It was the voices of the brothers at my side
They were singing out my song
When the song in me had died – Andrew Peterson
Congregational singing is a major means of grace and growth for the soul of the Christian, it is a distinctive discipline of God’s people to pour out their hearts and lift their voices together in common worship of the One who has loved and redeemed them. Singing together is the activity of Christians who wish to serve one another, who are willing to struggle together all the way to glory, who intuitively understand the power of song to lift our souls, strengthen our hands, and enlarge our hearts. There is little risk for the modern church to undervalue sung worship in terms of quantity, but there is a real danger that we might devalue its quality and function, that we might give it a place in the set but not a part in the drama of our pilgrimage home.
True congregational singing will always have a subjective effect on the believer, but only via objective truth; it will move the heart, it will raise emotion, but not as an end in itself. Eighteen years ago I had my first and only experience of seeing a Premiership football team play at their home ground. Tottenham Hotspur were playing host to Fiorentina at White Hart Lane, and it was an amazing experience as one of football’s non-followers to be among thousands of people united in how they dressed, who they were rooting for, and how they sang. I didn’t know the words of their anthems, but I could feel the affective weight of them: hard-boiled football fans wept hot tears, they lifted their hands, they swayed in unison, they closed their eyes in a form of sporting ecstasy. It would have been easy in that charged environment to forget that their gathering and their songs were centred around a group of men kicking a ball around for 90 minutes.
So much that passes for sung worship has a little bit of White Hart Lane about it – a hypnotic sensory experience which lifts us and lulls us on the lilt of a song, on a group identity, on the sweeping torrent of melody and musical proficiency which we have amassed as Christians. If that is all we have we are short changing ourselves, and short circuiting what real worship is meant to be. Emotionally evacuated worship is not virtuous, but nor is intellectually vacuous praise. The beauty of true worship is that we address ourselves to God, but we also address one another with who God is and what he has said. We worship in our spirits, by the power of the Holy Spirit, but also with deep intellectual investment, with an eye fixed on the glory of the gospel as well as a heart tuned to its sentiments. Such worship is deeply didactic, it retrains the flagging disciple, it prohibits empty sentiment, it draws our attention and our affection towards the God in whose presence and power we are meeting.
I very recently experienced this in a personal way. Out of the briers and thorns of daily discipleship, from the tough terrain of holding on to hope in Christ in the wasteland, I gathered with brothers and sisters who sang Psalm 111 together. The melody was simple, the words plain and bound to tight metre, but the experience was a beautiful balance of heart and head. The song in my soul was feint on entering our church building, but my spirit was strengthened by singing God’s word with God’s people, and listening to their voices as they lifted him high. The experience was not airily ecstatic but deeply moving, an antidote to the superficiality of much of modern life, and a humbling exercise in putting God in his true place. My brothers and sisters taught me and trained me in those moments to see the glory of God amid the heavy mists of Christian discipleship, and I am deeply grateful for it. We did not aim for mere experience, but for truth lifted on the strain of human song, and our souls soared in the process.
This is the experience of worship which I always want to encounter, and which I would wish to foster. This lifting of song and soul together is not predicated on the composition date of a hymn, nor on the cultural/aesthetic preferences of the worshipping community, but on the more foundational issue of how we worship in song, the spiritual mechanics and aspirations which should underlie singing together.