When we sing together in church what are we actually doing?
Our hope is that we're singing together to God in thankfulness for His grace and in awe of who He is.
But are we actually doing that?
Last week I got to participate in a seminary class called Christian Worship (thank you for making this further education possible!) and the professor had just finished a significant research project that demonstrated that we, as Southern Baptists, have slowly changed the content of our worship services.
We didn't do this on purpose.
At no point in our history have we thoughtfully decided that instead of singing to God we should instead sing to each other. And instead of singing as a group we would instead sing as individuals.
It happened by accident. And this is a bigger deal than it sounds like.
The whole purpose of creation and the redemption of mankind is because God wants a people for himself. Not individuals, but a crowd. This is why it takes all of us together.
But when the individual is emphasized so heavily in our culture and we don't actively seek God's plan we find it easy to act like the world instead of like Christians.
Here's a quick history lesson to set this up:
- Throughout the Bible we're commanded to sing together to God and our primary example, the Psalms, shows God's people singing songs mostly to God and mostly as a group
- For the first 300 years of the church's existence every local church took that command to sing and did so in whatever musical style they lived in.
- From 500-1500 AD church music grew so complex that regular people who went to church couldn't sing along.
- During the Reformation one of the ways Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers expressed their return to being churches based on the Bible and not on tradition was to bring back the group singing that everyday people could use to express their devotion to God.
- Our English-language church music at first just used the form of psalters and this where my professor's research really began (a psalter is a book of Psalms with the poetry restructured to be easy to sing and is text only - no written music is included).
So, now we have Christians singing in English and, because they're using songbooks based on the Psalms about 60% of their songs are sung to God and about 60% are sung using pronouns like "we" and "our" to demonstrate the group nature of the song.
This reflects the Reformers desire to go back to practicing their faith like the Christians in the New Testament did instead of using the corrupted theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the early 1700's Isaac Watts fights for and popularize's the idea that its ok to sing hymns in church. Before this many people thought that singing words written by man (as opposed to the God-given words of the Psalms) was a bad idea.
From that point on there is an explosion of music for the church, but for 200+ years there is no significant change is what these songs did: they still mostly directed our group expression towards God.
Then in the 1900's this changed. Instead of singing most of our songs to God, we sing most of them to each other.
And instead of singing about our shared experiences and beliefs using "we" and "our" we began focusing on the individual's experience using "I" and "me" to express our love to God.
Now, here's two cautions:
- the Psalms feature an individual viewpoint frequently and we can and should worship God as individuals
- and the New Testament commands us to sing to one another so that is definitely something we will continue to do
But the primary focus in our church worship services should be to come together in adoration and humility to God. And instead of singing mostly to God we sing 70% of our songs to each other.
So I encourage you to begin noticing who we're singing to and what perspective we're singing from. I will be adding these questions to my evaluative toolbox that I use on each song before we sing it together.
Join us Sunday to sing together. God desires to hear His people sing together with hearts focused on Him. Make Sunday mornings together a priority. Singing alone is good, but ultimately God wants us together.
Its impossible to fulfill the New Testament's idea of following Jesus on your own. Don't fall into that trap.
It takes all of us together.