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.
Recently, I spent a weekend down in Texas working on a project called Timeless. It is a modern-day psalter—an adaptation of all 150 psalms into lyrical and musical forms suitable for use in a-cappella congregational worship. Though I was happy to help, Timeless certainly isn’t my brainchild. Indeed, it had been pursuing this goal for a dozen years before I ever encountered it.
However, the more I think about it, the better I like the idea of singing more psalms. Anybody who pays attention to my writing on worship knows that there are two main lyrical issues that concern me: better Biblical content and greater emotional range. Singing more of Psalms, and especially singing paraphrases that are representative of the content of Psalms, addresses both of those concerns.
Now, it’s true that we have some psalm content in our repertoire already. Nearly every Christian knows the likes of “Hallelujah! Praise Jehovah!” and “The Lord’s My Shepherd”. However, those upbeat hymns of praise and assurance give us a distorted picture of what the Psalms are like. Most of the 150 are not upbeat and happy. To the contrary, most psalms are laments, filled with sorrow and the struggle to find God in difficult times.
Even our song texts that come from psalms of lamentation often manage to miss the point. Take, for instance, the praise song “Shield About Me”. We sing it frequently at Jackson Heights, and I like it, though the high-flying tenor line is kind of a strain for my baritone voice. The lyrics are quoted from Psalm 3:3.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. I’m all about praising God as my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head. However, Psalm 3:3 isn’t its own proverb. It’s in the context of Psalm 3:1-2, which reads, “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’”
We would never glean it from “Shield About Me”, but Psalm 3 is another one of those psalms of lamentation. The ascription tells us that David wrote it when he was on the run from Absalom. These are the words of a man whose own son is trying to kill him! The idea of God as our shield and glory and head-lifter is powerful on its own, but when it is contrasted with human faithlessness and evil, it becomes sublime. Even if our loved ones betray us, God is still on our side!
We need to be singing things like that, though they undeniably make many Christians uncomfortable. You know what, though? That unpleasant emotion that makes you uncomfortable may be exactly the emotion that a brother or sister in Christ is feeling and desperately, desperately needs to sing about. Don’t think a psalm about betrayal by a family member could be relevant? Talk to a Christian whose spouse has cheated on them.
We live in a culture that insists on authenticity, but too often our song worship is inauthentic. We sing as though every problem a Christian has can be solved with a pasted-on smile and a snappy two-pager. Is it any wonder that so many Christians seem emotionally detached from our singing? Maybe, just maybe, it would help if we invited them to sing what they were truly feeling. Maybe it would help if we invited them to sing from the Psalms.