So in the last post I asked why God teaches us to sing as Christians. It’s not a test of our faithfulness. God teaches us to sing for a reason. And until we grasp the purpose of singing, we really have no business being doctrinaire about the rules for how to sing in church.
So let’s start with the lyrics. Obviously, if the songs are spiritual songs, hymns, or psalms, the lyrics will praise God or carry another spiritual message. The lyrics matter because they carry a rational message that those singing and those listening hear.
But why sing the message? Why not just read the poetry of the lyrics? Why add music — especially given that we often get so distracted by the music that we miss the words entirely?
Well, there are several reasons. First, poetry allows thoughts and emotions to be conveyed that aren’t conveyed nearly as well by simple prose. It is, by definition, not easy to explain, but it’s obviously true. There’s something about saying “The Lord is my Shepherd” that communicates more powerfully and truly than “The Lord leads me.” Right? “Shepherd” as a metaphor carries far more meaning than “lead.” Indeed, we could spend quite a lot of time pouring over what “shepherd” means in Psalm 23 — because so much meaning is packed into that simple metaphor. This is much of the beauty of poetry.
It’s also true that poetry is better at communicating emotion than prose. When we’re in love, we’re tempted to write poetry because we want to communicate feeling, not information — and poetry is really good at that.
(Psa 137:1-6 ESV) By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. |
2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
Do you feel the composer’s despair? His lamentation?
Second, adding a tune makes the poetry all the more memorable. This is why we remember the words to the hymns of our childhoods. We’ll die knowing the words of far more hymns than sermons.
But it’s not just our memories that are affected. Because we sing these words and sing them together, we become bonded to each other. Singing is intimate. I mean, who among us would readily sing at work or on a bus or on the city streets? Singing is reserved for family and friends — and so singing at church helps us realize that those there are family and friends.
A well-crafted tune connects the words not only to our memories but to our emotions. We feel the sadness or joy or grandeur more because the music helps us connect the lyrics to our feelings. This is the same reason TV and movie directors add background music to their productions — the music affects our feelings.
Therefore, I get really frustrated with song and worship leaders who lead bad music because the bad song has “great lyrics,” arguing that the lyrics are what “really” matter. No!! We are taught to sing because the melody and the harmony matter, too. Otherwise, we’d be taught to do dramatic readings of the lyrics. (And this is why singing is so much more affecting and powerful than congregational readings.)
Moreover, singing together helps build us into a spiritual community. Many “spiritual disciplines” are individualistic, as though we are saved without regard to the church. Singing is one of the disciplines that actually helps form us into community.
I can listen to a sermon in my car. I can pray at home alone. I can give a check in the mail. But the Lord’s Supper and the song service are by their very nature community practices that should build us together. They teach us to consider each other as family and to truly love those eating or singing next to us.
Hence, our congregational singing has to be conducted in a way that allows us to sing together — where we can hear our fellow congregants. When the band or praise team or song leader is so loud that those of us in the pews can’t hear each other, we lose much of the purpose of the song service.
Of course, we can also be helped by a solo or quartet or other performance piece — sometimes quite a lot. But when the entire service becomes passive — listening to others — an essential element of the assembly is lost.
After all, we assemble to be together so that we grow together, not so that the preacher or song leader can conveniently reach out to a group of individuals solely as individuals.
Now, there’s a danger that, as we with a legalistic heritage tend to do, we go to extremes and declare, for example, solos wrong because solos are less likely to help us grow together. But the same is true of sermons — right? Sermons, like solos, can give us a shared experience and lesson that unites us to a degree, but we achieve a far greater degree of unity as we pewsitters sing harmonies together.
And so it’s not either-or, but both-and. And there’s no magic formula for how much of each we need, but we definitely need some of both.
In short, and to get back to the theme of this series, I believe the Churches of Christ need to be careful to preserve true congregational singing, in harmony, even as they move toward instrumental music.
I do not like the trend toward leaving aside the sheet music (the notes) in exchange for words projected over a picture of a waterfall — on the false assumption that most visitors can’t sight-sing and don’t care to sing harmony (which also assumes that they don’t care to hear sight-singers singing harmony even if they can’t participate).
I find that assumption arrogant — as though only those with a Church of Christ heritage enjoy singing harmony — and shortsighted, because over time, we’ll raise up a generation that doesn’t know how to read the music (because the notes will have been hidden from them), and we’ll devolve to unison singing — which will tempt us to make up for the poor singing with too-loud instruments.
Don’t do it. Martin Luther had it right — harmonies matter, and there can be no harmonies without sheet music.
And, no, the altos can’t pick the altos out of the praise team and follow them without sheet music. Just try it with a brand new song you don’t know at all. It’s not easy — and why do we want to make it hard to harmonize? For a PowerPoint waterfall? Oh, please … that might have been impressive ten years ago, but surely we’d rather sing well than look at screen saver-type pictures projected on the church wall.