Singing in worship

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Now that the news has broken that my album - tentatively entitled Funkier Than You Think - may be hitting the market before long, I feel marginally better qualified to speak to the issue of the sung worship of the church.

The New Testament data with regard to singing in the worship of the church is, to put it bluntly, sparse. On the one hand, it seems strange that an issue which excited so little attention in the early church should be the sphere of so many of the worship wars which have erupted in recent years. On the other, perhaps it is precisely because the instruction is sparse and simple that we feel we have a right or even a need to develop our own principles and practice.

In this regard, it is strange how many of those who emphasise, even trumpet, their new covenant credentials in other areas are so quick to run to the Old Testament for a justification of the manner (as opposed to the matter) of worship. And, of course, for sung worship it is often very much a surface reading of the psalms, which immediately provide us with good reason for choirs and multiple instrumentation and a host of other options: after all, David had harps and lyres, didn't he? Q.E.D. Or, in fact, quod non erat demonstrandum. I do not deny that the Old Testament sheds much light on our principles of worship, and ought to be employed for that purpose, but I do not believe that it ought to be normative for its forms.

There are only a few passages which directly address the sung worship of the militant new covenant church gathered together in the presence of God:
"And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God." (Eph 5.18-21)

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." (Col 3.16)

"What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding." (1Cor 14.15)
I pass over James 5.13 - "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms" - because it seems to be primarily a private instruction, although it is interesting to compare it with the experience of Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16.25). 1 Corinthians14.26 also suggests that psalms were in the mix in the Corinthian church, but is, perhaps, more incidental than the others. The simple and sweet narratives of the Lord's supper do not offer us much more. However, the clearest passages offer a few straightforward principles that we would do well to consider.

Firstly, the instrument to which the New Testament gives a clear priority, and on which it lays the greatest emphasis, is the human voice expressing the fullness of the heart. Whether or not you accept that this requires the positive and complete absence of musical instruments as accompaniment, I would suggest that it certainly puts them in their place, and the concern with the style and quality of the musicians that seems to dominate much of the discussion is seen to be simply inappropriate. At best, musical instruments ought to accompany the voice, guiding and supporting it, not competing with or drowning it. Given this, the use of musical instruments should probably be minimal, providing a platform for the voice, the primary instrument by which the saints of the New Testament praise the Lord.

Secondly, that instrument is to be played by every member of the congregation. Sung worship is essentially congregational. The light of nature may point toward, again, some kind of leadership, but there is nothing here of the individual or group, however formally or informally, isolated from the mass and pursuing something separate from or before them. Congregational worship helps to avoid any element of mere performance creeping in, no small blessing in an age in which music and singing are almost irrevocably linked with performance and show. Of course, the absence of a band or choir or soloist does not necessarily secure the ends intended. How many congregations are dominated and even crippled by people with powerful voices who sing without reference to anyone else around them, their timings, speed, and volume governed - it would seem - by their own spirit separate from others, or without any real awareness of what is happening, or even by the desire to be heard and to impress? A good voice, well and humbly employed, is a help to those of us who may not have such a gift from God and who sometimes feel that our contribution is "a joyful noise" but not much more. Individuals must bring their gifts within the body and for the purpose of serving the whole, not parading in front of them, ignorantly or otherwise. Edification will, in some instances, mean a proper and determined restraint in the employment of our gifts, as well as gusto in other cases. Families can assist in forming the pattern by singing in family worship, encouraging the children to make a cheerful and willing effort. Parents should set a good example, standing straight, opening their mouths and using their lungs, not mumbling themselves, nor allowing their children to slump and mutter through the singing.

Thirdly, this suggests something about the musical style. The tunes to be employed must fall within the range of the congregation. I am not saying that it would be wrong to develop the capacity of the congregation in the praise of God, either in the range or style of the tunes, or our ability to sing them, but - if the whole congregation is to sing - then the range and structure of any particular tune ought to lend itself to the participation of everyone. To that end, principles of simplicity and freshness and tunefulness and memorization ought to be part of what governs the writing and singing of tunes.

Perhaps here it would be appropriate to point out that the tunes ought to be fitting to the words. There is nothing that grates more than a melody that is in overt conflict with the mood of the lyrics that are being sung. Again, the light of nature dictates that a more contemplative song needs a more contemplative tune; a song of overflowing joy ought to be sung to a tune, in a key, at a tempo, and with a volume that connects with its meaning; the mournful cry requires its own setting if the singing is to be in keeping with the substance. Again, the temptation of many congregations - especially those with larger numbers - to sing with abominable and often increasing slowness must be resisted; so must the instinct to dash through everything without giving opportunity for breath or thought. Lingering on notes, especially at the ends of verses, tends to have the effect of dragging everything out, so that each verse begins more slowly than the last, and every tune becomes a dirge by the time it has been finished. As Spurgeon once encouraged his congregation, "Dear friends, the devil sometimes makes you lag half a note behind the leader. Just try if you can't prevail over him to-night, and keep in proper time." If the lively hymns are sung to lively tunes in a lively style, then there is space for the more meditative and mournful contributions to adapt.

