15 July 2008

Singing Together

Over at "This Side of the Pulpit" Pr. Christopher Hall has a nice little piece on singing in church. He makes a most needed point for the "American church scene": worship is not about pleasing one's individual desires, especially when it comes to music and singing. How odd it is that so many faithful church-goers, and of various stripes, merely assume that the songs and music are meant to please them on a merely individualistic, private level. It's almost as though "church" ("worship") has become nothing but the Sunday morning version of some pop-radio station's "Request Line"--just make your requests known, and the DJ - er, I mean, pastor - is automatically obligated to air the songs in order to make the listener(s) - i.e. worshiper(s) - happy.

So, thanks, Pr. Hall for a good little post on something that constantly vexes us pastors. After all, I know that I did not become a pastor just so I could take requests, air the right songs, and sit back and say, "Wow, I made 'em happy today."

However, I might quibble just a tad with one minor point in Pr. Hall's piece. In this brief post he says,
There are many reasons to go to church, but going in order to sing songs is not one of them. Hearing the Word of God and receiving the Sacraments--those are reasons to go to church. To worship and pray--those are reasons for going to church. To sing along with a crowd, to be moved emotionally because my favorite church-style or pop-style songs were sung doesn't make the cut (emphasis added).
Actually, I would say that one reason to go to church, among the other good ones he mentions, most certainly IS to sing songs--songs that sing of our Triune God and His unfathomable love for us sinners; songs that proclaim His saving deeds by sending the Son into our flesh to restore us to life with Him through His life, death, and resurrection; songs that comfort us with His goodness and gifts so that we constantly learn to repent of our sins and trust His mercy, forgiveness, and life.

Singing and music truly serve an essential purpose in hearing the Word of God and receiving the Sacraments. They carry that message of mercy in Christ Jesus, and they have a unique way of embedding it in hearts and minds, our bodies and souls.

The better way to critique the "have it your way" and "I want, I want" notions regarding music would be to zero in on the egotism of it all. I forget who said it years ago, but the stronger hymns and songs in the church do seem to be the ones that sing with "we" rather than "I." When we come together to sing the Church's song, we do so as a corporate community, a group of people baptized into the Body of Christ, a group made and becoming more unified in the forgiveness and life of our Savior. Our song, then, is more than "my favorite"; it belongs to the whole community called the Church. Therefore, the incessant requests for songs *I* like to sing, whether they're the "old favorites" or of the newer "styles" (along with the temper tantrums and church hopping that result from not getting one's way), are just plain out of place.

We do come to church to sing together, and we come to sing about something - actually, Someone - outside of and above our narrow little lives and momentary puny cares. In fact, when "we" come together to sing with the "we" of the whole Church catholic, we actually get drawn outside of ourselves as we sing not only in the presence of one another, but also *to* one another. Talk about hearing and proclaiming the Gospel! On those occasions when my voice has been less than operative, it's been great comfort to hear others sing of the saving deeds of our God and Savior. When a widow's grief from losing her husband makes her too emotional to sing, she needs us to sing God's message of life in Jesus' resurrection. The examples could continue.

So singing and music in church are not completely beside the point. They do carry the message of our Savior's works of overcoming sin and death for us. And we do best to check our personal likes, dislikes, tastes, and requests at the door when we enter God's presence. After all, He has something much better in store for us: His Word of life, His Sacraments, and His tender, fatherly ways of uniting us together with each other.

And, who knows, in singing songs that are not necessarily our "favorites" or our self-chosen "style," we just may grow to appreciate more music and singing as well. We will, after all, have a whole eternity to sing the praises of our loving, saving, humanity restoring God, and I'm pretty sure that we'll need a pretty extensive repertoire of music and singing to go with it.


  1. Thanks for the bump! In one sense your quibble is good. We do sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, after all. My point, however poorly stated in that paragraph, is that this is not the primary reason. As you wrote, we don't sing for singing's sake, or even because the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are moving, but because they praise the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.

  2. The egotism! Yes!
    In the end--as in its beginning!--wanting something other than hymnody and liturgy is run by the ego, and granting it is ego run amok.
    It's often clothed in other aims--sold under other names, but peel back the layers of clothing, examine the other names, and there's no there there but egotism.
    And the only way to bring the ego's desires to fruition is by a kind of betrayal. I'm always reminded of a teenager, stomping her foot at the word 'No,' storming out of the room, calling her sympathetic friends on the phone to help her figure out a way of ultimately getting the most important thing to her: what she wants, right now, this instant, for herself.
    The tragedy is, she'll find that sympathy, and they'll find a way, and they'll figure out a way of making it 'all good'.
    Susan R

  3. Thng is, in present-day, American culture, church is virtually the only place people ever sing together any more! That may be why people want to "make the most" (for themselves emotionally) of the opportunity.

    The other day, I had brunch with (among others) an 8-year-old who had just gotten back from cub scout camp. They didn't have any camp songs! Not even in scout camp!

    People, I suspect, are starved for communal singing.

  4. And I suspect you are right on that point, Anastasia! All one has to do is listen during the singing of the National Anthem at a pubic event, such as a sports game or outdoor theater. The communal singing is, well, far from communal. When we recently went to the MUNY (outdoor theater in Forest Park) here in St. Louis, I could detect *some* singing, probably more than at a baseball game, but I also noted the perplexed look: "They're singing too?!"

    Good point, Anastasia.