Thursday, January 3, 2019

Participatory Singing in a Consumerist Age

Martin Luther, singing with his family.
In our age and place, there is a strong tendency to view music as a commodity, something you buy and consume. It has become the possession of gifted musicians and professionals. Singing is often viewed as gift given to a select few, rather than a skill that is normally achievable. Most of us interact with music primarily by listening to it, and listening to it through a speaker. This has an unfortunate effect on Christian worship. While professionalism and musical quality are admirable, our passive and consumerist approach to music has conflicted with our practice of congregational singing. In Christian worship, singing is primarily an activity, done by the people. As Colossians 3:16 says,
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God."
In other words, to get the word of Christ to dwell among your community richly (the "you" is plural), you all must teach and admonish one another and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. This teaches us that singing is a blessing. It is a means by which God's word dwells in and among us. Singing stirs us up, gives us the ability to express our worship with greater passion, and to allow us to stir one another up to the worship of God.

Colossians 3:16 shows us also that singing is also a duty. As the Puritans and Presbyterians at the Westminster Assembly declared,
“It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family. In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.” (Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, 1645)
 Singing takes effort and skill. Singing and music should be a fundamental part of a child's education, at least for Christians. Barring physical disability, singing, like talking, is a natural gift given to humanity to be learned and developed, even though there will be some who are especially proficient. The command to sing is repeated time and again in Scripture:
"Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!" (Psalm 149:1)
"Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name." (Psalm 30:4)
"Shout for joy in the LORD, O you righteous! Praise befits the righteous! Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings! Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts." (Psalm 33:1-3)
"Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!" (Psalm 100:1-2)
"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…" (Ephesians 5:18–20)
Our singing in worship is basically prayer, creed, or exhortation put to music and sung. With our singing we praise God, confess sin to God, confess our faith to God and man, give thanks to God, and ask for things from God, all of this through our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to sing with zeal and energy (Ps. 33:1-3). We are to sing with understanding (1 Cor. 14:15). We are to sing with our hearts, bringing our hearts into conformity to the words (Col. 3:16).
“Hence it is perfectly clear that neither words nor singing (if used in prayer) are of the least consequence, or avail one iota with God, unless they proceed from deep feeling in the heart ... Still we do not condemn words or singing, but rather greatly commend them, provided the feeling of the mind goes along with them. For in this way the thought of God is kept alive on our minds, which, from their fickle and versatile nature, soon relax, and are distracted by various objects, unless various means are used to support them. Besides, since the glory of God ought in a manner to be displayed in each part of our body, the special service to which the tongue should be devoted is that of singing and speaking, inasmuch as it has been expressly created to declare and proclaim the praise of God. This employment of the tongue is chiefly in the public services which are performed in the meeting of the saints. In this way the God whom we serve in one spirit and one faith, we glorify together as it were with one voice and one mouth; and that openly, so that each may in turn receive the confession of his brother’s faith, and be invited and incited to imitate it.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.21)

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