Restoring Congregational Song: John Wesley’s Directions for Singing for Today


During an evangelistic campaign in New York, the boat on which Phoebe Palmer was traveling began to sink. When she and her companions broke into song, a fellow passenger exclaimed, “There are Methodists here!” The “people called Methodists” have always been famous for their singing, particularly congregational singing. Congregational singing was far more important to Methodist worship than choirs, instrumental music, or “special songs.”

The hymns of Charles Wesley were second only to the sermons of John Wesley in promoting the message of the Methodist revival. Methodist laymen learned their theology by singing Wesley’s hymns. Because singing was so important in Methodist worship, John Wesley published “Directions for Singing” to encourage singing that “may be the more acceptable to God, as well as the more profitable to yourself and others.” He understood that not only what we sing but how we sing is important, and was concerned that this important element of corporate worship would not be disregarded or approached lightly, as was often the case in churches of his time.

Sadly, many churches today suffer from the same careless congregational singing that troubled Wesley. In some churches, congregational singing has all but been replaced by choirs or praise teams, to their detriment. How then can this problem be addressed? Perhaps the same, simple “Directions for Singing” Wesley gave to Methodist in the 18th century can help us reinvigorate congregational song today.

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

Because most 18th century worshipers learned songs by rote, Wesley limited the repertoire of tunes to a relatively small body. Each tune served several hymns. Today, this instruction highlights the importance of building a familiar hymn repertoire through frequent repetition. If we want people to sing, we must sing songs they know.

This is not a plea to sing only old songs. We need both new and old. We should encourage songwriters to proclaim holiness in the musical language of today, while we also preserve the hymns of our heritage. Worship leaders can plan medleys combining the best of the old with the best of the new, and thus help our people to learn the new while preserving the old.

2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them…

Because Wesley understood that laymen learn their doctrine from hymns, he was careful to protect against unauthorized changes. If worshipers sang wrong doctrine, they could very well soon believe wrong doctrine. We should have the same care today for preserving the truth of our hymns. While we may need to update the language of an old hymn, the theologically sound message must be carefully preserved.

3. 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. 

Anglican music belonged to the choir and organist; there was little room for congregational participation. Rather than leading the congregation in song, the choir performed for the congregation. The same problem soon developed in Methodist societies. Visiting the church at Neath, Wesley complained that “twelve or fourteen persons kept it [the singing] to themselves and quite shut out the congregation.” Like Luther before him, Wesley wanted to return song to the people.

Nothing is more important to music ministry than planning and leading congregational singing.

The problem continues today. In many churches, “Christians have sold their birthright of believer-priest singing for the pleasure of spectatorist music, performed by choir, ensemble, or soloist” (Donald Hustad, Jubilate, 475-476). Those of us involved in church music ministry must never think that our choir anthems and cantatas are our primary ministry. Nothing is more important to music ministry than planning and leading congregational singing.

I believe in the value of choirs and even praise teams in worship, but we must not allow them to replace congregational song. I have visited churches where Wesley’s complaint could be repeated: a few persons (either a choir or a praise team) kept the singing “to themselves and quite shut out the congregation.” Congregational singing should be more than “preliminary” to the sermon; it is a reflection of true Christian unity. Thus, “Sing all.”

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.

Unhappy with a church’s singing, Henry Ward Beecher exhorted, “How I long for the good old Methodist thunder.” Early Methodists sang with enthusiasm.

John Wesley agreed with Isaac Watts, “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God, but children of the heavenly King may speak their joys abroad.” Children of the heavenly King should express our Christian joy in enthusiastic singing. Wesley and Watts believed that every believer should sing joyfully “and with good courage.”

Congregational singing is often a reasonable barometer for the enthusiasm of the church for worship. Enthusiastic singing in itself does not prove spiritual life, but congregations that sing “as if they were half dead” very often are, in fact, half dead.

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.

“Sing modestly” serves as a balance to the previous direction, “Sing lustily.” Worshipers should sing “with good courage” but should also “unite [their] voices together.” This shows the principle of the unity of the church, which congregational singing should reflect. When the church sings, it sings as one body. “Sing all,” but sing as one. The goal of every church should be a great “congregational choir” that raises a united voice in praise to God.

Congregational singing should reflect the unity of the church. When the church sings, it sings as one body.

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…

Because congregational singing expresses the church’s unity, Wesley encouraged singers to give attention both to unity of sound (Direction V) and to unity of tempo (Direction VI). When the church is singing “Arise My Soul Arise” slower than I like it, I must slow down. When they are singing “I Want a Principle Within” faster than I like it, I must speed up. The give and take of congregational singing reflects the mutual submission that marks a unified church.

The song leader and the accompanists have key roles in this aspect of congregational song. If the most important music in the service is congregational song, the song leader and accompanist are the most important musicians in the service. It is their responsibility to keep the congregation “singing in time” and to hold the people together in song. 

7. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing… 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. 

Wesley’s instruction, “sing spiritually,” is the cornerstone of congregational singing. Wesleyans have long associated congregational singing with true spirituality. Nineteenth-century Methodists in New York cited a decline in congregational singing as evidence of a loss of spiritual fervor in their region. They believed that a church that does not “sing spiritually” has lost its revival spirit.

Augustine confessed that he was sometimes tempted to pay more attention to the beauty of the singing than to the truth of the song that was sung. Wesley shared Augustine’s fear that worshipers might give more attention to the beauty of a song than to its content. Wesley valued beautiful singing, but this beauty was not an end in itself. Hymn singing is a spiritual, not merely aesthetic, exercise.

Since singing is a spiritual exercise, we should often ask, “Is what I am singing true? Is what I am singing true in my own life? If it is not true, I should stop singing it! If it is true in principle, but not true in my own life, I should align my life with the truth I am singing.

As Wesleyan people, we should continue to see congregational singing as a spiritual exercise. When we sing songs that teach sound doctrine, encourage spiritual growth, and testify to genuine spiritual experience, congregational singing can become a means of grace for the church. Let onlookers recognize us by our song, “There are Methodists here!”