Growing up, I remember standing and enjoying a good extended refrain of “Victory in Jesus” with our old Nazarene worship pastor Calvin Kring. His joyful countenance, and excitement to lift the name of Jesus were infectious. I didn’t know everything God wanted to do in my life, but I knew if I could infect others with a love for God like his, that’d be a good start.
Throughout high school and into college, worship in song happened both in church through hymns and worship chorus, and in concert-type atmospheres of “youth gathering” type events. In college, my love for music and gifts for singing gave me privilege to lead thousands in worship, travelling the Midwest in a couple different bands. I loved the sounds of music that could fill a room, and creatively express God’s beauty in increasingly new ways. But even in the midst of this, I encountered many who equated “new ways” with “better/more genuine ways”. I’ll admit, there were even moments where I believed them.
Fast forward many years. I’m serving as a pastor of a church in an area with hundreds of churches. There are as many musical styles in our various “sanctuaries” as there are musicians. Even within a congregation, there will be seasons of styles, based on who or what instruments are available to assist in the music that week. I’ve seen people drawn to the love of Christ as they’ve connected with music in His presence. I know it can be a powerful draw to new attenders, and some pastors feel the urge to put a large emphasis on it for that reason. I also know many of us are returning from “COVID-induced” breaks from in-person gatherings with singing – and we’ve missed it. I believe we are shaped in important ways, as we join in song together.
In his book, “Life Together”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives us his 2 cents on singing: “Why do Christians sing when they are together? The reason is, quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time; in other words, because here they can unite in the Word. All devotion, all attention should be concentrated upon the Word in the hymn. The fact that we do not speak it but sing it only expresses the fact that our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say, that the burden of the song goes far beyond all human words…..
..The purity of unison singing, unaffected by alien motives of musical techniques, the clarity, unspoiled by the attempt to give musical art an autonomy of its own apart from the words, the simplicity and frugality, the humaneness and warmth of this way of singing is the essence of all congregational singing…..
..There are some destroyers of unison singing in the fellowship that must be rigorously eliminated. There is no place in the service of worship where vanity and bad taste can so intrude as in the singing. There is, first, the improvised second part which one hears almost everywhere. It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing fullness to the soaring unison tone, and thus kills both the word and tone. There is the bass or the alto who must call everybody’s attention to his astonishing range and therefore sings every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that goes swaggering, swelling, blaring, and tremulant from a full chest and drowns out everything else for the glory of its own fine organ. There are less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the “unmusical”, who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe, and finally, there are often those also who because of some mood will not join in the singing and thus disturb the fellowship.”
Long ago, I would’ve considered Bonhoeffer’s words here ancient. Obviously he was limited, and way too conservative with his views on worship through music. Even still today, I’d counter that there are some beautiful things that a gifted instrumentalist or vocalist can add to the experience of a song. But I can’t help but find some important truths in what he’s saying there. He had been raised in an aristocratic family with a deep love for music. They would spend a large portion of their family time learning or performing instruments, and offering these gifts in honor of God. Dietrich himself was a highly skilled pianist and lute player, and his family thought he might go into music performance as a profession.
All of this to say, I’d much rather join in genuine unison singing on a Sunday morning with no-part-harmony, and no instruments playing with my family of believers wanting to praise the name of God in words beyond words, than a world-renowned worship band that was focused more on presentation and polished emotional manipulation. Thankfully, I think many of our “normal churches” have something pretty genuine going on. I pray we never get so amazing at worship that people begin the pack the pews because of our talented musicians (or great preaching, for that matter). But I also pray we never get so comfortable in our humbly sung Words that we stop allowing them to impact our heart and life.
May we continue to be a people who worship “..in Spirit and in Truth.”