John and Charles Wesley had an immense impact on the church of the late eighteenth century. Their emphasis on evangelism and discipleship caused great growth in the church. They also strongly influenced church music in a wonderful way through their efforts to improve the congregational singing of the church. Both John and Charles focused on bringing new congregational songs to believers. It was Charles who penned over 6500 hymn texts over his lifetime. We still sing a number of his hymn texts today: And Can It Be, Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, Jesus Lover of My Soul.
In an effort to bolster congregational singing in his church, John Wesley penned these words to encourage his congregations. These directions first appeared in Select Hymns with Tunes Annext, 1761.
“That this part of Divine Worship may be more acceptable to God, as well as the more profitable to yourself and others, be careful to observe the following directions:
1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others, afterwards learn as many as you please.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Although today many churches do not use hymnals, these principles for congregational singing can still embolden our corporate singing. Our largest choir in the church is the congregation. Worship leaders must constantly be encouraging their congregations in all of the ways Wesley listed many years ago.