Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Religion always involves community. It is learned in social contexts, grounded in shared ideas, built upon social relations and sustained by collective actions. As Émile Durkheim reminded us, a religion is a system of beliefs and practices that unites individuals in a single moral community called a church (or another faith-specific synonym). While there is space for personal practice—and while such practice is vital for retaining members and strengthening the whole—religion is not an individualized spiritual path. There is no religion without a church.
In both Judaism and Christianity, the congregation is the most significant and influential level of social organization. It draws adherents together in a common location and provides them with opportunities for shared devotional, educational, gastronomical and recreational experiences. Because a congregation’s central aim is to foster and maintain communal cohesion, group singing has long been its most trusted aid.
The effectiveness of congregational song is rooted in the nature of the congregation itself. It thus behooves us to look more closely at what a congregation is and what it seeks to achieve. For this, we turn to John Locke, the English physician and Enlightenment philosopher. Locke’s most cogent description of a congregation is found in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). Published amidst fears that Catholicism was taking over England, the short treatise cautions against government-imposed religion. In Locke’s view, religious tolerance is key to maintaining civil order, whereas civil unrest is the natural response to magistrates who attempt to outlaw religious sects and denominations. Since genuine religious converts are gained through persuasion and not coercion, governments have no right to intrude upon matters of the soul. In Locke’s eloquent words, “the power of civil government relates only to men’s civil interests, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come.”
Against this backdrop, Locke defined a congregation as a “voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worship of God, in such a matter as they judge acceptable to them, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” This observation pertains specifically to Protestant contexts, where affiliation choices can be many. Under ideal conditions, individuals are free to join in or drop out according to their comfort or discomfort with doctrines, rituals, policies, membership and so on. Thus, to a certain and important extent, those who gather together want to gather together.
The voluntariness of congregational affiliation—which obviously varies from place to place—is precisely why communal song is so valuable. Congregants need compelling reasons to congregate. It is one thing to share values, views and heritage, and another thing to engage in them. What group singing accomplishes is a kind of transformation. Voices united turn common beliefs (lyrical content) and identity-affirming sounds (melody) into a lived collective experience.
It is often said that song is the glue that keeps a congregation together. Ideologically and emotionally reinforcing music replenishes and rededicates group commitment. Without group singing—and other means of creating palpable unity—the church risks losing its appeal and dissolving away.
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