Saturday, June 11, 2011

How Should We Sing (part 3)

"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 it a blessing." - John Wesley

This is one of my favorite of Wesley's points.  We've all been in services in which participation is spotty.  Many aren't singing, or at least aren't engaged enough to be engaged in full participation.

I've heard it said that if people aren't singing, they aren't worshiping.  I'm not ready to affirm that statement entirely, but it does bring up a crucial point.  If we are engaged in corporate worship, raising a collective voice in an offering to the throne of God, we need people to participate.

One of the problems with corporate singing is that it has fallen out of favor.  Even when I was small, which really wasn't that long ago, it was a habit that was instilled into children (and still is in my classroom).  This is sorely missed in corporate worship.  If music is set up as more of a performance than a participatory activity, there really isn't any reason to participate.  In fact, it's almost inadvertently discouraged.  Congregants can just shift over into consumer mode, which is something all of us can do pretty easily these days.  That means we have pews and sanctuaries full of disengaged people.  If they are encouraged to sing at all, they're often encouraged to keep it an individual exercise, blocking out the mass that surrounds them.  That's not the way to get people to follow Wesley's 3rd directive.

But we can all do it.  Studies have shown that, with effort, nearly everyone can learn to sing on pitch and in rhythm.  People just need encouragement.  And they need to understand what they're being asked to do. 

Another problem is that people don't understand more complicated hymn texts like they used to.  It's very difficult to ask people to sing something that they can't understand.  Therefore, congregations need to be immersed in biblical and theological education.  They have to know what they're singing if they are to fully participate.

To the congregants, follow Wesley's words.  Engage your mind and heart to form the words and manufacture the pitches.  It doesn't have to be perfect, just heartfelt and authentic.  Even if it's difficult, there's a huge blessing found in the sacrifice.

To the pastors, ministers and music directors, be an encouraging presence in your congregations.  Get excited about what you're doing and show you exuberance for the truths you're asking congregants to sing.  Above all, be enthusiastic and edifying educators in your congregations.

To God all praise and glory. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How Should We Sing (part 2)

II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can. - John Wesley
Western Christians find ourselves in a highly individualized society.  I've grown to respect the scholarship of Andrew Fellows, a director of English L'Abri, who calls this narcissistic preoccupation, "the worldview of self."  

All this has brought us is an increasing disconnection. 

I would imagine this is what has happened to the Church.  Pews are empty, attendance is dropping, and churches are trying to adapt, but it's not easy fighting such a pervasive force.  When we have lost the art of face-to-face communication, church seems old-fashioned, obsolete and, to a large extent, contrived.

Corporate worship has grown more individualized as well, and John Wesley's second directive gives us some clear insight that can help us maintain our identity in corporate worship.

The Church's gathered worship, all the way back to the Bible, has been a group effort; an "us and God" conversation.  But the tide has turned more recently to an individual venture, a completely vertical, "me and God" conversation.  For instance, most of us who have been around church gatherings for a long time have probably been repeated admonished to make our corporate worship a private affair. 

There's obviously nothing wrong with private worship, but it's just that: private.  If we're worshiping as a community instead of individuals, our voices are unified; they form a collective and diverse, but cohesive whole.  Many gifts, but one unifying Spirit.  What a powerful and glorious visible manifestation of Christ's body!

On a more practical level, it can also prevent a gathered worship exercise from being or becoming too performance-driven.  If our congregational singing follows a prescribed text and tone, nobody is "stealing the show," but our voices are as unified as possible.  

So if we all learn to sing the same song - just as we share the same Spirit and confess the same faith, we will be practicing and rehearsing for our participation in Christ's Kingdom and ultimately in the great choir offering up a great collective voice, singing "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty."

So keep practicing until the time comes for us to cast our crowns before our King, lost in wonder, love and praise.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

How Should We Sing? (part 1)

In an early Methodist hymnal entitled Select Hymns, John Wesley included seven admonitions called "Directions for Singing."  Welsey realized that when the Church sings together, they form a physical representation of the spiritual unity that all Christians have through Christ.  I want to look at his seven directions because they help us understand the importance of lending our voices in praise.

I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please. - From John Wesley's Select Hymns, 1761

This is a curious statement and one that is hard for us to really understand as we read through our 21st-century lenses.  Why would Wesley care that Methodists learn the particular songs in this collection? 

Martin Luther once said that church music should be the "handmaiden of theology."  That in itself seems like another weird thing to say, but what he meant was that the songs we sing as Christ's body should be expressions of deep, rich theological truth.  By singing such words, Luther, and Wesley as well, hoped that Christians would grow in their understanding of their faith.  And, as I've said before, true worship starts with knowledge, and the more we know about our faith and our God, the more our hearts can be stirred and warmed by the Holy Spirit.  When this happens, our whole lives begin to look different.  We begin to live with a deep love for God and a rich, heartfelt desire to serve Him.

So when Wesley tells us to learn these tunes, I believe he's telling us to become so familiar with the music that, when we sing hymns, our hearts can be warmed by the truth in the hymn text.  So, as you sing with your congregation, do your best to follow along and learn what is being sung, so that the Spirit can refresh and renew your devotion for Almighty God.

Friday, June 3, 2011


False Danger #5: Worship That Isn't Comfortable

This danger assumes that most people come to church for comfort which means we should do all we can do to make them feel comfortable.  That's an unfortunate correlation. - Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship

My doctor is after me about my cholesterol level.  I bet the idiot that discovered the cholesterol level is the same person that come up with the windchill factor.  My mama's been cold ever since.  Now they done come up with the heat index, just stuff to make us uncomfortable, us good old boys. - Jerry Clower, Stories from Home

An undertone to American sensibilities is this we have the right to be comfortable.  When we're not, it gets ugly.  We want to have every morsel cooked to order, even in God's presence.

But the Church is not Burger King.

God wants to transform us more into his likeness through worship, and know what?  That's not going to be comfortable.  It takes patience and a lot of grace.  It takes sacrificing our right to be comfortable.  We have to be open to trying new things.  And I can't promise that you'll always like it if you try it, but we do have to be willing to lay down our comfort on the altar if we want to be involved in real, life-changing worship. 

I tell my elementary students all the time that anything that makes you stronger is going to be hard.  Adults need to be reminded of this, too.  We can't expect to come along and loaf our way through an encounter with the living God.