It’s been a year since UK churches were last allowed to sing together. Instead we’ve been singing to YouTube in our homes, and meeting in person with no singing. Neither seems to fill the gap.
So, why is singing together such an important part of Christian practice?
You may be tempted to think that this is a modern question. ‘Worship’ as a music industry genre, complete with awards ceremonies and sales charts, is obviously a recent development. But the place of singing at the heart of Christian practice is not. Throughout Scripture and church history, wherever you find God’s people, you find singing.
In the Old Testament, singing is both commanded and assumed. Songs give voice to everything from salvation from enemies (e.g., Exodus 15) to the passage of love (Song of Songs). In every circumstance of life, the Psalms exhort us to ‘sing to the Lord’. The only time the people of God are tempted to fall silent is when their Babylonian captors demand the sacred songs of Zion as mere entertainment (Psalm 137, but note that they write a song about it instead).
In the Gospels, we don’t hear a great deal about singing, but where we do, it really counts. Jesus sings a hymn as a final act of fellowship with his disciples as the Last Supper draws to a close (Matthew 26.30). The following afternoon, he gives voice to the agony of the Cross with the opening line of Psalm 22.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul instructs the early Christians to ‘speak to one another in Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ (Ephesians 5.19). If you have ever been stirred by Colossians 1 or Philippians 2, those passages may well be early hymns, so you have been led in worship by their songwriters. And the strange scene of heavenly worship in Revelation 4 and 5 initiates the familiar pattern of liturgy and song practised in church services ever since.
Scholar Ralph P. Martin says, ‘the Christian Church was born in song’. And that strand of DNA has found expression through all the centuries since – from Gregorian chants to Bach chorales, from Negro spirituals to the hymnody of Watts and Wesley, from metrical psalms to contemporary worship concerts.
We Christians are a singing people.
In the generous wisdom of God, there are endless reasons and benefits for this characteristic mode of expression. Allow me to briefly highlight a few:
We sing to remember
If we forget what God has done in history, we cut ourselves off at the roots. Singing to God in worship is a way of actively remembering God’s goodness throughout the generations, and passing that story on to the next generation, grounding our lives in the timeless rhythm of grace.
We sing to believe
To sing the gospel is to take a step beyond understanding concepts, into experience and testimony. To sing is to engage my will, my body, my imagination and my emotions with what my mind knows. Congregational singing invites me to be wholehearted (and exposes me if I’m not). I’m sure that’s a reason why people feel so strongly about what we sing in church, and a reason why joining in with singing can be such a battleground when we’re struggling.
We sing to agree
Singing in the congregation is an expression of unity with our brothers and sisters. As we give voice to our shared hope, we align ourselves with one another. Unison melody speaks of our unity in Christ, and harmonies speak of the diversity of parts we play in the body.
We sing to respond
Sometimes it feels like singing simply overflows in response to God’s goodness, but even when it doesn’t, it’s a healthy discipline. Singing in worship orients us towards God in gratitude, which opens us up to grace, helps us navigate through hard times, and forms us into people who carry the sound of the gospel into the world.
We sing to hope
Our songs cast a vision of our eternal destiny. At its most profound, singing together catches us up in a glimpse of the world to come. Those glimpses shape our hopes and desires, and energise our action in the world. There’s a sense in which what we sing, we become.
So, Church, don’t lose your song! Joining in with YouTube sometimes feels empty, but trust that it catches us up in something far greater. It won’t be many months until we can sing together again in our buildings, and even that is only a pale reflection of the song to come when we hear it on the lips of every tribe, every tongue, saints and angels, all creation. It is worth practising our parts now!
Hear Paul’s exhortation:
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.Ephesians 5.16-20
Chris Juby coordinates Worship, Media and Arts at Kings, manages hymn publisher Jubilate Hymns Ltd, and writes songs for Resound Worship.