The other day, I ran across a blog post online entitled, “Is Your Church Worship More Pagan Than Christian?” I said to myself, “Hmm. That sounds like the sort of thing I might agree with,” so I clicked on it. I did not agree with it.
The thesis of the post, to quote the author, is that “Music is viewed as a means to facilitate an encounter with God; it will move us closer to God. In this schema, music becomes a means of mediation between God and man. But this idea is closer to ecstatic pagan practices than to Christian worship.” In other words, if we regard singing as a way to experience the presence of God, we’re thinking unbiblically.
I disagree. There are many Scriptural texts that link worship and encountering God. As Psalm 100 urges, “Come into His presence with singing! . . . Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise!” Certainly, this refers in part to entering the grounds of the physical temple in Jerusalem. However, the Israelites knew very well that God didn’t live in a box. They regarded the temple as a special point of access to His actual presence in heaven, and they worshiped in order to come into that presence.
Today, we worship God neither on Jerusalem nor on Mt. Gerizim. Instead, we worship in spirit and truth. God’s attention is no longer focused on the temple. Instead, wherever His people gather, He is in their midst. Our song worship is supposed to be a celebration of His presence. If we aren’t emotionally moved by the knowledge that God is with us and is accepting our worship, we aren’t doing it right.
Now, I do agree that many of the harms that the author lists are problems. No, we shouldn’t marginalize the Bible in favor of worship. No, we shouldn’t base our relationship with Him on emotion rather than truth. No, we shouldn’t exalt our worship leaders above their brethren. No, we shouldn’t divide over worship styles.
All of those things are wrong, but none of them are a result of desiring to encounter God through song worship. They’re the result of other spiritual problems that are contaminating worship too. If we try to make worship something other than a way to encounter God, we won’t solve those problems. Instead, we’ll create new ones.
Indeed, I believe that such problems are prominently on display in churches around the country. Every congregation that numbly goes through the motions on Sunday morning, every congregation that approaches song worship with the enthusiasm appropriate to a trip to the dentist, is a congregation that has forgotten the reality of the presence of God. Such churches may comfort themselves with the conviction that they have “done the right thing” (“Act of Worship #2—check!”), but in truth, they’ve only offered a Malachi 1 counterfeit.
The last thing that they need is increased suspicion of emotion in worship! Rather, what all of us need to increase is our willingness to pour ourselves out before the Lord, to rejoice in the knowledge that He is with us. Certainly, emotional worship can be wrong, but emotionless worship can’t be right.
A couple of days ago, I encountered a video of a saxophonist performing a. . . memorable rendition of the hymn “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart”. At least, that’s what I think he’s playing. I reposted the video with the comment, “The real reason why the Lord only commanded us to sing was to save us from bad church bands. Not totally sure I'm joking.”
In all seriousness, I think there may be some truth to that. I’m not sure that the performer-audience model of worship works well anywhere, but I think it has to work particularly badly in average and smaller-than-average churches.
Across all denominations, the average church size is about 80 in attendance on Sunday morning. If you want to put together a competent church band from the talent base of those 80 attendees, how successful are you going to be? (Note, by the way, that churches of Christ are not a good gauge here. Because of the practice of congregational singing, brethren have much more musical interest and ability than the norm.) I’d guess you’d have a dude who used to play guitar in jazz band in high school, a woman of a certain age who gives piano lessons sometimes, and a girl in her late teens or early twenties who thinks she can sing.
They could make music together, kind of. You wouldn’t necessarily want to be in the same room with it. If, perchance, they turned out to be pretty good, it wouldn’t be long before a larger congregation snapped them up.
I’m not an expert, though I’ve watched some recordings online. I would guess, however, that the attendee of the average church is subjected to bad music on a weekly basis. The spotlight is not kind to people with marginal musical talent.
For churches of that size or smaller, congregational singing is simply going to work better. Once you get people who are willing to sing (which is an American obstacle not generally present elsewhere), an 80-member congregation will be able to do so in an appealing way, even if the singers only have modest musical gifts. The massed voices mask the flaws of any one voice (which, come to think of it, is a lovely metaphor for a church generally). I’ve worshiped with lots of churches all across the country, but I can’t think of a single one where the singing discouraged me.
