Sing for joy
A fresh take on the essence of congregational singing
I suppose I should have expected it, but quite a few of you got in touch after my recent brief comments about singing and music, and some foolishly asked for more on this subject. There’s certainly plenty to discuss, but I’ve been pondering what I could say in this brief space that would be encouraging, constructive, non-ranty and generally sensitive to the fact that if there’s a subject that otherwise united people tend to disagree about it is this one.
Here are three thoughts that I hope meet these requirements.
1. A reason to sing
Much of our discussion about church-singing in recent decades has revolved around the subjects of ‘praise’ and ‘worship’. It’s almost a cliché now to insist that worship and praise are much bigger categories than ‘singing’ (as all-of-life responses to God), and that ‘singing’ is much more than ‘praise’ and ‘worship’ (it’s a form of mutual encouragement as well).
These debates have been helpful in some ways and frustrating in others. Let’s not rehash them here.
It occurs to me, however, that there’s a prominent theological category for talking about singing that we rarely discuss, and which might help us think more clearly about it.
It’s very striking how often the Bible links singing with joy. The famous opening of Psalm 95 is one good example among many. Here it is in the Book of Common Prayer version I’ve been using recently:
O come let us sing unto the Lord: let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation;
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving: and show ourselves glad in him with psalms.
In the Hebrew poetry of these verses, singing is paralleled with rejoicing. Singing is how we demonstrate and express our gladness, our thanksgiving, our joy in the Lord who is the rock of our salvation (also see Ps 5:1; 9:2; 27:6; 47:1; 63:7; 65:13; 67:4; 71:23; 81:1; 84:2; 92:4; 100:2; and many others.)
One of the very few references to singing in the New Testament also makes this connection:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing. (Jas 5:13).
Now, it’s not as if joy is the only mode of singing that exists, in the world or in the Bible. There are love songs and laments and ballads that tell a story.
But if we want to rejoice—and we are commanded to rejoice again and again, in all circumstances—one of the most significant ways to do it is to sing. When we sing, we ‘show ourselves glad’. We employ our whole body and soul not just to declare our gladness and joy, but to demonstrate and enact and celebrate it.
Joy is an affection—a sense of delight and gladness and happiness in what is good—but rejoicing is an action that springs from, expresses and stirs that affection.
Sometimes we feel very much like rejoicing, such as when the Swans come from behind to defeat the Magpies with a last-minute goal. (For me, the best part of winning is joining 30,000 other fans in the stadium belting out, “Cheer, cheer, the red and the white!”) Sometimes we only start to feel the joy as we rejoice—perhaps as we stand together and sing a stirring song with our brothers and sisters. And at other times, we rejoice and show ourselves glad in the Lord even though our hearts are heavy with the troubles and hardships—because we know that we can and should give thanks and rejoice in him in all circumstances.
If we are looking for a biblical category to describe the ‘affective’ nature of singing in church, ‘rejoicing’ is an excellent biblical candidate. It’s our heartfelt response to what the ‘rock of our salvation’ has done for us. It’s something we actively do (by singing heartily together) that expresses our glad response to God’s grace.
And if we are looking for ways to diagnose what is lacking in church when the whole vibe of our meeting is stiff or listless or flat, the simplest biblical conclusion might be that we are not rejoicing as we could and should. This is a diagnosis I could get behind.
In other words, the thing that is sometimes missing is not an experience of God’s presence, or an exalted state of consciousness that brings me closer to him, or any of the other quasi-mystical foundations for the ‘praise-and-worship experience’ that the charismatic movement has pioneered and exported to so many of our churches.
Perhaps the ‘affect’ we’re missing is all-in, foot-stamping, fist-pumping joy.
2. Rejoicing is a spiritual response
Like all fruits of the Spirit, joy is both a divine and a human action. It can only come as the Spirit brings life. And yet we are called to keep in step with the Spirit, and commanded to rejoice. It’s something we do, as God works in us by his Spirit through his word.
We can’t artificially create or manufacture real joy—say, with a driving bass line or a key change. But we can grow in joy, and grow in our obedience to the command to rejoice. We do this in the usual way—that is, in the way that all spiritual growth happens:
By preaching and teaching the gospel of God’s grace; by holding up Jesus before people’s eyes, and praying that the wonders of who he is and what he has done for us will ignite love and peace and joy and all the fruits of the Spirit in their hearts;
By prayerfully teaching and reminding people about this particular subject (as the apostles often did)—teaching and urging them to rejoice and give thanks always, and how singing together is an important means of doing this;
By the mature in the congregation exemplifying this joy (such as in their singing);
By creating contexts and opportunities within which singing-for-joy can be practised, and can flourish.
This last point brings us to the practicalities of how thinking about singing as rejoicing might change the practice of singing in our churches. There is much to be said here, and of all the points I want to make in this brief article, this is the most contextual, the most subject to wisdom and genuine difference, and therefore the one most likely to get up your nose, dear reader! So with those caveats, let me suggest …
3. Don’t crowd out genuine rejoicing with too much sound
Rejoicing in song—to state the obvious—is verbal. It’s joyful speech, set to music. It expresses in words how glad we are; and it recounts what we’re so glad about. It communicates to God our joy in him and his works, and it communicates the same to each other. This is why our singing is simultaneously an act of responsive joy, a declaration of all the ways that God is great and for which we rejoice (i.e. ‘praise’), and an exercise in mutual teaching and encouragement.