Of course, these passages also speak to the internal realities of our worshipful singing. So we find that the singing is to consist in "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs," the outflow of the word of Christ dwelling in us richly in all wisdom and the filling of the Spirit. Whether or not one agrees with the interpretation that will have these categories as three divisions of the psalter, it is immediately clear that the fundamental content of our songs ought to be Biblical truth. That does not mean that there is no space for personal experience (the pattern of the psalms alone would indicate otherwise), but that experience ought never to be divorced from the truth. The content of our songs should be drawn from and governed by Scripture in all its wealth.

But notice further that this truth is to be expressed in both its vertical and horizontal dimensions. By this I mean that our singing is in part directed toward God and in part toward men. Godward, you are "singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." Manward, you are "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" and "teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." It would be wrong to draw too fine a distinction between these elements, insisting that every composition must fall into one or the other category, but - whether or not, or to what degree, these are blended - we must consider that we are singing to one another, bringing needed truth before one another's minds and hearts, and singing to the Lord, expressing all the realities of his being and doing, and the realities of our relationship to him. But notice the motives: the intention is not to impress God nor to entertain men, but to thank and adore the Lord and to instruct and exhort his people. These aims must be ever before us as we sing, or we will lose our way.

And, as with all new covenant worship, it must be worship in spirit and truth (Jn 4.24). Whatever that much controverted verse means, there is surely something of the same sense in the instruction to "be filled with the Spirit," "singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord," "singing with grace in your heart to the Lord." This speaks of a supernatural dimension and assistance, of spiritual sincerity, thoughtful participation and genuine engagement. It does not permit us to avoid the happy songs if we are ourselves sad, nor to balk at the sad songs if we are ourselves happy. We are told to enter into the spirit of what we might not ourselves be instinctively feeling: "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" (Rom 12.15). In so doing, we offer to others what they need, and perhaps dose ourselves with a necessary medicine: as John Wesley said to Methodist singers, "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 a blessing."

Wesley went on:
Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Surely this is an instruction that every saint - regardless of their physical ability - can follow? Isaac Watts offers a similar sentiment by way of warning in his paraphrase of Psalm 47:

Rehearse his praise with awe profound,
Let knowledge lead the song,
Nor mock him with a solemn sound
Upon a thoughtless tongue.

Watts brings us back to the matter of truth and understanding, and so guides us again toward a blending of some of these concerns. If we are to sing in the way just described, we must heed Paul's conclusion: "I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding" (1Cor 14.15). Spiritual reality does not suspend or bypass the mental faculty, and our singing - if it is to pass this test - must be coherent and intelligible. It is in this way that we enter most readily into the glorious truths of which we sing. This requirement does not mean that our songs must be childish or unintelligent. Words should be clear and accurate both in their meaning (if the poetry or the vocabulary require explanation, this is usually easily done) and their vocalization, so that they can be understood - after all, how can you instruct your brother if he cannot tell what he is hearing? I would suggest that it does mean avoiding what is unnecessarily archaic or abstruse in our language, especially in environments where there may be many visitors, or a number of people who are not singing in their first language. At the same time, our sole concern is not horizontal, and it is perfectly appropriate to use accurate and rich expressions of praise to God that may require explanation to those unfamiliar with them. In addition, part of the teaching we offer on the horizontal plane may also require further explanation at times. To borrow a pithy thought from Machen, and apply it in a slightly different way: "I am by no means ready to relinquish the advantages of a precise terminology in summarizing Bible truth. In religion as well as in other spheres a precise terminology is mentally economical in the end; it repays amply the slight effort for the mastery of it" (What is Faith? [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991], 162-3).

It seems to me that simplicity is of the essence of our worship, allowing the spiritual substance to be expressed with sincerity and without distraction. As I have commented to our own congregation, imagine a situation in which the church is being persecuted. The secret police have learned that following the people who leave their homes with pianos on flatbed trucks on Sunday mornings is usually quite a productive train of enquiry, no less so those who carry violin or guitar cases. Perhaps it is too great a risk even to carry a Bible. Therefore, taking all necessary precautions, the believers meet at a pre-appointed place in the misty dawn, perhaps under a gospel oak as they did in days not so long ago. The saints gather swiftly and silently and with much prayer for their safety. There the appointed preacher arrives, and after prayer asks one of the saints to recite from memory the portion from which he intends to preach. He then expounds the passage, making its appropriate applications. The saints softly sing a couple of psalms or hymns together, ones easily memorized and readily learned. In a nearby stream a new convert is baptized, changing swiftly out of wet clothes, and then the Lord's supper is celebrated by the saints breaking bread and passing around wine. Before they depart they sing again, their voices muted but intense. Before long, the service is over, and the believers melt away into the growing day, leaving in various directions and small groups so as to arouse no suspicion.

What more is required? I am not saying that this is the ideal, or that anything different would be inherently sinful, but I do contend that absolutely nothing is lacking to make this pleasing to the Lord.

While much more might be said, I hope that these few thoughts will at least stimulate us to consider once again and more carefully, the hows, whys and wherefores of our sung worship, lifting up heart and voice in the right way and for the right reason, glorifying God and doing good to men as we sing a new song to the Lord.
Posted June 28, 2012 @ 3:24 AM by Jeremy Walker
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