This is true not only for the average church, but even for the small one. When I still lived in Illinois, I would preach once a month for the church up the road. I believe the congregation has grown since, but back when I visited on Sunday evening, attendance would be in the teens.
Trying to get a band together from those brethren would have been a disaster, but you know what? They could still make congregational singing work. I didn’t dread singing with them. I enjoyed it.
I think this illustrates the wisdom of God’s commandment to sing. Acappella congregational singing scales pretty well. Maybe it doesn’t compare to a Hillsong extravaganza, but singing “Our God, He Is Alive” with 1100 people has some power to it.
However, it’s most important not for larger churches, but for smaller churches. Even in the absence of standout musical talents (which usually aren’t going to be present in smaller congregations), congregational singing works. It works here, it works in Africa (again, haven’t been, but have seen the YouTube videos), and I’d imagine it worked 2000 years ago. Like everything about God’s plan for the church, it is suited to all places and times.
If you find yourself taking that for granted, go back and listen to the video at the top until you don’t.
A couple of weeks ago, the most recent Sumphonia recording session wrapped up. As the Sumphonites often do, they released video of one of the songs they recorded (“Before the Throne of God Above”), which you can find here.
I have many friends who participated in the recording, so I watched as the video made its way around social media, generally to appreciative commentary.
However, there was one exception. Someone whom I do not know (I’m withholding his name for reasons that will become obvious) asked, “Is this singing for entertainment?” When others responded, he added, “My final post in this string. You sing, you record, you sell, even have venues, people buy... That's singing hymns of worship for entertainment.”
This is certainly a serious charge. It is tantamount to accusing the Sumphonia organizers and singers of taking the things of God and commercializing them for the sake of material gain. For that matter, it is tantamount to accusing everyone who listens to worship recordings of reducing sacred song to an avenue for fleshly pleasure.
Now, doing so is certainly possible. I suppose there could be someone associated with song worship in the churches of Christ who does it for the money. I think it’s even more likely that people might listen to hymn recordings for aesthetic rather than spiritual reasons.
However, to argue that this necessarily _is_ what is happening, without knowing anything about the people involved, far exceeds the evidence. It’s impossible when it comes to Sumphonia. Sumphonia is a nonprofit, its board members are unpaid (indeed, the cashflow arrow tends to point in the other direction!), and the equally unpaid singers travel to the recording venue and find lodging there at their own expense.
Even if that were not true, is it somehow less legitimate for someone who produces worship recordings to be paid than it is for someone who preaches gospel sermons to be paid? Does getting income from some godly activity automatically render it ungodly? If so, lots of brethren are in trouble, from the apostle Paul on down! It seems wise to me, then, to refrain from judging hearts without very, very good evidence.
The same holds true for those who listen to hymn recordings. In fact, that’s about all I listen to these days. I have no interest in giving the sin merchants in the secular entertainment industry more space in my head than they’ve already got.
I don’t know what goes on in anyone else’s head when they listen to worship recordings, but I know what goes on in mine. It is true that I enjoy the beauty of the singing (though to say that I am “entertained” by it is a stretch). I believe, though, that such enjoyment is part of God’s plan for worship. Why would He command us to engage in that which is beautiful if we are not supposed to find joy in it?
Even more than that, though, I enjoy the beauty of the message. For instance, in the car yesterday morning, I was listening to Psalom’s recording of “My God and King” (which you can find here). Lovely to listen to? Sure! Those Russian brethren really can sing!
Nonetheless, what has stuck with me all day was not the harmony, but the meaning. For those who haven’t spotted it, “My God and King” is a paraphrase of Psalm 84, built around the opening line, “How beautiful are Your dwelling places, O God!” I meditated on that all morning: how much I enjoy moments of fellowship with God, and how much I long to spend eternity where He dwells.
If that’s about entertainment, then Christianity itself is about entertainment too.
