Have you ever stopped to think about how odd some of our church traditions are? I don’t even mean the super-liturgical, way “up-the-candle,” high church traditions of our most formal denominational brethren. I mean those common to nearly every ecclesial gathering around the world; things like congregational singing and communal praying. Have you ever stepped back, removed yourself from the integument of familiarity and habit, and really examined the parts of our gatherings that we most consistently take for granted? Why do we do these things?
I’ll state from the very beginning that I am, in no way, suggesting with this post that these elements of our community-life are superfluous. I believe they are, in fact, absolutely essential to the life of the Church and the lives of the individual believers therein. My only hope is to give some thought as to our reasons for doing them, trusting that if we will establish in our hearts and minds their truest purpose, we may do them with even greater fervor and deeper resolve.
I’d like to consider one specific practice that has struck me as particularly strange over the last couple of years: the practice of gathering together and singing songs as a community. I mean, think about it. You may have to mentally zoom out a bit to try and view the act objectively, but it’s really odd; a room full of people singing together? How many places do you experience such a thing outside the context of religious gatherings, Christian or otherwise?
Occasionally you’ll hear a crowd sing together at a concert, or live sporting event (“Take me out to the ballgame…”), or perhaps at a birthday celebration, but that’s about it. It is, by no means, a common occurrence outside the context of various faith gatherings.
Why, then, do we do it? What’s the point?
Over the last 12 months or so, I’ve begun answering that question, at least for myself, and it has transformed the experience of congregational singing for me.
However, “Why do we sing?” is far too broad a question in and of itself. To get to an answer, I had to follow a trail of smaller, more digestible questions.
First, for whom are we singing? The answer to this question may seem obvious. But, if I learned anything in my twenties, it was this: often the questions with the most seemingly obvious answers are the questions we most desperately need to ask, as they may not have been asked for a while.
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I’ve lived my entire life taking for granted the idea that because we sing to God, we must also be singing for God. But, is it so simple? After all, who really benefits from our singing? Does God need His ego stroked? Is He so insecure as to require the affirmation of hundreds of millions of people throughout time and space constantly reminding Him of His greatness? I think not.
Now, I understand the idea that our Creator delights in the affectionate praise of His creation, like any parent cherishes any sincere expression of admiration from their children. I don’t disagree with that sentiment, nor do I believe it’s a poor motive for gathering and lifting our voices to God.
We should, without a doubt, sing out of the overflow of our love and devotion to God; out of awe for His goodness and faithfulness and beauty. But, while that’s true, it leaves me with this nagging question: what about the times that we don’t mean the words we’re singing? Those times when we just flat out don’t feel it?
Ten years ago, I wrote a song called “Leaves Like Eves.” It’s a song about how the words we sing when we gather together had become for me nothing more than the leaves I used to hide the true state of my heart from God, as though He who knit me together wouldn’t know the difference between my heart as He created it and my heart as I had dressed it up.
Every time I would play that song for folks, I’d introduce it by challenging them with this idea: the God we serve will find more glory in our honesty than in our flattery. He’s not a God who can be flattered. He knows our hearts. He knows what we really think and how we really feel, so we may as well be honest with Him.
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I stand by that statement wholeheartedly, but I’ve since come to apply it more to times of personal prayer and devotion than times of corporate singing. Should we mean the words we sing to God when we gather? Sure, ideally. But, should we sing them whether we mean them or not? Absolutely, we should. We must, in fact.
When we sing together, we’re not having a private conversation with God. We’re having a communal conversation about God, directed to God. We are, in essence, preaching the Gospel to ourselves and one another. We’re calling each other to remember and believe the goodness and faithfulness and beauty of our God.
When I first began leading worship, I served at a tiny suburban church plant in West Fort Worth. The pastor of that church constantly reminded me that folks would never leave our Sunday gathering humming the sermon he preached. They’d leave humming the songs we had sung together.
In fact, they were far more likely to have the words we sang rattling around in their minds all week than any words they heard from the pulpit. For whom do we sing? I believe we sing for ourselves and for one another, that we might come to believe more fully the truth of the words we sing and to love more deeply the God to and about Whom they were written.
That belief has transformed the way I personally worship God in song, the way I plan the musical portion of any worship gathering I’m involved with and the way I discern which songs should or shouldn’t be a part of our corporate worship life. If music is, in essence, sung theology, then things like lyrical content and melodic hook become significantly more important to consider.
However, that doesn’t completely quench my desire to know “why we sing.”
If that was all there was to it, then why not just leave the singing to the pros, and attend a musically excellent, theologically rich concert every weekend? Or, for that matter, why not just buy musically excellent, theologically rich music on iTunes and listen to it day in and day out? Why must we gather and actually sing together?
I’ve long been fascinated by the prayer Jesus prays in John chapter 17. He prays specifically for the oneness of those who will come to believe in Him. He prays that we, His people, may be united together; that we might be one just as He and the Father are one.
In the book of Acts, we find the early church living and worshipping together day in and day out. They share what they have. They break bread together. They seek God together.
That begs the question: how many things do we do together? How many things can we do together? How many acts of worship are communal in nature? Congregational singing lends itself perfectly to the togetherness & vulnerability that the Gospel demands, deserves and seeks of those living in community. We, together, are the people of God. We, together, are the bride of Christ. Therefore, it’s right and good that we, together, with one voice, should express our affections for our great bridegroom, Jesus.
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When we step outside the familiar walls of liturgical tradition and peek back in through the window at all the people standing and singing and raising their hands together, it may look a bit foreign or silly. But, brothers & sisters, as I said, it is absolutely vital to the life of the Church and to the lives of the individual believers therein.
When we gather together, let us lay aside any concern about the quality of our singing voices. Let us lay aside any reservations about whether or not we “feel worshipful” in a given moment. Let us sing. Let us sing as an act of discipline, training our hearts to believe more completely the Gospel of our salvation. Let us sing as an act of community, knowing that the people around us are our brothers and sisters and that they need the truth of the Gospel on our lips to ring in their ears.
And let us sing as an act of worship, knowing that God, who knows our hearts fully, is beyond worthy of the humble words we lift up.