THOUGHTS ABOUT OUR SINGING
by Wayne S. Walker
In Psalm 27:6 David said, "And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing unto the Lord." Singing is a very important part of our worship. We make sure that those who preach and teach in our assemblies present only the truth. Those who preside at the Lord’s table usually make comments that help us engage in the communion properly. We intersperse the service liberally with prayers. But do we give as much attention to our singing as we should?
In some places there is a tendency to spend as little time as possible in singing. Many churches have almost a tradition of two songs, a prayer, another song, and then the sermon or Lord’s supper. If someone leads a fourth song, people may act like he has committed some kind of sacrilege. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the three song arrangement. But why always limit it to that? What is wrong with varying it once in a while? Then there is the habit that if a song has five verses, we sing four. If it has four, we sing three. And sometimes if it has three, we sing only the first and last. Of course, the number of verses is up to the discretion of the song leader and may depend on time and circumstances, but why always omit at least one verse?
Whether we realize it, or even intend it, it often appears that we consider the song service a "necessary evil" and rush through it as a kind of prelude to get to some other part of the worship. Henry Halley, in his Bible Handbook, made some comments about worship assemblies that are interesting. He said that we should have twenty minutes for singing, twenty minutes for the sermon, and twenty minutes for the Lord’s supper. While we may not completely agree with all his suggestions, I like the emphasis he placed on singing. Here are some further thoughts about our singing to consider.
Singing In General
The major purpose of religious singing is to express our joy, love, and gratitude toward God (see James 5:13). There are by-products of this, such as exhorting others and encouraging self. But this primary aim must ever be kept in mind–singing is "unto the Lord." The children of Israel sang praises to God after they crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1). David’s preparations for the temple to be built by Solomon included arrangements for great choirs of singers (1 Chronicles 25). Jesus and his apostles sang after the last supper (Mark 14:26). So did Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16:25). Thus it is only natural that God would ordain singing to be part of the worship of the church also.
Two passages that authorize singing for Christians are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, both familiar to all of us. However, some who teach "we do many things for which we have no authority" often affirm that these verses mention singing only on an individual basis and that the New Testament says nothing about congregational singing, thus allowing one to do whatever he wishes in that regard. But remember that Colossians 3:16 says, "Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms…." When I sing privately I teach and admonish only myself, not "one another." Completely fulfilling this instruction necessitates singing to one another as we do in congregational singing. Furthermore, from 1 Corinthians 14:15 we know that when the Corinthian church came together, singing was a part of their assemblies. Even though they had spiritual gifts, the purpose of their meetings was the same as ours–worship and edification.
Also, please notice that the scriptures in the above paragraph mention singing (vocal music) but say nothing about playing on a mechanical instrument. Of course, instruments were used in the Old Testament. However, we no longer live under that covenant, but under the new law. To reach back for instrumental music would require that we take animal sacrifices, burning of incense, the sabbath day, Jewish feasts, etc., also, and would cause us to fall from grace (Galatians 5:3-4). The testimony of history and scholarship is that the church in the first century (and until c. A.D. 600) used only a capella singing in worship. More importantly, God’s word authorizes only vocal music–singing–in praise to God.
So the Bible teaches we are to sing in worship. But what kind of songs are we to use–opera, jazz, rock, country, western? Well, God has specified what kind He will accept. Ephesians 5:19 lists "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." Psalm, as used in this context, may be defined as a devotional song that would cause us to meditate, reflect, contemplate upon the will of God, possibly using scripture as part of its text. It does not necessarily refer specifically to the Old Testament Psalms, but to any song of that nature or character. A hymn is a song of worship, praise, adoration. A spiritual song is one that pertains to spiritual matters or expounds on the teaching of the Spirit. This is the only kind of music we are authorized to use.
In order for a song to be productive of the most good it must do several things. 1. Be scriptural. It is as wrong to sing a lie as to tell one. We must make sure everything we sing is truth. Most songs we commonly use are all right (although some critics have misunderstood and erroneously thought some to be unscriptural), but a few old favorites need to be watched out for, and many of the newer ones that are becoming increasingly popular plainly teach false concepts. 2. Do what is intended. Please recall the major purpose of singing–"unto the Lord." Too many current favorites are evidently designed more to entertain man than to praise God. 3. Be appropriate. Even some good songs should not be used at certain times because they express thoughts that are not proper for the occasion or are otherwise unwise (e.g., "Our God, He Is Alive" when there are no bass singers!).
