“Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.” – John Wesley
If one was to begin a new Sunday morning feature on ones blog, especially a feature called the “Worship Quote of the Week,” a quote from John Wesley would be a good place to start.
This quote – number three from Wesley’s well-known “Directions for Singing” – has always been the most interesting to me. Not number four, “Sing lustily and with a good courage.” Not the one perhaps most often cited, number seven, “Above all sing spiritually.” With our modern concept of gathered worship being dominated by language of taste, preference, personality, I return to these words in my preparation, in my writing, and in my own approach to Sunday worship.
We all sing. We all pray. We all work.
A mainline congregation I was once associated with recently posted a photo of a rock band on its Facebook page. The caption says, essentially, “Do you like contemporary praise music? Our more relaxed contemporary service has some of the best around.”
As a musician, the goal of excellence is implicit in any mention of music-making. That’s not the issue for me. The problem is this underlying tone of enjoying music in worship. To me, enjoyment is never the supreme objective. I want to facilitate music that preaches, challenges, afflicts, inspires. Music that puts God’s story on people’s lips. Music that conveys a sense of urgency to the Christian life and worship. Music that gives the congregation a job.
If they enjoy it, splendid. But if that’s the goal, why bother with any of it?
Sometimes work is fun. Often, it isn’t. The reason we worship isn’t to have jesusy fun. This is serious business, and though measures of joy, peace, exuberance, elation, humor all certainly have a place, we don’t participate because we feel like it. Worship is work, and sometimes it isn’t enjoyable, emotionally positive, or imminently fulfilling.
I’m not pontificating here. Not at all. I’m saying this humbly, repentantly. I’m saying this because of the challenge, the constraint it places on me to remember this truth myself.
When I like the hymn, I sing. When my voice is sharp and clear, I sing. When I feel confident, I sing. When my faith is strong, I sing.
Not because I want to, but because I need to.
“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”1
Today we remember how..
“Music has power to unite people. On September 11, 2001, members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps to sing ‘God Bless America.’ At that time, the House and Senate members saw the black plume of smoke rising from the Pentagon across the Potomac River. One year later in 2002, the House and Senate held a solemn joint meeting in New York’s Federal Hall. It was only the second meeting of Congress held outside Washington in the past two centuries. These lawmakers went to New York City to show their solidarity with the people there. Once again, the power of music united them as they held hands and sang ‘God Bless America’ with a high school choir.
Read the blog: http://www.actsweb.org/daily.php?id=469
Interview with the Gettys
What was the biggest change the Reformation effected in congregational worship, particularly with music?
Martin Luther re-established congregational singing to the center of church life, which gradually took root over the next century. It was one of the ways he made the church service an active experience, as opposed to the previously passive experience in which the congregation had no voice. He also collated a collection of chorales with the basic conviction that people should rehearse the gospel in the songs they sang to one another.
If the Reformers could yell, “Stop!” at one thing we do with music in the church today, what would it be?
There are probably a number, sadly, but from the strictly musical perspective, it’d be that we should begin with the holy act of God’s people singing as the center of the musical experience, and then work out from there.
Whether you have a more Lutheran view of singing (high view of the role of instrumental music in the service and with the singing) or more Calvin/Knox/Edwards (preferred unaccompanied singing or absolute simplicity of accompaniment), the Reformers all had a high view of singing. Calvin and Edwards had some of the finest musicians in their churches teach congregational part singing, because they realized how encouraging this was for personal, family, and church life. Many of the towns in New England influenced by the Reformation would teach singing on a Wednesday night in order to teach parts and to prepare for Sunday.
I would dare to say less than 5 percent of our Reformed churches are taking congregational singing as seriously as any of these guys did. I’ve heard Ligon Duncan say, “There is no part of the worship life more in need of reformation than congregational singing.”
You’ve told me that the Reformation prioritized singing and preaching the Word, but that 80 percent of our focus as modern Protestants has been on preaching. What are we missing in this lack of attention to singing the Word?
Luther’s context was similar to ours in some ways—a generation of somewhat-new believers not used to singing. We live in a world today with more Christians than ever before, most of whom have little theological understanding of why we sing, or experience in how to do it. Luther taught why we sing. He also curated songs that gave people a deep, rich understanding of the God of the Bible and the gospel he offers. We arguably live in the first generation in Judeo-Christian history where most people have no curation of the songs they sing (psalms, liturgy, hymn books, or localized sources), so people are finding their songs from corporate commercial music companies. Luther also worked with musicians to create and lead passionate singing.
What one practice could a church adopt today that would build on the Reformation’s worship legacy?
The biggest challenge is for pastors to actually take the lead. Period.
To pass the responsibility or blame someone else is as nonsensical as me blaming bad behavior of my children on their ballet teacher. The churches with the great congregational singing are the churches with the pastor who really, really cares. The music can be contemporary, traditional, black gospel, unaccompanied psalm singing, with or without choirs, leaders, sound systems or hymn books. It doesn’t matter.
Luther prioritized curating the hymns his churches would sing, explaining why they should sing, and then setting to work on teaching and encouraging his people. That’s the single thing that needs to change most.
After that we’re encouraging churches for the Reformation year to ask each week only what the singing is like in their church and to work backward from there as to how to build the musical worship in their church.