The usual conclusion we draw from this is that our songs must have ‘good words’. This is certainly true, but three other equally important conclusions also follow.
The first is that the words of our songs must be heard on each others’ lips. The predominant sound we should hear is the sound of joyful voices—of God’s people singing out their joy in all God is and has done, and teaching each other as we do so.
This is where I fear that the rise of the ‘worship band’ has done us no favours, and I speak as one who has enjoyed playing in such bands for years. I’m not quite sure how we got here, but it’s now pretty standard in our churches for a congregation of (say) 150 or 200 to be led by a music team consisting of keys, drums, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and three singers, all amplified. This seems vastly more than is necessary to accompany that size group in song. In fact, the effect of the sheer scale and volume of this sort of band is that the ‘accompaniment’ is reversed. The dominant sound in the room is the sound of the band, with the congregation accompanying them—like the faint echo in a live rock concert, where you can just hear the crowd singing along in the chorus.
Is this enjoyable and great to listen to and sing along with? If it’s done well, yes! But is it the sound of the congregation rejoicing? Well … I don’t think so, because the congregation can’t be heard. I can hear a few voices near me perhaps, but I can’t hear and be stirred by the wonderful sound of God’s people shouting for joy. The high-volume band that dominates the room makes the sound of voices secondary.
We need to create a singing culture in which the accompaniment is just that—a secondary, supportive sound that exists to enable the singing, and nothing more. Likewise, we need a song-leader (and perhaps just one) who shows us when to come in, and exemplifies what we’re all doing together (singing with joy), but whose voice isn’t dominant in the room. In fact, apart perhaps from the first words of each verse, I don’t really see why the song-leader’s voice should be amplified at all. The voices we want to hear are each others’.
Ah, you say, but we need to hear the leader loudly so that we can follow the tune.
This leads to a second point—we need songs that big groups of people can sing easily together. This is a genre issue. Many of the songs our ‘worship bands’ play are remarkably similar in genre to the songs that popular bands generally play in our culture (perhaps not surprisingly). These are songs designed more for performance and listening than for mass-group singing, because (for better or worse) that’s modern Western musical culture. We mainly listen to music; we don’t sing.
But this means that the songs we instinctively write (and play in our worship bands) are often poorly adapted for singing in unison—and so we need drums to establish the rhythm because otherwise it doesn’t hold together, and we need amplified singers because otherwise we can’t follow the complex, syncopated tune. This seems backwards. We’ve created a musical culture built on the performative genre of rock bands, and then feel that we need rock bands in order for our church musical culture to work.
I strongly suspect we need to do something very counter-cultural at this point—write and sing songs as people who love to sing together in large groups. This may mean developing our own genre, since community singing is no longer much of a thing in Western culture.
The third and final point is simply that all of this takes time. Building a culture of joyful singing dominated by voices will take patience, because it is very likely a shift from what we are currently doing. We’ll need to teach and preach and pray about it. We’ll need to model and practise it. We’ll need to create the audio-space for it to happen (in many cases by drastically reducing the scale and volume of the accompaniment). And we’ll need to prioritize songs that a big group of people can latch onto and sing heartily and joyfully together.
If those last paragraphs were starting to stray close to the rant-zone, please forgive me. And (as I know you will!), please send in your own thoughts and experiences about creating this kind of authentic, joyful culture of the word in song.
There’s much else to say, but here’s one point that didn’t quite fit in anywhere above. As I visit different churches, and I do so reasonably often, I’m struck by how the architecture of the room and the space communicates culture, and expresses underlying assumptions. Our Reformed forebears knew this of course, and deliberately designed (or re-designed) buildings and spaces for a ‘word-centred church’—as opposed to the architecture of medieval Roman Catholicism and all that it stood for.
I sometimes think that if we were wanting to communicate to the congregation that they were attending a rock concert as listeners and consumers, we would design our church spaces exactly like a lot of churches I enter. Everything is centred around a raised stage, which is covered in musical instruments, amplifiers, a drum kit, leads, mic stands, and all the normal paraphernalia. The stage might be lit with banks of coloured spotlights, perhaps also with video screens to further convey all that’s happening. There may or may not be an unobtrusive lectern centre stage. Sometimes the house lights are dimmed (especially during the singing).
I don’t think any of this is intentional, or signifies a sinister drift towards mystical doctrine. All the same, as an architectural statement, it does seem very un-evangelical—almost as if we’re trying to create a modern cathedral in which all the colour and movement and theatre happens up the front in the special zone, where the mediators of God’s presence do their thing.
If we were designing a space in which the Scriptural word of Jesus was at the centre, and we were gathered around the word to hear him, and to respond to him and each other (including rejoicing together in song), would it look like this?
I’m sure you’ll get in touch and let me know!
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