All of this emphasizes the words of the song. David wrote, "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer" (Psalm 19:14). Music itself does not praise God. The words, which we speak and think, do. The music is merely an aid, a vehicle by which we voice our praise. Unfortunately, a large portion of the songs so many seem to love nowadays place such importance on the time, rhythm, beat, and/or parts that the words are just about lost in the shuffle. If we do not give proper heed to the words, what Jesus said in Matthew 15:8 is true of us: "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." Certain kids of songs make it extremely difficult to pay attention to the message.
What about the style of music for our singing? Here are some suggestions by Edwin John Stringham, late composer, musicologist, and professor at Juilliard School. "Since hymns were intended for performance by the entire congregation, they had to have tunes that could be readily remembered and easily sung; they had to function within a limited vocal range, to avoid rhythmic complexities and wide skips, to reflect faithfully the devotional spirit of the poetry, and to follow the metrical cadence of the words in so direct a fashion that the congregation would stay together in the singing." In contrast, he indicated his disdain as "religious travesties" with "outright amusement value" the "jazzy gospel hymns that are manufactured on the Tin Pan Alley assembly line." Elders have the responsibility of choosing hymn books that contain songs which meet these criteria, and not just those that are popular.
A song leader is exactly what the term implies–one who leads the singing. His purpose is not to sing like a soloist in a recital to be listened to, but merely to direct the congregation in song. He does not necessarily need to know how to read music (although such is desirable). If he did, many congregations would never have anyone to lead singing since they have to do the best with what is available. A lot of men do a fine job without ever having studied music formally, and we should never discourage someone who doesn’t know music from trying to lead songs. But one would think that a person who accepts the responsibility of directing a congregation in song would at least want to learn as much as he can about what he is doing. It is reasonable that the more he knows about music the better the job he can do. He must also prepare for his work beforehand. If a preacher developed the habit of picking out a couple of verses immediately before the service and preached that way, he would be fired pretty quickly. So why do we allow song leaders to do likewise? Certainly there are times when it cannot be helped, but such should be the exception and never become the rule. Song leading is serious business.
There are several mistakes which song leaders commonly make, rendering it difficult to worship in spirit and truth. This is not to say that it becomes impossible, because regardless of who the song leader is or how he does, with enough effort and concentration Christians can still sing acceptably. But certain things do detract. If a song is too high, people have to screech; if too low, they may not be able to vocalize beyond a mere whisper. This is why it is good for all song leaders to learn how to use a pitch pipe, tuning fork, or some other way to arrive at the correct pitch. Confusion can also be caused by leading a song the wrong way. Now this does little harm if everyone else sings it wrong too. But if part sing it wrong and part right, there is going to be a problem. A song should be sung as it is written as much as possible. Another mistake is to sing inappropriate songs, such as "Day Is Dying In The West" or "O Why Not Tonight" on Sunday morning. It may not be wrong, but it just doesn’t fit. Common sense should rule in situations like these.
But of all the mistakes a song leader can make, none can be more detrimental to a worship service than leading too slowly. Of course, we all agree that some songs are slower than others, but even these can be dragged to death if we’re not careful. No one would suggest that hymns be sung at breakneck speed because it would be next to impossible to think about the words. But, on the other hand, if the tempo of a song is sluggish, we spend so much time on each word that it is easy to lose concentration. Especially those cheerful, happy, joyous songs must be led at a faster, quicker, livelier pace. Even from a physical standpoint we need to recognize this fact. The slower the song, the more time the singer spends on each note, and hence the more strain put on the voice. The meaning of the song’s words will determine its speed. One other point is that there should be no pause between the offering of the invitation by the preacher and the start of the invitation hymn. Some leaders wait until they have walked to the pulpit to begin (this is even worse when they are not sitting on the front pew) and a few even feel they have to announce the number again and tell how many verses to sing. During all this, the effect of the invitation is completely lost. When the preacher says, "Shall we stand and sing," do exactly that! Start the song, and then walk to the pulpit if necessary.
Here are a few practical suggestions for an effective song service. These are not intended as "rules" but merely an outline that many good song leaders have found helpful. The opening song should not be too slow and might be a hymn of praise to God or one that would turn our thoughts from the world to a worshipful attitude. The hymn before prayer could be a song about prayer or meditation, or at least one that would put us in a prayerful mood. The song before the lesson might be related to the topic of the sermon, but in any case should be a faster song to prepare the audience for listening. The invitation and communion hymns must also be appropriate. This program will have to be adapted to fit the different orders of worship used in various congregations, of course.
