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Congregational Song in the 20th Century

  • Bob Kauflin Director of Worship Development, PDI Ministries
  • Published Dec 20, 2001
Congregational Song in the 20th Century
The emotional model of revivalism developed in the 19th century continued to evolve throughout the 20th century. Following in the footsteps of D.L. Moody and Ira Sankey, additional evangelist/songleader teams emerged. Homer Rodeheaver sang and played his trombone with athlete-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday. The preaching of R.A. Torrey was supplemented by the flamboyant style of Charles Alexander. Songs of this era were characterized by musical simplicity, sentimental value, and non-demanding content.

In fact, the century had barely begun when the famous Azusa Street revival broke out. This spontaneous outpouring of spiritual gifts and fervor was characterized by lively singing that was undirected and often unaccompanied. The influence of Azusa Street and emotional revivalism in general is still evident today.

Indeed, throughout the 20th century, congregational song was deeply influenced by emotional revivalism. One development that had a huge impact on congregational song was the nationwide proliferation of religious publishing houses. Led by Christian entrepreneurs, these publishers produced collections of songs that were lighter, semi-sacred, and more commercial. Examples include "His Eye is on the Sparrow," "The Old Rugged Cross," and "In the Garden." Suddenly, publishers, parachurch organizations, and promoters were exercising a controlling influence over which hymns were being used in church services across the country. For the first time in the history of Christianity, commercial and financial motivations were playing a larger role than pastors and church leaders in defining congregational song. The result was a diminishing focus on theological content and a greater emphasis on entertainment and emotional impact.

As the century progressed, the influence on the church of Christians working within the communications revolution continued to expand. Visionaries like Jarrell McCracken, founder of Word Records, saw how Christian music could simultaneously be used to promote the gospel, serve the church, and build a viable company. "The mushrooming new market for religious music (over the radio, on records, and in sheet music) created completely new and utterly baffling problems and tension." (Chuck Fromm)

The influence of the communication revolution upon the church cannot be overestimated. Even liturgical forms were being affected. Both in England and the United States, leaders sought to bring religion and relevance together in music. Probably the most common result was a folk style that pervaded many denominations.

In the late 1960's, a combination of crises in culture and the church served as a backdrop for what is now known as the "Jesus Movement." Hundreds of thousands of young people were converted to Christianity as God sovereignly poured out His Holy Spirit throughout the world. Some broke away from their roots, while others remained in their churches and sought to bring change from within. While the theological implications can be debated, the musical results were undeniable and widespread. The songs produced during this time were typically short, easy to learn, and often Scripture-saturated (even if only brief passages were being utilized). Examples include "Seek Ye First," "This is the Day," and "I Exalt Thee."

The songs birthed in the Jesus Movement anticipated today’s "modern worship movement." It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the current phenomenon began, but it's safe to say that we are still in the midst of it. Next time we'll take a look at what's taking place and hopefully gain some insights for where God wants to take us from here.

For His Glory,