Other than during a church service, when is the last time you sang in a public setting? Possibly it was at a birthday party, a Karaoke game or a sporting event? A birthday party is incomplete without the singing of “Happy Birthday”. Karaoke is a socially acceptable way (for some with marginal social skills) to sing in front of friends and strangers. Fans of European soccer know that singing is a huge part of enjoying thebeautiful game. When you think about it, though, there just are not that many venues for modern Americans to sing with others.
Yet, most people reading this article come to SBCC and gather with a group of people and sing for thirty minutes almost every Sunday. That is a lot of singing, especially in a culture where we sing very few songs. Why do Christians sing in a corporate worship service? What is the point of spending roughly a third of our hour-and-a-half worship service in song?
From the birth of the church, believers have sung to express their love and adoration of Christ. Singing is commanded in the Bible. Paul encouraged the young Christians in Ephesus to speak to one another withpsalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:19) The Psalmist tells us to Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. (Psalm 100:2) For the past two thousand years, however, congregational singing has waxed and waned a great deal. There have been glorious moments in church history followed by long periods of drought and church bickering as to the propriety of corporate singing. There have been squabbles over style, musical instruments, emotionalism, and content. While the road has been rocky, still the church has sung.
Consider a few of the pivotal points in the history of church singing. Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who was influential in leading Augustine to faith, helped to reintroduce hymn-singing to the Western church in 386 AD. What we call the Gregorian chant was introduced in the year 600 by the influential Gregory the Great. The first organ was installed in the royal chapel by Charlemagne’s son in the year 826. During medieval times hymns were not sung by the congregation, but by the nuns and abbots, and hence most innovations in singing sprang from their ranks. It took the iconoclastic Reformer Martin Luther, loudly proclaiming the priesthood of the believer, to reintroduce congregational singing to the church. In 1524, Luther produced the first German hymnal, scandalizing European sensibilities by taking common folk tunes sung at the local pub after a few pints of beer and simply adding Christian words to well known tunes. Soon Pietists, Moravians and other Reformation groups followed Luther’s lead.
It is worth noting that hymns were generally written by and sung by Christians involved in renewal movements or those that lived for Christ at the margins of institutional Christianity. The institutional church was painfully slow to embrace congregational singing. The renegade Luther led his revival with a return to the Bible and singing, saying: I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise. Luther went even further making the claim, If any would not sing and talk of what Christ has done for us he shows thereby that he does not really believe. Ponder that next time you don’t feel like singing some Sunday!
It took some time for the English-speaking church (those reserved Brits) to catch up with their continental brethren. It wasn’t until the early 1700s that Isaac Watts started the flood of hymn-writing that would last for three hundred years. Watts, a Calvinist Dissenter who had separated himself from what he felt was a dead Church of England, gave English-speaking Christians such great hymns as, Joy to the World and When I Survey the Wonderous Cross. It wasn’t long before others such as Charles Wesley, John Newton, and William Cowper began a prodigious output. Charles Wesley alone wrote 8,989 hymns! Together, with his more famous brother John, he published fifty-six volumes of hymns. The singing of these songs played a huge role in the Wesleyian-Methodist revivals of the eighteenth century. Ironically, these hymns were outlawed in the Church of England until 1820!
Anglicans were fearful of the Wesleys’ emphasis on singing because they feared it would lead to enthusiasm (emotionalism) and breed an irrational religion. In 1740, John Scot wrote a critique of these revivalist songs claiming they were irrational. In his book, A Fine Picture of Enthusiasm, Scot lamented that in these songs, today considered the great hymns of the Faith, God is represented as much more friendly and compassionate to the human world than God the Father ever was—such that their singing is calculated to engage the passions. If you are not smiling at this point in your reading of this article, you are missing the point!
So back to my original question: Why do we sing? Why does the Bible endorse, command, and prompt worship through singing? It is here that we can rely on the wisdom of Jonathan Edwards, the great pastor-theologian of 18th century revival in America known as the Great Awakening (John Wesley was born three months before Jonathan Edwards in 1703). Revivals can be full of excesses and get messy and certainly the Great Awakening was no exception. As spiritual fervor swept New England, Jonathan Edwards set out to both examine and defend this movement of God. In his book, The Religious Affections, Edwards had this to say about singing.
And the duty of singing praises to God seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned why we should express ourselves to God in verse rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only that such is our nature and frame that these things have a tendency to move our affections.
This was Edward’s way of saying that singing is designed to move us emotionally toward God. We sing in corporate worship so as to excite our hearts as we ponder His greatness in saving us from sin and death. Singing is meant to promote enthusiasm and engage our spiritual passions! These are not manipulated emotions, but rather religious affections that spring from and respond to the truths of God’s word. Put succinctly, it is not enough to simply proclaim the gospel; we must also sing it.
Every Christian has experienced times of coming to a corporate worship service on Sunday only to find his or her heart cold, hard, or indifferent. The cares and worries of this world, or even our own spiritual pride and stubbornness, can make God’s chosen people look much more like his frozen people. Life’s disappointments can choke out thankfulness. That is why we sing. Singing is meant to melt away our icy indifference to God. It is as we sing to God that the things we know to be true in our head will have the opportunity to invade our heart. The best time to sing is when you don’t feel like singing. So, brothers and sisters, Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord! (Psalm 95:1)
Addendum. The Wesleyian revival in England eventually resulted in what we know today as Methodists. At first, the term Methodist was a put down to those in the movement. They were, to say the least, methodical, and hence their name. John Wesley developed very particular strategies for discipleship. He even had a strategy for how to sing. Enjoy, laugh, and ponder ponder how the directions outlined below might enhance your own worship through song.
Directions for Congregational Singing
Quoted from John Wesley
THAT this part of divine worship may be more acceptable to God, as well as more profitable to yourself and others, be careful to observe the following directions:
1. 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 a blessing.
2. SING LUSTILY & WITH A GOOD COURAGE.
Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
3. SING MODESTLY.
Do not bawl, so as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
4. SING IN TIME.
Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, nor stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
5. 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.