Obviously, anything, no matter how good, can be misused. That holds true for sacred song. However, those who are quick to level accusations of misuse are probably saying more about themselves than they are about anybody else.
Tonight is our annual gospel singing! For the past several weeks, Gary and Tim have worked extremely hard on putting this hymn list together, and I thought everyone would be interested in seeing it. This is a great opportunity to glorify God. Everybody in the Columbia area, make sure that you take advantage of it!
Hallelujah Praise Jehovah
Let Me Live Close to Thee
Father God, Just for Today
The Love of God
Father Bless Us
Living Water, Bread of Life
Surround Us Lord
He Will Pilot Me
His Grace Reaches Me
I Love My Savior Too
Jesus Lover of My Soul
A Wonderful Savior
How Deep the Father’s Love
Is it Well With Your Soul?
And Can It Be
I’ll Be List’ning
A Beautiful Prayer
We Saw Thee Not
I Close My Eyes
Break My Heart
Wonderful Merciful Savior
With Jesus By My Side
Where No One Stands Alone
A Beautiful Life
Hilltops of Glory
This World is Not My Home
Don’t You Want to Go to That Land?
A couple months back, a friend of mine Facebook-messaged me about an issue that every musically inclined Christian is aware of—the times when your congregation isn’t singing a hymn the way it’s written. He wanted to know what I thought about insisting that a hymn be sung “correctly”. Is it worth making a big deal out of?
I think there are two Scriptural principles we need to consider here. The first is our responsibility to glorify God together, as per Romans 15:5-6. The second is our responsibility to do so in a decent, orderly fashion, according to 1 Corinthians 14:40. Whatever best allows Christians to sing together harmoniously while focusing on music, not mechanics, is what we should do.
I think these principles will be applied differently depending on whether a given sacred song is familiar or unfamiliar. When a congregation is learning an unfamiliar hymn, working on singing it as written is important. Otherwise, when those who learned the hymn correctly elsewhere visit our assemblies or join our congregation, the different notions of how a hymn should be sung will create distraction.
Of course, there is a limit to this. Many unfamiliar hymns, particularly praise songs written in the past few decades, will have rhythms that are well-nigh impossible to sight-read. If you’re one of those brethren who can master the rhythm of a line filled with dotted eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and ties and slurs of every description, I salute you! I’m not, and most other Christians aren’t either.
In such cases, I simply advise the sight-reading group to sing it until some consensus idea of the rhythm emerges, and then adopt that. No, you won’t be singing it as written, but neither is any other congregation on the planet singing it as written. There’s no point in trying to attain to a standard nobody reaches.
When it comes to familiar hymns that the congregation sings together but incorrectly, I think song leaders should leave well enough alone. Generally, errors in familiar hymns exist not merely within congregations, but brotherhood-wide. I’ve heard “Follow Me” sung wrong from Texas to Illinois. If everybody who is likely to be in the assembly will be on the same (wrong) page, there will be no problems.
Paradoxically, efforts to sing the hymn correctly will lead to greater distraction and lessened worship. Back when I was growing up, I had an uncle who led singing, and he was determined that the church should sing “Follow Me” as it is written (“I work so hard for Je-e-sus,” and eighth notes on “mortal” in “mortal man”). Before he led the hymn, he would discuss the correct rhythm at great length. Then, he would lead it accordingly.
Didn’t help. Quite the opposite, actually! Half the congregation would sing it as he led it, but the other half would sing it the way they were used to singing it, and then everybody would kind of stop and look around at each other. It wasn’t effective at creating order, but it did a wonderful job of getting everybody focused on notes, not God.
Besides, even if such a song leader is so determined that he forces the congregation to sing the melody of “Take the Name of Jesus With You” correctly (we don’t, unless we’re using a hymnal that changed the melody to match what we sing), what does that profit? The congregation is no more united in being right than it was in being wrong, and the correct version will confuse visitors.
Basically, we should always ask what the goal is. It’s glorifying God together, not singing a piece of music together as well as possible. As long as the first is accomplished, the second isn’t terribly important.