songs make sure that the melody and rhythms are easily accessible to the congregation!
7. 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 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 when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.”
The lesson to be learned here is: we don’t do this for us. It’s for GOD first and foremost. And as a worship leader that represents God, He wants us to help others to put Him first and foremost in their offerings of worship as well. Before you rehearse and before a service we should always make time to turn our hearts and minds to God. Asking Him to help us move past our problems and shortcomings, we can posture ourselves in such a place that people can clearly see God in us. Remember it’s not about how tight the arrangement is, how much shred the guitar solo has, or how much vibrato the lead vocalist uses. Ultimately, it’s all about turning our eyes (and helping others to do the same) to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.