Christianity 201

June 23, 2021

We’re Christians, We Sing

Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts.
 – Eph 5:19 NLT

Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.
– Ps. 96:1 NIV

A year ago we introduced a new writer, A.K. Francis who has been writing fiction for more than ten years, but more recently started writing faith-focused articles during the time of pandemic, in a series titled In The Valley of Fear and Solitude. Click the header which follows to read today’s article at source.

Singing in Church

…[T]here has been something that I have been thinking about doing a blog on for a while now – kind of since the beginning of lockdown. But I’ve always been a little worried it might turn into a rant…or a science paper.

You see, it is about one of my favourite things, which happens to be illegal at the moment.

No, NOT raves – I’m not remotely interested in those.

Or Hugging, which I can live with or without.

What I am going to talk about today is…

Congregational singing 😀

Or, to be less posh, singing in church.

‘But you sing in church now’ I hear you say, ‘And you sang in church last week, and like twice at Easter.’ Yes…But…the church I went to where we sang was outdoors, and the other times I was in a band or a choir…and no one was singing back.

Normally, in the kind of church I go to (Slightly towards the evangelical end of middle of the road Anglican) there is a group of people who lead the singing (a choir, a band, or a dude with a beard and a guitar) and then everyone else joins in, following their lead.

One of the things I have always felt is great about church is getting to worship – in the form of singing – together.

But right now, we can’t do that. Unless we are not actually with the others in the service (e.g we are on zoom or youtube) we cannot join them in worship.

This might seem like a small complaint, and it is when the case load is as high as it was in January. But my fear is that as we return to ‘normal’ this key part of church might not be allowed to return or might be forgotten. And that its importance may be overlooked.

Of course, not all Christians share my views about this. There have been bans on singing in church during points in our history that have nothing to do with illness. Battle also continue to range over exactly what kind and style of songs should be sung in church.

But here is the thing…

I think there are two aims to our singing in church. The first one is probably most obvious, and probably doesn’t require each one of us to be in the same building to sing the words.

We sing to worship God.

Throughout the Bible, people sing to God – most of the longest ‘book’ in the bible – the Psalms – are poems put to music – and singing in large groups features in old testament celebrations and in visions of the end times. In these visions, people of every race, tribe and people gather together to praise God for eternity. There is a suggestion here that, on the place with no sickness, sorrow, or death, people listen to the singing – very much the whole multitude sing to God together.

While it has been wise, out of love for one another, not to sing while covid risk was high, it is harder to justify the prevention of collective praise of God as the risk decreases. To lose this opportunity to point towards our hope – that eternity we will spend praising God together – is deeply painful.

There is evidence that actually, speaking and singing at the same volume gives the same level of risk. So why the reduction to only a choir for singing, when we can also recite the words of a service together?

Although helpful for reflection and prayer as worship, it is perhaps difficult to fully worship as a group without being able to lift our voices together – an echo of that future day when we join together in one voice.

Some churches have been so fixed on this point that they have refused to meet until singing in church is fully permitted. They are worried perhaps that it will become a performance, rather than an act of worship, shared as a family/community in Christ. I am less sure on this total ban, as I think it removes any chance to meet with others to worship in prayer and to do the other major role of the church – to pray for the needs of the world, and to encourage one another.

And here we reach the second purpose of prayer in the church:

We sing to encourage one another.

In singing to God, we also spur each other onward. One of my pet peeves of modern church is that it can feel very robotic and detached. People come along and sing in their own bubble, but never build a community, never aim to ask about one another’s lives. It can also often feel rather like the music is a performance. The band or choir stand up and play and sing beautifully – or at least very loudly – and at the end people clap.

But the congregation don’t tend to sing as loudly – and the words don’t necessarily make sense of this easier. There are a lot of modern songs which use the first person – I – far more than is useful. (they have sometimes been nicknamed ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ songs). They talk about faith as an individual journey, perhaps suggesting a path independent of everyone else. When, actually, this is a walk we go on together as a church. If lockdown has shown us anything, it is that we need one another. I hope we can take that into our churches, and remember to encourage one another in the faith.

Older hymns speak of the wonder of God, but also encourage others in their journey. We should join in to encourage others that our experience is the same. We sing to be a community.

In the secular world, most of us can remember a song which was connected to a community we were involved in. Be it songs we learnt in cubs, scouts, or brownies, ‘the school song’ (in english or sometimes Latin), songs of a particular social justice movement such as spirituals in the civil rights campaigns, or even a national anthem. These songs speak of our collective goals, aims and desires in that community. We know them by heart, and we sing them to one another with pride (or at least hum the tune because the Latin is unpronounceable and the tune sounds like a merry-go-round)

Singing builds us up as a community, encouraging us that we are not alone.

Christian hymns, psalms and spiritual songs should not be any different – they should be a major part of both our worship and the holding together of our community.

In the Old testament, the Israelites travelling to Jerusalem for the festivals at the temple sang what were called the songs of ascent (because they went up the hill) a number of which are recorded in the Psalms. These are songs of praise to God, listing all that he had done for them. They also include confession of sins, and calling out to God with verses of praise following, reminding the Israelites of all that their God had done for them, and all that he promised still to do.

They include several psalms I have featured in previous blogs. Including 130, and perhaps most famously, Psalm 121 which begins:

I lift my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep

Psalm 121 v 1-4

The Israelites were encouraging one another that their belief was true and God’s love and promises certain – even as they praised Him collectively for His love and promise. They were songs to build one another up in the faith.

This is, I fear, what we lose when we cannot sing together. Yes, we can praise God, and I am sure that being back together as one people in church in silence has developed our reflection, focus and prayer lives.

But, there is a lack of singing together, or being able to build one another up, which begins to chafe as we get to this stage of the pandemic where we so want to be able to heal and build one another back up after the months of hardship. When the case rate was high, this sacrifice made sense. As we come out, we need to look at how we can get singing again.

It is something that does not make sense to those outside of the church – it just seems like a sing song add on to a religious event – nice to look at and listen to, but not something which brings sustenance to the people involved. But this is something which builds us up – and speaks to those coming in to church from outside.

It has been brilliant to focus on the words as we hear them sung to us. It has been a time to strengthen prayer in our lives and our churches.

And now, I think it is time to hold one another up again in song as we praise God together for bringing us through the long night of the pandemic.

That is certainly my prayer for the future.

God willing.

 

 

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