If the singing isn’t as good as it could and should be, maybe not all the fault should be placed on the song leader. One cannot lead when people will not follow. So those who sing have responsibilities as well. In Ephesians 5:18 Paul said, "Be filled with the Spirit." Christians have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them (Acts 2:38, Romans 8:9, 1 John 4:13). This indwelling is not miraculous nor direct, but through the agency of the word, the instrument by which the Spirit accomplishes His work (Ephesians 6:17). The parallel passage in Colossians 3:16 says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly." When the Spirit so lives in the Christian, His influence produces fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). According to Ephesians 5:18-19, one of the manifestations of a Spirit-filled life is singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
In Philippians 4:4 Paul wrote, "Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice." We understand that Christianity is not a religion of emotionalism, but it is a religion that involves emotion (Acts 8:39, 16:34). We must love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). This includes our emotions, and joy is certainly an emotion. One of the ways God has authorized for us to express our emotion [in worship] is through singing (James 5:13). "Whatsoever ye do, do heartily as unto the Lord" (Colossians 3:23) should apply to our singing as well as every other facet of our service. I am firmly convinced that the singing in every congregation could be improved 100% (even without any musical instruction of any kind whatever) if everyone would just sing more joyfully. Have you ever been in a place where if the song leader has to stop and clear his throat, the song nearly dies because it appears that everyone is trying to sing as softly as possible? It is almost as if people are afraid to sing very loud. This is difficult to reconcile with the Bible teaching on joy and fervor (Romans 12:11-12).
Everyone should sing. Singing is music plus words (Psalm 19:17). Sometimes people will excuse themselves from singing by saying, "The words are more important than the music, and since I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, I’ll just listen and think about the words." Now, if God had wanted just words, He would have commanded us to read poetry in worship. But the fact that He included musical expression indicated that it is important also. Certainly God doesn’t expect one to sing when he is unable (e.g., mute, sore throat). No one believes that absolutely everyone must try to make a sound of some kind. And to be sure, the words are imporant and we need to think about them when we sing–they are what gives validity to the music. But God did say sing, and there are many who are able but do not. Practically everyone can sing to some degree. The Lord simply expects us to do what we can and do the best we can. And doing our best means singing out.
As in the case with song leaders, the more one knows about music, the better his singing can be. This does not mean that we must be polished singers to praise God. If such were true, few of us would qualify. But it does mean that we should always seek to improve. Sometimes people reason, "It doesn’t make any difference how the music sounds so long as we understand the words." While this may sometimes be the case, the statement represents an attitude that is not good. It is as if they are saying, "We don’t care what our singing sounds like." But we should care. Brethren in times past cared enough to having singing classes on a regular basis. And they often had a singing school every few years to help them do better. Today, we do not seem to be so concerned. It is true that we do not sing to please the ears of men. But there is nothing wrong with singing which has a pleasant sound. It is also true that we should not get so involved in the music that we forget the words. But the music is the means of expressing the words and deserves proper attention too.
Here are some suggestions about singing to help us in this part of our worship. 1. Follow the leader. That is what he is there for. Don’t sing a note or two behind but stay with him. 2. Be enthusiastic. The Psalmist wrote, "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord" (Psalm 100:1). Not a half-hearted squeak! 3. Think about the words. When you sing, "I want to be a worker for the Lord," are you really saying that you will go our and work for Jesus (and mean it), or are you just singing because it is time to sing? 4. Work at it. There is no doubt that some can sing better than others. But sometimes we may give this an excuse to justify our complacency. Don’t be discouraged. Regardless of our musical expertise or lack of it, all of us can raise our voices together in song to honor Jehovah. And if we would apply ourselves, our singing could greatly improve.
Let us remember that the goal of our singing is not to show off our musical expertise nor to impress visitors with the aesthetic beauty of our worship. It is to put to music words from our hearts that will first praise God, then exhort, encourage, and edify ourselves as well as others. And we can do that regardless of how it sounds in the ears of men. So do not be afraid to sing. The importance lies not so much in the physical sound as in the fact that we are pouring our whole being into an act of praise to God. Even men find this more attractive than the organs, choirs, and liturgies of human-centered worship.
Thus, the purpose of worship is threefold according to Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16: to praise God, to edify self, and to teach and admonish others. In order to accomplish these ends, we need song leaders who know how to do their job effectively, and we all need to sing from the heart, that our worship might be "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). Someone has said that when there is gathered together a group of Christians whose hearts love the Lord, it is going to show up in their singing. Could it possibly be that our singing is not always what it ought to be or even what we want it to be simply because there are not enough people whose hearts truly love the Lord?
Singing sets the tone for the whole worship service. A great sermon can be ruined by bad singing. On the other hand, a mediocre sermon can be salvaged and even enhanced by good singing. This article is designed merely to make suggestions for us to think about in order that we might seek to improve. The aim is to make us all more mindful of our singing and work harder at doing our best. The song service is, as stated at the beginning, a vitally important aspect of our worship. We would do well to give it a great deal of our attention. (Taken from Faith and Facts, July, 1980; Vol. 8, No. 3; pp. 49-56)