For many in my generation, worship style was war paint, a badge of one’s loyalty to the novel in public praise, or the traditional – a war of attrition which could sink whole fellowships, and could divide brothers and sisters. In such an environment, with its proliferation of false binaries and battle lines, thinking clearly about how sung worship should work was almost impossible. With the passage of time, with exposure to different styles, to worship services in different cultures, and with a growing sense of conviction about how our singing should work, I have five pleas to make to my brothers and sisters when we gather to give God glory in song.
1. Brothers and sisters, tell me the truth
The time stamp on a hymn or song is the least important part of its composition. It doesn’t matter whether it has come from Wesley or Getty, Townend or Toplady, what we need is the truth, undiluted and distinct. When we gather this Sunday I need you to tell me the truth in song, I need you to engrave the greatness of God, the unsearchableness of his grace, the majesty of his name, the certainty of his sovereignty, the pathos of Calvary, the revolution of a risen Saviour, into my heart. I need you to plant a seed in my ear which will yield true worship in my life. My heart is too quick to focus on self, it is too keen to make comparison to others – please give me God in our worship.
Please don’t just tell me your truth. Of course I need you to testify, I need to know that there is ownership and investment, I need to sing with you ‘And can it be that I should gain’, but please don’t leave us there, take us to the heart of God and the heights of his glory. My every day is spent among the ruins of subjectivity, the weather bulletin is more reliable than the news, my friends and acquaintances have ample platforms to air their views, postmodernism is the engaged tone at the end of almost every line of life. Please tell me the truth, baptise your joys, sorrows, and aspirations in the unspeakable wonder of God. In using personal pronouns bathe them in the ego consuming radiance of a God whose person and whose purposes are certain. Brothers and sisters, please, tell me the truth.
2. Brothers and sisters, let me hear your voice
I have multiple means of finding performance, I can anaesthetise my ears at any time of day or night with music which makes no demand of me, or that makes things easy to process. I have no shortage of MP3s, I have no use for more stages and platforms.
Brothers and sisters, I long to hear your voices, I long to blend mine with yours, to see that our singing is an expression of our mutual belonging, that each member here is playing their part in exalting our God. Let me hear the voice of the weary mother and father, up to all hours with riotous infants; let me hear the voice of the recently bereaved, more muted than before but weighing the words; let me hear the voice of the seasoned disciple, who has lived a lifetime in the power of God’s grace; let me hear the new convert gathering new melodies, finding a place among a people of praise.
Brothers and sisters, sometimes sing a cappella, learn the parts so that our voices can lift up our God. Join me in praising God for those servants among us who can use instrumentation as a service to him. Brothers and sisters, let’s speak to one another in these moments of worship, let’s address and encourage one another in music and song. Brothers and sisters, let me hear your voice.
3. Brothers and sisters, bring your laments
We are gathered together in the presence of God, and we will not serve him or one another with sugar coated praise. I know you well enough to understand that your life often isn’t linear, I know that you carry insecurities and uncertainties, I know that we have no immunity to slings and arrows, that you are sorrowing but still rejoicing, doubting but still believing, sinning but still growing, and we need to sing the stuff of life in the light of the Lord.
Brothers and sisters, let’s banish all fear of the minor key, of faltering voice, of the wrung out heart. Please, bring your laments, ask your Lord how long, ask him to wake to your cause, tell him the truth of your troubles. Bring your laments, don’t park your losses, we sing in the name of the one who allowed Gethesemane to ring with Psalms, before he prayed the same in his own dereliction. Brothers and sisters, bring your laments.
4. Brothers and sisters, don’t lose the Psalms
There is no finer way to word a lament than the words David wrote under inspiration of the Holy Spirit. There is no finer rallying cry than Old Hundredth, reminding ourselves that ‘without our aid he did us make’, there is no higher missionary zeal than Psalm 67, there is no greater tribute to the Word of God than Psalm 119. We cannot bid our frail wisdom farewell in better words than Psalm 131, leaving our souls as weaned children at the Lord’s side. Brothers and sisters, we have forgotten the Psalms, we are unaccustomed to their candour, their angular shapes, but please bring them back. Let’s find the best forms of each of these pieces, let’s learn from our brothers and sisters who have sung them for centuries, let’s discover tunes that tailor our voices and moods to the catalogue of praise that these songs contain. Brothers and sisters, don’t lose the Psalms.
5. Brothers and sisters, keep it simple
The time is coming when I won’t be among you on the Lord’s Day, when ill health or advanced years will preclude me from this place*. I need a heart hymnal which will survive that separation, I need an approach to praise which can be transposed to the key of hospice, of nursing home, which will be singable when the living room clock is my metronome, when my wife and I in old age make heaven of our own home by lifting God high. Teach me melodies whose score will mark my mind, teach me words which are plain enough to make sense, and poetic enough to make a mark. Brothers and sisters, don’t fall for choreography, don’t buy into an industry, don’t be fooled by thinking that complexity is the same as sophistication. Give me the gospel in words which make my mind soar, in melodies that make my heart sing, and let me repeat these refrains until heaven is mine and a new song is sung. Brothers and sisters, keep it simple.