Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Congregational Singing: Lightning Rod or Spiritual Discipline?

Whether I felt like it or not, I have been attending Sunday morning worship at a range of different churches for over thirty years. I have sat through inspiring sermons and tedious sermons and sermons that did not even deserve the name. I have been in big churches, small churches, black churches, white churches, charismatic churches and un-charismatic churches, missional churches and "omissional" churches, churches that were thriving and churches that were disintegrating.

My point is that I have seen a lot of church.

One thing I have observed is that when a congregation feels it is struggling, when people feel unhappy with church, it is often expressed as dissatisfaction with the worship music. Worship music becomes a lightning rod for congregational discontent.

If young people are not coming to the church then it must be because of the music.

If I am not feeling inspired during worship, it must be because of the music.

Sean Palmer, a church of Christ minister in Temple, Texas wrote a very interesting piece, "Singing as a Spiritual Discipline" that identifies this very problem. He diagnoses this tendency as an expression of our individualistic approach to our faith.
Our corporate/common singing, regardless of the musical style of our congregation, is still viewed by too many as an individual pursuit. This is odd, because we can’t do corporate singing alone. We just wished the songs were picked and sang as if corporate singing existed for us alone. 
Don’t believe me? Do you know anyone who left their church because of a change in “worship?” In truth, these changes are barely changes in worship. Most churches still celebrate the Eucharist, engage sermons, sing, pray, and – sadly – have announcements. What changes is the singing! And the reason people leave over “worship” is because they no longer “like” the singing…personally.
I would add that discontent strikes at music because that is an area that a congregation believes it can change. A church might be stuck with its pastor, with its aging demographic, with its poor location, with its dwindling finances, with its deficient theology, with its lack of commitment, but it can pick different songs!

Sociologist Gerardo Marti in his study of music in multi-racial churches, observed that in an exercise as fraught as nurturing a multi-racial community in which so many factors are outside the church leaders’ control, the pastor and the elders can control “the construction of participation through worship music” (15). Marti contends that this ability to control the musical content can lead to the mistaken belief that just by playing the right music the right way a church can determine the racial constituency of the congregation — a kind of “play it and they will come” mentality. What he discovered from his research in California was that it is the practice of making the music together, rather than the type of music being made, that actually proved to be most significant.

Perhaps drawing from his background in the Church of Christ where worship music is unaccompanied singing, Sean Palmer comes to a similar but more spiritual-sounding conclusion. His prescription for the problem: the church needs to rediscover congregational singing as a corporate spiritual discipline. Palmer suggests that doing so would have five consequences; I particularly like his first two:
  1. We Wouldn’t Expect Immediate Results. No faithful practitioner of spiritual disciplines expects to walk in, practice a discipline for an hour, and leave humming a tune and tapping their toes. In the realm of spiritual practices we know that the blessing is found in the practice itself. You could practice contemplative prayer for years without any tangible outcome, uplifting feeling, or goosebumps, but you come to love and enjoy practicing the presence of God.
  2. We Could Sing On Behalf Of Others. There are songs I hate, like “Amazing Grace.” I’ve never liked it, but I know “Amazing Grace” is tremendously meaningful for others. A friend recently shared with me the place of the song “Amazing Grace” in the recovery movement. The song means a great deal for members of AA and other recovery groups. Those folks are in my church. As a spiritual discipline, I can sing that song – though I despise it – on their behalf. I sing, therefore, not because it’s efficacious for me, but those around me.
I am reminded again of my favorite John Wesley quote:
“Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.”
 “Directions for Congregational Singing” in Select Hymns, 1761.

Or put another way: When the going get's tough the church gets singing (together)!

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