I suppose God could have made the human mouth a terribly boring piece of corporeal machinery. Just a football-shaped tunnel down which to pour food and drink, and out of which rumbles a few words now and again. But that’s not how the Creator rolls. He likes to spice things up. So, when the moment arrived to make the human mouth, God told the nearest angel, “Watch this.” And, with a wink and a word, he crafted the best musical instrument in the history of the cosmos.
When Sunday rolls around, the followers of Jesus put that musical instrument to work. We sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs, as the apostle urged us to do. Some of us may not be able to carry a tune in a bucket, but we are carried along by those who can. We are one vast choir, after all, not just a hodgepodge of solo voices.
In a coming age, someone might write a book entitled, How the Church Saved Singing.
These days, about the only place where people sing communally, on a regular basis, is in church. Even the national anthem, the communal song of the citizens, gets individualized to a solo voice while the rest of us stand around lip-zipped. Years ago, Thomas Cahill wrote a book entitled, How the Irish Saved Civilization. In a coming age, someone might write a book entitled, How the Church Saved Singing. Who knows, it might also be the way we save civilization.
It seems to me, though, that the church’s communal singing could profit from three simple recommendations. It doesn’t matter if your church has a thousand-piped organ or a three-piece band, the same truths apply. If we’re going to sing accompanied by musical instruments; if we’re going to actually sing together and not be sung to; and if we’re going to sing words worthy of being inscribed on our hearts, then let us consider these things.
#1 Keep the Music the Servant, Not the Master, of the Text
Paul told the church in Colossae to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (3:16). Presumably, Paul expected the people singing Christ’s words to each other to be able to hear those words. That’s nigh impossible, however, if the music blasted from the organ or guitar or drums is so loud that I can’t even hear the person singing one pew behind me.
When musical instruments dominate the space in which communal singing takes place, the music has ceased to be the servant of the sacred text and has staged a coup. Truth be told, there are times when a particular hymn strikes an emotional chord with me. I can’t sing through the tears. So, I stop and listen to others. It’s a beautiful gift, when my brothers and sisters bear me along with their singing. I’m encouraged. I’m comforted. Their words, sung in the labor of love, wash over me. That can’t happen, however, if the music has usurped authority. Declared itself king of the choir.
The best of music doesn’t wrap up words in its overwhelming power but carries them along in its harmonious service. Let’s keep music the servant, not the master, of the text.
#2 Worship Leaders: Don't Sing to Us, But With Us
Communal singing, by definition, is the singing of the community together, as a group, with all the individual voices melding together as a united whole. When the hymn or song is well-known, when the wedded nature of music and text is firmly established, the result is a chorus of voices that unite seamlessly.
I’ve sung countless songs in all types of worship, from traditional to modern, and been enriched. I thank God for the musical talents of those who lead us in worship. However, if the church has a worship leader, or a group of worship leaders, who put an incredibly idiosyncratic twist on well-known hymns, who feel compelled to alter the established flow of the words, or who change the cadence of the music to something unknown, and—because of their microphone—overpower everyone else vocally, then communal singing inevitably suffers.
If a musician wants to sing this kind of individualized song in a concert, I say, “Go for it.” That’s fine when you’re singing to an audience. But in corporate worship, if we’re going to sing communally, then we need worship leaders to sing with us as a church, not to us as an audience.
#3 Write or Choose Songs with Theological Depth and Poetic Beauty
There’s a reason the 150 psalms have been on the lips of believers since the early days of Israel until now. It’s not just because they’re part of the Bible—important as that is—but because they have theological depth and poetic beauty. Not just one of these but both. Karl Barth’s dogmatics may have theological depth, but we don’t sing them. And Shakespeare’s sonnets certainly have poetic beauty, but we don’t chant “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” in church. But the psalms? They plummet the depths of God and rise to the heights of poetic beauty.
We don’t need rhymed Band-Aids, but the healing medicine of heaven poured into our wounds.
Do not make the mistake of assuming churchgoers are okay with banal poetry and shallow theology in their songs. Maybe some are, but I suspect most are not. We come crawling to church after a week of being wounded by life. We don’t need rhymed Band-Aids, but the healing medicine of heaven poured into our wounds. And the best of hymns are healing words, full of the Spirit’s wisdom, put together into a musical masterpiece that will remain far into the church’s future. Help us. Minister to us. Write or choose songs with theological depth and poetic beauty, that draw us into Christ, fill our souls with peace, and teach us words worthy of being transcribed onto our hearts.
As countless people have experienced, when the elderly forget almost everything, sometimes even their own family, they can still recite the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, or even sing along with a beloved hymn. Put yourself there at that advanced age. What do you want to remember when you’ve forgotten virtually everything else? Sing that.