Official Rules for Singing Worship Music

Hi, friends. I’ve been a member of the United Methodist Church since before birth (seriously–in the womb). John Wesley and Charles Wesley founded the denomination, and it all started with a Bible study group in college. Others mocked the group for their discipline and called them “Methodists,” but the Wesleys flipped an insult into a way of life.

Methodism embraces the idea that anyone may be justified by God’s grace (as opposed to predestination). John Wesley’s theology centers on sanctification and the effect of faith on a Christian’s character. Charles Wesley is best remembered for all the hymns he wrote, including Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

John Wesley’s “Rules for Singing”

The title is a bit sarcastic–these rules are only “official” in the sense that they were printed, haha. They are amusing and still relevant, though. These rules for singing prefaced a hymn book the Wesleys published in 1761. Emphasis added by me.

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  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.

Do you agree with Wesley’s rules? I think #2 is debatable; transforming a hymn into a contemporary song by changing up the tune and adding a few lyrics? Cool. Singing the hymn as is but leaving out verses? Kinda uncool, though it’s common in church. And, of course, the rule about not seeming half-dead is funny and poignant.

Thanks for reading! 

22 comments

  1. I’ve heard these rules before somewhere, but it’s interesting to know where it originates. Makes a lot of sense too. The more power and feeling you put into music, the more you get out of it, and the more transformational it becomes. Music has been a component for religious and spiritual work pretty much since the beginning, likely for just that reason.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ah, the Wesley rules for singing. I agree with you about #2; maybe 257 years ago, they didn’t have all the cool tunes we have today nor did they have K-LOVE. But i like all the rules about singing lustily and spiritually because i just LOVE to sing. I enjoy peppy tunes. Not that i am against slow songs, but my rule of thumb is this: I either want to be clapping, dancing, or tapping my feet OR i want it to step on my toes and have me in tears. A slow song that doesn’t make put me under conviction and make me crawl to the altar— no thanks! I will, however, marry up the good lyrics from a draggy song to a punched up happy tune ! 🙂

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  3. I have heard similar ‘rules’ but not associated them with any church in particular. I lead a ladies meeting. It has been many years since we had the benefit of a pianist. So I often find myself saying, “look let’s begin together and end together” It does make a difference, but singing even unaccompanied is good for the soul. It gives our spirit wings. Blessings

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  4. I like your comments on #2 and being half-dead. I would only add harmony is nice but some of us have no harmony. My dad’s voice was naturally loud and definitely without harmony but he sang to the Lord.But I love the memory of hearing his voice in the congregation. The most important point is to sing spiritually or I would say from the heart.

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    1. Reminds me of my grandma–can’t sing a lick but always makes “a joyful noise” nonetheless. I love, love, love good harmony. It’s fun to attend a bigger church and hear multiple voices in the congregation singing harmony during a hymn.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love #1 about learn all you can. Worship music is a way God lets me know he is with me as I go about my day with one in my spirit. I don’t know if you do the awards thing, but I nominated you for the Random Acts of Kindness one today in my post.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Lily, thank you for sharing these “rules.” Hymns learned in our childhood stay with us, especially the old ones. They are hymnatherapy for me, still learning during the week hymns that will sung for worship the next week.The second rule is debatable in this generation. It is when we take the harmony out, so that the melody is sung by only one person that it takes away from the original composition. Churches used to have summer singing schools to teach harmony, direction and composition. Tradiional churches still have childrens choirs but few have the time to teach the rudiments of music. Children are blessed whose parents can offord music lessons. Some of these are set aside when students leave their strings for marching bands. And yes, most churches now choose their verses. Blessings.

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    1. Fran, I agree that harmony really enriches a hymn. I love singing a hymn in a big congregation where I hear those different harmonies. Unfortunately, I do not hear these harmonies too often because my church is small and we are all singing lead. Considering your comment about singing and music lessons, I wonder now if our small size is not really the issue–maybe we, like many churches I am sure, just don’t prioritize intricately beautiful worship like we should! Blessings.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting post Lily. I am not Methodist so I have a somewhat different idea about worshipful singing. I don’t believe rules should be imposed on singing–only that it should coincide with an orderly worship. I believe that singing is a very personal expression that should be offered up joyfully and thankfully and exuberantly. It doesn’t matter how talented you are or how lacking of talent–it is a joyful noise to the Lord. Nonetheless, God has given some of us singing talent and I believe He wants us to use it and be grateful for it, especially in worship service. With the exception of Biblical one’s, I don’t believe that hymns are holy. Therefore it doesn’t matter if the timing is on or off, if one person is louder than another or if a verse is omitted or added to. Everyone should be in concert of praise and in doing that, perhaps, our voices become on to the Lord. Perhaps He hears each one of us individually, I do not know–but it should be all about Him. Just my thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Pam. I agree with you that making a joyful, sincere noise is really all that matters. However, I can imagine the issues that Wesley mentions, such as someone deliberately trying to be heard above others, or a few people singing slowly on a hymn and dragging down the tempo. These “rules” seem like they would apply better to a choir vs. the whole congregation since the choir only exists to worship through music. I think you’re right that He would encourage those with musical talent to pursue it.

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