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John Wesley’s Directions for Singing in Worship with Commentary (from Select Hymns 1761)

by Darrell A. Harris, D.W.S.

In an era where we can often not hear out own voice and the voices of those next to us, these directions can easily  seem archaic. However, imagined in an unplugged, acoustic context, they readily spring to contemporary life!

   I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

   It is always good to have shared repertoire . . . shared musical touchstones.

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.

Perhaps this can be addressed in a short worship prep time at the announcements or other time. But it is helpful to be sure everyone is singing the “same song” and are all on the “same page.”

III. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

It is said that when we gather for worship, there are at least three categories of us: the “vandalized,” the “neutralized” and the “energized.”  May we who are energized be sensitive to those a less happy state. And may those who are neutralized and vandalized be brave and lift up their voices. As they come near to God, he will come near to them! (James 4:8)

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, then when you sung the songs of Satan.

“Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light!” (Ephesians 5:14) My Dad did not have a trained voice, but he did not hesitate to make a joyful noise!

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.

Sunphoneo. The Greek word means agree or in agreement. When we blend our voices consciously, listening as well as singing, God hears a symphony!

VI. 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 our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

Again . . . sumphoneo~

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 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.

This is “speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:19)

(Notes by Darrell A. Harris) 

Darrell A. Harris, D.W.S., is a veteran leader in the Christian music field, Dean of the Chapel of Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, and chief content officer of Stonebridge Institute.