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Despite playing in many church worship bands over the years, Rev Peter Laws believes that communal singing may not always be as essential as we think
Alright, calm down. I’m not saying that we should ban church singing. There’s lots of evidence (both biblical and anecdotal) that shows great value in congregational songs. But is singing absolutely essential for everybody?
An hour long Google hunt suggests it really is. Blogs, articles and videos insist that communal singing is a Christian non-negotiable. God commands we make melody whether we like it or not! But is it really the end of the world if some folks choose to sit the singing out? If that idea makes you twitchy, here’s five thoughts to ponder.
1) Communal singing barely happens in the gospels
If church singing was truly essential, you’d think Jesus would have burst into song after every parable– or at least taught on its importance, but he didn’t. He never mentions music at all.
Individuals do appear to sing songs in the gospels (Mary’s Magnificat, Zacharias’ Song, etc) but plenty of scholars suggests these ‘songs’ could have simply been spoken prayers or poems.
As for communal singing, I found only once instance in the entire gospels. It’s just before the Crucifixion: “When they had sung a hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30).
A little digging shows Jesus and his disciples most likely sung the ‘Hallel’, a collection of Psalms which Jews were obliged to sing at Passover. Yet some commentaries (including a Rabbi I consulted) said this could well have simply been a chant, rather than a full melodic song.
Yes, there are plenty of other places in the Bible where God’s people sing, but they did other stuff in worship too. Like building altars of stones – and dancing. Should we make these two compulsory too? (Cue the front row breaking into a sweat, as the leader demands people get up and ‘move’).
If Jesus didn’t make a big deal of it, let’s not judge non-singers. Just as we shouldn’t judge people who skip pretending to be a ‘fuzzy-wuzzy bear’ in action praise songs for kids.
2) There’s a power in silence
Church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that after Constantine took Christianity into the mainstream during the 4th century, the church grew to distrust silence. The creeds were audibly announced as a way of declaring (but also controlling) the message. They became clear statements of who was in, and who was out.
Churches have grown suspicious of silence ever since, and instead we have this nervous compulsion to fill every empty space with proclamation. Of course, singing it out can really help some connect with God, but ironically, it can push others away.
Writing in the Guardian, Mark Vernon suggests that because Buddhism embraces silent practices, it has grown more popular in the philosophically tentative West. It’s a contrast to Christianity, which demands we publicly announce black and white truths at least on a weekly basis – even if we’re not fully sure of them at the time.
Of course, silent traditions still exist within Christianity. The Quakers, for example. Yet they’re sometimes presented as ‘dodgy’. It’s almost as if true faith never shuts up. So what about Habbakkuk 2:20 which says: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” Or: “Be silent before the Sovereign Lord” (Zephaniah 1:7).
Silence is risky, because we can’t control the message – but that’s precisely why the Quakers find it so spiritually enriching. If some folks in our churches opt for that, maybe they’re helping us stay balanced.
3) Singing can force people to lie
Some responders told me they avoided church singing because it forced them into regular states of hypocrisy. They feel twitchy singing “You have made me glad”, when God has actually made them mad that morning. Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that even the most fed-up, doubtful person can sometimes find their minds renewed by singing positive lyrics…but do we really think that all personalities work that way. Because they don’t.
Church is supposed to be about authenticity. It makes room for those searching for answers, not just those who are fully sure of everything. So, if we see folks sitting with closed mouths in worship, perhaps they’re not being stubborn or spiritually defiant…maybe they’re just trying to come to God as they are.
And sometimes it’s totally appropriate not to sing. Like in Psalm 137:1-6 when the Israelites stopped singing for a while. In the sorrow of exile they “hung up their harps”, and though their captors demanded songs, they refused. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
Can’t we be real enough to accept that there are times in our spiritual life when worship songs feel like a foreign land. So why chastise those who, in a quest for honesty, choose not to lip synch.
Of course, this could all be solved if we included both happy and sad songs now and then. How about: “I’m not convinced you’re there, oh God!” or “I feel unloved, ignored by you.” If you didn’t agree with such bleak lyrics, then you could just sit that song out – which is kind of my point.
4) You don’t have to open your mouth to ‘sing’
The Apostle Paul says: "I will pray with the Spirit, and I will pray also with the mind; I will sing praise with the Spirit, and I will sing praise also with the mind" (Cor 14:15). Commentaries vary on what this actually means, but some suggest something that’s a bit mind blowing. That it’s possible to sing to God within our spirits and minds – without even opening our mouths.
Before you say that’s impossible, then what about those in our churches who have no voice? Or the paralysed that cannot open their mouths? Can God hear the praises of their heart? Are they sub-Christian because they can’t vocalise their worship. Of course not.
Paul hints at similar ideas in Ephesians 5:19 when he talks about "Speaking to one another in Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord." Or Colossians 3:16: "Singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with your hearts to God."
Yes, let’s sing if we want, but what if in our worship services God can hear melodies we simply cannot? What if we’re surrounded by songs and symphonies, ringing out from deep down inside authentic people simply being themselves. After all, 1 Samuel 16:7 reminds us…we tend to look at (and listen to) the outside appearance, but God? He hears the music of the heart.
5) It’s humiliating
I was surprised at how much this came up, and how raw it was, but more than a few told me they don’t sing because they find it utterly humiliating. One man said: “I'm not remotely musical and singing in tune is something I've never mastered. Because of this I'm very self-conscious of singing out loud. I don't want to be a distraction, or be ‘that person’ who everyone secretly sniggers at or comes in at the wrong time. I hold back in worship.”
We live in an X-Factor culture that regularly mocks bad singing. Is it any wonder that people are self-conscious? You might say folks should stop being so proud, and just go for it – we won’t judge. But that’s easy to say when you can hold a tune yourself.
I’ve sung quite a bit in my life, toured with bands etc, so this singing stuff isn’t an issue for me. But guess what? I can’t do back flips. I applaud others who can…but I just can’t.
If I was asked to attend a building each week, where they had made back flips the ultimate goal of life, and then I was forced to do back flips (while surrounded by world class gymnasts) I’d make excuses not to go. I bet you would, too.
There are good, biblical reasons why we sing in church. It’s a precious gift and a blessing for many – just not all. Some Christians told me they’d love to shout out to death metal in church, or croon some praise with a big swing band, to chant to Ibiza style dance music or to hum out a little Bob Dylan-style folk. Yet the main reason they didn’t sing, they said, was simply this: they said church music always sounds like Coldplay…and they can’t stand Coldplay.
Rev Peter Laws is an author, speaker and journalist with a particular interest in the macabre
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