Each week, upwards of 100 million people in America attend church, listen responsively to the sermons, and pray sincerely. But when it comes time to sing the hymns, the level of engagement drops dramatically.
There are many proposed reasons for this fall off, all of which hold validity. It could be the wider culture’s waning interest in community singing, the diminishing levels of music education in the West, the role of choirs in schools, the unstable and increasingly narcissistic elements in church music, or even the spiritual state of our nation as a whole.
For millennia, music has been an integral part of corporate worship. The first hymns are as old as the early books of the Bible. The disciples and early church leaders sang those songs and added some of their own.
Notable thinkers throughout history (and into the current era) — everyone from Luther to Bach to John Newton — have so believed in the importance of corporate worship that they, too, contributed to the grand canon of hymns we know today.
As a contemporary hymn writer who travels to cities worldwide, I love to meet pastors and worship leaders and encourage them to lead their congregations in deeper, more passionate singing. Here are just five of the many reasons we should all sing passionately in church this Sunday:
1. We are commanded to sing.
We are called to sing — indeed, the Scriptures command us more than 250 times to sing. It’s hardly one of those “controversial” issues that is hard to ascertain precisely what scripture is saying. It’s not a choice. It’s not dependent on “feeling like it.” It’s not our prerogative.
Throughout biblical history, in every place and circumstance — in victory and defeat, in celebrations and festivals, in death and mourning — singing was second nature for people of faith. Indeed, the largest book of the Bible — Psalms — is itself a songbook that explores the range of human experience and interaction with God through singing.
In the New Testament, Paul tells the early churches to get together and sing. In Ephesians 5, he reiterates the call of old to engage with each other in the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making music from the heart.
2. Singing together completes our joy.
Celebrating with each other is as natural as breathing. At our kid’s soccer game or when we watch football or March Madness, it’s not enough for our team to win. We want to revel in the moment and share it with others. Marking a birthday, winning a prize, or getting a raise are all incomplete until we get to share them with those we love.
Similarly, for the faithful, the joy of living, of praying, of studying Scripture cannot be complete until shared. Singing together reminds us — not just intellectually, but experientially — that we are not slaves to the rugged individualism promoted by society. We’re actually responsible to one another.
Christian apologist CS Lewis believed that singing completes our faith. In his Reflections on the Psalms, he writes, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is appointed consumption.”
3. Singing is an expression of brotherhood and unites generations.
Singing together is a picture here on earth of the hope of heaven where every tribe, tongue, and nation will sing to God. Throughout history, God’s people have both discovered and affirmed their solidarity in times of celebration and in times of tragedy through singing.
Consider again those first churches Paul was leading. They often had little in common — they were culturally different, citizens of national enemies, sometimes with different religious traditions or no tradition at all, and sometimes even lacking common language or dialect. His admonition in Ephesians is not a simplistic instruction; it was a hard thing. But, all the more is the importance of their (and our) singing together as it was an undeniable expression of their brotherhood and unity.
It is a curious thing that stats may show the subject of congregational singing (or sadly, perhaps, the larger topic of church music) may have caused more splits within Christian communities than any movement since the Reformation.
The depth of brotherhood that could have been achieved by something as simple as singing together shines a harsh light on the insensitivity of church members and leadership who have broken congregations over so-called “worship wars.”
4. We are what we sing.
Singing affects how we pray, think, and feel. It influences our memory banks and even the deepest parts of our subconscious.
My wife, Kristyn, and I have noticed when we sing children’s hymns in the car with our girls they actually behave better than if, say, they were watching television.
At the other end of the scale, my grandfather arrived at church early on Sundays — very early. He sat in the pew, opened a hymnal, and rehearsed the songs to himself over and over. And though I was glad when we visited him, quiet reflection early on a Sunday morning was not my forte.
But, many years later, when he was in his nineties and unable to remember my name or how to accomplish even the most basic tasks of daily life, he still could recite or respond to the words of those hymns. They were songs he carried for life, and they brought him considerable peace, even at one of the most difficult stages of life, because they were so deeply engrained to his being.
In Deuteronomy 31, we read the instruction of the Lord to Moses to write down the words of the song he was given and to teach it to his children so that when many evils and trouble befell them, the song would be a reminder to them lest they turn away.
If the songs we sing to ourselves and to each other are just of the moment, detached from Scripture and lacking in history or perspective, we’ve little to keep us moored to Truth. But when we are intentional about singing and the songs we sing, we build up a testimony that will travel with us through life.
5. Singing bears testimony to our faith.
How we sing, if we sing, how passionately we sing — our singing itself — is a witness to those looking on. There is no choice in the matter. In the level of our engagement with the songs and participation in the singing, we testify to the joy of an excited believer or betray the chill of a disinterested spectator.
In the New Testament, we read of Christians gathered together who so passionately expressed their faith together in song that the people looking on thought them to be drunk because that was the only explanation for their uniformed experience.
Ultimately, those who may feel they are on the outside looking in will, from the deepest part of themselves, respond to authentic and passionate singing to discover the truth held in the God songs we sing.
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As we head to church on Sunday — as overworked dads, stressed out mums, grandparents struggling with health, and young people looking for wealth — we can, with integrity and relief, go with repentance and thanksgiving to the One who has created us, forgiven us and who lives within us. How can we not sing?
It was King David who, in the aftermath of the debacle of his adultery with Bathsheba, turned to God and said, “ . . . my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51).
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
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